Two nations, one language? Well, kind of. While Britain and the USA share English as their main language, there are also lingual differences that separate them and cause all manner of cultural confusion. And then on top of that you have regional accents…
Most people know that there are several spelling differences between British and American English, as well as totally different words, but might not be au fait with them. I have spent many years as a proofreader and editor working on "American" texts and soon got to learn the variations – which were more than I first realized. (I'm from England and know from experience "American English" is more straightforward than the British English I had to learn in school.)
So, let's look at those differences. In order to make them clearer, I'll list them into categories, starting with the two most common differences, “-ise” and “-ize” and “-our” and “-or” spellings.
-ise and -ize
British people write “realise”, “visualise” and “stigmatise” and American write “realize”, “visualize” and “stigmatize”. It should be noted, however, that British English is increasingly using the “ize” spelling. You'll find many "-ize" suffixes in The Oxford Dictionary. I tend to refer to The Oxford Dictionary when proofreading and editing "British English" texts.
-our and -or
This is a common difference between British and American spellings. Britons write “colour”, “favour”, “honour” and “neighbour”, whereas Americans write “color”, “favor”, “honor” and “neighbour”. The words are, however, pronounced the same regardless of the spellings.
There are also some lesser-known differences:
-re and –er
In London you would visit a theatre in the centre of town only a few metres from your flat. In New York you would visit a theater in the center of town only a few meters from your apartment.
-ce and -se
In American English the “se” spelling is used for these words: defense, offense, pretense. However, in British English the spellings are: defence, offence and pretence.
-yse and -yze
In addition to that, there are also differences between words ending in “yse” and “yze”. In British English the “yse” ending prevails – analyse, paralyse, and in America, the “yze” endings are used – analyze and paralyze.
Oe and ae
There are further differences in the use or “oe” and “ae”. In British English, for example, we say “oestrogen” and “aesthetic” whereas in the United States the spellings are “estrogen” and “esthetic”. Notice that both words begin with “e”.
The dropped “e”
American English tends to drop the “e” in many of its spellings, preferring “aging” to British English’s “ageing” and “likable” instead of “likeable”.
-ogue and -og
In British English we refer to a dialogue or a catalogue, but in America it is a dialog or a catalog. Notice that the “ue” is skipped entirely in American English.
In Britain there are travellers who like travelling because it fulfils them, whereas in America there are travelers who like traveling because it fulfills them. Note how double consonants appear and disappear in each example.
Men in England have moustaches, whereas men in America have mustaches. In Britain people like to watch TV programmes, but in America they watch TV programs. A person in Britain will pay their bills by cheque, but an American will write a check. British people have autumn, whereas Americans have fall.
One language, many differences!
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Clichés can kill your copy stone dead. Your copy will read as dull as ditchwater. Instead, you want your words to be as light as a feather…
I’ll stop there as you can clearly see Orwell’s point. Clichés suck the life out of your copy. And that includes overuse of the exclamation mark, and the words “exciting” and “fantastic”. Don’t try and stir up a frenzy of fake excitement. Think of them as hot chilies – use them sparingly.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Yes, in copy size does matter. Short words create better writing, they’re easier to read and they pack more of a punch. It’s all about simplicity. The simpler your language is, the easier and faster it is to read. Sales copy is not the place to amaze your readers with your extensive vocabulary or Scrabble-winning words.
So, write “free” instead of “complimentary”. Use “buy” instead of “purchase”. Use Anglo-Saxon English and ditch the more flowery Latin equivalent. Shorter words affect us more emotionally – and when it comes to buying, people tend to be more in tune with their hearts than their heads.
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
Edit your copy like a surgeon and cut out any superfluous words. It might take a few ruthless revisions, but it’s worth the effort.
After all, do you need so many “very” and “really”? Do you need to use “that” so often? Give them the chop if you can. Why write “At this moment in time” when “now” is even better? Discard unnecessary words and as a result your writing is more likely to hit the mark.
4. Never use a passive where you can use an active.
Orwell believed active sentences are more lively and personal. They have more oomph and energy.
Compare the active sentence “Millions of men use SupaVit” with its passive alternative “SupaVit is used by millions of men”. The passive sentence is lethargic, tired. It’s not up and about getting noticed and read.
Active sentences also tend to be shorter (remember size matters). Long sentences are just as counterproductive in sales copy as long words. So make sure your verbs are all active and working hard, not lounging around like teenagers with a hangover.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
I’m stating the obvious here: Your writing must be clear to your readers. Otherwise, they won’t read it. No one likes to read something they don’t understand. It’s not good for the ego.
