American English vs. British and Australian English

August 12, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

American vs. British and Australian EnglishThere’s an old joke that Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language.

And if you’ve ever written for English speaking clients outside your home country, you know exactly what that means.

Sally Bagshaw takes on this copywriting challenge with a quick look at some of the differences between American English and British / Australian English. (This post gave my spellcheck a heart attack.)

***

I was chatting to Dean via email the other day, and happened to mention that I would send another guest post through in a fortnight.

Little did I realise that comment would send off a chain of belly laughs from across the Pacific.

“Fortnight?”

“Erm yes, you know in two weeks?”

“Oh we don’t really use that word around here.”

OK then.

I know Australians spell some words differently than our American counterparts. After all you can choose from a number of English options for your spell-check.

But did you know that there are a whole heap of differences between British/Australian English and American English that we all should be aware of?

Here are just 3 of them:

1. Same word — different spelling

I live in the land of extra vowels. We like our colours, ask our mates (friends) for favours, and will bank a cheque (check).

We also like using ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ for words like optimise, organisation and analyse.

2. Different words for the same object

Depending on where you are, a zucchini can also be a courgette, a pepper is really a capsicum, and coriander is known as cilantro.

What I would call a dummy, my American friends would call a pacifier, and when I talk about pants (trousers) my British friends think I’m talking about underwear.

3. Different measurements

Inches and miles mean nothing to someone who has grown up with centimetres and kilometres — and how do you know if a pound of chocolate will be enough when you are used to kilograms?

What this means for you as a copywriter

Words are our income, so it’s important that as a copywriter you are aware of the English language differences out there. It is a global market after all, and even if your clients are all local, their clients may be scattered around the world.

Keep in mind the following:

  • If you are writing for an international audience, ask your client which spelling they prefer to use so that your copy is consistent with their existing material.
  • Don’t use local colloquialisms and slang if it will confuse the reader.
  • Provide measurement conversions for sizes and weights.
  • Make sure you stipulate in your quote which spelling you’ll use for the project.

Finally, let prospective clients know that you understand the nuances of the English language. It may help you secure your next project.

If you want to dive into this further, here’s a page with more differences between American and British English.

Have you ever had to write for an audience in a different country? Share you experience below.

Sally Bagshaw is an Australian copywriter who uses ‘fortnight’ as part of her everyday vernacular, bought nappies for her kids, and didn’t realise that coriander was called cilantro in the US.

Related posts:

  1. Translating freelance “Client Speak” into plain English

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Smart Comments

45 Comments on American English vs. British and Australian English

  1. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 12th, 2010 7:08 am
  2. This is also an excellent breakdown of differences:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_spelling_differences

  3. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 12th, 2010 9:50 am
  4. And if you’re a client working with a copywriter, please have the good manners to say something nice about our spelling instead of calling it a mistake or questioning our skills.

    I’m rather fed up of ‘grammar posts’ (thinks of a recent one on a high profile blog that starts with pro and ends in blogger) that include certain *cough* incorrect spellings and grammer errors…

    When there aren’t any.

  5. Sharon Hurley Hall on Aug 12th, 2010 10:11 am
  6. As a British writer working for international clients, I can totally relate to this post. I included a question about variety of English on my questionnaire for clients and it has saved countless headaches (as well as helping me to avoid the ‘incorrect spelling’ criticism. And @James, I noticed those issues on that post, too. :)

  7. Randy Cantrell on Aug 12th, 2010 10:21 am
  8. And don’t even get me started on the verbal part of it all – PRO-NUN-CI-A-TION! I’d like to take a fortnight vacation.

  9. Cathy Miller on Aug 12th, 2010 10:24 am
  10. Well said, James. I always say it’s not right or wrong – just different.

    I have not done writing internationally. To be honest, it scares me. Although I knew many of the differences you listed, Dean, I am certainly not at a comfort level to know when to use them,

    I believe strongly in respect (no, I don’t think another country HAS to speak English for the visiting Americans).

