American and British Business-Related Spelling Differences

By Scott, James Calvert | Business Communication Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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American and British Business-Related Spelling Differences

Scott, James Calvert, Business Communication Quarterly

English language business-related documents around the world contain purposeful spelling differences that reflect two standards, American English and British English. Given the importance of culturally acceptable spelling, the need to be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences, and strong reactions to variation in spelling, it is important to understand the differences in these two spelling systems. Families of words that illustrate spelling practices draw attention to differences between the American and British spelling systems. Under at least some circumstances, business communicators should accommodate for spelling differences when communicating with those from other cultures. Implementing the presented teaching ideas based upon reacting, discussing, adapting, researching, and writing can clarify understanding of the American and British business-related spelling systems and help learners to prepare more culturally sensitive business documents when appropriate.

Keywords: American English; British English; orthography; cultural variation; cultural accommodation


HOW SHOULD BUSINESS COMMUNICATORS spell these words: enquire or inquire? analog or analogue? paralyse or paralyze? Business-related documents around the world include similar spelling choices that in part reflect cultural ethnocentrism, the writers' belief that their own cultures--including the spelling systems--are inherently superior to that of other cultures (Victor, 1992). Business communicators can choose to implement American, British, or hybrid (e.g., Canadian) spelling practices when communicating with those inside and outside their own cultures.

But how important are spelling differences? According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, "The most obtrusive differences between present-day American and British documents are their spellings" (McArthur, 1992, p. 970). Millward (1989) contended that "proper spelling has become so culturally important that 'Thou shalt not spell incorrectly' has almost the status of an eleventh commandment" (p. 270).

According to research conducted by Green and Scott (1992) and Scott and Green (1992), respondents from the 100 largest companies in both the United States and the United Kingdom overwhelmingly thought that being aware of and sensitive to differences in English language usage, including spelling, were essential. About 70% of both American and British respondents indicated that being aware of and sensitive to differences in English language usage were critically important, very important, or important.

In an unpublished action research study I conducted in 2003 with U.S. and U.K. classes of about 35 undergraduate business students in each country, I found evidence that people respond strongly to what they perceive to be incorrect spelling. When presented with three randomly ordered passages of reading material with characteristic American spelling, British spelling, and half-American and half-British spelling (see Crystal, 1995), respondents--including international students--always strongly preferred the passage that conformed to the local spelling standard. About two thirds of the respondents labeled the spelling in the other two passages as somewhat bad, rather bad, or extremely bad. This limited evidence suggests that for some prospective and practicing businesspersons, spelling provokes strong reactions that appear to be culturally based.

Given the importance of culturally acceptable spelling; the need for businesspersons to be aware of and sensitive to differences in varieties of a language, including spelling differences; and the evidence that prospective and practicing businesspersons react strongly to variation in spelling, this article addresses differences in U.S. and U.K. business-related spelling practices and provides related instructional ideas.

For the purposes of this article, American English and British English spelling refer to the respective standard national systems for English language spelling that also constitute the two leading English language systems for spelling.

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