I was recently asked by a client in the United States to review about 50 pages of content on their U.S. website and edit this so that it would be suitable for a British audience.

I’d assumed that this would be a fairly straightforward task involving making all the obvious spelling changes: making sure that words like “color” and “flavor” had a “u” in them; changing “center” to centre, “toward” to towards, “program” to programme and amending words like “organization” and “specialize” to the British spelling. But the work actually turned out to be a lot more time-consuming than I’d anticipated.

It was easy enough to go through the text and amend the U.S. spellings of particular words. What surprised me though was the amount of additional work required to amend some of the grammar, vocabulary and punctuation.

Greater Divergence Than You Might Think

You don’t very often come across words which have completely different meanings on either side of The Pond, but you do have to take into account things like different noun usage, different verb patterns and use of tenses, and different use of prepositions and adverbs. Until I did this work I’d never really appreciated the amount of divergence which exists today between U.S. English and British English.

In terms of the spoken word we’re so familiar with U.S. English usage over here, through TV, music and films, that we rarely misunderstand what’s being said. We more or less take U.S. English for granted now. New examples of U.S. English usage are creeping into the way we speak over here all the time.

Look at the written word on pretty much any U.S. website though and the divergence between the two forms of English is readily apparent. It would have been easy for me just to let many of the differences go, because at the end of the day a British audience will have little difficulty in understanding the content on a U.S. website.

Of course, as a professional copywriter I wanted to do the job properly though – my brief was to edit the content so that it looked like it had been written by a Brit, for a British audience. On each page of content I had to make between 10 and 20 edits. In this type of work, some edits just have to be done manually. As far as I’m aware there’s no software available yet which can flawlessly amend U.S. English to British English at the press of a button. Yes, I know there are tools around like Grammarly, but I’m not convinced that this picks up every nuance.

The key learning point here is not to underestimate how much work may be required to amend U.S. English web content to British English.

Post written by Steve Shaw, Principal at Bishopsgate Copywriting

Steve Shaw

1 Comment

  1. Steve,

    What about the way the date is written; 12-1-2011 would be the 12th of January in British English, but the 1st of December in American English….many ‘snafus’ have resulted because of this specific misinterpretation!


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