Which Dialect of English Should Be Used?

Saturday, March 04, 2006.

We will add more to this section in the coming weeks.

Briefly: If your text will be published in the U.S. or on a U.S. Web site, it almost always should be in American English. If your text will be published in the U.K. or on a U.K. web site, it almost always should be in some version (there are several) of British English. (And "U.K." would be "UK", and the double quotation marks would be single quotation marks, and the penultimate comma in this parenthetical comment, along with the period coming in a moment, would go to the right of the last quotation mark after the "K" in "UK." Phew!) Likewise for other countries whose primary language is English.

In all other cases, the question is far more complicated than most non-English speakers realize.

An academic text in the humanities should probably be in American English, however this would of course depend on the preference of the publisher, and publishers in England would generally prefer a variant of British English (often Oxford English: "realize," not "realise").

If you want to leave the matter in our hands, and the text is not primarily intended for an English-speaking country other than the U.S., we will choose what we sometimes refer to as "a slightly Britishized American English." What we mean is American English, but in cases where two spellings of a given word are allowed, and one of them (as almost always is the case) is British, we would chose the British spelling. For example: we would choose catalogue (American and British) instead of catalog (American, but not British).

In addition, if you wish to leave the choice to us, we would choose translations whose cognates are found in most other European languages, especially in cases where American English is moving in the direction of British usage, such as with cell phone (or cellphone). As an aside, the question of how to translate mobiltelefon is particularly complicated. When one is actually referring to a phone whose signal comes from a tower that covers a particular region, or "cell," cell phone (or cellphone), which is used in American and (usually) Canadian English, but not very often in British English, is usually a more precise term than mobile phone. However, in most cases, what's relevant is that the phone is a phone that one can carry wherever one wants. The fact that a cellphone uses cell technology is often entirely irrelevant; it is rather the phone's mobility that matters. Moreover, an increasing number of phones can also connect to a telephone network via a wireless Internet connection instead of or in addition to a cell tower. Motorola, an American cellphone company -- or rather "mobile devices company" -- has begun using the terms "mobile phone," "mobile devices," etc. So even without the above mentioned guideline, we would generally translate Handy/mobiltelefon with mobile or mobile phone. However, in some passages, the fact that a phone is indeed a cellular phone is relevant to context, and there, translating with cellphone might be best, even in British English.


Q: But isn't American English worse than British English?

A: No, it is just different.

Q: But aren't Americans sloppy with their English?

A: No. Educated people are generally more "careful" with their English than non-educated people. ("Careful" ultimately just means conservative.) The U.S. and England spend far less on public education than most other countries. Therefore there are large numbers of non-formally educated native speakers in both countries. Because the ratio of commercial television stations to public stations is much higher in the U.S. than in most other Western countries, including England, and because of the prejudicial nature of television distribution choices, which leads to few PBS shows being shown in Europe, more "normal" Americans are seen on European TV than "normal" Britons. This, combined with the flood of American popular culture in general, may be why the notion that Americans are less educated than the British, and thus, are less careful with their English, has arisen on the Continent.

Q: But isn't American English a simplified version of British English?

A: No. All dialects contain "simplifications," that is, changes that result from language users' tendency to reduce inconsistencies. American English could be said to have "simplified" the spellings of practice (a noun, in British English) and practise (a verb, in British English) such that both are spelled the same way: "practice."

But there are at least as many such simplifications in British English, perhaps far more. A parallel fate befell "vise": but here, the simplification is on the British side. Vice means the opposite of virtue in American English, and a vise is a clamp-like tool. In British English, the spellings have been "simplified" to vise

In the case of vise and practice, all dialects of English would be doing the international community a favor by using just one spelling for the verb and the noun. Context in virtually all cases would make clear whether the verb or noun is meant, so why have two spellings? Do problems arise because "set" is spelled the same way whether it's used as a noun or a verb? Would it be useful to spell the noun "cet"? No. Indeed, it would obscure the connection in meaning between the verb and the noun.

