If you’re a communications professional – or just a reader – living in Asia, you might have noticed that some organisations/organizations aren’t always aware of the differences between British and American English. But does this really matter, as long as the overall meaning is clear? If you care about giving your teams clear guidance – and being known for quality and consistency – the answer is yes!
Your customers are smart and thoughtful people; they pay attention to the quality and consistency of your writing, and they want to feel that you are speaking directly to them in the language they speak. All of this can influence your audience’s decision to do business with your organisation and their perception of its brand.
If there’s a jumble of English variants on your website – or in your white paper, blog post or pitch document – your readers may think your work is littered with mistakes, broadcast from a remote global office, or copied directly from other sources. There’s even a risk you might cause offence, or at least embarrassment – words like ‘pants’ and ‘suspenders’ have very different meanings in US and UK English, for example.
In this article we discuss the major differences between US and UK English, which variants tend to be used in different Asia-Pacific countries, and the importance of setting rules.
British vs US English: the major differences
Visit the websites of leading organisations like Singapore’s Temasek, Malaysia’s PETRONAS or Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank, all of which use British English, and you’ll see some words end in ‘–our’, when US English uses ‘–or’. Some common examples are ‘colour’, ‘favour’ and ‘behaviour’.
British English also uses the suffix ‘–ise’ where the US uses ‘–ize’ (as in ‘organise’ and ‘recognise’); prefers ‘–re’ endings (instead of the US ‘–er’) in words like ‘centre’, ‘kilometre’ and ‘theatre’; and uses one ‘l’ in words where the Americans go in for a double helping (‘enrol’ and ‘skilful’ for example, as opposed to ‘enroll’ and ‘skillful’). Things get trickier when you begin to conjugate those verbs: British English doubles the ‘l’ in ‘travelling’, ‘travelled’ and ‘traveller’ for example, while US English sticks with one (‘traveling’, ‘traveler’ and ‘traveled’). You might be beginning to realise (or realize) why it helps to have a professional proofreader on hand!
|British English||US English|
|‘–our’ endings: colour, favour, behaviour||‘–or’ endings: color, favor, behavior|
|‘–ise’ endings: analyse, organise, recognise||‘–ize’ endings: analyze, organize, recognize|
|‘–re’ endings: centre, kilometre, theatre||‘–er’ endings: center, kilometer, theater|
|licence (noun), license (verb)||license (noun and verb)|
|offence, defence||offense, defense|
|fuelling, modelling, traveller/travelled/travelling||fueling, modeling, traveler/traveled/traveling|
|enrol/enrolment, skilful, wilful||enroll/erollment, skillful, willful|
Punctuation is another point of contrast. US English famously uses a serial comma before the final ‘and’ in a list (‘red, white, and blue’), while British English only uses that comma if the sentence is confusing or ambiguous without it.
Dashes can also immediately (if perhaps subconsciously) signal to readers that you’re speaking to them in American or British English. American English traditionally uses closed em dashes—like this—to separate a subordinate clause from the main body of a sentence, though more modern house style guides tend to prefer a space em dash — like this — for online copy. In UK English, the spaced en dash – like this – is most common, for print and digital publications.
British English tends to use single quote marks when highlighting specific phrases or specialist terms, and double quote marks for direct quotes and excerpts. US English simplifies things by always using double quote marks (except perhaps for quotes within quotes).
In British English, closing punctuation stays outside the quote marks on a quote fragment: “like this”. US English, on the other hand, places commas, ‘periods’ (full stops), question marks and ‘exclamation points’ (exclamation marks) inside closing quote marks: “like this.”
The guidelines change again if the quote is a complete standalone sentence rather than a fragment. Here, the two Englishes align, and the closing punctuation goes inside the quote marks. (For example: “Wei Ling told us the company style guide needs updating.”)
|British English||US English|
|No serial comma||Comma before the final ‘and’ in any list of three or more items|
|Spaced en dash – like this – for subordinate clauses||Closed en dash—like this—for subordinate clauses (though sometimes a spaced em dash — like this)|
|Single quote marks for ‘specialist terms’ and ‘specific phrases’; double quote marks for direct quotes and excerpts||Double quotes in all situations|
|Closing punctuation outside the closing quote mark for a fragment ‘like this’.||Closing punctuation outside the closing quote mark for a fragment “like this.”|
|No uppercase initial after a colon: like this||The first word after a colon begins with an uppercase initial: Like this|
Terminology and idioms
This is just a high-level sample of the differences between the British and US English. We haven’t even entered the realm of terminology (‘holiday’, ‘petrol’ and ‘boot/bonnet’ in British English; ‘vacation’, ‘gas’ and ‘trunk/hood’ in US English) or idioms (‘lie of the land’ and ‘a couple of [x]’ in British English; ‘lay of the land’ and ‘a couple [x]’ in US English), but looking at these examples you can just imagine how complex and countless the differences really are. We recommend Lynn Murphy’s blog Separated by a Common Language for a fascinating – and often entertaining – discussion about hundreds more of these more nuanced contrasts.
To make matters even more complicated, some countries have put their own stamp on the English they use. For instance, although Australia and New Zealand both default to mostly British English conventions, there are distinct differences, sometimes aligning with US English rather than British style. The most distinct is probably the preference for ‘program’ rather than the British ‘programme’, but there’s also a tendency to merge prefixes like ‘anti’, ‘un’ and ‘non’ with the core word, rather than hyphenating as is tradition in British English.
India, meanwhile, has coined various words and phrases that are now widely accepted as standard. These include ‘prepone’ as the opposite of ‘postpone’, as in to advance a meeting or appointment. Another is the phrase ‘please revert’, meaning ‘please reply’. Although ‘revert’ is in common parlance in other English variants (usually in the context of returning text to is previous or original state), it’s officially frowned upon in Singapore.
So, which version of English should you be using in Asia? Singapore, like many other Asian countries that were once under British rule, encourages local businesses to use British English.
|Default English in Asia|
|British English||US English||Both variants widely used|
|Australia (with variations)||Japan||Indonesia|
|India (with variations)|
|New Zealand (with variations)|
But it’s not that straightforward. Many global businesses operating in Asia still use the variant of English that’s most common in the country where they’re headquartered. So, if you work in Singapore for a large organisation based in the US, your website in Asia probably uses American English, and the brand might expect US English across all its global communications.
At the same time, many marketing teams prefer to ‘go local’ with some written materials, which may mean deploying the British English variant on some platforms and US English on others.
Consistency is key
The correct choice of English variant isn’t always obvious – or simple. The first priority is to find out your organisation’s preference and stick to it. Whether that means using UK English all the way, or US English on the website but something else for locally printed marketing materials, make sure you follow a style guide – or create one that captures these nuances.
The priority is to give your writers guidance in a way they’ll find easy to follow, apply and remember. If you don’t have a house style guide, you could aim for consistency by establishing one golden rule, like “When in doubt, always check the global website”, or “Refer to a British English dictionary”.
However, if your company has the resources to create tailor-made marketing materials for different regions – using local idioms and spelling – you have an opportunity to communicate more directly and effectively with your audiences, and it’s best to create very specific guidance around how you plan to do that. If that seems like a mammoth task, get in touch. We’ve helped clients around the globe create style guides and English-variant localisation guides, and we also offer US–UK English (and vice versa) localisation services.
By Melissa de Villiers, Editor Group’s Senior Manager in Singapore, and Olivia McDowell, our Senior Editor in New York. Both spend much of their lives grappling with variations between British and American English and many shades in-between, including the rich and nuanced Singlish used in Singapore.