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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Together, AcaBus Solutions and KHO Language Services offer:
Academic Services: editing and proofreading services that ensure any type of academic text is polished and ready for publication or grading. One-to-one English language tuition is available to students and academics who use English as a second language (ESL) and wish to increase their competency and confidence, and their prospects. The extensive academic coaching and consultancy service offers tailor-made advice to help pave the way for clients’ successful academic or business careers.
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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.
Emails are an effective and convenient means of communicating information and have revolutionized how we operate in the business world.
Less intrusive than phone calls and faster than letters, it’s hard to imagine how any company could now operate without email. Business letters are becoming a thing of the past as more and more of us use emails as our primary means of communicating with clients, suppliers, customers and colleagues.
Although emailing can be as “chatty” as telephoning and far less formal than letter-writing, there are still some important rules to follow in order to make a good impression. Email etiquette is vital if you want your company to appear professional, helpful, approachable and, most of all, worth doing business with.
Follow these rules for email success:
• Always write an informative subject line – never leave it blank
• Make sure the email is personally addressed
• Separate each paragraph with a blank space so the text is easier to read
• Be clear and concise – long sentences are distracting and boring
• Quickly get to the point of your email
• Check your spelling and facts
• Never use only CAPITAL LETTERS
• Don’t use smiley faces or other emoticons (unless you know the recipient very well) or write your text in bright colours
• Never use emotive or offensive language
• Use a legible font and font size
• Make sure that all necessary files are attached
• Think twice before you click Reply to All – do you really want everyone on the list to read your reply?
• Don’t use email to discuss confidential information – no email is private
• Don’t use the abbreviations often found in text messages (i.e. “I would like 2 C U.”)
• End the email well with the next step clearly stated (i.e. “I look forward to your reply.”)
• Always proofread before you click Send!
Remember: your email can be forwarded to many people – that is why it is vital to make a good on-line impression. Use correct and courteous business language and take a little time to construct your message. After all, once you have clicked the Send button, it is too late to make any changes.
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.
KHO Language Services
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.
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!