    Thanks for the post. If I ever get brave enough, I appreciate the resources to educate me. :-)

  11. Paige Jeffrey on Aug 12th, 2010 10:28 am
  12. Is it bad that I totally use the word ‘Fortnight’, but I’m Canadian? I find my taste for high fantasy likes to creep into my vocabulary occasionally.

    Actually, I had totally forgotten about this. I know people around here that actually mix things up with “color” or “colour” and “zee” or “zed” because of the influence that America has on us, but it’s interesting to actually stop and focus on what’s proper in each specific form of English.

    And I totally didn’t know that Coriander and Cilantro were the same thing! I’ve seen both words but never really put it together. Neat.

  13. Dean Rieck on Aug 12th, 2010 10:49 am
  14. Sometimes it can get a little funny, too. I recently encountered someone talking about the band, as they referred to it, “Zed Zed” Top.

  15. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 12th, 2010 10:51 am
  16. @Paige – My wee one and I had a conversation about “zee” and “zed” recently. We were doing some alphabet stuff and she stopped me.

    “I say zee. Some people don’t.”

    “Right. Canadians say zee. Americans say zed. It’s all good.” Then I paused. “Or maybe the Americans say zee and we say zed.” Pause again. “I’m not sure, actually. It’s kind of like couch, sofa and chesterfield.”

    Daughter looks at me for a long minute.

    “What’s a couch?”

  17. Paige Jeffrey on Aug 12th, 2010 11:00 am
  18. I can’t remember WHY we had this conversation, but I do remember having a conversation with a friend once about the appropriateness of “Zed Zed Top” versus “Zee Zee Top” in Canada. We actually came to a conclusion too. I think we were very, very bored.

    And James, your kids are awesome. First the Twitter comments about the Gingersnap cookies, and now adorable conversations. I think at that age, I “prided” myself on saying “zed” all the time and scolded anyone that said “zee”.

  19. Andrew B. on Aug 12th, 2010 11:38 am
  20. I worked with a partner office in the U.K. about ten years ago and we were constantly tweaking each other’s copy for language differences. I learned a lot and the interactions were very good-natured. Frequently, the conversations jokingly ended with British Brian saying, “Well, we invented the language, you know” and me saying, “Well, you’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for us.”

  21. Sharon Hurley Hall on Aug 12th, 2010 12:33 pm
  22. I didn’t know about the cilantro/coriander thing, either. And, speaking of pronunciation, Randy, my daughter and I were discussing the pronunciation of the word ‘lever’ the other day. Many Brits say LEE-VER, while it seems Americans usually say LEH-VER.

  23. Mike Klassen on Aug 12th, 2010 12:46 pm
  24. I’m going to be speaking in Australia next year and we’re considering a move there. (Sally, I wouldn’t mind talking to you about this offline if you don’t mind.) So I’ve been reading a bit about the differences between the U.S. and Australia.

    I was a bit horrified to see certain non-offensive common words here in the states having a different meaning in Australia.

    As sports fans in the states, we always say we’re “rooting” for some team and think nothing of it. One of our most famous sports songs (Take Me Out To The Ballgame) uses the word a lot.

    But “root” apparently has a different meaning in Australia… a meaning I’d be terribly embarrassed about if I let it slip during my talk and offended people.

    (You can look it up here: http://www.koalanet.com.au/australian-slang.html)

  25. Arvid Westfelt on Aug 12th, 2010 1:57 pm
  26. Hey, I’m from Sweden… Can you imagine what it’s like to try and write guest blog posts for you guys? :)

    Seriously, if you write for international clients with customers in two or more countries – would you write in some kind of “standard” English? Or let the clients country of origin shine through?

    Like some people speak pretty good “Scandinavian”, understood by Swedes, Danes and Norwegians. They use words and expressions most common to all countries and with the least ambiguity. It’s not very common though. Many (younger) Scandinavians do prefer to speak English with each other.

  27. A. Billmann on Aug 12th, 2010 2:21 pm
  28. FTA: “But did you know that there ARE a whole heap of differences between British/Australian English and American English that we all should be aware of?”

