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  • Ben Fraser

A Pedant's Guide to the English Language - Part Two: "Americanisms"

Riding the elevator up to his third-story apartment, Zach was cooked. He was considering just crashing out on the couch, ordering takeout and watching a movie. He sure needed a vacation, he thought to himself.


Not long after, he was sipping a Coors Light in front of the TV. Euro-soccer highlights were playing. A knock on the door: the deliverer. Getting lethargically to his feet, Zach was shocked to open his wallet and find it empty of bills. Goddammit! He’d forgotten the ATM when he got off the subway.


Running to his bedroom, he began a frantic search of the closet, in which he often kept spare dollars. His pant pockets yielded nothing until, to his delight, he found about fifty bucks in one of the drawers.


Money in hand, Zach rushed to the door but, opening it, discovered the guy had gone. Desperate for deep-dish, he raced to the end of the hallway; looking down, his heart sank as he saw the Carlo’s van pulling out of the parking lot.

The tragedy of this tale is plain for all to see; from a sibling’s theft to a fallen, curbside kebab, the loss of coveted comfort food is no joke (1). Similarly, the protagonist's choice of beverage is worthy of lament and, to a much lesser degree, my refusal to deal in anything other than stereotypes when it comes to our colonial cousins.


However, for all the woe this short account contains, it pales into insignificance, from a position of pedantry, when compared with the linguistic injury inflicted upon our mother tongue.


Perhaps, for some of you, Coors Light is a tipple of choice (2). Perhaps, it is quite natural to withdraw from an “ATM”. An apartment certainly sounds more glamorous than a flat. And yet, as familiar as some “Americanisms” have become, you should think twice before using them. Not only are such forms a cause of exasperation for us petty linguistic purists, many of whom are to be found in academic circles; equally, they can become a source of confusion.


First, there is the question of spelling; the Americans dispense of perceptibly superfluous lettering, relics of French influence. Neither do they share the implicit British distrust of the letter “z”, which you should, by no account, ask them to pronounce. I offer some illustrative spelling pairs below:

fulfil - fulfill; colour - color; analyse – analyze; storey - story. (3)


In the third instance, we notice that there is no distinction in American English between a narrative and the floor of a building. And yet, in the era of word-processors, spelling is largely untroublesome, as long as you can discern between London and Washington. Choosing the words themselves, however, requires a little more thought.


At times, I concede, the Atlantic ocean does not seem all so wide; nowadays, nearly as many UK speakers see a “movie” in their local cinema as do a “film”. Nonetheless, the degree of vexation still elicited by American linguistic exports should not be underestimated (4). The work email, tentatively “touching base”, immediately becomes a red rag to its bullish British reader. The happy holidaymaker cancels their trip before boarding an “airplane” to get there.


And yet, apparent British recalcitrance is not the only factor at play; as mentioned, Americanisms can lead to genuine ambiguity. For instance, amongst the UK population, the Scots alone attend something known as “high school”; even to them, the “Sixth Grade” is a measure of how well you play the French horn (5). In the same way, the mention of a “ramp”, to the British motorist, would summon up memories of America’s own Evil Knievel, before we even cross a “median strip” or come to an “intersection”.


To summarise: it’s always essential to be aware of your audience when writing so you can tailor your language accordingly. This pertains not only to formality or register but also to the geographical variety of English you employ.


*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!

Postscript:


Though I was, to clarify, only half-joking throughout, I don’t go to the extreme of regarding foreign borrowings, American ones included, as a threat to British culture, an attitude of linguistic purism to which I’m sure I’ll allude again at a later date. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to acknowledge how language can be seen to mirror culture; in English, we might refer to a burglar or suchlike as an “intruder”, yet, in America, such an individual is given the characteristically hyperbolic appellation of “home-invader”.

(1) Unless, of course, it happens to someone else...


(2) Though, if it is, you are beyond all help.


(3) UK - US


(4) See, for instance, this 2011 article by the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14201796, accessed 05/07/2020.


(5) The equivalent for English readers would be Year 7; if you are writing an education essay, which covers cross-cultural case studies, my advice would be to speak of ages, rather than year groups.


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