You say Tomayto and I say Tomahto… Colo(u)r me confuzed

England and America are two countries divided by a common language. – George Bernard Shaw

Like all Europeans, I was taught the English language as it is spoken in the country of its origin:England. I was drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation for many years, having my fingers slapped when I made mistakes and made to write each misspelled word ten times. In this way, British English was tattooed into my brain. When I started writing professionally, I thought that this would be a great asset. Indeed, when I worked with editors at publishing houses in Ireland, I was complimented on my clean copy and my good spelling skills. I thought then, that spelling the  British way correctly would be a  good thing when I launched my books into the e-book market. This turned out to be a mistaken assumption.

Naturally, having read a lot of American books, I know English is spelled differently in America. This never bothered me, nor did it ever ruin my enjoyment of a book. I had no idea that my British spelling would become such an issue with readers over there. I found out very quickly, however, that British spelling is considered by many Americans at best, wrong and at worst, stupid.  American readers would sometimes give me bad reviews for spelling “nearly every word” wrong. “Everyone knows that cozy is not spelled ‘cosy’”, one reviewer mocked. “Jewellery is not spelled like that even in Britain,” another sneered. Well, excuse me, it is. I use the Oxford Dictionary when uncertain about spelling and also when being slapped down about certain words. Maybe reviewers should check it too before they criticise? I am not talking about typos, which are found in practically every book and, indeed, are present to some extent in mine.

I noticed that some of my American writer friends are very annoyed when they read English books, one of them saying that “the Brits are allergic to the letter z.” And that “they have a mania for inserting the letter u where it doesn’t belong” (as in colour and favour).

Well, hello? They inserted absolutely nothing. The English spoken in Britain is the original version, is it not?

Why did Americans tinker with the English language and then say it is the only right way to spell? The British have been incredibly kind and patient not to start a political conflict after having their beautiful language “simplified” in this way. I know for a fact that British readers swallow American spelling with great tolerance and patience and hardly ever complain or call anything with American spelling a “mistake”. So I feel slightly bewildered by the militant attitude of Americans when confronted with British spelling.

I know that America is a huge melting pot and that the English language has been greatly influenced by people from all over the world, adding their touch and making the language richer in many ways. Europeans and British people are aware of this and have, in a way, become bilingual when it comes to the different ways of spelling and speaking. Why then can Americans not show the same tolerance? Why do American readers not accept that British spelling is the original version?

Feeling confused and a little bruised, I decided to ask my fellow writer Rags Daniels what his take is on all of this and how he, as an Englishman, feels about having his language tinkered with by foreigners.


 Me: Why did Americans remove the ‘u’ in so many words? And why did they change the letter s to z in realise, analyse, compromise and other similarly spelled words?

Rags: Simply because they felt a need to create a nations history by destroying the etymology of the English language and creating their own. Thereby casting aside thousands of years of refinement and going back to cave painting by fulfilling the need to add ‘smileys’ to express their feelings.

Me: I see. But I like smileys… They make me happy… And there are, to be honest, some great sayings and expressions used by Americans that are very amusing and colo(u)rful. Which the British borrow and use with great abandon. Is this not like cherry picking? It seems a little mean to take their best sayings and then dismissing what we don’t like, doesn’t it?

But apart from the spelling, I also find their vocabulary very strange. Americans don’t remember, they “recall”, they don’t suppose, they “guess”. They call autumn “fall” and they don’t go on holiday but have “vacations”. They never wear trousers or knickers and call track suits “sweats”. Those are just a few things that differ to the English spoken across the pond.

Rags….To reiterate, ‘American English’ is a lazy man’s English. And when one has been taught, as you have, in the use of  hundreds of years of  language refinement, only to see it decimated  by a people lacking in the art of perfectionism, one can only assume it a desperate attempt at breaking with tradition and deliberately creating a mulligatawny of linguistic nuances.

Me: But that is surely not a bad thing? Mulligatawny is a delicious soup with many flavo(u)rs, is it not? So, in conclusion, we Europeans and Brits, don’t mind the odd Mexican spice or a little African herb. But Americans don’t go for British bangers and mash, or even roast beef with horseradish… Are we all going to end up in Mc Donald’s?

What is the solution? What is going to happen to the English language? Will there eventually be some kind of amalgamation of the two that we can all accept? Maybe like text speak? As in: cu l8er? Imagine a whole novel written like this. Seems impossible right now. But it might be the language of the future.


101 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elle Casey
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:36:41

    I teach English to French and German students, both law students and business students, and I often have to point out differences in spelling and usage. Expressions? Forget it! There are so many cool British ones most Americans have never heard of.

    Why did Americans change the spellings? Probably it was a spelling error made by a semi-literate pilgrim that just got taught to new settlers and carried on that way.

    Plus, we Americans did want to shed a bit of that British influence, didn’t we? Our ancestors were done with the King and his letter “u” in colour and behaviour and so on. We don’t need your rule, and we don’t need your u’s either!

    As for the Z and the S? Well, it’s a pronunciation thing, isn’t it? Organization, not organisssation. We’re not a bunch of snakes slithering around on our bellies.

    🙂 There. How’s that for controversial. 🙂


  2. Danny Gillan
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:39:07

    I’m Scottish, I’m not getting involved in this one.


  3. Elle Casey
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:46:37

    Hoyt! (that’s my imitation of a British laugh)


  4. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:50:42

    with a plum in your mouth?


  5. Elle Casey
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:53:13

    Don’t all Brits run around with plums in their mouths?

    Oh! No! She did not say that!


  6. B
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 20:56:52

    You’ve hit on one (actually several) of my pet peeves with this post, Susanne. I agree with much of what you’ve said, but possibly not all. First, some history as I understand it. (Don’t quote me as an expert.)

