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Separated by a common language

People who deal mainly with businesses based in the USA would prefer to use American English. Others might choose British English - what are the differences in writing, grammar and at a deeper level?

People who deal mainly with businesses based in the USA would prefer to use American English. Others might choose British English - what are the differences in writing, grammar and at a deeper level?

 

 

A porter in a British hotel comes upon an American tourist impatiently jabbing at the button for the lift. "Sir, the lift will be here in a moment." "Lift? Lift?" replies the American. "Oh, you mean the elevator." "No sir, here we call it a lift." "Well, as it was invented in the United States, it was called an elevator." "Yes sir, but as the language was invented here, it was called a lift."

The Reader’s Digest

 

17 varieties of English

English is indisputably the language of international business, but what is not so obvious is which variety to use. If I look at the menu bar on my version of Microsoft Word and choose languages, I find 17 varieties of English to choose from. The selection is bewildering and not too rational. Why, for example, is Irish English on the list but not Scottish or Welsh - the latter two being subsumed under British English? Clearly, the varieties on offer do not have equal status. People might make their choice for their own reasons: Australian English might have greater currency for countries in the Pacific Rim; people dealing mainly with businesses based in the USA would prefer American English; yet others might choose British English because that is the variety they learnt at school.

 

A deviant variety of the mother tongue?

The two types of English most frequently contrasted, of course, are British and American. In the minds of many, British English is the benchmark by which other forms are to be judged. However, I am not sure that American English is viewed any longer as a deviant variety of the mother tongue. In fact, many words of American origin have either supplanted the original British English ones or exist alongside them. Take the American word, "movie". The British English for this is "film" and the British go to the "cinema", not the "movies".

 

Fish and French fries

Today, however, if you read reviews in British newspapers or listen to the critics on radio and TV, you will hear both terms used interchangeably. Another example is "French fries". In British English, we used to talk about "chips"; after all, you would hardly expect to hear the national dish called "fish and French fries". But, with the international reach of McDonald’s and KFC, the British talk happily about "French fries" in these contexts. In the UK, a chip is a fatter, soggier version of its more elegant thin and crunchy counterpart and in the USA a "potato chip" is what we call a "potato crisp". Purists may grumble, but the drift of terminology from across the Atlantic is relentless.

 

Read more for your Business English Skills

english@office, a supplement to help you hone your Business English skills, is published four times a year. Our native-speaker authors combine exciting articles with vocabulary and grammar exercises. For working@office subscribers, the supplement is free. 

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