English is now indisputably an international language. It even has a new acronym: ELF, or English as a Lingua Franca. However, unlike French or Latin, the original LFs only of the European world, English is literally everywhere, and is the default language for many industries and fields of study and employment.
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Whether you are travelling, living abroad in an Anglophone country, or studying English in school, you will find that there is not just one variant of English. If you are not careful, you can run afoul of regional differences in word usage that can embarrass or inconvenience you, and may detract from the clarity of your writing.
Because of the mix of ethnicities that makes up the USA, American English has evolved along different lines. Thus, a British speaker and an American speaker can find themselves talking at cross purposes unless they understand the idiomatic differences between the two regional forms of the language. The following are some examples from personal experience:
Consider the classic error made by a British hotel guest when suggesting to an attractive young person that they sightsee together the following day. “Shall I come round and knock you up in the morning?” asks the Brit, and the American wonders why this ill-mannered lout wishes to get her with child.
The phrase “to knock up” is US slang for getting someone pregnant. He could have said, “Shall I knock on your door in the morning?” and this international incident would have been averted entirely. And by the way, the phrase “young person” is another Briticism, albeit one that may be a bit vintage. Americans would speak of a “young lady” if they have any manners.
Another classic mistake can occur in a “pub” (known to Yanks as a “bar”), when someone offers “cider”. In the USA, almost without exception, “cider” is unfiltered apple juice. It is served as an eco-friendly and often locally sourced alternative to less healthy “soft” (non-alcoholic) beverages such as Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or other overpriced mixtures of sugar water, caramel coloring, and marketing.
In Britain, on the other hand, the term “cider” refers to a fairly potent (and tasty) fermented version of apple juice that can set the unwary imbiber reeling. Cider was once fermented enthusiastically everywhere in the colonies, as was Perry, or pear cider, but Prohibition nearly wiped that industry out. It making a comeback as an alcoholic drink, along with locally made sausage, and boutique beers, but it will be reliably referred to as “hard cider”.
As long as we are on the topic of embarrassing mistakes, consider the word “rubber”. In the USA, this refers to the substance derived from latex, but also to male contraceptives, or condoms, which protect the male reproductive organ, or “pecker” (USA). In the UK, the word “rubber” refers to an eraser, and the “pecker” is the chin, meaning that “keeping one’s pecker up” is a phrase to use with care. Another pitfall phrase is “on the job”. In the USA, this means literally while working – as in “managerial training on the job”.
In British English, on the other hand, this can refer to that most intimate of consensual interpersonal activities, so avoid this phrase unless you are sure of your audience! “Fannies” in the USA are what a lady sits upon, but in Britain, the word refers to her most female of parts. This is another word to avoid!
Now that we are all thoroughly embarrassed, consider the word that, in Britain, is used to refer to cigarettes, or at least used to be; “f*g”. In the USA, this pejorative and offensive term for a homosexual should really be avoided entirely. Another explosive word, ni**er, seems to be used in the UK to apply to all people with dark skin. In the USA, this is called the n-word, and refers usually to those whose African ancestors were enslaved. These words have such hurtful connotations that the best strategy is to just find different ways to describe others.
Moving on to happier topics, and remembering the popular modern adage, “Life is short; eat dessert first”, take note that the traveler who asks for “pudding” in the UK will be served a sweet ending to a meal of almost any type.
In the USA, however, “pudding” means a very specific sweet; a soft composition of milk and eggs (or the modern food chemist’s equivalent thereof), cooked to a consistency that sticks to the spoon. A baked mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar, with bread cubes, cooked rice, pasta, or tapioca, generates a nearly endless ethnic and regional variety of “puddings” (bread pudding, noodle kugel, etc.). They can all be yummy in the hands of a deft cook.
Likewise, “biscuits” in the UK are a “cookie” in the USA. American “biscuits” are actually a quick bread, not made with yeast, but with baking powder and a great deal of shortening (butter, lard, or vegetable fat).
They are not sweet, but serve as a magnificent transport mechanism for gravy, drippings, butter, honey, maple syrup, sorghum syrup, or fruit preserves. A specialized American use of biscuits is strawberry shortcake, which originally meant a biscuit (salty) topped with fresh berries (sweet and tart) and whipped cream (richly unctuous and perhaps sweet).
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This is all fun, but there are additionally serious differences that anyone trying to live, work, or study internationally needs to remember. These divergences in practice are extensive and keeping a reference list at hand or bookmarked on the computer is a good idea. Here is a sampling:
- In American English, teams and corporations usually take singular forms of verbs (e.g., Apple Corporation has brought out a new model), whereas in the UK, they often take plural forms (e.g., Manchester United are the winners. This is an instant signal indicating where one’s English was learned.
- British English uses shall more often than will.
- In British English, the preposition from is used to indicate start times (e.g., Classes start from Monday), whereas in American English, the word “starting” or the preposition “on” is used instead (e.g., Classes start on Monday”, or “It will run six weeks, starting Monday”).
- Americans enroll in courses, go to addresses on streets, and enroll in courses, while Brits use the other preposition.
As English is used more and more widely and by peoples all over the world, there will be inevitable evolution in the language. What will “correct English” mean in 10, or 50 years? This subject is much too large for this article, but is the subject of serious academic consideration. In the meantime, try to use local variants but don’t let worry keep you from trying out your English in every possible situation.