Jargon is as bad as a cliché. It can make your reader feel like an outsider, stupid or not your intended audience.
Your sales copy will be much better and more accessible if you use simpler language. Show your reader some respect and consideration. You’re writing sales copy, not a PhD thesis. (I’ve proofread many theses in my time and they often break all the rules Orwell listed. See rule 6.)
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Well, rules are meant to be broken (excuse the cliché).
Bear in mind the six rules, but also be aware that your biggest challenge is to write in a friendly, down-to-earth way. You should write as you speak, like you are talking to a friend.
Your copy should be like well-organized but natural speech, with a faultless flow. This is much easier with shorter words and sentences.
Remember, you are trying to build a relationship with your reader. You want them to like you. Impress them with how you can help them, not your elaborate language.
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Punctuation is something that even native English speakers get wrong from time to time. However, punctuation is a vital part of your writing; it's not something to be careless about or use incorrectly. If you use incorrect punctuation, you run the risk of completely altering the meaning of what you write, and confusing your reader.
Here's a little exercise I use with my own students to show why correct punctuation is important.
Take a look at the letter from Jill to Jack and decide, using punctuation, whether she is in love with him or is trying to break up with him:
I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours
Now compare your changes with those below:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
As you can see, there are two versions: Jill is in love with Jack AND trying to break up with him, depending on the punctuation used. So bear in mind next time you write something that punctuation is not just about a few dots and dashes – it has the potential to alter the meaning of your work if you use it incorrectly.
Click here for a guide to punctuation.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to start or end a business email or letter.
Should you be fairly informal or use a more formal (and polite) salutation? And what about "Yours sincerely", "Yours faithfully", "Best wishes" etc? When do you use them and are there set rules?
Well, there are certain rules to follow when beginning and ending a letter and formal emails, especially when writing for business matters.
While it is okay to write "Hi John" or "Hello Sue" to certain colleagues and end your correspondence with "'Bye for now", "Regards" or simply your name, for more formal situations it is best to following the rules set out below:
• When you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to use "Dear Sir" (for a man) or "Dear Madam" (for a woman). Sometimes, you don’t even know the gender of the recipient of your letter. In this case use "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam".
• Each of the above salutations, because you have not used a name, must end with "Yours faithfully".
• If you know the name of the person you are writing to, for instance, “Dear Mr Brown”, then you can end the letter with "Yours sincerely", "Best wishes", "Kind regards" etc.
Thanks to emails, the way the language is used in business has changed. It is now acceptable to use semi-formal or informal greetings and endings. It is likely that most people never use "Dear sir" or "Yours faithfully" in an email. It is seen as rather old-fashioned and overly formal.
However, it is still good to understand the rules, because you never know – one day you just might need to write a formal but very important correspondence.
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You might not be a blogger, but this article from Boost Blog Traffic gives you a great easy-to-read lesson on how to self-edit your writing when it comes to the fundamentals of English grammar.
This is essential knowledge regardless of what you sort of texts you write. Some of the English grammar you learnt at school may seem outmoded now, but there are of course still rules to follow!
How to Write Correctly: The Busy Blogger’s Guide to English Grammar won't apply to academic or formal business writing, but if you have your own website and want to write in a more conversational tone, this article is very helpful reading.
Read the article here.
A contraction is simply a shortened version of a word – the contracted form.
We often contract or shorten words when we speak and nowadays contractions are popular in everyday spoken English, where the contracted form of “to be” is the most widely used. For example, “I am” becomes “I’m” and “We are” becomes “We’re”.
There are, of course, many examples of other auxiliary verbs that are also contracted in colloquial English. To avoid any confusion over how to use contractions, check the list below for the most common examples:
Am: I’m not going to work today.
Is: She’s coming to the party.
Susan’s at the office.
Who’s at the door?
There’s no need to shout!
Are: You’re my best friend.
They’re on holiday in Thailand.
We’re going on holiday tomorrow.
Has: She’s been to Thailand twice before.
It’s been ages since I last saw you!
John’s gone to the office.
What’s he been up to?
Who’s been told about the cancellation?
Have: I’ve finished the report at last.
They’ve got three dogs.
We’ve been to Thailand twice before.
Had: She’d been waiting all day for his call.
We’d better hurry!
They’d better be on time.
I’d better be on time.
Will: I’ll get you a cup of tea.
Susan’ll get the cups.
What’ll we do now?
He’ll be there in five minutes.
They’ll wait for you at the station.
