The Merry Grammarian

Language from Across the Pond

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I’m editing: a little British spelling here and there. First came “amongst,” and then “towards,” and then three separate writers apparently preferred “grey” to “gray.”

Maybe it’s an homage to Downtown Abbey? (I miss it, too!).

Whatever is fueling this trend, it’s time to set the record straight. I like my tea and scones as much as anyone else, but the grammar guru in me must clarify why we writers can’t simply slip into British English whenever we please.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Two countries, separated by a common language.” It’s a nod to the fact that though English is common to both the US and the UK, variations are everywhere – in spelling (grey versus gray), terminology (lift versus elevator), and even in punctuation (single quote marks in the UK versus double quote marks in the US).

Because there are so many variants, the grammar and style authorities have decreed that our style should be consistent. So we can write in American English or British English, but we must use that one format consistently throughout an entire piece. In other words, you can’t just use “grey” because it looks more interesting than “gray” if the rest of the piece is written in American English.

Here are a few other common British-isms that tend to slip into American-English manuscripts, per the Chicago Manual of Style:

  • Amidst and amongst: These are both the British spellings; the preferred American forms are amid and among.
  • Directional words such as backward, forward and toward do not take the terminal –s in American English. In other words, in the United States, we go toward something, not towards it.
  • Travel is the same in Britain or America, but variations on the word are different: Travelled versus traveled, travelling versus traveling, traveller versus traveler.
  • And of course, there are all those infamous –ou words: colour, flavor, humour, labour, etc. In American English, there’s no extra “u” – it’s just color, flavor, humor, and labor.
Bottom line? If your heart yearns for castles and moors, then go ahead and write in British English—just be consistent. Otherwise, resist the urge to add a splash of British sophistication, and embrace your American prose.