Writing tip 13 – U.S. and UK – separated by the same language

George Bernard Shaw apparently once described Britain and the United States as two countries separated by a common language. Of course, many things have different names in U.S. versus British English, for example sidewalk to an American is a pavement to a Brit. Spelling also differs many times, such as color and colour, but the problem arises when the parties use words that mean quite different things!

A New Yorker could be forgiven for thinking he is heading for the sub-surface train when he encounters a sign saying Subway in London. But all he does is walking down the steps to an underpass for pedestrians. Londoners say Underground for what the Americans know as Subway. To further confuse things, slang for Underground in Britain is Tube, which to many Americans is a colloquial term for television.

To mooch means, in British English, to loiter or saunter, but an American might think you are trying to get money off people through begging or sponging, which to a British ear means cadging.

In my corporate writing courses in Britain and the United States, I’ve always left it to the students to write their own way, be it British or American English. My workshops are about getting the structure right in a written communication, to make the reader want to read on rather than click you away.

But this confusion of the meaning of words can become really complicated in international talks, where British diplomats will table a proposal, thinking they have presented it to the room for discussion. Unfortunately, American diplomats could interpret this to mean their British counterparts have decided to postpone the proposal indefinitely, to remove it from the table. The verb table means opposite things in British and U.S. English.

Reuters, the news agency for which I reported world news for many years, writes the following about the word table in its style guide for journalists: “Do not use as a verb. It has conflicting meanings — to put a bill forward for discussion and to postpone discussion of it.”

Shaw, the Irish playwright, was correct in his grim observation, which he is said to have made in 1942. So was Oscar Wilde, who in The Canterville Ghost (1887) wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

I welcome your comments. Have you got any examples you’d like to share?

Rolf Soderlind

http://www.absolutwriting.com/ absolutwriting


3 comments on “Writing tip 13 – U.S. and UK – separated by the same language

  1. “Liberal” describes entirely different political ideas.

  2. What we call a private school in the US is called a public school in the UK — I could never figure out why biographies of well-to-do Britons often included mention of their public-school educations!

  3. My current linguistic adventure is writing articles for a UK company (I “speak American” myself)… An educational venture, to be sure! 🙂

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