by Rajan Venkataraman
Americans are different.
You don’t have to be a keen observer of US politics – with its primaries and electoral college, with its government shutdowns and its tea party – to reach this conclusion. They speak a different language too.
The first thing you notice, of course, is the accent.
Every Australian actor with dreams of making it big in the movies knows that they have to learn how to roll their r’s. While we grow up politely asking, “would you please pass the salt and peppa?”, this will not cut the mustard in Hollywood. And Americans study a subject called ‘math’ at school which we know to be ‘maths’.
That Americans use a different written language is evident when you use Microsoft products.
You’ll be aware that Americans use a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ to create words like organize, sympathize and optimize. While we agree with them that there is no ‘I’ in team, we disagree when they say there is no ‘U’ in words like neighbour, colour and labour (our ALP has adopted the American spelling for historical reasons). In Australia, we love our mums, but their mothers are as American as ‘mom and apple pie’.
The efficiency of Australian cars may be measured in kilometres per litre, but in America they spell these words meter and liter (although, in any case, they prefer to talk about their Chevys and Pontiacs and Humvees in terms of miles per gallon). The same spelling convention transforms our fibres into fibers as soon as they land at LA International Airport.
These differences are clear and well understood. There are other differences that are less clear-cut, however, and this is where things get trickier for an editor.
Did you know that in Australia and England ‘traveller’ (and travelling and travelled) are spelled with a double-L but in America with a single L? The same applies to counsellor/counselor, but usage does not always follow this rule.
Even more ambiguous is the difference between ‘towards’ and ‘toward’. An Australian rugby player is likely to run towards the try line while an American football player runs toward the end zone, but the two spellings are often used interchangeably in both countries. The same applies to forwards and forward.
In Britain, they spell ‘programme’, but an American would tell them to ‘get with the program’. In Australia, like a child trying to please both parents, we switch between the two and wish that everyone would just get along.
In America, they ‘practice’ with a ‘c’, whereas Australians ‘practise’ with an ‘s’ (that is, when it’s a verb, and when they remember). A common Australian error is to muddle licence and license: you trust your electrician has a ‘licence’ and, if he does, you may say he is ‘licensed’.
As editors, we have to keep in mind what country an author is from and for what audience he or she is writing. The Macquarie Dictionary is usually considered the ultimate authority on accepted Australian usage. However, an author may have their own preference or their organisation may have its own style guide. In that case, we look for consistency throughout the document.
Finally, Americans have led many of the advances in fields like management and logistics and information technology, particularly over the last fifty years, and they have introduced jargon and ways of speaking and writing that are unfamiliar to us. Do you remember when you first heard an announcement at the airport about passengers having to ‘de-plane’?
American sports-people, too, have a lot to answer for. It was they who began speaking about wanting ‘to medal’ at the Olympics or even ‘to podium’ in a car race, but now our swimmers and formula-one drivers speak like that too. These phrases may sound jarring to our ears but, as much as we may wish to cross them out, we recognise how quickly they become accepted and, as editors, we just have to let them go.