by DL Miller
If you spend time on the web and you’re sensitive to language, then you have probably noticed that not all blogs and websites follow the same rules. You may have spotted unfamiliar spellings and punctuation on sites that are clearly professionally written and edited. Why is that?
It’s because there’s more than one way to write proper English. Correct English usage varies for at least four reasons: the country of origin, the style guide being referenced, the author’s intent, and the purpose of the prose.
1. Proper English Varies by Country
Most people know the United States and United Kingdom disagree on how to spell some words; in a few cases, they even disagree on the correct number of syllables. If it’s got an added u, then it’s probably from a British source, and if it uses the letter z instead of s, it’s probably American. It gets a little more complicated in some cases, though. Did you know the Brits call aluminum aluminium? Yes, that’s right. It’s pronounced a-lu-min-um in U.S. and Canadian English, and al-u-min-i-um in the UK and Australia; there’s an extra syllable. Along the same lines, a British aeroplane is called an airplane in the U.S. and Canada.
2. Every English-Speaking Country Has Multiple Style Guides
“Okay,” you may say, “but I’ve seen differences in how punctuation is used within the same country.” There’s a good reason for that, too. Most professional writers, editors, and publications follow a particular style guide. Style guides provide rules for punctuation and usage. However, the two countries with the most widely used variations on the English language, the U.S. and UK, do not have official, government-endorsed style guides. It’s been left up to people in higher education, the press, and business to work out the details of the language.
Each country has dozens of competing style guides, although some are better known and more widely adopted than others. For example, American writers may follow The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or Fowler’s Modern English Usage. British English is the same; Oxford and Cambridge both publish style guides, there are many others, and they have conflicting advice on some issues.
3. There are Different Conventions for Different Kinds of Writing
Every major English-speaking country has at least one style guide that’s popular with newspapers and other media outlets, and others that are published by universities. Press standards are different from academic and high-end publishing standards. English usage also varies by industry and profession. Legal English is different from scientific English. Construction specifications don’t read like real estate listings. Professional English has its own needs, from greater precision to specialized concepts.
4. There are No Hard and Fast Rules
Finally, English is a living language and a form of expression. If we don’t agree on some rules and conventions, then clarity suffers and comprehension becomes more difficult. However, nobody is going to be thrown into prison for using unconventional grammar. An unusual use of language that is conscious and serves the style and deeper meaning of the material can be the best possible choice.
How can you tell if you’re looking at a mistake, a valid difference in style, or an artistic choice? Some people are more careful and rule-oriented writers than others, and much of the content on the web isn’t independently edited. Even reputable publications and popular websites sometimes allow articles with spelling and grammatical errors to slip through. In the end, if an article reads well and is easy to connect with, it’s doing its job. When you think about it, the differences in spelling and style between countries, style guides, and individual writers just add a little variety. It is amazing that more than a billion human beings can understand the same language and communicate with each other so easily.
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About the Author
Based in the UK, DL Miller is an architect and professional engineer who has transitioned into a career in writing. She has resided in the US, Canada and Scotland.