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Undivided by a Common Language

The alleged chasm that separates American from British English is often discussed in highly emotional terms. It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.

People have been exaggerating the trans-Atlantic dialect distinctions ever since Oscar Wilde (in The Canterville Ghost, 1887) remarked that the British “have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, June 3, 1944) called it “a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language,” and Dylan Thomas (The Listener, April 1954) spoke of European and American writers and scholars being “up against the barrier of a common language.” (George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said something similar, but this has never been substantiated: No one cites a source.)

Well, I have been hearing and using the varieties of English in America and Britain for decades, as a citizen of both countries, and the one thing that has always struck me about the differences, particularly in grammar, is how tiny and insignificant they are.

Warren Murray recently touched on this topic in a blog post for The Guardian about which form of English the newspaper’s internationally-read online content should use. I hunted through his piece looking for cited differences, but he had almost nothing. He mentioned realise versus realize; but spelling conventions cannot differentiate languages (Bosnian and Serbian do not count as distinct languages simply because the Serbs like using the Cyrillic alphabet where the Bosniaks prefer Roman letters), and anyway, this is not a trans-Atlantic difference: Defenders of the -ise spelling do tend to be British, but there is no clean international split—even in British sources the ratio of -ise to -ize is only 3:2. And as the excellent Wikipedia article points out, two quintessentially British publications from Oxford University Press, Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) and the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, endorse the -ize spelling of that suffix, for good etymological reasons.

Murray mentions just one grammatical difference between American and British English: Obama met Putin Tuesday is American syntax: British English tends not to use the nouns that name days of the week as temporal adjuncts (it uses preposition phrases with on, as in Obama met Putin on Tuesday). Murray thinks it would be “potentially jarring for a significant part of the audience” if The Guardian ever used the former construction, and doubtless it would: People are astonishingly susceptible to being jarred by such trivial differences. But how many robust and verifiable contrasts are there?

They are remarkably few and far between, and they are nearly always a matter of preferences rather than absolute prohibitions. For example, Americans like using the preterit rather than the perfect in clauses reporting past time with present relevance (I already did that), whereas British speakers clearly prefer the perfect (I’ve already done that). But speakers of both varieties can always understand both constructions.

Closer to being absolute is the limitation to British English of the special use of the verb do in cases of omitted verb phrases, as in I don’t know if she understands French, but she may do. Americans would say she may, without that final do. However, they immediately understand it when they hear British speakers using it.

If pressed hard I might be able to find two or three more such slight divergences (put him in hospital is British, put him in the hospital is American, and so on); but most trans-Atlantic differences either involve nothing more than pronunciation (most Americans pronounce the r of car and have the vowel of hat in words like glass, and British speakers from Southern England don’t), or are merely differences in word choice, almost always choices among nouns (in Britain a truck is often called a lorry, though truck is understood and used as well).

The exaggerators paint a picture of two countries prevented from understanding each other by a host of baffling and apparently nonnegotiable linguistic differences. That’s not what I see. I see a language that is amazingly homogeneous across hundreds of millions of speakers spread across a gigantic amount of territory on several continents.

Many people seem to enjoy getting hot under the collar about Americanisms in Britain or Britishisms in America; but it can’t be the linguistic differences that motivate them. Looked at seriously, the tiny differences between standard American and standard British English are trivial, barely even worth mentioning.

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