Nov 162013

Gale Winskill on the “common language”

English: lingua franca or minefield?

English is a universal language, right? It’s the same wherever you go! Everybody understands it! But is it really that simple? Just how common is our common language?

There are many ‘official’ manifestations of English from places as diverse as Australia, Zimbabwe, Singapore, India, Jamaica, and many other locations around the world. All are intrinsically ‘English’, but all come equipped with their own unique vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation and local quirks.

From a written or editorial perspective, the most common-langauge confusions arise from the differences of British and American English. Wondering which one to use in your latest novel? A few basic tips may help:

  • It is not permissible to mix the two. Choose British or American usage and stick to it. If your protagonist is fundamentally and unmistakeably British, would they really go to the ‘movies’, drink ‘soda’ and amble down the ‘sidewalk?’ Often your setting and characterization will dictate your language option; it’s common sense.
  • –ize endings are not a prerequisite of the USA. Both –ise and –ize endings are acceptable in UK English. The most important aspect is consistency. The Oxford English Dictionary employs –ize as its headline spelling; other British dictionaries default to –ise. The choice is yours. However, if you are thinking of selling your work outside the UK, it might be worth considering that –ize is common on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • Americans like double quotation marks; the British prefer single ones (except for children’s books). There will always be exceptions to the rule, depending on a publisher’s house style, but this is the normal convention. Americans like to simplify their spelling, while the British like to insert extraneous letters, or reverse their position.
  • Do not rely on the MSWord spellchecker to know the difference; it’s only as good as the words which have been loaded into it, and often they are incorrect. Use a reputable dictionary from the country of your choice.

So, while you’re pondering whether to ‘practice’ or ‘practise’ your English, embrace its variations and anomalies, and learn to love the richness of your native tongue in all its permutations.

by Gale Winskill

photo of Gale WinskillGale Winskill is an experienced freelance editor, who works on a wide variety of genres, offering a range of editorial services. She also provides training on different aspects of editing and freelancing. Born in Stratford-on-Avon, a dim and distant relative of William Shakespeare, she has also lived and worked in Italy, Hong Kong, Thailand and Egypt. She now resides in Scotland. Find out more at Gale’s website.

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