Friday, June 26, 2009

Variations on a Theme of English : US and UK English

In years past, people would travel if they wanted to experience a different culture. These days we can simply click a mouse and go surfing. The Internet has become such a normal part of our day to day life that we no longer really consider the fact that we are interacting with people from all over the world.

If you keep a careful eye on vernacular English, you can really expand your markets for articles and short stories, in particular, or even pick up some out-sourced work. And, of course, it is a simple matter to edit your old articles to rework them for a foreign market.

Here are my top three favourite differences between North American English (NA) and UK English (UK):

Aluminum (NA)
Aluminium (UK)

American English has dropped the second “i” and changed the pronunciation to “al-oo-mi-num”; UK English pronunciation is “ala-min-ee-um”.

I could care less. (NA)
I couldn’t care less. (UK)

UK English speakers don’t consider “less” to be a negative, but a comparative - ie, the opposite of “more”. So “I couldn’t care more” means “This is the thing I care the most about” and “I couldn’t care less” is the opposite: “This is the thing I care the least about”. For many US speakers, “not” and “less” would cancel each other out, leaving “I could care”.

Potted plant (NA)
Pot plant (UK)

While UK English speakers do call the drug in question “pot”, and they might grow “pot” (I said “might”), a “pot plant” is any plant in a pot. Americans speak of a plant that has been “potted”.

I really enjoy coming across further variances in the way we communicate that remind me of the huge distances I cover each day. And I want others to experience this too, so I don't try to blend in and serve my readers the spelling they expect on my website. It broadens everyone's worldview when we come across unexpected differences and stop to savour them.

Look out for upcoming posts on English vernacular from some other countries around the world.

Do you have any favourite differences between US and UK English to share with us? Your comment might have made it into a follow-up post.

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. Good post, Elsa. I hadn't thought about the need to be aware of different spellings and word usages as it applies to writing for a global market.

  2. Great post. Oh, there are so many differences between UK and North American English (I say 'North American' because I'm a Canadian). I've lived in the UK for five years, and my first two years were spent teaching in a secondary classroom. I definitely heard all about it when I used different words!

    Here are some of my favourites:

    Pants: NA = trousers; UK = underwear

    Rubber: UK = eraser!

    Fit: UK = slang for sexy or attractive; NA = in good physical condition

    Specialty (NA) vs Speciality (UK)

    Artefact (UK) vs Artifact (NA)

    And so many more!

  3. Yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands. My husband is American, I am English. Whenever this crops up in the conversation, I always tell him that I am right and he is wrong because we invented it and they changed it. Can't argue with that. I need to add here, that that is all done with humour, in the best possible taste!
    It is annoying when I write on websites in English English and Americans try and correct me.
    Here's an example: a fanny in American means your bottom but in England that means a lady's private parts. Be careful how you use that word in writing.
    Blessings, Star

  4. I've never traced my ancestors, but assumed they were British. Now, I know they were since "I couldn’t care less" to me means "I care so little that it would not be possible to care any less" - which you said is how the British interpret that sentence.

    As we British folk say, Mind the Gap. (That's the only British "thing" I remember from my trips to England.)

  5. I love how UK spells words like 'colour'. NA girl here.

    In elementary school, I'd spell words that way, then get points off for spelling them wrong.


  6. When I first moved to the US, I got a strange look from a builder when I told him his partner had popped out for a fag.

    In England that means you've stepped outside for a cigarette. Apparently it means something quite different over here :)

  7. "While UK English speakers do call the drug in question “pot”, and they might grow “pot” (I said “might”), a “pot plant” is any plant in a pot. Americans speak of a plant that has been “potted”."

    So far, I'm not loving your pot-growing tips. I have a hunnerd quids worth of Red LEDs here, I'm trying to stitch to apple packing. It's a disaster!

    Seriously, though, great post!

    BUT, actually it's worse than this. The UK has about a 100 million (officially about 70-80 million) people squeezed into a space smaller than mid-sized state.

    Up until about 50 or 60 years ago most of those people didn't, and didn't have to, move around much. That's why an area smaller than Texas has so many accents and colloquial terms. Life was good. Apparently.

    You can move twenty miles in any direction on a UK map and you'll find people who you can barely understand. I like that.

    In the UK we love strangers, but we hate neighbours.

  8. Great examples here already. :-)

    Anton, we haven't even touched on local UK vernacular yet, let alone Cockney slang ;-) Now that will be a fun post I'm sure. Impossible to do it justice in a short blog post, though, I fear.

  9. The aluminum one is strange. I can't imagine why they have different spellings on that one.

    The I couldn't care less is a great example also.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. If you want a real challenge re British venacular - see my latest post on how we Glaswegians communicate! For anyone north of the border this is a real laugh but not too many oher people are able to translate it. Great post - I worked for an Americam IT firm for 25 years and often came across differences such as the word got - NA's say gotten!

  11. How about knocked up? Meaning pregnant here--and I think going to someone's house and knocking on their door or visiting there.

    Can't remember exactly, had a British war bride across the street years ago and she was always saying knocked up and receiving funny looks and sometimes laughter.

    Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

  12. I'm a Brit, and was surprised to learn recently that Americans don't tend to use 'gone missing' to mean 'disappeared', and that they also don't use the verb 'to busk' (perform in the street for money).

    I always assumed that the American English 'I could care less' was an elision of 'As if I could care less', which would be acceptable in British English too.

  13. JD: That's a really good point about 'As if I could care less' - it could indeed be where it originated for some users.

  14. Yank who lived abroad for years and worked for a UK firm in Germany. Here are just a few off the top of my head.

    Hood (of a car) US
    Bonnet (of a car) UK

    "to give out" in US means to literally to give something out
    "to give out" in Ireland means to criticize or scold

    to be pissed - US means to be angry
    to be pissed - UK means drunk

    to take a piss - US urinate
    to take the piss - UK Making fun/joking

    to blow someone off - US not show up, not call, stand them up
    to blow someone out - UK not show up, not call, stand them up
    caution: to blow someone off - UK to literally fellate someone

  15. Thanks David. Some really good examples there.


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