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Unifying English

2007.06.18 — Culture | Language | Spelling | by Roland Grant

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw, my fair linguist.

The old joke about the United States and United Kingdom is that they "are two countries separated by a common language." That was observed by George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and spelling reform advocate. When it comes to spelling, I myself have joked about "stubborn backwardness of our friends on the Small Island." But the truth is that English has a fairly awful spelling system compared to other European languages, regardless of which version (or mixture of them) you cling to. I've carefully considered the differences between US and UK English and the choices made by Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand writers and have produced these recommendations for unifying English writing at last.

Imagine what advantages there would be if there were only one English spelling and punctuation system. Publishers would only have to produce one version of books. A Californian reading a British writer would see no more difference than if he or she were reading a New York writer. The slang and idioms would still vary somewhat—and all the better for color, of course—but the spelling would not.

I don't suggest that non-US writers simply adopt US conventions. While I think that Noah Webster did a fine job of helping Americans simplify their spellings, there remain good and bad choices on both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific—honestly, I'm not forgetting you, Australia and New Zealand).

Use -ize instead of -ise

This is a large category and includes words like agonise and terrorise as well as oddballs analyse and paralyse. The American convention of using -ize is clearer about pronunciation and should be used in all cases. Moreover, televise should change to televize. But advise, surprise, advertise, improvise, and other cases where -ise appears in US spelling should remain -ise.

Use -ll- instead of -l-

In this fairly large category, UK spellings like funnelled and intialling don't look too odd to Americans because of enrolled, appalling, and similar words. And, as any frequent flier knows, cancelled and canceled exist pretty much equally in US English. The British consonant doubling is superior when the preceding vowel is short, since the American single L implies that the vowel is long.

Use final -l instead of final -ll

Strangely, many words that actually end in -ll in the US end in -l in the UK. Yanks write appall, instill, and enroll, while Brits write appal, instil, and enrol. Both write awful, harmful, stressful, etc. despite the obvious connection to full. The British practice is superior here, if only because it eliminates an unnecessary letter. Americans already live with cartel, canal, excel, propel, and repel.

Use -e- instead of -ae-

The small category containing aeon, haemorrhage, enclyclopaedia, and paedophile seem old-fashioned or even ancient to Americans, altho they write aerodynamics and even sometimes archaeology and aesthetic. The more usual American practice of simplifying to -e- (eon, hemorrhage, encyclopedia, pedophile, archeology, esthetic) is superior here, and should even be extended to create arodynamics, arobics, and other aro- words as well as Cesar for Caesar (he would have written IVLIVS CAESAR anyway, since Romans didn't have J, U, or lowercase letters; also US prefers cesarean).

Use -e- instead of -oe-

Even more so than -ae-, -oe- words like foetal and diarrhoea look old and foreign to Americans. On the other hand, Americans generally write subpoena, amoeba, and onomatopoeia, even tho valid non-oe- constructions often exist. The -e- construction should be prefered in all cases and extended where necessary (fetal, diarrhea, subpena, ameba, onomatopeia).

Use -or instead of -our

Americans have done without the rare but well-known "cosmetic U" in words like colour and favour for a long time, but a few cases linger on, such as glamour in spite of (US) clamor and (US/UK) glamorous. The American practice is superior in all cases and should be extended where possible (color, favor, clamor, glamor) and should even encompass mold and mustache, where Americans also eliminate the U.

Use -re instead of -er

Some Americans already like to affect the -re spellings for centre and theatre. But this small category also includes calibre, manoeuvre, sabre, sepulchre, sombre, and their derivatives. The British practice is superior here, since it better matches other Euro languages (especially for international measures litre and metre) and derivatives drop the E anyway (centercentric). Plus, it helps distinguish between agent words (shipper, boxer) and comparatives (nicer, taller), which should continue to use the -er spelling.

This also paves the way for further simplification by dropping the unnecessary final E: centr, theatr, calibr, sombr. Also, light and lighter can eventually become lite and liter without confusion with metric litre.

Use -gram instead of -gramme

This is an obvious (and tiny) case where the US program and kilogram are simpler, especially since British programme is already changing to the American spelling and telegram and diagram are existing UK spellings. Kilogram is kilogramm or kilogram in most languages.

