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issue 52

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Training Bulletin Issue 52

Using the President's English

‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw a long time ago, and those words are as true today as they ever were.

You might have thought that by now we would all be speaking the same homogenised, or possibly homogenized, language. Interestingly, though, even after over 400 years the two versions of English continue to diverge, sometimes touching, sometimes going in different directions but never being quite the same.

Is this a problem? As with a lot of things, it depends on your reader. In business writing, clarity is probably the most important factor – is your usage likely to cause any confusion or misunderstanding? Probably the second factor to consider is, is your usage likely to distract the reader from your message?

As long as your writing does neither of these, you’re probably fairly safe. A possible third factor is making sure you comply with your company’s preferred style.

Some Differences Between British English and US English

There are many examples of the language division. Here are a few examples.

More obvious differences that may annoy your reader
Post codeZip code
Fringe (hair)Bangs
Spelling: the obvious ones
-re endings (centre, litre, fibre, theatre)-er endings (center, liter, fiber, theatre)
-our endings (honour, favour, neighbour)-or endings (honor, favor, neighbor)
-ise endings (apologise, realise, organise)-ize endings (apologize, realize, organize)
-ogue (analogue, dialogue, catalogue)-og (analog, dialog, catalog)
The less obvious ones
-yse (analyse, paralyse, breathalyse)-yze (analyze, paralyze, breathalyze)
-ence (defence, licence, pretence)-ense (defense, license, pretense)

Also, American English is more likely to simplify spellings of words with double vowels, such as paediatrician – pediatrician, manoeuvre – maneuvre, mediaeval – medieval.

Most of the time, you don't need to remember any of these alternative spellings; you just need to make sure that you have set your language of choice in Word and then the spell checker will do the rest for you.

Where to set the default language in Word:

Word 2003 or earlier Tools – Language – Set Language.

Word 2007 Click the Office Button – Word Options – Popular – Language Settings

Word 2010 File tab –options – language – choose the language to set as default

Unfortunately, sometimes setting the language is not enough. Even if you have set it, a document may seem to keep reverting to a different language setting.

This can happen if you paste text from another document where the language setting is not the same as yours. Word copies the language setting as well as the text and you find it reverting to American English (or vice versa). Avoid this by always pasting unformatted text. A keyboard shortcut to let you do this is select your text then to paste hit Alt+e, then s to get a menu offering you unformatted text.

Less obvious differences to avoid if you have to be strict

Learned or learnt? Burned or burnt? Both are acceptable, and understandable, but the –t ending is a little more likely to be used by the British and the –ed ending by the Americans. Other verbs that behave like this are lean, smell, spell and spoil. Also, the words ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ are British usages; Americans would say ‘while’ and ‘among.’

We also use the verb ‘to get’ differently. Americans will use ‘gotten’ as the past participle, where the British will use ‘got’, or often, prefer to avoid it altogether as, to many people, it sounds a bit uneducated:

Same word different meanings – be careful with these as they can cause misunderstanding
Word or PhraseBritish MeaningAmerican Meaning
MadInsaneAngry, furious
MeanMiserlyNasty, angry
To table a matter at a meetingTo put it forward to discussionTo defer a decision
To slateTo denigrateTo prefer for a position
To scheme, a schemeTo plan, a plan or a policy or programme of actionTo plot, in a way intended to harm, a plan to cause damage
Blow me!Expression of surpriseInvitation to particular form of sexual congress

But surely my reader knows what I mean…

The trouble is, we tend to notice when things are unfamiliar, or not the way we'd have done them, even if they are minor usage differences. At the least, they are a distraction from your meaning.

At worst, they keep reminding your reader that you are different from them. If, for example, you are writing a proposal, or even emailing a prospective customer, remember that clients choose suppliers they feel they can work with, with whom they have things in common. Using the same spellings as your client is a subtle way of saying 'we are like you', we literally speak the same language.

Using the right version of English is just a part of pitching your language appropriately for your reader. We discuss this important topic in most of our training courses. Email if you would like to know more.

We try in all our training courses to focus on common, basic information rather than baffling you with unfamiliar words (I had been about to say “obscure terminology” just then, but stopped myself in time.)

Find out more about them by calling us on 01235 60 30 22 or email

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Our Course Schedule page has the dates of our public courses.

One-day courses are either £495 or £395 + VAT per person

Two-day courses are either £850 or £750 + VAT per person.

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We also offer private group courses at your premises. Please call call 01235 60 30 22 for details.

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