    My understanding is that English spelling wasn’t standardized at all for many years.In the 16th and 17th century there was some movement in that direction, but spelling remained mostly whatever the person writing thought. Truly moving to standardized spelling didn’t happen until the early 19th century when Daniel Webster (an American) started the push for standardization, albeit what turned into the “American standard.” These standards were largely based on phonetics. So a case could be made that if it weren’t for an American leading the way those bloody Brits would still be spelling words in whatever way struck their fancy at the time. That they decided to use different standards is another issue. 🙂

    Rags point that this was done to “create a nations history” isn’t without merit. There was some parochialism involved that possibly let to Webster purposely choosing a different spelling than the most common British spelling. (The decision to use an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ in many words seems arbitrary at times and may have been for that reason.)

    In the last few years I’ve read a ton of books from authors from every English speaking country and they all have their own variants, not to mention slang (which is often specific to even smaller regions). It’s been enlightening and IMO adds a lot to the flavor of the book. I disagree with my fellow Americans who have problems with this. However, in their defense, they’ve been spoiled. They’re accustomed to having publishers Americanize books with foreign origins to American standard spelling and, often, more. Based on what they’ve been trained to expect, those spellings are wrong. I see it as an opportunity for education rather than belittle – you seem to be doing some of both.

    Another difference, besides spelling, is word choice. Different English speakers and authors often make different word choices, depending on their country. Rags points out a few above (although I’m much more likely to use ‘remember’ than ‘recall’, these both seem like valid choices). Sometimes a word might not be one in the vocabulary of a reader, yet a perfectly valid English word. The Kindle dictionary is great for checking those as well as alternate spellings (at least the version that ships in the US).

    The one thing that does irritate me is when a non-American author has an American character who talks like they’re from England, Ireland, or somewhere other than America. My favorite example was a book from a UK author that had an American teenager using the word ‘loo’ in dialogue for that room with a toilet. An actual American teenager would never use that word, although they would probably understand it.


  7. Rags Daniels
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:01:03

    Only when they’re stoned, Elle.


  8. Terrence OBrien
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:01:57

    Americans are extremely tolerant of English variations. Most don’t give a hoot. And only a sliver ever think of writing a review. Unfortunately, a small portion of them write reviews about themselves.

    And why the variation? If we look back to the American Colonial times, English had not yet settled on final versions for lots of words. So if several spellings were current in England, they all migrated to the Colonies where they mutated in a different directions.


  9. Bill Smith
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:04:26

    As an American, I find UK-style spellings and usages charming and intriguing. I find neither superior to the other, just different and as with many things in life, season to taste. On the other hand, in videos and such, I find many British accents (and there appear to be a multitude of them) difficult to understand.

    American language, because of the influence of sub-cultures and immigration, seems to be much more fluid, with spellings, usages, words adopted from other languages, slang and other components changing very rapidly.

    Many things that were “wrong” when I was a child are now acceptable usage. Without the language police (a la France), Americanized English has become very democratic in that what is commonly and widely used is eventually adopted into proper usage.

    For the record, I think this is a good thing — in general, I believe that a language’s “acceptable usage” should accurately reflect the usage of the people who actually use it daily instead of being dictated by academic decree.

    I believe that more people in the world use US-style spellings than UK-style…Canadian and Austrailian English appear to be have a great deal of influence from their rebellious American cousins.

    I do believe UK vs US is, more or less, an issue of different dialects of the same language, much as how Parisian French is very different than Quebecois French even though they are technically the same language.


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:16:12

      Thank you, Bill. Some very good points there. (and hope for the future)


    • Tahlia Newland
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 00:12:34

      Ah, no. The Aussies use UK spellings all the time. Mainstream publishers put out US versions of our author’s books (I will not be doing that with mine) which could give you that impression. Our differences are in our slang and in our punctuation. We use single quotation marks where the northern hemisphere uses doubles. My soon to be released YA magical realism novella uses Aussie spelling and punctuation (except that I use double quotation marks because I thought that singles might be a bit hard for you to handle), but I do have a glossary to help you Brits and yanks with translation. We never see this in US books and I still don’t know what a messenger bag or a bleacher is, not to mention Home Coming dances and all the other cultural stuff that we are expected to know.


  10. BigAl
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:05:05

    And somehow I managed to call myself ‘B’. I must have Americanized my name. 🙂


  11. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:05:22

    Al, this is very difficult for people who read both American and English books. I know that it is important to use the right vocabulary for the nationality of the character in question. But I also feel that this type of minor mistake is forgivable.


  12. Dalya Moon
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:08:46

    As a Canadian, I should note there’s also Canadian English! I don’t know if it’s exactly the same as British English. I think probably not. When I read English books, they’re a bit different, but it’s usually more the word choice than spelling.

    Now that I self-pub, I’ve switched over to U.S. spelling, but it’s tough, and I do mess up. I go back and forth on my blog, where I’m not as careful as I am in my novels. I’m a jumbled mess! I miss my u’s!


  13. BigAl
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:21:48

    Susanne, I’m taking your comment to be about my last paragraph, about using the right vocabulary for the character. In my example, if that was the only thing wrong in the dialogue of that character, I wouldn’t have thought that much of it if it had been a one time thing. An American teenager *might* have used that term jokingly or to be a smartass, not unlike my use of the word ‘bloody’ in my comment. It went beyond that, not only using the word ‘loo’ multiple times, but also other words, expressions, and word choices that didn’t fit the character.

    Is it difficult to get it right? Sure. Just as it would be difficult for an American author to write dialogue for an Irish character that would right true for a native of Ireland. I daresay for the typical American author it might be even more difficult, because we’ve been insulated more from the language differences. But if you want the character to ring true and avoid the complaints in reader reviews, you’ve got to get it right. That probably means in the case of the American with an Irish character getting an editor who “speaks Irish” or several Irish beta readers.


