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American vs. British English: A Webmasters Guide

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When writing content for the World Wide Web, a lot of authors wonder if they should have their pages translated into languages such as French or Spanish in order to widen their audience and to give their sites a more international appearance. It is sensible of web designers to consider this question, but one thing few native English speakers ever consider is: Should I write in British English (BE) or American English (AE)?

Lots of people know that there are several common spelling differences between the two. For example, the American English -or as a word ending is usually -our in British English, e.g. color and colour, and that American English tends to prefer -ize whereas British English prefers -ise. However, how many web authors know that burned (AE) is burnt (BE), or that sulfur (AE) is sulphur (BE)?

Whilst these slight differences can be annoying to a reader, more dangerous is the fact that the two languages also use different words to describe the same thing, and different meanings for the same word. As an example, take the following two imaginary statements made to the police after an accident:

The British report: “I was standing next to the cash point machine between the shopping centre and the estate agents, eating a bag of crisps, when I saw the boot of the red coloured saloon car pop open. The spare tyre flew out and hit the tramp sitting on the pavement opposite, so I grabbed my mobile from my bum bag and called 999″

The American Report: “I was standing next to the ATM between the Mall and the realtors, eating a bag of chips, when I saw the trunk of the red colored sedan pop open. The spare tire flew out and hit the hobo sitting on the sidewalk opposite, so I grabbed my cell phone from my fanny pack and dialled 911″

These two sentences contain eleven different nouns and several different spellings. Many American and British readers would understand both, but, in the visualisation of the scene, most British readers would imagine the witness was eating French’ fries.

If the author is writing for a hard copy magazine, it is obvious which of the two languages he or she should use, depending upon the circulation location but, what about writing for a World Wide Web page? If you’re writing copy for a London Taxi web site or an online Chicago Restaurant guide, then the choice is again obvious: use the language of the location.

But what do you use for a press release for an international widget manufacturer that only has one single .com site for the whole world?

The first rule is: if you are adding content to an existing web site, then use the same language as the current content. Nothing looks stranger than reading two press releases from the same company, which change between the two languages. If, on the other hand, you are creating content for a new site, then there are several things you need to check:

1. Check with the client – They may have strong preferences and, as all web authors know, the client is always right.

2. Check the demographics of the intended users. If the large majority of the users are going to be from continental North America, then use American English. If they are going to be from the UK, Europe or Asia, then use British English.

3. Check that your copy doesn’t contain slang words. Don’t say someone was flogging fags’ — a British English user will know it means selling cigarettes,’ but to an American English user, it has a whole different meaning.

4. Check that words do mean the same in both languages. An American describing a gentleman as wearing suspenders and a vest’ would confuse a British speaker who knows that suspenders are used to keep ladies’ stockings in the right place, and that a vest refers to an undergarment worn underneath a shirt. In British English, he would be wearing braces and a waistcoat.

5. Check that you can actually write in American English if you are British, or vice versa. It’s much more difficult than it sounds.

Unlike English-French dictionaries or English-Spanish translators, there are few serious American-British dictionaries. The University of Wolverhampton has an American-British site at http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~jphb/american.html and Travel Further has both American-British and British-American at its site http://www.travelfurther.net. However, both of these are private sites and are by no means definitive. If you do have to write in the other’ language, then try to get a native speaker to check it before you publish.

At the end of the day, the one unanswered question: is does it really matter? Yes, it will matter if you send in your British English copy and the American site owner sends it back with a note telling you to speak English, and refuses to pay your bill. Yes, it will matter if you get an e-mail from Mr. Angry of Birmingham saying he’ll never use your site again because of your poor spelling. On the global scale of things, no, it probably doesn’t matter that much, but in the highly competitive world of web sites every little thing helps.

20/09/03 or is that 09/20/03

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I speak British English and have 8 years experience designing and creating large multi-language global corporate intranets. I learned to write American English as a frequent contributor to a number of American Football publications on both sites of the Atlantic and can be contacted for web design, copywriting or Fantasy Football advice at carju1@yahoo.com

American vs. British English: A Webmasters Guide
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About Julian Tandy
I speak British English and have 8 years experience designing and creating large multi-language global corporate intranets. I learned to write American English as a frequent contributor to a number of American Football publications on both sites of the Atlantic and can be contacted for web design, copywriting or Fantasy Football advice at carju1@yahoo.com WebProNews Writer
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