    There’s one right there! In American English, “heap” is singular, so we’d write, “there IS a whole heap of differences.” In Britain, words like “heap” and “group” are plural. For example, in America, it sounds weird to say, “The group are on tour, opening for ZZ Top.” In Britain, it doesn’t sound weird at all.

  29. Dean Rieck on Aug 12th, 2010 2:39 pm
  30. Something else I’ve noticed, and I’m not sure if this is British and Australian or a Canadian thing … there are some punctuation differences. For example, here in the U.S., a period always falls inside “quote marks.” But I’ve seen examples from Canada where the period is outside the “quote marks”.

    None of this presents any difficulty if you’re speaking to someone. I can talk to James, for example, and understand *nearly* all the conversation. :) These issues only affect writers. Well, except for the thing Mike mentioned.

  31. Lucy Smith on Aug 12th, 2010 6:02 pm
  32. I’m from New Zealand, so our English is much closer to British English than American, and a close neighboUr (heh) of Australian English. When I write things for American clients, I find it’s really helpful to (privately) read it in an American accent. Sounds funny I know, but it’s amazing how words like ‘holiday’ when I mean ‘vacation’ can sneak in, and how they look fine onscreen, but sound ridiculous read aloud.

    @Dean: with the quotation marks, I was taught that it depends on whether the quotation is a full quotation. If it is, then the quotation marks go after the full stop (I have to giggle in a puerile fashion if I say ‘period’, I’m sorry), otherwise they go before it.

    I don’t mind US English most of the time, just make sure I switch languages on my spell-checker, but I have a huge problem with the colloquialism “I could care less”. You mean “COULDN’T care less”.

  33. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 12th, 2010 9:44 pm
  34. I love it when you wake up to find all these wonderful comments to respond to!

    @James – I say ‘couch’ :)
    @Sharon – That’s a good point, I’m going to add that question to my brief too.
    @Randy – I have an American friend who laughs each time I say ‘no’. Again, it’s the vowels at play.
    @Cathy – Be brave!
    @Paige – Aha! Nice to know that fortnight is still popular with Canadians too :)
    @Mike – Yes, root has a totally different meaning. From my understanding you also pronounce ‘route’ as ‘root’. We pronounce ‘route’ as ‘r-ow-t’. Just to confuse! Feel free to get in contact – my details are at http://www.snappysentences.com/contact-snappy-sentences/

  35. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 12th, 2010 10:16 pm
  36. Punctuation, good one. In my corner of the world, we say, “Punctuation goes inside quotes.” And then we’d ask, “But why?” We reply, “Because that’s just the way it is, you idiot!”

    Of course then someone says, “Who’s the idiot?”

    “Well, James is, of course.”

    “Oh. But only on Thursdays.”

    “Quite right!”

    “What were we talking about again?”

    “Bugger if I know. Beer?”

    “Awesome. Dean’s buying.”

  37. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 12th, 2010 10:19 pm
  38. Mind you, it depends if we’re discussing “quote marks”. Because in that case, they’d go “outside”. If there was an “outside”. There should be, when it’s in the case of not being a “full sentence”. Like this one:

    “Would you believe how much of an idiot James is?”

    “No. I can’t. Impossible. He must be a ‘dweeb’.”

  39. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 12th, 2010 10:23 pm
  40. Lol, spot on James.

  41. Paul Cunningham on Aug 12th, 2010 10:50 pm
  42. We’ve got some extended family in the US. When they’re around for Christmas it gets interesting.

    “What is a wanker?”
    “What you would call a jerkoff”
    “Oh…”

  43. Aprill Allen on Aug 12th, 2010 10:58 pm
  44. When I was working in network operations, I worked for a Australian/American joint venture. We had a major network fault and I was talking to American engineers about fixing it. I wanted to note down someone’s name and said “what’s your surname”. There was a “huh?” followed by a “they won’t know what that is”.

