It’s accepted that we have British English and American English, but, in written communication, there’s more than just language differences. Especially in a professional environment, Brits in America need to learn to write like the natives. Why? It’s so easy to convey the wrong meaning or tone with the written word, and using British English just increases the chance of miscommunication.
If you’re writing to Americans, American spellcheck is your new BFF. Yes, Americans will understand if you write “realise” instead of “realize,” or “colour” instead of “color” but it’s distracting, and if you’ve already ruffled feathers, it won’t help. The main differences between British and American spelling are
- the lack of U in words like “humor,” “color” and favor.”
- the letter reversal in words like “centre” which becomes “center.”
- the single consonant in some past tenses, where the British “travelled” becomes “traveled.”
- the replacement of C with S in words like “defense” and “offense.”
- the Z (pronounced “zee”) instead of S in words like “realize” and “authorize.”
- the truncated ending where British words like “programme” become “program” and “catalogue” becomes “catalog.”
- You’ll note in the linked video, that Brits say “spelt” where Americans say “spelled”; we also say “spoilt” and “dreamt” instead of “spoiled” and “dreamed.”
This is a little harder to get right. Using a grammar check will help in some situations but always check the finished sentence to make sure your meaning is intact. I’m not talking about grammar errors like the dreaded split infinitive, which people no longer get upset about, but collective nouns for example. While Brits tend to use the plural when talking about companies and teams, Americans usually use the singular. For example, Brits would say “Marks & Spencer have a great sale on today” where many Americans say “has.”
Punctuation is also slightly different. For example, Americans place a full stop or period after abbreviated titles like Ms. And Mr. where Brits often don’t. When writing within quotation marks (or inverted commas if you’re British), in the U.S., commas and periods that are part of the overall sentence go inside the quotation marks, even though they aren’t part of the original quotation. Brits put unquoted punctuation outside the quotation marks.
Some organizations have a specific “in house” way of writing memos, so ask about this. In other situations, you might be told to follow a specific style guide, such as the three below. If you’ve been using a British style guide I suggest ditching it in favor of either the Chicago Manual of Style, which is available online and has many handy templates and a great Q&A section, The Elements of Style which is also for general use, or the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which calls itself “the journalists’ bible”.
The use of slang in your e-mails or memos obviously depends on your circumstances. However, if you’re using British slang, it might go straight over your readers’ heads anyway. Phrases like “Bob’s your uncle” to end a list of instructions might cause a titter but will otherwise be meaningless. Even words like “fortnight” instead of “two weeks” can cause confusion. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there isn’t the spellcheck equivalent of “meaningless British phrase” to rely on.
Getting the tone right is probably the biggest minefield for Brits in America. Our national penchant for sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness doesn’t translate, especially on paper In memos, don’t cut straight to the chase, and try to add a bit of fluff when you’re closing. If you’re asked for feedback, any negative or “constructive” comments should be coupled with niceties, and what the Harvard Business Review calls “downgraders” – words like “maybe” and “slightly.” Americans also use the “feedback sandwich,” delivering positive news before negative, and then finishing off with another positive.
If you’ve been told to do something about your memos, ask for examples of good and bad, scrutinize how Americans phrase things and get someone to look over your stuff before you hit “send.”
If you want deadlines met or meetings attended, write the date American style and refrain from using the twenty-four hour clock. When using numerals, Americans write the month first, so July 4th is 7/4/2015. Meetings are written as either a.m. or p.m. rather than 18.00 and so on.