That’ll be the day!
Would: I’d like a cup of tea, please.
She’d love to travel to Thailand.
They’d prefer to travel to India.
We’d like some tea.
It is important to remember that using contractions makes whatever you say more informal and for that reason contractions are more commonly used in spoken English.
However, with the growing use of emails and text messaging, it appears that English is becoming more informal in general and therefore the use of contractions is increasing.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that contractions should be avoided in all types of formal writing, including business letters, essays and exams. In these situations you must use the full form of the auxiliary verbs otherwise you risk your work not being taken seriously.
Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. There are various ways they can be used depending on whether the pronoun is the subject or object or is reflexive. For example:
Subject pronouns are: I, you, he, she, it, we, they.
Object pronouns are: me, you, him, her, it, us, them.
Reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.
Now we have split the pronouns into groups, we can look at the rules of use.
When you use a subject pronoun (which is also known as nominative case), it can be the subject of a sentence, for example, “I am a student”, “Jane and he are colleagues” but when the pronoun is used after the verb “to be”, the pronoun renames the subject. The “to be” verbs are as follows: is, are, was, were, will be, may be, may have been. Here is an example of a pronoun used after a “to be” verb:
“It is I who wrote the letter.” Here, “I” comes after the “to be” verb “is” and the subject is renamed “it”. So, the subject pronoun needs to be used instead of the object pronoun.
We use an object pronoun (also known as objective case) when the pronoun is the direct object (not the subject), the indirect object or the object of the preposition. Here are some examples:
“John met her at the library.” Here, “her” is the direct object.
“Sue will give him his book back.” In this example, “him” is an indirect object because you can, in your mind, put the word “to” in front of “him” (Sue will give to him). In this case, “book” is the direct object. Let’s look at other examples:
“Between you and me, this book is terrible.” In this case, “you” and “me” are the objects of a preposition (between).
Lastly, we'll turn to reflexive pronouns. For example, you can write “She did it herself” but you would never write or say “Give the book back to John or myself”. In this last sentence, “myself” does not refer back to another pronoun or noun – the correct pronoun is “me” (an object pronoun).
As you can see, there are lots of different ways to use pronouns and it is important to use them correctly when speaking or writing.
Firstly, what is a gerund? Well, a gerund is what is known as a verbal noun and it is formed using the suffix “ing” in verbs. It is also used in the continuous form of a verb tense (“walking, talking, reading” as opposed to the infinitive form “to walk, to talk, to read”). The gerund can also be used as a noun. Let’s see some examples using “walking”:
I am walking (verb – continuous form)
I like walking (noun)
Walking is the best exercise! (noun)
The last example shows how the gerund becomes the subject of the sentence. Like other nouns, gerunds can also act as direct or indirect objects of the preposition (prepositions are, for example, for, to, in, on, etc.):
I like walking (direct object).
I will give her sponsor money for walking up the steep hill (object of the preposition “for”).
It will greatly help your writing if you can recognize gerunds because if a noun or pronoun (my, her, his, its, and so on) is followed by a gerund, you need to use the possessive form of that noun or pronoun. Here are some examples:
My walking ahead annoyed him (this is correct).
Me walking ahead annoyed him (this is incorrect).
Their talking is really bothering me (this is correct).
Them talking is really bothering me (this is incorrect).
Let’s look at some other correct examples:
Jim’s swimming is fast and powerful.
Jane’s skating is so exciting to watch.
The boy’s running won him first prize in the race.
When dealing with gerunds, you need to ensure that you use the similar grammar form when you present several ideas in one sentence. For instance:
“Running, jumping and skipping are all great fun.”
In this sentence, they are all gerunds and therefore fit together properly. But what if you had a sentence like:
“Reading, writing and knowing arithmetic are essential skills for everyone”?
Well, if all the words were treated as verbs, the sentence would be fine. However, it is commonly known that the words “reading”, “writing” and “arithmetic” are all nouns and therefore it is better to write:
“Reading, writing and arithmetic are essential skills for everyone”.
You need to also be aware that the gerund form is used in present or future progressive verb forms – I am walking, I will be walking, and so on. The progressive form is sometimes also called the continuous form.
It is important to be aware that the gerund takes on several forms, but once you are familiar with the different contexts, you will see that learning gerunds is not so difficult after all.
The Key Blog
Hello and welcome to The Key Blog! This is where you'll find information and tips on writing, proofreading, and the English language in general. Feel free to use the articles in your own e-zines, blogs or websites etc., as long as you include the resource box. Thank you!