British English and American English

If you browse the expat blogs, you’ll find gleeful posts tracking the dividing line between British and American English. And a wandering line it is. Are pants those things you wear under your jeans or are jeans one kind of pants? Is the fanny pack a bizarre medical procedure or a practical but geeky accessory? When you live your life in a semi-foreign language, all that stuff becomes important.

It also cues the kind of giggles you get when an eight-year-old has a chance to say “fart.”

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

But pants and fanny aren’t even on the real dividing line. Only I know what really divides the Englishes: It’s the use of that and which.

I know: Speaking of geeky. Only someone who’s worked as a copy editor even notices, never mind cares.

I have worked as a copy editor, though, and I do. American publishing follows Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and British publishing doesn’t. The distinction has to do with lawnmowers. You never thought of lawnmowers as a grammatical concept? See what you missed out on? Example A: The lawnmower, which is in the garage, is broken. This means we have one lawnmower. Example B: The lawnmower that is in the garage is broken. This means we have more than one, so use the other. I left it on the dining room table.

British publishing doesn’t care about lawnmowers. This—to a recovering American copy editor—is as shocking as wearing your pants inside your trousers.

It all has to do with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and is too obscure to bother explaining. Which is lucky, since I don’t trust myself to get it right. And (she said defensively) you can be a perfectly competent copy editor and not be able to explain any of it. All you have to be able to do is apply it. It’s like not being able to explain electricity but knowing how to charge your phone.

Legend has it that Strunk and White introduced the that/which division because they thought it would be useful, if only it could be pounded into millions of recalcitrant little heads. In other words, they weren’t telling us about something that already existed, and so the aforesaid heads resisted the distinction because it wasn’t native to the language. But the owners of those heads still manage to mow their lawns and figure out, when and if it matters, how many lawnmowers they have.

So the that/which distinction is arbitrary and unnecessary, and in the long run the spoken language will always win out against the silly twits who tell us what’s wrong with the way we speak. But having made a career—such as it was—out of knowing this sort of stuff, it’s painful to watch as entire country consign it to the dustbin of irrelevant grammar. Even if it belongs there.

On an emotional and philosophical level, I’m on the side of spoken English, in all its barbaric glory. I’m not impressed with formal writing, for the most part. I believe that the language gains its power from use and that the hair-splitters are fighting a rear-guard action. If you break the rules of grammar idiomatically and well, the force is with you. And, in case you care, so am I.

On the other hand, I’ve read enough tin-eared writing to value the rules of grammar. Not because they keep us from barbarism and illiteracy, but because they keep us from incoherence. So I’m passionately on both sides of this battle, and if it ever turns violent both sides will call on me to shoot myself as a traitor.

21 thoughts on “British English and American English

    • Since I moved to the U.K., Word is always set to the wrong version of the language. If I’m writing in American, it flags anything without several spare U’s. If I’m writing in British, it flags anything with them. I change the default setting regularly, and it changes itself back–to whichever setting I don’t want. How does it know?

      As for the grammar checking function, don’t trust it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am a Canadian and as kids we were admonished to use “The Queen’s English” only . Well I grew up living in both Canada and the US and I didn’t have any issues with either version of English. liked mimicking the regional dialects I heard, but I used British spellings in all written work until I was in the computer world. That’s when it became easy to slide into using American English. The only exception is my contracted work which is all in “The Queen’s English”.

    P.S. I identified with your humorous conclusion.

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  2. I am on both sides, too. Although I haven’t worked as an editor, I have always been writing, so I like my grammar, spelling, etc., but I also like to follow the spoken language. You have an idea about my style I think. So I am with you, fully.

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    • I instinctively want to defend change in the language, but the truth is that I hate emoticons. They strike me as prefabricated, narrowing down the range of what we might say into a handful of possibilities. Admittedly, an increasingly large handful, but still no match for what we might have written without them.

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  3. Well, I’m Irish and we have our own version(several, probably) of English that has been influenced by Gaelic idioms so I’m positive I’ve got a lot wrong to an English person’s ears, but fine for an Irish person. The whole question of language, the influences on it, its evolution and who gets to determine what is right, is a fascinating question of course.

    And your post reminds me of that wonderful book “Eats Shoots and Leaves”.

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    • You’ve reminded me how much richness gets lost when we insist on too much correctness. It’s all very political–which is another way of saying that it’s all about power–who gets to decide what’s “right.”

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  4. The expression ” I could care less” which I hear in the USA drives me crazy, as it is saying the exact opposite of that which is intended . Here in Australia and I hope in the UK, we say ” I couldn’t care less” which explains that we don’t care at all! Have just discovered your blog and am now following.

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  5. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. As an editor, this post in particular amused me. I’ve had my own brushes with American English but I treat it like any other ‘new’ language: I must adapt to it (except I refuse to use ‘fall’, always preferring the more elegant ‘autumn’). And besides, living in India before arriving in New York meant I was already using some words. Hindi freely adopts English and mostly the American flavour for modern words. So we spoke of ‘chips’ instead of ‘crisps’ and so on.

    Mind you, it cuts both ways. My wife has been saying ‘math’ – sans ‘s’ – for years (a hangover from living in Canada when a bit younger). Since the move here to the US, I have no grounds for getting grumpy when I hear it.

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    • The arguments for an against adapting to a new version of the language are endless, and I could argue both sides with almost equal passion. Almost, because after I’ve trotted all the arguments out for exercise, I’ll still be left clinging as closely as I can to my original version. To mix a metaphor.

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  6. As a British expatriate living in Norway I am puzzled that US copyeditors object to “which” where they think “that” should be used, but not, it seems, the other way round. So wherever I feel that in British English I have a choice I use “that.” Incidentally, does it annoy Americans when they hear “Our father which art in heaven”? Or do they think that the force of this is: “as against our other father which isn’t in heaven”?

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    • The that/which distinction that US copy editors make can be traced directly to Strunk and White (Elements of Style), who (or which, if you like, and I’m not sure where they art just now but I’m reasonably sure they’re no longer among the living) wrote that it would be a useful distinction. That’s not an exact quote, but basically, they introduced it, not even claiming that it was a pre-existing rule. And we all fell for it. To the point where not making the distinction gives me the heebeejeebies. The problem, of course, is that the distinction’s well planted in the editorial world but not in the language, so many–maybe most–people get it wrong. Or “wrong,” I suppose, since it’s arguable what “right” is.

      I could go on, but enough already.

      I haven’t a clue how people feel about the “art in heaven” business. My best guess is that we just take it as strange and archaic English and move along folks, nothing to see here.

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