However, simplifications that mask a word's roots should be avoided. This is the primary reason we prefer American English over other dialects. The vice-vise merger in British English is just one of many examples. This "simplification" obscures the different roots of the two words, which 1) erases interesting aspects of the history of the language, and 2) erases useful aspects of the history of the language. Here, we do want to obscure the connection between vice and vise (American English), because there is no connection! Simplifying where we can, in order to make the language more sensible to non-native speakers, is a goal we strongly support, but simplifying in a way that might confuse non-native speakers should be avoided.

Another example is the -ize ending. Most words ending in -ize come from the Greek ending -izein. In some cases, such as with the word realize, the word came into English via the French variant of -izein: -iser (which came into existence via the Late Latin -izare, itself a variant of the Greek -izein). But most are creations by the Englishman Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), or more recent creations by various native speakers. It is very useful for people learning English to be able to guess the meaning of a word by looking at its roots. Maintaining the distinction between words ending in -ize and words ending in -ise is extremely useful here. If non-native speakers believe that -ise means to make something like that which is the root of the word -- for example, to organise is to make something like an organ -- then, when trying to guess the meaning of surprise, they might think that "surprise" means to make something like a "surpr."

(Note: Oxford and many other academic publishing houses in England prefer the -ize spelling, mostly for the reasons cited above.)

Q: But doesn't being a member of the EU mean which should choose British English instead of American English?

A: EU doesn't stand for "English Union." Moreover, most in the newer EU countries learned American English in school. We ultimately believe that thinking of the choice as one between British and American English is far too narrow (and not simply because of the numerous dialects spoken by other native speakers in Europe). We would encourage the EU to be bold and consider a "third way" (we don't mean this in the economic sense...). See end for more on this.

In the meantime, as indicated, a text meant for Britons should almost certainly not be in American English. Likewise for a text intended for the French (in part because British English contains more Norman spellings than American English). But elsewhere, the choice is more complicated. Eastern Europeans might feel shut out by the choice of British English. The Spanish might feel more comfortable with American English (Spanish: color) for the same reasons that the French do with British English.

Q: But doesn't choosing American English mean we're supporting the Iraq War, torture, and other undesirable things?

A: No. First, recall that England and the U.S. were equal partners (at any rate proportional to their size) in all recent Iraq exploits, including the patrolling of the no-fly zones. More importantly, the recent histories of both England and the U.S. contain essentially equal measures of "undesirable things." (And the 19th century is another story entirely.) When the U.S. elects another Jimmy Carter, and the English start torturing Irishmen again, should we all switch back to American English? Political considerations are, however, important in our view. (See end.)

Of course, we follow your instructions, whatever they be! Everything on this Web page provides an idea about how we ourselves reflect on the question of dialect selection if we are asked to make the decision of which dialect to use ourselves. But when you instruct to use a particular dialect, that's the one we use!


After many (you have no idea...) discussions about the question of which dialect is correct under which circumstances, virtually everyone in our network agrees that it would be a worthwhile effort to try to create standards for a "universal English," that is, an English that is neither British nor American (nor Australian, nor Canadian, etc.). We have contacted various international standards bodies with our suggestion. Check back here by late spring, 2006, and we should have more information!

While we would love to start using an English that conforms to what we like to call "mild English spelling reform principles" -- choosing an already existing spelling in one dialect over another: no one will accept frot for fraught; moreover it violates the principle of not hiding the roots of words -- until international bodies accept our (or others') proposals for mild English spelling reform, a text that contained for example both "vise" and "defence"1 would be viewed as simply incorrect. This is why using just one standard in one text is important.

We would of course be happy to use our "English Proper" standard, if you wish! Otherwise, simply let us know which standard you prefer.


1. In an international version of English, we would prefer defence, the British spelling of defense, since no one would ever accept the more reasonable solution: "fense" for fence, which would yield a consistency among fense, defense, and defensive, all of which are connected to the Latin defensus.