Advice How to write Writing

American English vs British English: what should your company use?

'England and America are two countries divided by a common language,' - George Bernard Shaw.

We work for big companies like Microsoft and Symantec and smaller firms with a US or UK presence and they often ask us: 'Should we choose American English or British English?'.

But, you might be thinking, does it really matter if you write 'colour' or 'color'?

The answer is yes, but I'm not just being fussy: the differences between American English and British are far more intricate than just spelling. For instance, when we say we’ll table something in the UK, we mean that we’ll propose it and bring it forward but when Americans say it, they mean they want to defer something and put it aside. These kinds of subtle differences are significant when you're carefully crafting your writing.

And that's before you get to cultural differences. For a few clients in the past, we’ve spent quite a lot of time ‘localising’ US content from headquarters for a UK audience and that includes finding local case studies, local data and sources and, most importantly, getting the tone and idioms right. Generally, US-originated copy tends to be more salesy and ‘on the nose’ than British stuff and this reflects the clichéd idea that ‘Americans like to be sold to but Brits like to be persuaded’.

There isn't a definitive best practice answer that's right for everyone. Instead, there are a range of issues that affect the decision.

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Who are you writing for?

  • Audience. As a general rule, we think that what works best for the audience is best for our clients. So for large companies like Microsoft, we write British English for UK audiences and US English for US audiences. So, all other things being equal (but they’re not) we’d suggest doing US and UK versions of content and having localised websites.
  • Authenticity. The first exception to this general principle is that some brands are quintessentially British or deeply American and the language should reflect that. For example, American Apparel used American spelling even in the UK. I expect there are British brands in the US who play up on their Britishness too. But oddly, the best example of language choice as a brand indicator is German. I think Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch technik’ is one of the great slogans of all time.
  • Authorship. I also think any piece that is bylined to a named author should be written in the language of that author and not ‘translated’ even if the rest of the site is localised.

What is most practical?

  • Expediency. In the real world, it’s not always worth the expense of multiple versions of documents – for example, we would charge a little extra to produce and manage two versions as there is more work, not least on document management. Plus, a multi-language website can be a pain to manage and there are SEO issues with duplicate content. As a result, many of our clients still ask for US English versions of documents that will mainly be used in the UK.
  • Expectations. Realistically, British people read more American English than vice versa. We see more of it because there are more US multinational companies here than British ones there. So this would suggest that if you have to go with one or the other, choosing US English is the safer choice. That said, it can still be alienating to see American spellings. This is especially true for some professions such as lawyers who are, by nature, more observant of details in language and more conservative than most audiences. They might think that a US product or company is not  appropriate for them and would be put off by reading an American English sales pitch.
  • Consistency. Whatever you choose, it’s important to stick to your decision. Mixing British and American English on a random basis is the worst of all possible worlds. It’s just untidy.

Given all these considerations we have clients who have multi-region websites and multiple versions of documents and we have clients who are one or the other. We’re happy in all these variations. The only option that doesn’t work – trust me, we’ve tried it – is to write 'mid-Atlantic' pieces which don’t use any words that have different US/UK spellings. It’s hard to write and the resulting copy is stilted and doesn't appeal to anyone.

How to write for an American audience

Churchill tells a story about the dangers this can cause. During the war the British Chiefs of Staff wanted to ‘table’ a plan in discussions with their American counterparts. They wanted to propose it. But to Americans, ‘tabling’ something means to take it off the table and cease discussions about it.

So how do you avoid this problem when it comes to writing for an American audience?

There are a couple of obvious things to do:

  • Use the US English spell checker and grammar checker in Word.
  • Avoid obviously British turns of phrase: ‘sticky wicket’ and ‘spot of bother’ etc.
  • Avoid Americanisms unless you completely, utterly understand them and all their nuances. There’s nothing more telling than an ignorant metaphor.
  • Generally, when writing for foreigners (and in this context that includes Americans) I prefer to use shorter sentences and shorter words. This is good practice anyway because it improves readability.
  • Find an American friend, editors, fellow freelancer who can read through your work and warn you of any howlers. This isn’t the same as proofreading. Think of it as an extra step.

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Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing. Writer, marketer, pilot, wine enthusiast and geek. Not necessarily in that order. Never at the same time.