  14. BigAl
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:23:30


    From what I’ve seen, Canadian seems to be a combination of British and American spellings and conventions, with a sprinkling of uniquely Canadian thrown in, eh?


  15. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:27:39

    yes, I get your point, Al. But in this post it is not the argument I was trying to get across. It was only about spelling and how Americans can’t accept British spelling in a book written by a European, even if there is an explanation that there is British spelling and grammar in the book. British readers don’t mind American spelling at all.


  16. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:34:38

    Oh, and Al, in addition, I might add that one of my books did indeed have similar mistakes in dialogue, which were never commented on by British readers. But as a result of having a very helpful American friend read through it, I have now re written all the parts that were not truly American in vocabulary.


  17. BigAl
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:47:31

    And on your main point, I agree that they should be okay with it, although I would argue that the contention that there is one right way (“The English spoken in Britain is the original version, is it not?”) or Rag’s comment calling American English “a lazy man’s English” is no more correct than those readers who contend that your English is flawed. The great (and sometimes not so great) thing about English is its ability to evolve. What you write and speak isn’t what Shakespeare wrote. You admit that British English has evolved based on picking up Americanisms. English (at least American English) has been flavored with words from other languages (rodeo and patio from Spanish, for example). There is no central body controlling the language which allows it to evolve, but also means there is no definitive definition of what is correct.

    I read a couple books last year called “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park” by Jack Lynch, and “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester, which I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in the evolution of English in its many variations and the difficulty in defining what is and is not correct.


    • Tahlia Newland
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 00:19:53

      Surely they are all ‘correct’. We are really talking about having tolerance for cultural differences here. We should celebrate these differences that enliven and diversify our reading experience.


  18. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:52:33

    That was a question, Al. And I do say in my post that American English has been enriched by all these influences. My readers have never said my English is flawed, but they have assumed that my British spelling is incorrect.


  19. susannefromsweden
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 21:59:09

    Just a storm in a tea cup, really.


  20. Kevis Hendrickson
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 23:32:35

    I’m an American who often writes in British English and even hires UK editors to make sure my King’s English has the right flavour. So where do people like me fit into the discussion? In my case, it could just be that I’m plain barmey! 😉


  21. Simon Royle
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 01:58:24

    As a Brit, born in England, brought up in South Africa, further nurtured in New Jersey, then Hong Kong, and as a British author who uses American spelling, I feel I ought to contribute something to this discussion… or not.

    The Webster dictionary was the brain child of one, Noah Webster. Daniel was the senator who enjoyed borrowing money from his friends and then speaking eloquently about them; usually while defending their interests at the Supreme Court.

    As to an American teenager using “loo” – I totally agree with BigAl – jarring, it would be, and deserving of a flogging, or two.

    … And now to the central issue, the “Gripe” that holds us in its grip – Yes, the majority of Americans do tend to get upset by anything that is “different” to their view of the world; and their view of the world has a “baseball” quality to it.


  22. jfhilborne
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 04:08:45

    This is a most interesting post. As a British author living in America I frequently find myself caught up in the cross-fire on Brit v English grammar and spelling. One of my early and most entertaining encounters with an American audience happened when I announced out loud in a very busy office that I needed a rubber. I wanted to correct a mistake. Of course, I hadn’t yet learned Americans call them erasers…


  23. Audra
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 05:16:16

    Honestly, I’m an American (hmm rather presumptuous considering America is a continent. I’m a United Statesian) British spellings never bother me. In fact, when I’m writing, I frequently get yelled at by spell checker because I use the ‘s’ in realise. Why do I spell it that way without thinking about it? I have no idea. I was born here and raised on American English. Compromise I always spell with the ‘s’. Maybe they just make more sense spelled like that.

    As far this, [quote]Americans don’t remember, they “recall”, they don’t suppose, they “guess”[/quote]

    Maybe its the area of the country, but no one around here recalls. Everyone around here remembers. They also suppose a lot.

    Not sure why so many get their panties in a twist over it. We have words like ‘y’all’, and an inordinate amount of people who think ‘a lot’ is one word. I don’t see how anyone has a right to complain, especially given the atrocious spelling and improper word use on forums all over the internet.


  24. BigAl
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 08:19:02

    Oh my, Simon. You caught me confusing my Websters. I stand corrected. 🙂


  25. joeicarus
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 15:28:00

    So the genesis of all of this is that you read your Amazon reviews, and consider them representative of, well, anything?


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 10, 2012 @ 15:36:11

      not at all. This about an amalgamation of a lot of things; blogs, forum posts and private messages. A general feeling of discontent and unfairness.


      • joeicarus
        Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:40:21

        Weird. My reading experience is more like Bill Smith’s. Not only do British spellings not bother me, I’ve never seen a friend of mine seriously object to them. A fair number of my friends have adopted the extra U in “-o(u)r” words thinking it looks cooler somehow; fewer have adopted the “-ise” ending, though. Most people I know are also incensed by the changing of titles for American readers, as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

        If people are seriously faulting your for your spelling over British variants, I think they’re proving their opinions not worth listening to. It’s thoughtful of them, actually. I’m sure there are Brits whose opinions are not worth listening to either, but since they spell the same as you, you’ll have to look for some other tell. Maybe generalizing about Americans as lazy.

        Now the Oxford comma, on the other hand, I will defend to the death.

      • susannefromsweden
        Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:45:58

        Me too. the Oxford comma. Let’s defend it together. I love commas

      • maidrya
        Jun 10, 2012 @ 17:55:43

        Joeicarus said, “I’m sure there are Brits whose opinions are not worth listening to either, but since they spell the same as you, you’ll have to look for some other tell. Maybe generalizing about Americans as lazy.” Bullseye, Mr. Icarus!

        I also, btw, I will also join in the defense of the Oxford comma and, sadly, that seems to be falling out of favo(u)r in some quarters of the U.S.

