Today marks 241 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the official birth of the United States. For most Americans that means hot dogs, fireworks and patriotic pride—but it’s also the perfect opportunity to discuss the linguistic legacy of American independence.

It’s no secret that despite all we have in common, there are vast cultural differences between the US and the UK. That divide is also visible in dialectical variation between American vs. British English: things like spelling, grammar and other linguistic details. Although these differences may seem insignificant, in the world of translation and content creation they’re anything but. 

Context matters in translation and writing

Writers and translators based solely in the United States or the United Kingdom may never confront the question of dialect. But for those of us who work in international contexts, it’s vital to distinguish between British vs. American English, and to be highly familiar with both. 

For example, if you’re writing advertising copy for a company promoting its products in the UK, they’ll expect you to follow the conventions of British English. A university recruiting international students, on the other hand, might prefer US English as a universally accepted standard. It all depends on the context. Before you start working with any client, it’s vital to establish which style they want.

As a translator, I’m used to switching between English and Spanish—but I’ve found that it’s equally important to know how to juggle different dialects within each. The first time I was asked to write something in British English, I was dumbfounded. I had always known it existed, of course, but I’d never been asked to adopt it as my own voice.

What is creative translation and why is it so important? Differences between American vs. British English

So what exactly are the differences between American vs. British English? And how many are there?

Quite a few, as it turns out. But nothing you can’t handle, as long as you’re prepared to treat your non-native dialect the same way you’d treat a foreign language. Learn the differences and do your best to embrace them—the more natural they seem to you, the more natural your writing will seem to the reader. It’s all in the details.

The most important differences you should know about:

1. Ending words with -or vs. -our: This is a classic. Even the most unaware reader can distinguish regional style from just one letter. Examples: color (US) vs. colour (UK), favorite vs. favourite, and behavior vs. behaviour.

2. Using z vs. s: Another single-letter difference. This one has to do with the suffix used to form transitive verbs meaning “to render or make.” Whereas US English uses “-ize,” UK English uses “-ise.” Examples: optimize vs. optimise, utilize vs. utilise. And remember, this applies to any form of those words as well (colorful vs. colourful, utilized vs. utilised).

3. Present perfect vs. past simple: This is a little trickier. In British English, events in the recent past are expressed with the present perfect tense (“I’ve eaten an apple”). In American English, we can use either the present perfect or the past simple (“I ate an apple”). But while US speakers would accept either form, UK speakers might think the latter looks strange—if not clearly incorrect.

4. Has vs. has got: When it comes to expressing possession, the line is slightly blurred. In both UK and US English, we can say “I have a dog” or “I’ve got a dog.” But despite the fact that both are correct, you’re much more likely to encounter “has got” in British English, and “has” in American English. 

5. Vocabulary: This is far too broad to cover in a single bullet point, but it’s absolutely vital to be aware of lexical differences. There are tons of words whose meanings vary depending on the dialect, as well as different words that are used to express the same meaning. My personal favorite is the word “pants.” In US English, pants are what we wear to cover our legs, like jeans or slacks. In UK English, pants are what we wear underneath our “trousers”—the American equivalent of “underwear.”

Also read: What is creative translation? Everything you need to know

So which is correct? Optimize or optimise?

As you’ve probably already guessed, that’s a trick question. If you have friends from across the pond, you’ve most likely had this debate before. Americans abroad are often subject to (usually) good-natured criticism along the lines of “Speak real English!” Likewise, most Brits have probably been told that they “talk funny” or something of the sort.

British speakers are usually more aware of linguistic differences, since they have greater exposure to American culture than vice versa. They also have the bragging rights of being the original English speakers, and consequently more of a claim to speaking “real” English.

The truth is that there is no “right way” in and of itself. The correct way to say something depends on the context, just like every other linguistic variable does. In casual conversation, it doesn’t matter if you say “learned” or “learnt”: people will know what you mean.

When it comes to professional translation and content creation, however, the differences do matter. Always make sure you know the target style of every assignment. If it’s unclear what the client wants, pick one style and stick to it—consistency is key.

Also read: The importance of quality content: What it is and why it matters for your career

Learn the lingo, adapt and be flexible

In general, the most important thing is to keep an open mind and be flexible. Translation and content creation are all about adapting your voice to suit the client’s needs and the audience’s context. The best way to optimize (or optimise) your writing is to adapt it to each and every assignment and situation you encounter. And when it comes to content, patriotism has no place—leave that for the Fourth of July festivities.

Know of any other important differences between American vs. British English?

VeraContent is a multilingual content agency providing creative translation and copywriting services. We’re experts at adapting our content to suit your style; consult our website to see what we can do for you.

Also read the BBC’s article: How Americans preserved British English

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