Linguistics Essay: Britishisms

Posted on: October 23, 2009
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British Language, Grammar and Spelling: The Difference

By Rocky Reichman


English is a shape shifter. Our language is spoken in dozens of forms and in dozens of dialects. Each country has its own version of English, with its rules and nuances. But the most popular ways of speaking English are the British way and American way. Sure, Americans and British do speak the same language, English. But there are differences in spelling, grammar and even language itself.
As an Editor for Literary Magic, an online and therefore international magazine, I speak with writers from over a dozen countries around the world. Literary Magic, receives most of its submissions from writers in the United States and the United Kingdom. They may speak the same language, but their spelling rules do not match. The most common difference is in words like honor or color. That’s the American way of spelling it. But in England, they prefer ou instead of a single o. Thus, honor becomes honour and color becomes colour.
In the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, author Lynn Truss outlines the grammatical differences between American English and British English. One very important difference that often gets overlooked is the issue of the period and quotation mark: when they both come at the end of a sentence, which one do you use first? Here’s an example of the problem: In a (fictional) speech, the President told Congress that he “agreed with the new law.” Look at the very end of this sentence. Where do you put the period and ending quotation mark? Which one comes first? The answer lies in which type of usage you follow. American English rules that that whenever a period or any terminating punctuation mark–for example, a period (.), question mark (?) or exclamation point (!)–comes together with a quotation mark at the end of a sentence, the ending quotation mark always comes first and the quotation mark follows. So in the above sentence, the correct punctuation would be …“agreed with the new law.” Similarly, if instead we had a question mark or exclamation point at the end of the sentence, they too would precede the quotation mark.
However, the rules may be different for non-terminating punctuation marks like the comma (,) or semicolon (;). Example: “Let’s go to town and relax,” said Bob. Here, the punctuation mark (a comma) still comes before the ending quotation mark, yet neither of these comes last in the sentence. Instead, an ending punctuation mark (here, the period) comes last. So even when the choice is between a quotation mark and a non-terminating punctuation mark, the punctuation mark still comes first.
How would British English rule? Very simple: in British English, the ending quotation always comes before the terminating punctuation mark. For example, the sentence we used above regarding the President would need to be changed to say: The President told Congress that he “agreed with the new law”. See the difference? In the British version, the ending quotation is used first and is followed by the terminating quotation mark (a period). Now that we have covered some differences between spelling and grammar, let’s move on to language itself.
Britishisms. The British way of speaking English is usually viewed by American speakers as being a more proper way of speaking; similarly, American English may look like slang to British speakers. For example, American speakers like to use a direct also. But in British English there is no such word as also. They use the lengthier but more proper as well. In America, you stand on line for something; in Britain, you stand in line. Other Britishisms include the pleasant salutation “Cheers” and the verb “carry on.”
One reason why most American students should love British English is because, in England, there is no such word as homework. (There is such a thing as homework of course, but they do not use the same name for it).
Will American English and British English ever be able to settle their differences? Well, if the English language truly is a shape shifter, then maybe it can one day morph itself into a single, uniform entity, all wearing the same colors as well as colours.


One Response to “Linguistics Essay: Britishisms”

  1. Joshinthedowns Says:

    What word do the english have for "Homework" then?

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