  26. K. A. Jordan
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 15:49:32

    Reblogged this on Kat Jordan's Blog and commented:
    Now here is a post that throws down – OMG – can’t the Brits get with the program? 😉


  27. K. A. Jordan
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:02:41

    I’ve had my share of complaints about my spelling from Brits, Kuncks and Aussies – it’s come to the point where the FIRST thing I’ll ask the complainant is which side of ‘The Pond’ they’re on. Some have even complained about my comma usage – they just get an eyeroll – that Oxford comma is just plain nuts.

    I’ve got European friends who write stories set in the USA – I can always tell! The crazy words they use – ‘trolley’ instead of the Northern ‘cart’ or Southern ‘buggy’, ‘mini’ cars instead of ‘compact’, ‘biscuit’ instead of ‘cookie’ – the last one is an unforgivable insult to snack food! Who ever heard of a ‘chocolate chip biscuit’ people?

    What adds insult to injury is Brits, Kuncks and Aussies never get the regional dialects right, either.

    Well, I’m going to go have a cookie – I had biscuits and gravy for breakfast.



    • Tahlia Newland
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 00:25:17

      Seriously? Aussies complain? I would have thought we’d be too easy going for that. We are so inundated with US culture, I can’t see why it would bother anyone.


  28. susannefromsweden
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:10:57

    you should try living in Ireland. I get complaints from BOTH sides. Talk about being the meat in the sandwich… Enjoy your cookies. I love the chocolate chip ones…


  29. maidrya
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:38:21

    I basically second joeicarus’ point – Amazon reviews are representative of what? I’m under the impression that there is a wide impression that lots of Amazon reviews are ignorant, heedless and nasty for all kinds of reasons, having nothing to do with the book under review and everything to do with the person’s hangover.

    SFS says, “an amalgamation of a lot to things…general feeling of discontent and unfairness.” Two points: 1) the second paragraph of your post, and what seemed to prompt the post, was about Amazon reviews. 2) No one can refute a “general feeling of discontent and unfairness” – indeed, it’s barely definable. I have feelings of discontent and unfairness from time to time – never thought of blaming the Brits.

    That said, I do apologize for my American compatriots who are ignorant and hostile in their criticisms. It is ignorance, which is limiting enough, but inexcusable when coupled with nastiness.

    It’s interesting to me that I came across this discussion today. I just had occasion on Friday to correct spelling on a professional document to the Canadian version – neighbourhood was one. Of course, I complied. What surprised me though, was jewellery – the client declared it “misspelled,” not an American vs. Canadian spelling, and I obediently changed the spelling of jewelry, not realizing (and apparently the client didn’t either) that the two “ls” and extra “e” is the British version (until I read your post.)

    I’ve never been militant against British spelling and don’t know anyone who is. Most Americans I know are impressed, even slightly intimidated by British English – it sounds so doggoned cultivated. (And, I am such a doggoned hick I write doggoned.) I read Dorothy Sayres, Josephine Tey, Penelope Fitzgerald, PD James, and many others without a murmur – as do millions of other Americans, I might add. Those writers are very popular, so someone on this side of the Atlantic is coping with their spelling.

    This makes me wonder if your view of Americans’ view of British spelling isn’t skewed – noticing the people who are unpleasant and taking them as representative of a majority. The ignorance part, I’d be inclined to believe. The militant…meh


    • Ed Godwin
      Jun 10, 2012 @ 16:59:30

      Good point. Like the gunslingers of the old west, there will always be those select few that love to shoot from the hip, then gallop out of town before anyone can shoot back.

      I have no problem with British spelling or grammar. If I come across something I don’t understand, I view it as an opportunity to expand my cultural vocabulary. If a few readers with an ax to grind blast an author, the worst thing we can do is join in the gunfight.


  30. Wendy Bertsch
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 17:07:04

    “The British have been incredibly kind and patient not to start a political conflict after having their beautiful language “simplified” in this way.”
    You think you can slap their fingers? Really? Let me know first so I can watch.
    I’m a Canadian, and the Americans irritate me at times too, but I have a clear grasp of whose fingers we have the power to slap.


  31. maidrya
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 19:31:56

    While on the subject of language variations, a couple of instances I’ve been wondering about:

    1) In the BBC’s Sherlock, the characters occasionally say, “okay.” I’m old enough to remember when the British (as well as the rest of the world) did not use that Americanism. Anyone know when “okay” slipped into common British parlance?

    2) Speaking of Sherlock, Martin Freeman, aka Dr. Watson, said that he was “chuffed” about being nominated for a BAFTA. I’ve never heard of “chuffed.” I could get the general idea from the context, but can anyone give a definition of “chuffed?”


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 10, 2012 @ 19:53:40

      Maidrya; I don’t know when ‘okay’ crept into the British language but I don’t think they would have said it during the time of Sherlock Holmes, so boo to the continuity people.

      And ‘chuffed’ is a very British expression, meaning pleased and delighted.


      • maidrya
        Jun 10, 2012 @ 19:58:13

        Thanks, Susanne. Actually, the BBC’s most recent Sherlock is an updated one – Sherlock in the 21st century with cell phones, laptops, etc. Not set in Victorian times, so, it’s not a lapse in continuity – it’s a definite break!

      • susannefromsweden
        Jun 10, 2012 @ 20:02:33

        Sorry Maidrya, i didn’t know that as i haven’t seen the latest Sherlock Holmes. In that case, I suppose it was okay…: )

    • Susan A.
      Jun 22, 2012 @ 15:02:40

      When I was a soldier in Iraq we would hear Iraqis who couldn’t speak a word of english say “okay”. Since I was an Arabic linguist, I knew they meant it the same way we did based on the context of the conversation. At some point, it must have been adapted there as well. Of course, they have picked up a lot of British and American words over time. Most likely due to their history and watching our movies. I couldn’t tell you what the word for laundry detergent is in Arabic because they all just call it “Tide” regardless of the actual brand. There are a lot of random terms like that they picked up and started using. Sometimes I wonder with the way we are all getting exposed to each other’s languages and colloquialisms if language won’t eventually evolve into some kind of universal dialect everyone can speak. It would probably take a couple centuries, but could happen.


