Before I left England for America, I remember one of my teachers informing me that ‘I’d be in for a culture shock.’ At the time, I disregarded it--How? I had thought, when we speak the same language? Oh, how naïve I was. Aside from being constantly asked to repeat myself or that 80% of Americans seem to assume that being from England means you’re from London, we are more at odds with each other than I initially thought. In the 10 months that I’ve lived here I’ve been asked if I’ve had tea with the Queen, whether black people exist in England, and if people in the UK play quidditch like Harry Potter. To make matters worse, that has been the least stressful part of it all as it is the differences between our language that tops it.
I feel there is only one man to blame for that, and that is America’s very own Noah Webster. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire his effort towards making America lexically unparalleled to Britain, but I could’ve avoided many awkward encounters if he hadn’t. Five weeks ago, during a class for Grub Street, I asked for a rubber to correct an error I had made whilst copyediting. I imagine the look I was given after asking this was the same Einstein may have received when he first mentioned his theory of relativity. After several moments of awkward staring, I realised I hadn’t used my American tongue and corrected myself by asking for an eraser. It turned out the odd look was given because he thought by asking for a rubber, I was implying a condom.
In fact, there have been several circumstances that have forced me to feel like E.T. reincarnated or a stand-up comedian. I remember telling some friends in a film studies group that eggplant in America is known as aubergine in England. One of them found it that hilarious, he shed real tears whilst laughing and renamed our group chat aubergine is better than eggplant. Then there are the words that possess entirely different meanings, but are spelt the same. The most common one that comes to mind is pants, which in American English signifies a piece of clothing that covers each leg, but in British English is associated with underwear. The misunderstandings I have encountered over trying to comprehend the context within the way words, like pants, are being used has been endless as the case of this extends to other everyday words such as football, biscuit, jumper, trainer, and chips.
So here I am, in an American editing class with my British lexicon, where a full-stop is called a period, colour is spelt color, and even the size of paper is no longer A4. Whilst I love being part of such a great and rewarding project, it has most definitely been challenging. I don’t consider myself a master of British English as it is, so to copyedit American English when I already have much to learn about my own language has been a head-spin. However, this has caused me to acknowledge the differences between the two. The first being that in British English we tend to use a plural verb after a collective noun whereas American English prefers to use the singular. So in Britain it is more common to state: “The government are withholding information.” Whereas in American English it is more likely for the are to be replaced with is, especially when referring to a group of people.
There is also the matter of tense. In British English, when an action in the past is having a direct effect on the present we prefer to use the present perfect tense: “Have I already asked you that?” In America, the past simple tense is used more often, so the sentence would appear as: “Did I already ask you that?” Similar differences also transpire in the present simple form of have and have got, in which the latter is used more often in British English, for example, “I’ve got to take my brother to the dentist” versus the more American, “I have to take my brother to the dentist.” It was cases like this that made my editing experience a little more frustrating as I found myself either resisting the need to rectify something because it didn’t appeal to my British lexis, or questioning the basis of what I thought may be an error because I was British. I even learnt (which would more commonly be spelt learned in America) that the way in which we use prepositions differ. For instance, when referring to periods of time, the word through is used more often in American English: “I work Monday through Friday” but the words to or till are more likely to be used in British English: “I work Monday to Friday.”
Though there are many other dissimilarities, there is no need to go on and on in attempts to identify every distinction as the point has now been made. Today, I like to consider British English and American English to be a lot like tea and coffee—both are present and known in each other’s worlds, but one is favoured and given more privilege over the other.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/cream-puff-tea-cream-puff-pastry-1829525/
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.