  45. Vicki Dwyer on Aug 12th, 2010 11:05 pm
  46. Lucy you are so a woman after my own heart! I HATE the way Americans incorrectly use the phrase “couldn’t care less” – it makes my blood curdle.

    Another American pronunciation which gets to me is the word aluminium. There are 2 “i”s in the word – not 1. Although, I have seen Americans spell it with only 1 “i”, which could account for the pronunciation.

  47. Tracey Grady on Aug 12th, 2010 11:51 pm
  48. The word “heap” is singular not just in American English, but in British/Australian/Canadian/NZ English too.

    However, it’s becoming commonplace to hear people say/write “there ARE a heap of [whatever]” so I believe that the language is just naturally moving in that direction anyway. The same goes for other collective nouns e.g. number, group.

    These are great tips, Sally. If I were a copywriter (I considered going into this field after leaving journalism) and expected US clients to provide a substantial amount of my workload, I think I’d probably try to find a style guide or a guide to American English to help me out. That’s if such a thing exists. There are so many vocabulary differences that I’m sure you could spend a long time getting accustomed to them all.

  49. Mark on Aug 12th, 2010 11:55 pm
  50. Hell,

    we even have different pronunciations and meanings between the east and west coasts down-under.

    Just take “football”, depending on what state your in, it can have completely different meanings.

    Get it wrong, and you could find yourself being hastily dispatched across the nearest border.

  51. Dean Rieck on Aug 13th, 2010 1:34 am
  52. @Mike:Oh, football. I lived in Germany for a while and learned that football means “soccer” everywhere in the known universe except the U.S. If you call soccer “football” here you’re in for a fight.

    @Lucy: I’m curious, what you do think an American accent is? What do we sound like? Just FYI, Americans love British and Australian accents. But Canadians sound kinda, funny, eh?

  53. Mark on Aug 13th, 2010 2:14 am
  54. “learned that football means “soccer” everywhere in the known universe except the U.S”

    Not quite true.

    As I intimated “football” can get you into a whole lot of trouble in Australia depending on which side of the border you’re standing on.

    In most Aussie states football is Australian Rules Football, except in New South Wales and Queensland, where Rugby is football (or is football rugby??) And then of course there are two versions of rugby (union and league).

    Soccer is soccer (and Aussies don’t talk about soccer after our disastrous performance at the World Cup.), and American football is gridiron.

    Now I’m pretty sure the New Zealanders, South Africans, Welsh and Irish all play rugby (or is that football?)

    Which reminds me of an old joke: “How do you find new rugby players?

    “You go down to the docks and find the biggest, meanest blokes you can find and line them all up against a wall and throw bricks at their heads.

    The ones that don’t duck are your rugby players.”

  55. Charles Cuninghame on Aug 13th, 2010 2:29 am
  56. Australian men love wearing thongs. But only on their feet!

    (For those of you who didn’t get my hilarious gag, thongs in Australia are what Americans (and I think Brits too) call flip flops, not teeny women’s underwear.)

  57. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 13th, 2010 6:11 am
  58. …football means “soccer” everywhere in the known universe except the U.S…

    Wait a minute… we have soccer, rugby AND football – three completely separate sports. (We also have lacrosse and hockey, but that’s another matter entirely.)

    OMIGOD. Canadians are in an unknown universe???! No wonder Dean thinks I talk funny!!

  59. Mark on Aug 13th, 2010 6:17 am
  60. James,

    by hockey I take it you mean “ice hockey” and not real hockey that us Aussies have won so many Olympic medals in.

  61. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 13th, 2010 6:21 am
  62. @Mark – I can’t decide whether to burst out laughing or take you out back and pummel you.

    Beer? Dean’s buying…

  63. Tombee on Aug 13th, 2010 10:54 am
  64. I can’t believe no one’s brought up ‘fanny’ yet.

    And don’t anyone respond with: “Who’s she?”

  65. Tombee on Aug 13th, 2010 11:01 am
  66. Or, that they would never have responded with that because fanny’s wasn’t spelt with a capital.

