Linguist Lynne Murphy on American versus British English

How important are the differences between American and British English? Can you use a translator from the U.S. to translate your UK website?

For answers to these questions, we turned to Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in the UK whose blog, Separated by a Common Language, explores linguistic differences among English-speaking countries.

A Conversation with Lynne Murphy

Q: When you see a text in English, what are some of the first signs that let you know if it has been written by an American or a British person? Could you give a few examples of the most obvious differences between American and British English?

A: Spelling is the quickest marker, of course. For instance, -ise endings as in realize always mean British person (assuming we’re ignoring the possibility of Australians and South Africans, etc.), but –ize is also acceptable in British English, so it’s not a definite marker of Americanness. Punctuation is also a quick marker, if you know what you’re looking for. Americans are more likely to use the serial comma (the one after y in x, y, and z), to use commas after sentence-initial adverbials, to put punctuation inside quotation marks, rather than after them. And the British do not usually put (AmE) periods/(BrE) full stops on abbreviations like Dr, Mrs or et al …and so forth. If we’re talking about formal, edited writing, then American writing is more likely to do things like make a distinction between which and that and use the subjunctive form of verbs. Americans can go see someone but the British have to go and see someone. But, really, the markers are too many to list—no particular piece of work will have the same ones. Sometimes the vocabulary differs. Some words that are common to both dialects are more common in one than the other. Verb forms like gotten (AmE) and fitted as the usual past tense of fit (BrE) are clear marked. Each dialect has its own grammatical preferences, and some prescriptive language mistakes are more common in the UK than the US and vice versa. Sometimes, it’s just how the information is ordered or the tone taken toward(s) it. Actually, there’s one in that sentence. If it says toward, I know it’s American! (Though if it says towards it could be either.) In letter-writing, a ‘kind regards’ identifies the British, whereas ‘best wishes’ is more American (though making inroads in the UK). I see ‘sincerely’ in more American letters, ‘yours truly’ in more British ones. I can’t seem to stop listing things…but then I’ve been blogging about these differences for more than four years, and can see that I’ll never run out of differences to remark upon.

"Unfortunately, some are under the impression that switching their spell-checker to ‘English (UK)’ is enough to make their document count as ‘British’. "
- Linguist Lynne Murphy on American versus British English



Q: Let's say a company had to translate a document from French or German to English for a British audience. If the text were translated by an American translator rather than a British one, how much impact would this be likely to have? In what situations, if any, could it be a problem to write in American English for a British audience?

A: The British reader would almost certainly recogni{s/z}e it immediately as American English. Unfortunately, some are under the impression that switching their spell-checker to ‘English (UK)’ is enough to make their document count as ‘British’. I’ve been surrounded by and thinking/writing about British English for eleven years (and South African for four years before that), but I think anyone could recogni{s/z}e any somewhat lengthy piece by me as American in spite of my use of British spelling and vocabulary.

What impact American English will have will vary a lot by context and audience. People who work in international business or academia will probably be quite tolerant, as they are exposed to it all the time. But if you’re dealing with the general public and especially if there’s something unwelcome in the message, its delivery in American English will be perceived by at least a minority as evidence of cultural imperialism and loss of local values. And, of course, if you’ve translated an instruction manual and you use the wrong terms for the tools needed to assemble the product, then you’ve failed to communicate.

Q: And if it were the other way around -- if a company used British translator for a document aimed at an American audience, what might be the consequences?

A: The risk in the American direction is more that there will be a failure of communication. Americans tend to hold British English in awe, but at the same time, they’re much less familiar with British English (as it is really used) than the British are with American English.

Q: Apart from the linguistic differences between British and American English, what are some cultural differences that might become relevant in the translations of business or marketing documents?

A: Americans are much more comfortable with self-promotion than the British are. If you want to brag about your company or your product, there are more limits on what can be done without seeming “too American” to the British. Americans tend to lead with the positive and their enthusiastic delivery can be seen as insincere, suspicious, or naïve. While not as formal as it used to be, British business interactions retain a level of formality that’s foreign to Americans—and that can be difficult for us to do right.

"Americans tend to hold British English in awe, but at the same time, they’re much less familiar with British English (as it is really used) than the British are with American English. "
- Linguist Lynne Murphy on American versus British English




Next Steps

Read funny translation bloopers.

Get advice on managing a professional translation project.

Return to the Professional Translation Services Blog


<< BACK from American Versus British English to Professional Translation Service Home