Sorry, I Spelt it British-Style Because I Haven’t Re-Orientated

I had worked hard on a draft speech about alcohol policy for a member of the UK parliament. She glanced at the text which the putatively learned American professor had produced and immediately said “There’s no zed in breathalyse”.

I felt like a fool, or perhaps I should say, a wally.

I will spend half of this year in the UK and half in the US. About half of my writing is done in collaboration with British colleagues for British outlets and the other half is done with American colleagues for American publishers. I have one word processing program, er, programme set to UK spelling and the other to American spelling, but it hasn’t seemed to stop me from screwing up English-language spellings within and across pieces of writing.

American spelling interspersed with British spelling is interpreted by readers in different ways. The admixture can come across as careless, ignorant or (in America anyway) pretentious, but in no case does it increase the reader’s respect for the writer. Yet stamping it out entirely is more difficult than one might think. Whilst it is cognitively easy when shifting between entire languages to revert to consistent use of one’s own (e.g., after a week in another country in which your native tongue is not spoken), keeping national spelling nuances consistent within a language is a chore. And my transatlantic friends tell me it is harder now than ever due to email, in which the same queue may contain consecutive messages that cue you to spell the same words in different ways.

Further, I have quirks about certain spellings seeming to look and sound right. “OrientATed” sounds clumsy to me — why a confusing extra beat in a word that is about understanding where one is? So I never include that extra AT unless I am playing close attention on a British-targeted piece. “Grey” felt correct to me even before I had lived in England for the first time. The “ey” of “grey” just somehow seems to capture a softly lighted foggy morning better than does the “ay” of “gray”, which sounds like someone voting in the affirmative. I instinctively like the z in “analyze”. Analyze means to cut things apart, bringing to mind the rasp of a saw…zzzzzz. “Civilised” connotes gentleness, for which the harsh tear of a z sounds inappropriate and a soft s feels condign.

I can’t defend any of these reactions and the embarassing errors they engender, other than than by noting that most people seem to have similar tics now and then, even when offered only one possible spelling for a word. Children for example, when their spelling of a word is corrected for the first time, will sometimes protest “but it looks wrong that way”. As a second-grader it seemed to me intuively much more sensible to write “the bird flu” than “the bird flew”. Of course I learnt that was incorrect, but a few years ago when the “bird flu epidemic” was blasted across every newspaper headline, the 8 year old in my heart envisioned an enormous flock of winged creatures fluttering overhead.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Sorry, I Spelt it British-Style Because I Haven’t Re-Orientated”

  1. You can have great fun in the UK deciding on -ise versus -ize. In most writing -ise predominates, and a lot of Brits will reject -ize spellings as ‘American’. But in more educationally rarefied environments, especially Oxford (and its dictionary), you’ll find some people insisting on -ize for most words (including e.g. ‘civilize’), as it’s apparently descended from ancient Greek -IZEIN.

    1. To make things more complicated, there are variations in vocabulary even within the UK. For example, when I moved to Scotland, I learned quickly that “outwith” is an actual English word that is only used on this side of the Tweed and practically never, ahem, outwith Scotland.

  2. “Grey” predominates in the U.K., while in the U.S. “gray” is the more common spelling. “Grey” is nonetheless not only immediately understood by any literate American, it is not considered a non-standard spelling or a Briticism.

    1. “Grey” somehow seems gre/ayer to me than “gray.” More mood, less color, than “gray.”

      Probably just me.

  3. Hoo boy. You should spend some time in a Canadian academic environment, where the same word may be spelled in both UK and US forms in the same article.

  4. The difference between English and Murkin is tough on foreigners whose native language is neither. Which language should be taught in schools? English tends to be more familiar, especially with the older generation, but Murkin is the international language of business and pop culture. (Notice how English musicians typically ape Americanisms.) The trouble goes well beyond spelling distinctions: the vocabulary is often different, as well. Does Mitt Romney spout rubbish or garbage? Did he tie Seamus to the bonnet or hood of his saloon or car? (I know, it was the roof of the station wagon, but I’m trying to make a point about language, so please forgive me.)

    In the course of making a living, I read way too much official Eurobabble. The general compromise seems to be Murkin language and English spelling. I don’t know how this plays out in other contexts.

  5. My personal solution has been to keep writing American English in informal communication (not trying to pretend something I am not), and my British colleagues do not seem to have a problem with that. One exception is that I do say “football” instead of “soccer”; one has to respect national sensibilities.

    Of course, in published papers, I stick to the British spelling (since I am writing for a British university), and let my husband (or whatever colleague I can shanghai) proofread anything I’m not sure about. 🙂

    1. Hi Katja: Even within British journals, there are some quirks. I am senior editorial adviser for Addiction, which is based in London and uses “methamphetamine” as the preferred spelling of that drug (as do the UK newspapers I read). Lancet in contrast, for reasons passing understanding, crosses out all my uses of methamphetamine and replaces them with metafetamine.

      1. I am pretty sure that “methamphetamine” (in whatever spelling) is English only by way of adoption, though. 🙂

Comments are closed.