Use -log instead of -logue

The unnecessary -ue is already gone in most cases in US English (altho the U sometimes is found in the -ed and -ing forms). The American practice is superior and should be extended where necessary: catalog, cataloging, monolog, dialog, travelog.

Use -ence instead of -ense

A very small group, the -ence root words can be counted on your fingers: defence, licence, offence, and their ilk. Altho US writers use -ense for these, there are nearly 200 valid -ence words in US English, so the construction isn't foreign-looking. There are extremely few -ense words that are found in both types of English (sense, dense, and immense, for example). These would stay, but the British spelling should prevail for -ence words.

Quotations

Britons use single quotation marks ("inverted commas") for normal conversation, but these are small and too similar to apostrophes and tend to get lost on the page. US writers use double-quotes. Both switch when there is a quote within a quote, so both are familiar with the other.

"I don't know," Jack said. "Laura told me: 'You can't. I won't allow it.'"

Punctuation

The British style of putting the a period or comma outside the quotation marks is superior, since it is more consistent with other punctuation and more specific when quoting something exactly. For example:

In the Password field, enter "1234".

In American style, the period would be inside the quotation marks, making the data entry uncertain. Should the user include the period or not? So, many move it outside anyway in this situation. If it were a question, the question mark would go on the outside even in the US.

Use aluminium instead of aluminum

The official international spelling of the metal your soda can is made of includes the extra letter I. It took several years in the early 1800s to settle on the spelling aluminium, but American engineer Charles Martin Hall popularized the current US spelling with his products—apparently as the result of a simple misspelling on his patent application. This would be a pronunciation change for Americans as well as a spelling change, but it's an obvious item to include if we're standardizing.

Miscellaneous

A number of other spelling differences don't fall into any of the other categories. Some of these are admittedly somewhat arbitrary.

  • US behooves is preferable to behoves because the vowel is clearer
  • UK bevvy is preferable to bevy because the vowel is clearer
  • US check is preferable to cheque for simplicity
  • US cipher is preferable to cypher because the vowel is clearer
  • US connection is preferable to connexion (dying anyway) because the derivation is clearer
  • US draft is preferable to draught because the F sound is clearer
  • US jail is preferable to gaol (dying anyway) because the J sound is clearer
  • US omelet is preferable to omelette because the stress is not on the last syllable

  • US plow is preferable to plough because the ending is clearer
  • US tire is preferable to tyre because the vowel is clearer (both use tire as in weary)
  • US yogurt is preferable to yoghourt for simplicity

Special oddities

In the course of studying the differences between US and UK spelling, I've come across a few peculiarities of interest.

  • disk is preferable to disc for clarity in derivations (disking)
  • smidgen, smidgeon, and smidgin are all valid variants in US and UK English (with smidgen being preferred in both). Smidgen is the superior form.
  • "Fraternal twin" words like dreamt vs dreamed, leapt vs leaped, and speciality vs specialty should be considered entirely different words and remain valid.

 

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Respond to this page by your e-mail client. Please be sure to mention the title of the article.

Sean from Australia/Germany writes:

I have to agree with your stance, Roland.
I can't pretend to be an expert in any language. But if we look through history, we easily notice that the English language has evolved, and is still evolving.
I myself am sometimes annoyed at the differences between American English, and British English. But mostly because, in being from a country like Australia, with more ethnic influences than simply British, deciding on 'the' way to spell something can be interesting. Sure we have an official Australian English dictionary. But when we see so much media from overseas using different spelling, it is easy to become a little confused. English IS still evolving. I can hear that in the difference between the way Australians spoke only 40 years ago, and how they generally speak now. Surely this will also be reflected one day in the spelling of our language.
Will English one day be again reformed, and a 'world' standard English introduced? I for one prefer a more phonetic spelling than what we currently experience in our language. As a student of the German language, I enjoy this. Words are spoken almost always just as they are spelt. Sure, English includes words from many other languages. But why shouldn't we officially change the English language, when it has already changed so much in the way we use it? Just the thoughts of an ignorant Australian.

 

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