  32. R.E. McDermott
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 19:49:00

    As an American with many British friends, I can’t say that British spelling in novels bothers me in the least. Interestingly enough from an historical perspective, I think Noah Webster’s dictionary was as much about nationalism as a need to standardize language. One citation on the subject reads, in part:

    “Webster’s dictionaries were a redefinition of Americanism within the context of an emergent and unstable American socio-political and cultural identity. Webster’s identification of his project as a “federal language” shows his competing impulses towards regularity and innovation in historical terms.”

    And Webster’s ‘new’ standard wasn’t universally acclaimed. It was generally more accepted in the North prior to the American Civil War, while the South, with closer cultural and trade ties with Britain, steadfastly maintained the British spellings. After the war, when “these United States” became “THE United States,” that changed. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism, but if you read a document printed in the southern US prior to 1860, and then read a similar document from say, 1880 or 1890, the change is obvious.

    I will have to add, that while I have no beef at all with British spellings, there is one pronunciation I find particularly discordant. I have a knee jerk reaction when a Brit says “schedule,” in that I instantaneously long to correct him or her. I did have a discussion along those lines with a British friend and colleague over a beer one evening. He informed me in no uncertain terms that the only proper pronunciation of the letter grouping ‘sch’ was “shhh” as in “shut up.”

    If only I’d gone to a proper school! 🙂

    Then again, it’s the differences that give life a bit of flavor.


  33. Carol
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 20:29:44

    Which part of British English is the “correct” English, as opposed to the mongrel American English? Would it be the Germanic part, the French part or the Latinate part? Or is the whole mongrel mess of it more correct?


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 10, 2012 @ 20:44:11

      I learned the English spoken in Great Britain. English spoken and written in America is different. Both are correct of course but what I would like to see is tolerance on both sides.


  34. susannefromsweden
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 20:47:54

    I am now switching off for tonight as it is evening here in Ireland. Any new posts will be moderated tomorrow. Thank you all for some very interesting comments.


  35. JSchuler
    Jun 10, 2012 @ 22:17:04

    For me, British spelling irritates, but I can tell you exactly why. In high school I had an extremely pretentious teacher that used British spellings because they were “more correct.” Before this, British spelling may have been a curiosity, but never an annoyance. Now, I have been psychologically conditioned to associate British spelling with gits.

    Not so much Britishisms, though. I love them.


  36. Tahlia Newland
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 00:03:05

    How about we develop tolerance for these variations? It’s also showing respect for cultural differences. I’ve just finished writing a YA magical realism novella, does anyone really expect me to use US spellings when it’s set in Sydney? If they do, I’d call it cultural arrogance.


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  38. Claude Nougat (@claudenougat)
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 13:51:34

    Interesting post and an impressive discussion! Amazing how worked up authors can get over Brit vs. Yankee spelling. Since I come from French (my mother tongue) I can’t get very worked up over the differences – I just find them quaint and amusing…

    But I know that a similar post on the invasion of English words in the French language would elicit not dozens but hundreds of (irate) comments! So be it. The human race is parochial, that’s all there is to it!


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 13:58:54

      Ah, oui, asbolument! I also speak French as I was educated in a French school and lived in Paris 4 years. I do remember all those discussions about ‘le franglais’ when I was there.


  39. New Girl
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 16:12:56

    You make some very interesting points in your blog, Susanne. I must say though, as an American, that I really resent the generalization of “Americans” do this or that. No doubt there are a percentage of idiots in every culture and nationality that will judge first out of ignorance. As BigAl pointed out, the worlds publishing companies have exasperated this by selling Americanized versions of British books for so many years that frankly we have been kept ignorant to the differences until the internet made conversations with people all over the globe easy.

    I will never forget my first and only trip to England during the height of JK Rowlings Harry Potter series release. I came upon the books in the book store and saw the title to the first book was “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone”. Thus came my education into the world of publishing and their decision to sell Americanized versions of books. I often find myself wondering if the Harry Potter books would have been as successful as they were if they have been released around the world in the original versions. Ultimately the decision to release more than one version is not so different than having your book translated into another language altogether. The publishers, in Harry Potters case, decided that having American children understand the words was more important than experiencing the differences.

    The question that you must consider is not who is right in this debate but what you want as a result. If you release a book for sale in America that is written in British English you will have some ignorant people who will say it is full of errors. That is reality, right and wrong really don’t come into play. The only way around it is to do what others have done before you and release an “American” version. If that is not what you want then you will have to accept the bad reviews as a part of the business. Yes they are wrong but that is the business end of self-publishing.


    • Carol
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 20:28:18

      I agree. If I read an unflattering review predicated on the idea that British spellings are incorrect, I would certainly ignore that reviewer as unreliable, and given the chance to say so, I would. I am certain, too, that many other readers, including Americans, would jump in to point out that the differences aren’t errors, but simply the difference between British and American spellings. I think most literate people would understand it as a matter of education. I also think that most readers, even those unfamiliar with British spellings, would see the consistency of such “mis”spelling and quickly figure out that the difference is cultural, not a pattern of error. Saying that one way is correct and the other isn’t is what’s intolerant.


  40. susannefromsweden
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 17:58:32

    Thank you, New Girl. I think I might not have explained exactly where I was coming from and it is this: British readers readily accept books by American authors written with American spelling with no complaint. Many Americans don’t seem to accept British spelling with the same tolerance. Added to this was not reviews but forums posts here and there and discussions by e-mail and PM’s with America writers and also some readers. I wanted to point out that both spellings are correct. I would find it very hard to do an American version of any of my books, as I am not 100% sure of American spelling and it would then end up with real spelling mistakes. Many thanks for your very interesting and apt comment.


