British and American English

Why the Correct Variant Matters for Your Academic Paper

The Statue of Liberty is placed alongside Big Ben against the American and British national flags

When preparing an academic paper in English, one of the key pieces of information to have is the target country. There are significant differences between written English in the United Kingdom and the United States, and using an academic translator or editor who speaks your target variant is the best way to ensure that your ideal reader is able to fully understand your text.

Lexical differences

As would be expected from two countries separated by an entire ocean, there have arisen a vast number of differences between British and American vocabularies.

As an example, let’s look at infancy in the two countries: British babies ride in a pushchair, sleep in a cot or a Moses basket, wear a nappy under their babygrow, use dummies, and are cared for by their mummy. Their American counterparts ride in a stroller, sleep in a crib or a bassinet, wear a diaper under their onesie, use pacifiers, and are cared for by their mommy.

These differences extend to all categories of one’s vocabulary -- so much so that linguist Lynne Murphy has dedicated an entire blog to examining lexical differences. The best way of rooting them out is by having a native speaker of the target variant review an English text for issues.

Orthographic differences

The most obvious of these is -ise/-ize verbs, where a UK-based writer would use memorise, for example, and their American counterpart would use memorize. Another frequently occurring difference is the omission of the letter ‘u’ from words like favourite, so that in the US, it is spelled favorite.

However, there are a number of other spelling differences as well, many of which are of particular relevance to writers addressing scientific or medical topics. Words such as paediatric and foetus are spelled differently in the States, resulting in pediatric and fetus. Likewise, certain units of measure end in –re in the UK (metre) but –er in the US (meter).

Other spelling differences aren’t covered by a general rule but occur in specific instances, such as aluminium, which becomes aluminum in the US.

Grammatical differences

There are fewer grammatical differences than lexical or orthographic ones, but they still exist. For example, if you ask a British person to call you later, they may say “I will do,” but an American will drop “do” and just say “I will.”

Prepositional phrases also change between the two variants, as the Cambridge Dictionary points out: British people live in Elm Street, while Americans live on Birch Street. Likewise, speakers of British English say they’re attending a party at the weekend, whereas Americans prefer on the weekend.

Cultural references

It’s easy to overlook the importance of cultural references within a text. While Brits and Americans share many cultural references, others are unique to one of the two cultures.

As an example, both variants of English use sports-related metaphors to express a variety of concepts, but sports that are popular in one country aren’t necessarily popular in the other. The expression playing with a straight bat, derived from cricket, might be used by a British English speaker but is opaque to an American unfamiliar with the sport. Meanwhile, the same American might refer to someone as a Monday-morning quarterback, which comes from American football.

Editors and translators tasked with ensuring that a paper uses a specific variant of English should be on the lookout for not only spelling differences, which are easy to spot, but also for grammatical, lexical, and idiomatic differences.

For a text to be best understood by its target reader, it is key to have it translated or edited by a native speaker who can sift through the text and identify any idiosyncrasies that don’t fit with the target variant of English. When preparing an academic paper for submission to a journal, authors should always confirm what variant of English the journal editors expect to see and advise their translator and/or editor accordingly to ensure a correct final product.

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