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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translator Education  »  AMERICAN VERSUS BRITISH ENGLISH


By Josephine Bacon | Published  12/24/2005 | Translator Education | Recommendation:
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Josephine Bacon
United Kingdom
French to English translator
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by Josephine Bacon

Most native English-speakers are aware of George Bernard Shaw's dictum that the British and the Americans are ?two nations divided by a single language". Most non-native English-speakers, however, remain ignorant of the fundamental differences between the ways in which the British and the Americans express themselves and this can be of vital importance to a translator.


The British are far more aware of the difference than their American counterparts thanks to the influence of the movies, and the arrival of the GIs during World War II. When the first American talkies were shown in Great Britain, they had to be subtitled because the British had never heard an American accent and could not understand the dialogue! Even today, I am asked in the United States about my ?accent?. My reply is always, ?No, I don?t have an accent, you have an accent?.

The problem is not confined to dialogue and dialect speech what we translators call the ?familiar register?. For legal translators, the most fundamental difference is in the date. Throughout the English-speaking world (don?t forget there are far more speakers of British and British-based English ? in the former colonies and dominions for instance ? than there are of American English), the date is written dd/mm/yyyy. But not in the U.S., oh no, they have to be different. In the U.S. the date is written mm/dd/yyyy. Except in what the Americans refer to as ?the military? and what we in the UK call ?the forces?. And not just there. When I first went to the United States in the 1970s, the immigration forms required you to write the date the universal way but the customs forms required you to write it the American way. How confusing is that? Can you imagine the sort of hassles? I know American attorneys who employed translators from outside the U.S. to translate their documents and who had to go into court and take the oath in the witness box to convince the judge that their client was not lying about his birthdate, the translator had gotten (gotten is an Americanism, by the way) it the wrong way round! Another confusion in legal circles arises from the word ?continued?. To continue a case in British English means for it to carry on; to continue a case in American English means to postpone it. ?To table? a motion or proposal in British English means to deal with it right away. The same expression in American English means to shelve it


The above are just a few of the confusions that can arise. Some translators and editors think that a text can be converted from one form of English to the other merely by running it through the correct spellchecker. Changing the spelling is only the beginning, however. Firstly, there are questions of style. In British English, words like "can't," "don't," etc. are not used in publicity material. Americans are more verbose, use more adjectives and more hyperbole , and they love long words. They will always write "utilize" when "use" would do perfectly well, and we are all familiar with the dreadful ?at this time? when it would be even better to say ?now?. Of course, this is also a sort of euphemism, as in ?we can?t make use of your services at this time?, which sounds much better than ?you?re fired!?.

Major differences in vocabulary occur in areas in which the two cultures have diverged. These include law, construction and architecture, transport, food and cookery and the home. Examples include "shake" (for roof tiles), "fieldstone" (believe it or not, we British call it "crazy paving"), "burlap" (hessian), "diaper" (nappy), "shade" (blind), "dust ruffle" (valance), "valance" (pelmet), "baseboard" (skirting board). Banking and finance are other areas in which the two languages diverge. A "routing code" in American banking is a "sort code" in British banking. In accountancy, "private ledger" in America is "bought ledger" in the UK.

If all this is confusing, here is some input from my fellow director at American Pie, Dan Henderson, a Texan by birth, in order to ensure that you are confused further:

"Nobody would think twice in America about naming a child Randolph Pratt ('randy' as you can find out by looking in any British dictionary, means 'horny' and a 'prat' is one of many words ? twerp, plonker, berk, etc. ? for an idiot). The chain of equipment rental stores called B.U.M Equipment always raises a laugh among Brits, as did the name of the coach of the New Orleans Saints, Bum Philips. Although a bum is a derelict in the U.S., in the UK it is a 'butt' or 'rear end'! Americans might consider 'spotted dick' to be a symptom of a social disease (a euphemism the Brits would not recognize, by the way). It is actually a dessert in the UK. American 'chicks' are 'birds' in the UK (both expressions somewhat antiquated). Americans park on a driveway and drive on a parkway and for them jumbo shrimp is not a contradiction in terms. For some unfathomable reason, women wear a pair of panties but only one bra. When Americans send something somewhere by automobile or truck they call it shipping, but put it on a ship and it becomes cargo. Why is 'abbreviation' such a long word? Here in the U.S., 'slim chance' and 'fat chance' mean the same thing, and they tend to say they ?could care less? when what they mean is that they ?couldn?t care less?.

American typography differs from British, a good typographer can immediately spot if a book was printed in the United States, because of the choice of typefaces. There are differences in the punctuation that are immediately evident, such as the em dash without spaces used for a dash, whereas the British use an en dash with spaces. Modern American English abhors colons and uses them rarely. The British are not nearly as fond of colons as are the Germans, French and Italians, incidentally. The semi-colon is also a punctuation device that is rarer in American than British English.

All of these changes in punctuation, and many changes in speech, have crept in during the twentieth century, the writings of such classical American authors as Mark Twain would have been typographically identical to those of their British contemporaries. The same is not true of the language. An excellent article in the ATA Chronicle highlights some of the differences in legal language.

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