  41. BigAl
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 18:43:46

    It isn’t a question of tolerance, Susanne. It’s a matter of expectations of your customers. American readers have been trained to expect American spellings and you aren’t providing them with that. You can argue that US publishers shouldn’t have done that, and you’ll find plenty of agreement. But that doesn’t matter. They did and it set expectations. You can argue their expectations are unreasonable (what it seems like you’re doing) and I would ask why you get to set your customer’s expectations. No other business is able to do that. By this same logic you could say a typo every page isn’t that bad and if you have that many or fewer then customers who complain are being unreasonable, because proofing is hard.

    On the positive side, many people are like me and enjoy the spelling variations and will continue to read your books either way. Others above have made similar comments. My blog mentions books I review that use non US spelling conventions specifically to educate, set expectations, and (for those who are too bothered by these) to warn them off. As I think I said in a prior post, I see it as an education issue, not one of tolerance.


    • Tahlia Newland
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 02:54:09

      Regardless of how it has been and what expectations are now, it’s simply not practical for Indies to create different versions for different countries. You would double the print set up costs, and split your reviews and Amazon ratings into two. That would be bad business. We live in an international book market now and in order to get tolerance, we need education. Which is why I have a glossary in ‘You Can’t Shatter Me’. I’m including in it not just slang but also, any word that my editor says will set Americans off. Hence, if they bother to follow the links, they will learn as they read.


      • BigAl
        Jun 12, 2012 @ 03:12:05

        If it seemed like I was suggesting multiple versions, Tahlia, then I needed to be clearer.

        I think everyone involved, both author and reader, are better served by not doing having multiple versions. But setting the readers expectation going in, might be a good idea. (I’ve heard of at least one author who explicitly says in their book description that it is in whatever version of English, specifically because of issues in reviews complaining about that.) Your idea of a glossary to explain words that a non-Australian might not be familiar with is another good idea. Setting a reader’s (potential customer’s) expectations in advance is good. Berating them for having expectations that weren’t met, after the fact, is what rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think that was Susanne’s intent, but that was how I, and at least a few others, took it.

      • Tahlia Newland
        Jun 12, 2012 @ 03:18:34

        Well clarified, Al.

  42. susannefromsweden
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 18:49:05

    Point taken, Al. About readers, in any case. But all of this is also about conversations with other authors. It was their points of view that rankled with me.


  43. BigAl
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 20:35:09

    Other authors don’t matter, unless they’re talking as readers. I haven’t see that, with the exception of Rags in the original post and the of his comment you deleted (why did you delete it?), but if they’re speaking as authors why wouldn’t you handle it the same as any other advice from fellow authors?


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 20:57:04

      Advice? I didn’t see it as such. And I deleted Rag’s comment because I didn’t want two of my friends having a row. I have really appreciated the comments and support here. Lot’s of people have found this interesting.


    • Rags Daniels
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 09:00:42

      Hi, BigAl. It has been explained to me that my comments were deleted in order to throw a wet blanket on the possible possibility of causing a literary WW3, and the ensuing conflagration it could cause. But to put the original subject of the blog back on course; allow me to make this quote: “There is no such thing as ‘American English’. There is the English language and there are mistakes.”


  44. James Piper
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 03:47:13

    Great article.

    I feel your pain when you’re criticized for something based on ignorance. Being falsely accused of something that gets blood to boil and a great material for a story—one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite premises.

    I have a preference for using learnt and dreamt instead of learned and dreamed. Just me. Some oppose. But how can you predict who will react negatively? You can’t. I think the key is to be consistent. Unless you’re righting for affect. I mean, writing for effect.

    Tack så mycket. Jag arbetade för Wasa Försäkring i Lund, Skåne.

    It inspired me to write my own blog entry on the topic. See here:


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 09:36:11

      Hej James!

      Tack för ditt bidrag till diskussionen. Jag ser att du också blir sårad när du blir anklagad för att ha fel när du egentligen har rätt. Det är kanske inte rättvist, men vi är bara små myror som måste akta oss för dom stora elefanterna som trampar omkring i jungeln. Det handlar egentligen om storlek och styrka mot pyttesmå kryp. Roligt att du forsätter diskussionen på din blogg.


  45. Rags Daniels
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 14:14:06

    Hej, Susanne. Ni talar om elefanter som trampar djungeln. En eufemism för den amerikanska förstörelsen av engelska genom dess ovilja att anpassa sig till att skriva och tala Oxbridge engelska. Det finns ett snabbt slut på denna debatt och det är att kalla amerikanska (med alla dess fallgropar och förvirringar) amerikanska. Och kalla engelska exakt vad det är: engelska. Och jag håller med analogin om elefanten i djungeln. Jag skulle ha sagt, en elefant löper i djungeln.

    Excuse my reply in Svenska, BigAl…But I was responding to Susanne’s analogy of an elephant crashing through a forest, and that a more fitting analogy would have been an elephant in ‘must’. For my part, the latter is a far better description/ comparison of the way the English language has been mutilated beyond belief by our American cousins. Though you must concede, with only 234 years of history behind you, you are still on a learning curve, whereas it took we English from around the 5th century onwards to create and master it. Professor Simon James (University of Leicester) reminds us that the theory of the introduction of English was established in the 17th century under James I. So you see, BigAl, you have centuries of learning to go before achieving the perfection we have achieved. As an aside; my son is an Exeter University graduate in advanced level English language. He has recently been approached to go to Japan to teach English. Why you might ask, because Japanese students of industry and commerce demand the uncorrupted and the best.
    Remember; if you are able to speak it correctly, you can write it correctly. Or vice verse. But if you are unable to achieve either, then forget the English suffix and just call it American.