  67. Tombee on Aug 13th, 2010 11:03 am
  68. Or comment on the bad grammar in that last post.

  69. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 13th, 2010 6:42 pm
  70. Aye, yes – that is a word that has quite a different meaning. Thanks for bringing it up Tombee ;)

  71. Lucy Smith on Aug 13th, 2010 7:49 pm
  72. @Vicki – the element known as ‘Al’ is in fact spelt ‘aluminum’ in the US, and therefore pronounced as such. I don’t know why, but it annoys my dad, who spent his working life as a chemistry professor, and who had to remember that for articles he wrote for US-based journals. And I love that someone else shares my ‘couldn’t care less’ bugbear :-)

    @Dean – I know American accents vary regionally as much as accents from any other country. So I suppose the American accent I ‘use’ (which is no doubt terrible but does the job for me) is whatever the ‘standard’ that you hear in movies is. Either that, or I just can’t tell the difference and it’s a complete mishmash (though I hope I could differentiate between someone from Texas and someone from Noo Yawk – though I can pick a Canadian, eh?). But then most people can’t tell the difference between Australian and New Zealand accents, and that’s fair enough if you’re not used to either.

  73. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 13th, 2010 7:56 pm
  74. I’m loving this post. I get to talk about all our quirks and fun stuff!

    Accents. Recent convo with a client:

    “James, are you Irish?”

    “Uh… No? I’m Canadian. From Quebec.”

    “Are you sure you’re not Irish? I detect an Irish accent. And I know Irish because my mother was one and so I’m one and I’m pretty sure you sound Irish.”

    “Uh… No, I am very sure I’m not Irish.” Holds phone away to stare at it a minute then tries again. “I’m Canadian. We have one of those funny accents. Plus I’m from Quebec, so that’s another accent, and I’m half French, so there’s one more… But… uh… Yeah. Not Irish.”

    “Hm. You sound Irish.”

    I think she didn’t believe me. I was afraid.

    Australians: “Aw, hay, James! How ah ye? Beootiful weatha t’day, I hope?”

    New Zealanders: “Roight. It’s trew. I alw’s ne’d c’ffeh on a Sittiday.”

  75. Mike Klassen on Aug 13th, 2010 8:48 pm
  76. Saw this referenced in The Week magazine and tracked down the original article:

    “With American lingo, we’ve imported toxic US culture”

    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/with-american-lingo-weve-imported-toxic-us-culture-20100805-11kmn.html

  77. Dean Rieck on Aug 13th, 2010 8:49 pm
  78. @Lucy: I had guessed you’d be doing more of a cowboy accent. But there’s so much US media around the world, that may be what most people hear now. The standard in media is a Midwestern “flat” sound … or at least it’s flat compared to New Yorkers, Southerners, Texans, and Northeasterners.

    Odd though. When my family visited Britain some years ago, a guy at the airport commented that I had more of an accent than my father.

    @James: Your “accent spelling” is marvelous.

  79. Lucy Thorpe on Aug 16th, 2010 9:01 am
  80. I’ve been away and have only just seen this hilarious discussion. I have to stick my two pen’orth in (do you have that saying?) and say that no-one has picked up on the fact that we Brits say ‘different to’ as opposed to ‘different than’. Has anyone else noticed this?

  81. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 16th, 2010 7:03 pm
  82. Hi Lucy

    I think we (Aussies) tend to say ‘different to’ too.

  83. Vicki Dwyer on Aug 16th, 2010 7:14 pm
  84. I was always taught the correct grammar was “different from.” Although I believe “to” has become more acceptable these days.

  85. lynneguist on Aug 18th, 2010 6:39 pm
  86. Your readers might be interested in my blog, Separated by a Common Language, in which I’ve been giving linguistic accounts of differences between British and American English for more than four years (and I’m not even close to running out of material!). I also do a British/American English ‘Difference of the day’ on Twitter as @lynneguist.

    For instance, here’s the post about ‘different from/than/to’:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/07/different-fromthanto.html

  87. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 19th, 2010 5:24 am
  88. Thanks for that Lynne, I’m going to go and read your blog now.

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