British English vs. American English + a Useful QA Checklist for Translators
Updated: Feb 23
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” -George Bernard Shaw
If you've ever had to turn on closed captions to watch a TV show from another English-speaking country, you know this is true!
While of course Americans and Brits generally understand each other, the differences are notable in both written and spoken English. This can be tricky for translators tasked with translating or editing a document into a variant of English that isn’t their own.
But wait...should we be translating into a dialect of English we don't speak? Ideally, no. It is certainly best practice to always translate into your native English. In actual practice, this doesn't always happen, especially with agencies. If an agency sends me a project for UK English knowing my native language is US English, I trust they have enough controls in their process to ensure a good final product. In working for direct clients, I personally don't take projects into UK English, because there are things no checklist will catch, such as style and tone, which vary between countries as well.
So, what do we even need a checklist for? We have spellcheck! It's true; sometimes, spellcheck set to the right variant may be enough. However, there have been enough times in my years of translating that I needed to do an extra QA check for this issue that I researched and created this useful checklist. For example, in 2b below, spellcheck may not catch a wrong use of one of the two spellings. Other times, I've had the issue where the project file was set up with the wrong version, etc. I also use this checklist when I get a translation where the target language is US English but the translator was obviously a UK English speaker.
I did a deep dive below on some of the main differences, because #wordnerd. But feel free to download the checklist below without further ado!
(Also, UK English speakers, please correct me on anything I've gotten wrong!)
a) Obligatory periods in American English
One of the most common things I have found when editing translations into US English done by native speakers of British English is Mr/Ms or Dr without a period. In American English, the period after these terms is obligatory.
The difference here is that American English puts a period after all titles (e.g., “Dr.” or “Mrs.”), while British English does not when the full term ends with the same letter as the shortened version (e.g., “Dr” or “Mrs”):
American English: Mr. and Mrs. Smith went to work.
British English: Mr and Mrs Smith went to work.
In British English, you only need a period when a shortened title does not end with the last letter of the full term (e.g., when “Professor” becomes “Prof.”):
American English: Dr. Smith sent word to Prof. Edwards.
British English: Dr Smith sent word to Prof. Edwards.
b) The Oxford Comma
Although the name might indicate otherwise, American English tends to favor the Oxford comma, while British English doesn't, but it's by no means obligatory in American English, either. The important thing here is consistency, so choose whether you’re using it or not before you start and stick with your choice all the way through. Double-check in your QA process at the end by searching for ", and" if you're not using it, or " and" (with preceding space) if you are.
c) Quotation marks
Brits and Americans tend to use single and double quotation marks in the opposite way. "…in US English the “double quotation” mark is preferred on the outside (with the single quotation mark only used within quotes), whereas UK English employs the ‘single quotation’ mark on the outside and double within." (Source)
d) Punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks
The other difference here is that US English puts the final punctuation inside the quotation mark, and UK English puts it outside.
American English: "I never meant to say you're a 'bad person.' I just didn't like what you did."
British English: 'I never meant to say you're a "bad person". I just didn't like what you did'.
e) Capitalization in titles
UK English rules say to capitalize only the first word of a title and use lowercase for the rest. American English tends to capitalize most words in a title, with some variation in this rule between style guides. "In general, you should capitalize the first word, all nouns, all verbs (even short ones, like is), all adjectives, and all proper nouns. That means you should lowercase articles, conjunctions, and prepositions—however, some style guides say to capitalize conjunctions and prepositions that are longer than five letters." (Source)
The free tool Capitalize My Title allows you to enter your title and it will capitalize it correctly for you based on the (US) style guide you are following.
The main difference between British English and American English spelling is that the former keeps the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages, such as French and German. On the other hand, American English spellings are primarily based on how the word sounds spoken.
English was introduced to what is modern-day America in the 17th century by the British settlers. Since then the language has evolved and has been influenced by the many waves of immigration to the USA.
a) British English words that end in “-our” usually end in “-or” in American English:
b) Verbs in British English that are spelled with either “-ize” or “-ise” at the end are always spelled with “-ize” at the end in American English:
c) While British English uses different spelling to differentiate some verbs ending in "-se" from their noun forms ending in "-ce", American English has abandoned this difference and uses the same form for both in most cases. Advice/Advise is the exception for American English.
d) Because of this, some nouns that end with “-ence” in British English are spelled with “-ense” in American English:
e) Verbs in British English that end in “-yse” are always spelled “-yze” in American English:
f) Americans and Brits disagree on the order of the letters "r" and "e". Words will end in "re" in Britsh English and "er" in American English.
g) In British spelling, “L” is doubled in verbs ending in a vowel plus “L.” In American English, the “L” is not doubled:
h) British English words that are spelled with the double vowels “ae” or “oe” tend to be spelled with an e in American English, although there are exceptions to the rule. For example, the spelling of “archaeology” is the same in British and American English, but “archeology” is also acceptable in the United States, but incorrect in the UK.
i) Some nouns that end with “-ogue” in UK English can be spelled with either “-og” or “-ogue” in American English:
3) Past tense verbs
You will also see some small differences in the past forms of irregular verbs. For example, the past tense of the word “learn” in American English is "learned" while British English would use either “learned” or “learnt.”
Here are some other examples:
In the past participle form, American English uses the “-en” ending for some irregular verbs. For example, Americans might write “I have never gotten caught.” Brits, though, would use “I have never got caught.”
4) Date format
Unlike most of the world, Americans write the date with the month first, then day, then year, like so: MM/DD/YYYY. The British use the more standard DD/MM/YYYY. If the date is written in all numbers, this can introduce ambiguity in a text if the reader doesn't know which format is being used.
That's why in translation, it's always best to clarify the client's preference for date format before you begin. Should date format be adjusted to the target language standard, or left as is? Or, do they prefer the international standard YYYY-MM-DD?
5) Vocabulary words
The Americans and the British also have some major vocabulary differences. Check out the table below and see some commonplace objects that have different names, depending on what form of English you are using.
6) Collective nouns
In American English, collective nouns are singular. For example, staff refers to a group of employees while band refers to a group of musicians.
However, in British English, collective nouns can be either singular or plural. So don’t be surprised if you read, “The band is playing tonight” or “The band are playing tonight.”
This one can definitely get you flagged for an error if you use the wrong verb tense for the variant you're using.
7) Auxiliary verbs
One more difference between American English and British English is the use of auxiliary verbs.
Brits sometimes use "shall" to express the future. For example, "I shall leave now” would be a normal thing to say, while that would sound very formal to an American. Instead, we would use “I will leave now” or more likely, "I am going to leave now."
In question form, British English may use “Shall we leave now?” while American English would use “Should we leave now?”
The only time shall is really used in AmE is in contracts and legal writing.
Whew, you made it! Thanks for reading, and don't forget to download your checklist here:
A comprehensive article
A handy online resource!