Speaking the same language: American English vs. British English
Is it football or soccer? Do you buy your petrol by the litre or your gas by the gallon? And is tipping really necessary?
There are plenty of cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom. But few are quite as divisive as the thorny issue of English.
More than just an accent
For two countries that share the same language and a famous Special Relationship, it’s pretty remarkable just how different the American and British approaches to English actually are. And when you’re trying to reach an audience on one particular side of the pond, it’s vital to get things right.
We’ve got a foot in both camps, with offices in New York and London. Plus a creative team that hails from Australia, Spain, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and of course, the US and UK. So we know a thing or two about regional differences, and how to write copy that hits the mark in Birmingham, Brooklyn, and beyond. Let’s get into some of the quirky divergences and why it’s important to speak the right language.
Why is there a difference between British and American English?
First things first — why have British and American English evolved in such different directions? The language started in the same place. So something must have gone wrong along the way.
One idea you might hear (usually from Americans), is that the way people speak in the US is closer to original 17th Century English. Part of the reason for the theory is that North America was a much more isolated part of the world, while Britain was the center (or centre!) of a global empire.
It’s a nice idea, and while there’s at least a bit of truth to it, there are so many different accents in both the US and the UK that the variations in spoken English go far beyond simply ‘British’ or ‘American’.
Where you can see a clearer difference between the two, is in spelling and vocabulary.
To z, or not to z?
Even the most experienced copywriters can struggle with the subtle differences in spelling and grammar that haunt the advertising and marketing efforts of a digital creative agency with international clients.
A lot of these are pretty well-known and easy to spot. Colour becomes color. Licence is license. Chequebooks turn into checkbooks. And most famously of all, almost every word ending in -ise gets a snazzy new -ize. (Ironically, ‘advertise’ is one of the few exceptions to that rule.)
Other discrepancies aren’t so obvious. Take a look at the table below, and see how many of them you’d have been able to guess.
British vs. American spelling
Some of these are hard enough to spell at the best of times. So why make things even more complicated?
The answer is that British English has retained a lot of the original 17th Century spelling quirks from words that were introduced from other languages — like French and German. But American English spelling was defined and ‘dictionary-ized’ slightly later by Noah Webster in 1806, with a much greater focus on how words sounded when spoken.
If you think about it, you’d never know the word ‘colour’ was supposed to have that pesky ‘u’ just by hearing someone say it out loud. So points to the Americans for simplicity.
A spell check isn’t always enough
Spelling isn’t the only difference you need to keep an eye on when writing content for American and British audiences. Despite having an awful lot in common, there are some words that just don’t mean the same thing…
British vs. American words
These are often pretty easy to pick up with the right context. But be wary if you’re an American looking for a snazzy new pair of pants on your next trip to London. Or a copywriter relying on a program like Microsoft Word to keep your English sounding native.
Does any of this matter?
Most of the time, using a different set of spelling conventions won’t lead an angry mob of customers to your door. But it could take the sting out of your content, especially if it’s coming from a big company. British people don’t like the idea of giant American brands talking to them in American English, and vice versa.
The need for clear, recognizable English becomes even more obvious when you get into the nitty-gritty of detailed information design projects like forms and bills, where users need to know exactly what they’re looking at, without having to worry about what certain words might mean.
Like all great copywriting, spelling and vocabulary boil down to speaking in a way that your customers will recognize, understand, and relate to. If you’re barging in blindly with whatever type of English is most familiar to you, then you’ve fallen at the first hurdle.
And just in case you thought we’d covered everything, British and American English are just two flavors. The likes of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have their own rules and quirks, and we’ll be diving into those in another article to ask if it’s really possible to have such a thing as ‘universal English.’
Striking the right tone
From our information design work with global insurers to sub-brands that talk not just to American or British audiences, but specific American or British audiences — our copy team is always looking for our next linguistic challenge.
So whatever type of English you speak, let’s talk.