It is a well-known cliché that the United States of America and Great Britain are ‘two countries divided by a common language’, but I am beginning to wonder for how much longer this will continue to be true. When I started editing academic books in the early 1990s, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all the British authors whose work I edited wrote in American English, but over the past couple of years, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has also started to use American English, both online and on air. I wonder why.
I am not suggesting that British English is somehow superior to American English, or vice versa, but I do find this trend troubling, mainly because I foresee a time when the British way of saying or writing something will be labelled ‘incorrect’. This is unlikely to perturb younger readers, but for someone like me, who learned almost all I know about the syntax and vocabulary of my native language sixty years ago, it is hard to accept.
The most obvious difference between the two strains of English is in spelling, which is the one change the BBC has yet to make, perhaps because neither system is logically consistent. I have no problems with center and theater, although I will continue to write centre and theatre, but I would have thought it useful to distinguish between timbre and timber, which American English doesn’t do. Another limitation of American English is a failure to distinguish between enquiry and inquiry, which have separate meanings in British English.
On the other hand, while rejecting the French gramme and kilogramme, the British still write programme, even though the word derives from the same root as anagram and diagram and should therefore be spelled program. The Americans are also on firmer ground with the –ize suffix, which derives from ancient Greek, through Latin, while the same suffix arrived in Britain through French as –ise, and we British have allowed far too much French influence over our language, particularly as regards pronunciation (cf. ballet, debris, debut, etc.). Incidentally, I’ve heard it argued that the best justification for using –ise is that it avoids the difficulty of remembering those words where –ise is the mandatory spelling (televise, advertise, chastise, compromise, etc.), but this is a fatuous line of reasoning that ignores the different origins of the suffix in these cases.
One area where American spelling definitely has the advantage is in words that formerly contained either an æ or an œ ligature (mediæval, encyclopædia, fœtid, etc.), which are much simplified by replacing that ligature with a simple ‘e’. The British appear to have followed this lead. However, during my time as an editor, I became aware that American philosophers tended to prefer æsthetic to esthetic, possibly for aesthetic reasons.
There are other comparisons that I could make with regard to spelling, but as noted the BBC has not yet adopted American spelling, so I will move on to an aspect of American English that grates on my ears every time I hear it: the conversion of words like appeal, graduate and protest from intransitive to pseudo-transitive verbs. My view is that ‘to appeal a verdict’ should be ‘to appeal against a verdict’; ‘to graduate college’ should be ‘to graduate from college’; and ‘to protest a decision’ should be ‘to protest against a decision’. However, how prepositions are used is one of the main differences between American and British English, which explains why, while railing against the omission of necessary prepositions, I regard the prepositions in ‘to meet with’, ‘to visit with’ and ‘to beat up on’ as superfluous.
Another bone of contention with me can be seen in a sentence like ‘the case has not been proven’, which has gained traction in Britain over the past decade. This is a grammatical blunder, because proven is not the past participle of prove but the past participle of the archaic verb preve (cf. weave, woven; cleave, cloven), so the sentence should read ‘the case has not been proved’.
American English scores over its British equivalent in its inventiveness and flexibility. More new words have been coined by American than by British writers, but my feeling is that American English is less precise. In support of this claim, I would cite the distinction between compare with and compare to, which is usually observed by British writers. Although my copy of the Associated Press stylebook explains the difference, in my experience American writers tend to use ‘compare to’ in both cases.
However, perhaps the most egregious change that the BBC has made is to refer to the two major conflagrations of the twentieth century as ‘World War I’ and ‘World War II’, which always reminds me of Rambo III, Star Trek V and Superbowl XLIX and suggests a connection with the entertainment industry, not to mention the expectation that there will be a World War III, eventually. Leaving aside my tendency to refer to the First World War as the Great War—I grew up with a set of encyclopaedias on my bookshelf that had been published in 1926—I can’t help but wonder how a country that missed three-quarters of the first conflict and a third of the second has managed to acquire the naming rights to both.
While I decry the Americanization of the BBC—the first ‘B’ stands for ‘British’, after all—there is a silver lining: I’ve always found that Americans are more likely to observe the distinction between defining and non-defining relative clauses, and I’ve not seen any horrors on the BBC News website recently like the one quoted in Relatively Incorrect. On the other hand, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before I hear references to the Thames River and the Tyne River on Radio 4’s Today program. Where will it all end?