Mind the Gap

As more U.K. publications woo U.S. readers, British and American English are mixing in strange, sometimes baffling, ways.

Alex Robbins

Imagine first making someone’s acquaintance, perhaps in a classroom or an office, and having him immediately and unabashedly ask you for a rubber. Is he gleefully transgressing normal social boundaries? Is he drunk? Is he brandishing a pencil?

Such are the choppy and perilous waters that have long divided American and British English. (Rubber, by the way, is the British word for what Americans call an eraser.) Pre-Internet, collisions between the two were entertaining but isolated—a tourist from Oxford might visit the Carolinas and be perplexed when someone asked whether she knew how to shag (“shag” being a type of dance in those parts). In turn, she might innocently compliment a farmer on his fine ass (donkey). But in the 21st-century media environment, centuries-old news institutions and start-ups alike must try to placate stroppy readers and unyielding copy editors on both sides of the Atlantic, at the same time. Is such a thing even possible?

For Guardian US, which launched in September 2011 as an online-only accompaniment to the almost-200-year-old British daily newspaper, the past few years have been fraught with decisions regarding which version of English to use—so much so that the publication debuted a blog, English to English, to help translate linguistic and cultural differences for confused readers. (The Guardian billed it as “therapy for our special relationship.”) “The moment we realized we had to address this thing was when we started hiring all these American reporters,” Maraithe Thomas, Guardian US’s deputy production editor, told me. “Our editor, Janine Gibson, was pretty adamant that we didn’t hire all these D.C. and New York veterans just to change their copy” into British English.

The editors chose to let Guardian US’s American writers write in American, and its British writers write in British—so the (American) national-security editor Spencer Ackerman might use spellings like organize and defense while the (English) writer Emma Brockes gets to keep slang like lairy and jollies. But when it came to proper nouns, The Guardian conceded the need for a more uniform policy, decreeing late last year that all Guardian publications, including Guardian US and Guardian Australia, would defer to local spellings. No more “Lincoln Centre” or “Labour Day.” “If we say ‘The attack on the World Trade Center put the Department of Defense at the centre of the country’s defence,’ it makes perfect sense to me and, I hope, to you,” wrote the production editor David Marsh, explaining the policy.

Other British publications aiming to reach an American audience have refused to adapt to American conventions. U.S.-based readers now account for about 52 percent of The Economist’s circulation, but the magazine continues to resolutely employ British spelling and usage. “It’s part of our marketing,” says the Economist correspondent Lane Greene, who originally hails from Marietta, Georgia. “We’re an outside view on America, and that’s signaled all the time by the style. It feels British and it reads British, and that’s by design.” Greene points out that American readers enjoy encountering quintessentially English terms like cock-a-hoop (“excessively triumphant”), while Brits tend to approach American English with a mix of condescension and annoyance: “With formerly huge colonial powers, there can be a ‘Well, we lost the empire, but at least we still have the original language’ mentality to it.”

Other publications are counting on Anglophone readers around the world getting used to unfamiliar spellings and terms. Although about a third of The Atlantic’s online readers are overseas, the magazine generally uses American spellings for proper nouns; meanwhile, TheAtlantic.com tends to use local spellings for places and organizations. Quartz, an online sister publication of The Atlantic, uses American English, while Quartz India uses Indian English (similar to British English), and the two sites frequently republish each other’s stories without too much ado. Which isn’t to say that readers won’t occasionally be perplexed by bewildering, sometimes risqué divergences among various forms of English. “It’s funny how many of them are slightly naughty, in the underwear region, like fanny pack and fag,” says Greene. “I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those ‘I’ll come and knock you up in the morning’ moments, but people who go back and forth a lot usually figure out a middle ground.”