To UK English or US English? Or to some other flavour of the beast?

Those who live outside of the USA are very familiar with the concept that there are multiple different dictionaries used for English, all depending on what version of English you are using. You heard that right, folks. There is another way to spell those favourite words.

And that was one right there: favourite. That’s how those using UK English spell it. Yanks spell it without the ‘u’: favorite.

Those working in UK English are conversant in the idea that we add ‘u’s to some words, we have double-consonants in others, and we use an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ for words like analyse and maximise. There is a whole rafter of words that are spelt differently between US English and UK English. And it’s not just the spelling that would drive a person to madness. There’s the terminology, the punctuation conventions, even the argument about collective nouns. Thankfully, some poor sap has written a whole article on the subject on Wikipedia, complete with a tonne of links to other pages.

But why should one even bother with the differences between US and UK English?

I live in New Zealand. My children are growing up with “New Zealand” English. “What on Earth is New Zealand (NZ) English?” I hear some say. Well, for the most part NZ English is British (UK) English, however, because of the saturation from US television and movies, common terms from the US are leaking into our vernacular. Dare I say it, so are some of the spellings. It frustrates me to no end: to know that I have two different versions of the same word in my document and to know that the NZ English spellchecker is accepting both versions. It’s just wrong. So out of principle, I refuse to use NZ English when writing. I will gladly use the slang or colloquial terms, but not a NZ English dictionary. I use either a UK or US English dictionary.

And I refuse to use Australian English too. According to the Australian government, dialogue should be punctuated as the following [1]:

‘Yes, that is the situation’, she replied.
The ambassador declared, ‘Not all that we say can have prior approval’.

While I can accept the usage of the single-quote marks around the speech, I will never accept that the comma or the fullstop belongs on the outside of the quotation marks. I don’t care if you use UK or US English, but that is just plain wrong. And to think that this is what the Australian government has published as the correct way of doing things in their own editing style guide. (I think I’ll just hang my head in dismay.)

So NZ English is out because the spellcheckers are known to accept both UK and US spellings of the same word, and Australian English is out because even their own government doesn’t know how to use punctuation correctly. But what about the others?

Well, I haven’t had much experience with Canadian English and I didn’t even know that Indian English existed until I started writing this post. Let’s just stick to either UK or US English for our common usage.

So as a writer, which should you actually use?

For first drafts and the first round of edits, it’s always best to use whatever you’re the most comfortable in. In other words, if you grew up with US English, then use it. If you grew up with UK English (or some derivation there of), use it. If you’re like me and grew up with both (I was born in the US and move to New Zealand as a teenager), then set your computer dictionary to one or the other and use it.

When you are looking at your middle round of edits, getting into the nitty-gritty of the language, that’s when you need to take a serious look as to whether this manuscript that you’re writing belongs in UK or US English.

Where is your primary market? Who is your target audience? Where do you intend to publish it? If the answer to any of these questions is US-related, then you should seriously considering translating that UK English manuscript into US English. If the answers are outside of the US, then UK English should be your beast of choice.

At the end of the day, just remember that if you publish in UK English, you might get those from the US saying that you don’t know how to use a spellchecker. It’s a sad truth, but many Americans forget that English originated in the UK.


[1] Style manual for authors, editors and printers. (2002) Sixth Ed. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. pp 111 – 116.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in General Advice, Random, Writing and Editing and tagged , , .


    • I have seen horrid punctuation in all forms of publications, US and UK English. Personally, I find it frustrating when style guides advocate for punctuation that is clearly incorrect and when computer dictionaries accept both forms of spelling for the same word.

      • I HATE incorrect punctuation… I can stand little things, like missing commas between two clauses, but not things like commas after “because” *shudders more*

        …wouldn’t you only use one spelling? or do you use it for translating between American / British / other English?

        • As mentioned in my post, I was born in the US but moved to New Zealand as a teen. Even back then I noticed that NZ English is a blend of both, but leans more to UK English. I have become fluent in both forms, publishing in US and Australian journals. When editing, I use whichever my clients prefer. I also translate between the two when necessary.

          For my personal fictional writing, first drafts are typically in UK English, but then translated to US English as the USA is my primary market.

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