When quizzed on the difference between American and English humour, Stephen Fry said: “Comedy is the microcosm that allows us to examine the entire difference between our two cultures.” He explains that English comedy is “bathed in failure, but we make a glory of our failure…” He also points out that the largest section in an American bookshop is the self-help section – “supporting the notion that life is improvable and refinable”.
Proofreaders who have had to follow US style will see the connection. And, in your quest to stay alert to the differences between UK and US spelling, Fry’s words will ring true. Just take a look at some of the following examples.
The UK spelling of ‘programme’ does exactly what Fry suggests – it almost celebrates its failure. There is no obvious need for that extra ‘me’ – allegedly added with flair in the 19th century under a French influence (historical since 1066 and conquering again at different times, with French flourish becoming trendy every couple of hundred years). This didn’t catch on with the Americans, strangely, given their sympathies with all things revolutionary. They staunchly retained the original ‘program’ – the spelling that has consequently become de rigueur for computer-related software.
British spelling favours those little added extras – so we have ‘modelling’ and ‘travelling’ in the UK, and ‘modeling’ and ‘traveling’ in the US; ‘judgement’ and ‘acknowledgement’ rather than ‘judgment’ and ‘acknowledgment’.
While we struggle on proudly with the practice of practising our different English spellings for ‘practice’, the Americans have fearlessly moved on, improving a stressful situation and reducing the margin for error with a one-spelling-suits-all – ‘practice’. They have also refused any Francophile form by not using ‘re’ at the end of words, including ‘center’ and ‘theater’. And they like to keep things puritanically plain by removing any unnecessary vowels – for example: ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’; ‘mold’ rather than ‘mould’; ‘favor’ instead of ‘favour’; ‘neighbor’ versus ‘neighbour’; ‘labor’ instead of ‘labour; and of course ‘humor’ not ‘humour’. But simple isn’t always achieved by removing unwanted letters. Sometimes you have to remain forthright – and so we have ‘skillful’ and ‘fulfill’ in US, rather than the weirdly legless English versions ‘skilful’ and ‘fulfil’.
For favouring direct over decorated spelling, some writers credit the American Noah Webster and his Webster’s Dictionary. He did believe in showing a revolutionary spirit and breaking away from English ties. He firmly felt that words should be spelled how they sound. So, remember that words with a ‘ph’ in English most often use an ‘f’ in the US – for example, ‘sulfur’ (not ‘sulphur’).
But it would be a trap to assume that the Americans always like things plain and simple or shiny and new. When it comes to words that end in ‘ise’, the English spelling looks thoroughly modernised compared to the US penchant for ‘ize’ (also attributed to Webster’s insistence that spelling match the sound. He does have a point). I have also noticed in various US style guides that they do like to use as standard: double rather than single quotes; closed em dashes (rather than an en dash with a space either side) and, with a nod to their English heritage, an oddly obsessive affection for the Oxford (serial) comma.
So, when proofreading for US versus UK style, the best advice I can give is to set your style sat nav and stay alert, retain your sense of humour and simply enjoy the ride. And, if you ever have to work to Australian English – be prepared to swerve either way!