    • BigAl
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 16:45:11

      “Though you must concede, with only 234 years of history behind you, you are still on a learning curve, whereas it took we English from around the 5th century onwards to create and master it.”

      So you’re saying the English language hasn’t changed over time? Is there some official organization that defines what it is? That you speak and write English the same as it was spoken and written in England 234 years ago? Tis nawt true.

      “He has recently been approached to go to Japan to teach English. Why you might ask, because Japanese students of industry and commerce demand the uncorrupted and the best.”

      If this was true then you’d have no one in Japan teaching English from anywhere but England. No Americans, Canadians, or Aussies. That isn’t the case. I don’t think “industry and commerce” in Japan is concerned about the differences between the different flavors of English, but if they were, wouldn’t it make sense that their employees speak whatever flavor of English they would need the most? That is clearly American English ( as the US has more people that speak English as their first language than the rest of the world combined. (The UK comes in a distant 2nd in this measure by a factor of about between 3 and 4 to 1.)


  46. James Piper
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 18:03:23

    1. Here is a must-see video on the history of the English language. Informative and funny. You will laugh. You will learn a thing or two.

    2. I think we can agree proper names shouldn’t be changed. There’s the James Bond film Licence to Kill, not license. There’s the US Dept of Defense and the UK Min of Defence. Toronto has the Rogers Centre and in the US there’s Paid-for-by-insert-corporate-name-here Center.

    3. I have 2 different copies of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea published in US. He used colour and harbour, but I see on amazon, the most recent versions were edited to color & harbor. I wonder what Perkins would have thought.

    4. Oh yes. Do you read The New Yorker magazine? Can we coöperate for the rest of this discussion? From

    “The copy editor makes minimal changes, in spelling and punctuation, to conform to New Yorker style. You may have noticed that we spell “theatre” the British way, reversing the “er” to “re,” and double consonants before suffixes (“travelled,” rather than “traveled”); we use the diaeresis in words like “coöperate” and “reëlect”; we prefer the serial comma; we spell out round numbers, even big ones.”

    Apparently there have been some mighty copy edit “debates” at the New Yorker over the years. The Oxford comma being one. (BTW I hate it.)


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 18:13:54

      James, you are my hero! That clip is absolutely hilarious and proves without a doubt that everybody is right and nobody is really wrong (not even me). Or… maybe the other way around?

      I recommend that everybody watches this.


    • Rags Daniels
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 19:23:43

      Hello, James.
      I have to thank you for sharing this with us, it is a most enlightening story of how the English language was formulated.
      Thanks again….Rags


  47. Rags Daniels
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 18:41:54

    Good evening, BigAl. Pleased to meet you.
    To get to the nub of our obvious disagreements and in spite of the linguistic features you have raised to support your argument, I cannot really support the fact that one language is great and the other one is not. Language is an identity of a person and a group using it. For the community using it, it sufficiently addresses their survival needs. But any language falls short when it is required to take us beyond the service of the community and culture that birthed it.
    English has passed that stage and has become the most dominant language by borrowing ruthlessly from other languages and cultures. English has benefited from the underlying developments in almost every field. Yes this has been favoured by the political, economic, scientific dominance of Britain and now you north Americans. If this influence is to continue, I think English will remain the dominant international language.
    With reference to the Wikipedia figures, I have to differ with you. It is true you speak and write a bastardi(s)ed English, and one which I’m not overly familiar with. That said, American idioms are becoming a contagious characteristic throughout the English speaking world to the extent students of English are beginning to accept it as English. Where your argument fails, old chap, and I can see you are trying your utmost to convince me otherwise, which is why you and I are having this debate. Is that you are confusing English language with American language. It doesn’t surprise me in the least, because you have been initiated in a ‘sort of English’…And that’s fine, because we understand each other. But if American academy’s are adamant on drifting away from say, Oxbridge English by regularly adopting (by stealth) silly nuances, then you will eventually end up with a totally different language, preferably called ‘American’. For to call it ‘American English’ is misleading to say the least. It is either one or the other, but not both.
    And to think all this began by English authors having their work rejected by American publishers because it did not conform and would not, according to them, sell in America, simply because in just a few years the American audience for English writers has, according to American publishers, dwindled. Simply because, American language and English language has grown poles apart.
    Last thing, your use of the British colloquialism for lavatory, it is of uncertain origin and to be honest, I thought it was the diminutive of Portaloo. I much prefer washroom or toilet, or bathroom. Or powder room, which I believe is American…You see! You do have something to offer us, just don’t destroy what is already there and has taken centuries to perfect.
    Nice chatting to you, BA.


    • BigAl
      Jun 12, 2012 @ 18:55:09

      I think I mostly agree with what you’ve said here, Rags. FWIW, I’m not trying to make a case that one language is great (“American” versus English in this instance). In fact, I agree with what I think Susanne’s premise is, that readers from countries that speak English and derivatives thereof should recognize that and open to reading books in a version other than their native one. In fact I did a blog post months ago on this very subject. If anyone has been claiming one language is superior it has been you.


  48. Rags Daniels
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 19:34:43

    Thank you for your kind reply, BA.
    I fear we must agree to disagree on the latter and I send you this link which has had me laughing and hope you will too.
    Thanks again for your well penned response….Raggsy.


  49. frankmundo
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 22:17:29

    There is such a thing as American English. It’s what the Brits use when they sing.


  50. frankmundo
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 22:42:19

    Until the Grammy Awards, I thought Adele was from Mississippi.


  51. Holly
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:17:07

    “The English spoken in Britain is the original version, is it not?” Original, yes. But the English language is spoken in several different countries spread all over the planet. Language is a living thing and is constantly changing. So “original” doesn’t necessarily mean correct.

    “Why did Americans tinker with the English language and then say it is the only right way to spell? The British have been incredibly kind and patient not to start a political conflict after having their beautiful language “simplified” in this way.” Perhaps you ought to look into the history of the English language before pointing fingers.

