Eating ‘Bubble and Squeak’ Whilst Avoiding Taking Out the Rubbish Which Is Smelly

 

As George Bernard Shaw once noted wryly, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Some of the primary differences between the languages of the two lands that an editor and a writer will notice have to do with punctuation. Here in the U.S., we put periods inside the quotation marks, regardless of whether they’re part of the quotation.

Example:  Shakespeare said that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The British put the periods and commas outside the quotation marks.

Example: Shakespeare said that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Americans also put commas inside the quotation marks. Exclamation points, question marks, semicolons, and colons, however, go outside. The British put them all outside, including periods and commas. And it’s not just the British; Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Zimbabweans also do it that way.

Then there are quotation marks. In the U.S. we use doubles to set off speech, whereas in Jolly Olde England they use singles. This is true not just for speech; the same is true of single words that the author wants to set off, for whatever purpose.

In addition to all those differences with punctuation, there are the words themselves. Of course many Americans know that in England you take out the rubbish rather than the trash, or go to the top floor of a building in a lift rather than an elevator, or travel to another city in a coach rather than a bus.

These differences are fascinating; but of more interest to us in our line of work are the words that are very similar—for example, amid and amidst, and while and whilst. The former versions have long been considered American and the latter British. But we’re noticing a fair amount of “creep” (or ‘creep’, if you will) in this regard. People seem to feel that they sound more intelligent if they use the British versions, and we’re seeing them more and more often.

Another big difference lies in the use of “which” and “that.” An American editor worth her or his salt knows that “which” is used for a nonrestrictive clause, which means that the part that follows the “which” adds additional information that isn’t essential to primary topic of the sentence (see what we did there?). “That” is used for a restrictive clause, or when what follows it is essential to the sentence.

Examples: I looked at Jared’s car, which was parked down the street.

Jared’s car was the one that was parked down the street.

In the first sentence, the emphasis is on my looking at Jared’s car; the fact that it was parked down the street is less essential. In the second sentence, the fact that the car was parked down the street is crucial in identifying it.

In England, however, they’ll toss about the “which-es” with abandon. “Jared’s car was the one which was parked down the street!” they crow, never minding the distress they may be causing American readers.

That’s okay. We’ll do it whichever way you want it. Of course we like knowing the difference; we have to admit we feel rather clever about it. And it’s good to be able to meet the preferences of our clients. Who knows when we may be asked to help James Bond pretend to be an American?

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