An Englishman in New York – The Problem Of UK-US English in Freelance Writing

By Colin

Some people see the differences between American English and British English as a problem. I see them as an interesting challenge. And although the title to this article might indicate that I’m English, I am in fact, a British Scot. I am also fully aware there is more to the United States of America than the wonderful state of New York, but I felt it made a good title, so I went with it.

Why Has This Difference Come About?

The English language arrived in the Americas with the advent of British colonization in the early 17th century. As the British Empire grew, so too did the language, which by 1921 had incorporated around a quarter of the world’s population (approximately 470–570 million people).

Since that time, the form of English used in the Americas (particularly in the USA) and that used in the UK, have diverged in many subtle ways, leading to the individual dialects now more commonly known as American English and British English, or on Microsoft Word, as US English and UK English.

What Are The Differences?

The main differences that have developed between the two strains of English include pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, idioms, and date formatting. A few words have even developed completely different meanings, which can mean something in one dialect, but be a source of embarrassment or insult in the other. Some words may not even be used or are unknown to the other.

What Is The Impact?

As a freelance writer working from home, I am frequently assigned jobs by companies and individuals, more often than not, from the USA. Telecommuting is an area of freelance writing that I enjoy; working with a local Bed and Breakfast on an advertising leaflet one day, and writing a press release for a US-based dot com client the next. It’s exciting and provides a great way to earn a living.

But as this kind of work increases, more often than not I am asked to write articles or essays in the target audience’s own version of the English language. In most cases, this means adapting my work into US English.

Is There A Right One Above All Others?

No. Clearly it depends on several factors, such as intended readership or editorial preference. A freelance writer should take guidance from both the publication type and the editor when deciding which to use.

Where the issue becomes cloudy is when you have a large company with a global audience, or with a company that has separate websites covering different geographical locations.

I’ve worked with clients in the past that required two separate articles to be submitted for every one assignment, i.e., one copy of an article in US English for their .com website, and the other in UK English for their .co.uk website.

Websites such as our very own Daily Writing Tips, has a global readership, yet the difference in language expectation is highlighted where one readership is of greater number than the other. And so an article written naturally in UK English may stand out against the eye of the US English reader.

What Then, For The Freelance Writer?

Make a judgment call based on the publication’s intended readership. If there is no information available or it’s too hard to pinpoint, ask the editor. Always remember, though, in the world of freelance writing for the Internet, you won’t be able to please all the people all of the time.

But above all, make sure the content is interesting and topical, because if it isn’t relevant, no one will even read it to spot where the differences are.

Footnote: Did anyone notice this article was written in US English purely for the benefit of DWT’s US-English speaking readership?

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15 Responses to “An Englishman in New York – The Problem Of UK-US English in Freelance Writing”

  • Kevin

    Is there a Canadian English as well? Or is it just a blend of both the US English and UK English?

  • Ali from The Office Diet

    Fantastic advice, Colin, thanks!

    I’ve been doing some “on the side” freelancing over the past few months, and writing for websites/blogs in particular has made me more aware of the US/UK language divide.

    On The Office Diet (my own blog), I tend to use British English, though will sometimes substitute a word such as “cookie” where I’d naturally use “biscuit” — the majority of my readers are from the US.

    I work as a staff writer for Diet-Blog.com and have quickly picked up not only different spellings (“fiber” not “fibre”) but also different usage (I weigh myself in stones and pounds, US readers don’t know what I mean if I talk about a “stone” — they’d use “112 pounds” not “8 stone”.)

    I think this point of Colin’s — “Make a judgment call based on the publication’s intended readership.” — is crucial. Sometimes it’ll be obvious, but for online rather than print publications, you’ll need to look at clues such as the domain name (.co.uk or .com?) and the style of other articles.

    Ali

  • Kudzu

    Political side to this is that in Ireland (as a former British colony with a difficult rebirth as independent state) we make a point in the Universities of allowing both US and UK English, however UK English still dominates.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall

    Well put, Colin. I face this issue too, as a Brit who works a lot with US clients. It gets even more complex with Canadian English, which includes spelling from both sides of the Atlantic.

  • deversm

    Regarding the footnote: any interest in linking to the same article, but in UK English for comparison purposes?

  • Deborah

    My dear friend Colin,

    I know you didn’t mean for this to be funny, but I laughed frequently while reading it. I have struggled so often, trying to coordinate British English with American English. Who could have imagined that the World Wide Web would have such an impact on our language.

    A long time ago, enamored with English novelists, I began spelling gray—grey. My magnificent 8th grade English teacher very gently explained to me that Americans adopted particular language habits for a variety of reasons, and spelling gray—gray—was one of the more joyful ones. But the time she finished I was ready to sing the Star-Spangled Banner and salute the flag.

    To this day, I am unreasonably annoyed when I see an American writer use “grey.” I wrote James Lileks to tell him that every time he wrote “grey,” it made me bleu, but he never responded.

    But I am ashamed to tell you how old I was before I realized that gaol was jail. And this might make you laugh (but I’m not sure why): http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=gaol

  • Cathy

    As a Christian, I grew up on the King James Bible version. So now I have to struggle to remember if you spell forward or foreward, armor or armour, etc. Does anyone else have these problems?

  • Andrew

    Woot Woot Scotland!
    I think as an English person you easily begin to pick up both English and US English and automatically use whichever is appropriate for the situation. Maybe it’s because of the large amounts of American media in Britain.

  • Maeve

    It seems to me that both spellings, “forward” and “foreward” exist on both sides of the Atlantic.

    A noun, foreward is synonymous with preface.

    The other spelling represents various other parts of speech.

  • ndixon

    I am British by birth, and a UK resident, but work for a company based in San Francisco. I have found the Americans are far less accepting of British English then we are of American English, and so I generally try to Americanize my written communications.

    My wife is an American who has now lived in the UK for several years, and has entirely accepted the ‘British way’. But in her personal writing, it can be tricky to decide on which side of the Atlantic to target. Her policy is as your final point: write for the intended publication’s audience.

  • KittyCat

    Nice article, Colin. We Malaysians suffer the same problem too as we’re taught British English in school but surrounded by pop culture in American English.

    As a freelance writer starting out, I’ve had to get dictionaries in both versions just to keep myself straight!

  • Don Vaillancourt

    Kevin,

    When it comes to spelling, Canadians mostly follow British English, although some ignorantly use the American English. Schools teach British spelling. The government follows British English.

    I prefer to spell it colour instead of color and centre instead of center, although sometimes I do slip up with the re/er words.

    You can thank Webster for the confusion.

  • Matilda

    Great post!

  • Peter

    gently explained to me that Americans adopted particular language habits for a variety of reasons

    Such as…Noah Webster couldn’t spell? 🙂

    A noun, foreward is synonymous with preface

    That would be “foreword”; I don’t think “foreward” is actually a word.

  • Neal Winfield

    Hi Colin, Great piece.

    It is a constant debate as to which version of the English Language we should use. I think that ultimately UK English will fade away, I find my nieces using a lot of US phrases and words from films, games and TV. They informed me that this was the modern way and that I should “get over myself”. Oh well there you go.

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