    In the early 18th century, spelling in the English language was not standardized. It wasn’t until the publication of of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 (UK) and Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 (US) that it was noted that people were consistently spelling words one way in England and another way in the US. This was a result of the natural evolution of language in two far away countries where communication was not as immediate as it is today.

    US spelling is correct in the US. UK spelling is correct in the UK. One is not better than the other, and US spelling is not a simplified version of UK spelling. It’s a natural evolution of the language. There are books you can read on the history of the English language that explain this a bit more in depth.


    • susannefromsweden
      Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:27:58

      well exactly. I don’t think I said British spelling was the ONLY correct one as you will see if you read it carefully. I simply thought it would be more fair if Americans were as tolerant of British spelling as the British are of their way of spelling.


  52. Jane Risdon
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:30:14

    I’ve lived in the USA and have come across a lot of anti-British/English comments about accents, how quaint we are (in a condescending manner) and of course have been told many times to ‘speak proper English’. I don’t have a British accent – I have an English one….there is no such thing as a British accent…Scottish, Welsh, Irish yes…but which one is British? I write English as an English native speaker – Goodness knows what Americans speak….so many variations including Hispanic, Italian, Eastern bloc – I guess American would have to be what Native American Indians speak, but then they have different tribal languages – not American! I am happy with our weird spelling, pronunciation and general English-ness – it is their problem not mine.


  53. Rags Daniels
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:50:59

    Hello, Holly.
    Just trying to get my head round the following two contradictory observations you’ve made. I find it hard to accept It is a natural evolution of language when in fact the language had already evolved. The American version is just tinkering for tinkering’s sake. The debate has been about the offhand rejection of English MS’s by American publishers. Hence my proposal of simplifying matters by having the programme option to either write in ‘American’ (which is full of mistakes)…Or ‘English’ (which is correct).

    You say:

    “Why did Americans tinker with the English language and then say it is the only right way to spell? The British have been incredibly kind and patient not to start a political conflict after having their beautiful language “simplified” in this way.”

    Then you say:

    “US spelling is correct in the US. UK spelling is correct in the UK. One is not better than the other, and US spelling is not a simplified version of UK spelling. It’s a natural evolution of the language.”


  54. mandyeward
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 15:56:46

    Reblogged this on The World of The Tiger Princess and commented:
    As a british writer with american friends, I often spend several hours reading american english. They, in turn, read mine – the different spellings never get highlighted, we know that we’re different. So why should american readers be any different?
    Susanne explains…


  55. Michele Brenton (@banana_the_poet)
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 16:29:42

    So far I’ve found US, Canadian, Australian readers have been extremely tolerant of my extremely British spellings. Nobody has ever suggested I should change my spellings. Maybe poetry readers are more tolerant? Or maybe I’ve been very lucky? Or more likely I haven’t amassed the volume of readership to make it statistically likely to happen upon the pernickety readers.


  56. Lindsay
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 00:34:27

    I was born and raised here in the US so you’d think that my spelling would reflect what I was taught in school. It isn’t and hasn’t been. More as a rebellion, my first of many in the writing word, I would spell some words the English not American way. Even today I have to be careful because my publishers are America.


    • Rags Daniels
      Jun 17, 2012 @ 11:54:08

      What you have to remember is when you change a spelling of a word, you change the meaning i.e.: Paedophile and the American, Pedophile. In theory one could mistake pedophile as having a liking for feet, as opposed to children, a very different meaning indeed!! However the English version derives from Latin and is the standard spelling, whereas the American derives from Greek. A few other examples are: encyclopaedia, archaeologist and mediaeval.


  57. Nia
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 00:49:25

    I myself have no problem with the different spellings. It’s not like they make the words’ meanings unclear. But in my experience, my fellow Americans aren’t very tolerant of other languages, period, and they consider British English to be one. Same with Spanish, which is very prevalent in my area. People may learn the words, but hardly ever the proper pronunciations…no respect at all for the notion that a letter makes a different sound in someone else’s tongue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked somebody what they meant by “jally-pain-os” when referring to a jalapeno. I myself took French for all four years of high school, and I’ve developed a bit of a comedy routine by deliberately mispronouncing French words, with a twang… ’cause that’s the French they speak in Paris, Texas, y’all.


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  59. Ken Westmoreland
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 20:55:39

    Personally I prefer using endings in ‘-ise’, although the Oxford English dictionary uses ‘-ize’ for words of Greek origin; it has its origins in Greek, in which verbs ended in -izein which entered Latin as -izare – ‘-ise’ is influenced by Norman French, hence -iser in French. As for ‘-our’ vs ‘-or’, similar thing happened, with ‘-our’ coming from Norman French, hence couleur in French, whereas ‘-or’ follows Latin, hence color in Spanish.

    Anyone who makes such parochial comments about spelling isn’t worth your time or breath. If I were writing for a US magazine, I would use American spelling and vocabulary, as that would be part of its house style.

    Portugal has (grudgingly) signed an orthographical accord with Brazil, meaning that European and Brazilian Portuguese will have the same spelling, even though they’re more different from each other than British and American English – some people in Portugal think they’ll be able to sell more books in Brazil!

    I think it’s a shame that American English didn’t become a separate language, just as Dano-Norwegian (or Bokmål) in Norway became a separate language from Danish. Norwegians and Danes wouldn’t dream of telling each other how to write the other’s language properly, if only because Norwegians have been too busy been bickering over whether to use Bokmål and Nynorsk for the past 100 years.

    Funnily enough, Reader’s Digest has closed its Danish edition and sells its Swedish edition in Denmark, which is harder for Danes to read – Norwegian uses phonetic spelling for foreign loanwords where Danish would preserve the original spelling; stasjon and garasje vs station and garage


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