British versus American English: Vocabulary and Phrasing Differences

British versus American English: Vocabulary and Phrasing Differences
Many scholarly journals will indicate in the instructions or guidelines they provide for authors whether they prefer the use of British or American English in the papers submitted to them for publication. Even when academic and scientific journals do not specify which version they prefer, however, it is not acceptable to be inconsistent in your usage when writing formal scholarly prose or to combine features from both in your own unique version of the language. However, determining exactly which patterns are appropriate for British English and which are correct for American English is not always a simple matter, and the challenge is compounded by the fact that each version sometimes uses forms characteristic of the other.
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Certainly most scholarly authors are aware that ‘colour’ is British and ‘color’ American, but far fewer are able to identify ‘plough’ as correct for British English, but ‘plow’ as appropriate for American English. Even the simple ‘-ise’ versus ‘-ize’ ending can prove problematic. American English will always use ‘-ize’ as in ‘prioritize,’ but British English can use either spelling – ‘prioritise’ or ‘prioritize’ – as long as one form or the other is used consistently throughout a document. If the journal to which you plan to submit your writing specifies which ending is preferable, the problem is resolved; if not, you will need to make a decision based on other criteria such as your personal preferences.
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Unfortunately, spelling is not the only concern when ensuring that your prose conforms to the conventions of either British or American English. Vocabulary and phrasing also differ to some extent. When writing or speaking about portable phones, for example, British English uses ‘mobile,’ but American English uses ‘cell’ or ‘cell phone.’ In Britain tourists travel via air in an ‘aeroplane’ and ‘hire’ a car when they wish to drive, but in the United States they travel in an ‘airplane’ and ‘rent’ a car. To fill the tank of that vehicle in Britain ‘petrol’ is needed, but Americans will be pumping the tank full of ‘gas’ or ‘gasoline.’ University students who are just starting their postsecondary studies in Britain are ‘first-year students,’ but students of the same level are usually called ‘freshmen’ in the United States. When a course of university study is completed, a British student might claim that he or she has at last ‘got’ a degree, whereas an American student is far more likely to say that he or she has at last ‘gotten’ a degree. British students might boast of being in the top 10 ‘per cent’ of students graduating in their year, but American students would claim to be in the top 10 ‘percent.’ Finally, if I were to emphasise again that the accepted spelling for many words in British English is ‘different from’ the spelling of the same words in American English, I would be using phrasing common to the British form of the language; the more likely wording in American English would be ‘different than.’

The vocabulary and phrasing differences between British and American English are more extensive than the paragraph above indicates, but it is not possible in a short post to list all the variants. What is worth mentioning, however, is that an additional concern when using some of these terms is whether the audience you anticipate for your article will understand them. Most academic and scientific work is written in the twenty-first century with an international audience in mind, so it can be helpful to use vocabulary that will be universally understood: ‘mobile phone’ could be used, for instance, instead of the British ‘mobile’ or the American ‘cell.’ Alternatively, you may want to provide a brief explanation when you first use a potentially ambiguous term, so ‘petrol,’ for example, could be defined as the word used in Britain for the fuel known as ‘gas’ or ‘gasoline’ in the United States.

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