Why It’s Time to Stop Being Prissy About American English

So this thing's doing the rounds again:

When I was at school in Johannesburg, I was penalized for writing words like penalized with a 'z' (pronounced 'zed' – not 'zee'). Color was colour, favorite was favourite and even a cookie was a biscuit. I was indoctrinated into using 'the Queen's English' and, for the few years I taught the language, did my small part in brainwashing kids into using the 'right' version of the language. I was even moderately haughty because my English was better than the majority of what I was reading and hearing on television and in movies.

Then I began writing this blog. And I realized that the majority of my readers were American. My crisis of conscience came early, mercifully, and I knew I had to rethink my bias towards British English. Why on Earth would I insist on using a version of the language which would alienate 70% of my audience? So I dropped the British in favor of the American. Which, in turn, lead me towards becoming quite vocal about using American English in the various schools at which I have taught. But I haven't really sublimated my vocal protestations into writing until now.

So here it is: My 7 reasons why it's time to stop being prissy about American English

  • By far the majority of fiction and non-fiction, whether it is online, in print or in visual media come out of the good old US of A. Shouldn't those who make the most use of the language get to determine how the language is used? (And if your answer to this question is a stubborn 'no', then you are, I feel, denying the entire history of the language. English has always been malleable – shaped by those who use it. Just look at Shakespeare: take out all of the misspellings and neologisms, and you'll have nothing special left.) Think about it this way: The word 'nice' is used as a compliment these days, we don't hold on to its original meaning (describing someone who is silly, foolish or simple). And a similar semantic shift has happened with so many of the words we use. English is a democratic language: the majority decides. Eventually. That said, why should we standardize either way? The differences are so minor, and we all understand what is meant anyway, is there really any reason why we can't weave our own dialects into the version of English we want to use? Granted, business and legal documents would need some kind of standardization, but both of those are their own dialects anyway.
  • Building on the previous point: If teachers are going to insist on British English, despite the prolific output of books, movies, web content and television series in the American version, then they should not be prescribing American fiction or using American movies for visual literacy. What a silly thing to do: Prescribing Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby or Shawshank Redemption or Dead Poet's Society, and then penalizing kids for picking up the language these masterpieces use. Kids pick up a language in context, yet so many of us insist on telling them that most of what they read, view and hear is wrong.
  • The majority of examination boards in the former colonies and the current Commonwealth who do insist on British English no longer penalize kids for using the American version (or, as I do, skipping schizophrenically between them). Yet, in the lower grades, teachers remain remarkably prissy about not using American spelling or 'Americanizations'.
  • Every English speaking country has shaped the spoken language to its own customs and quirks. Aussie English is a very different beast to Scottish English in the spoken vernacular, and the English South Africans speak is very different to the Irish. And we are very open to this. In fact, we enjoy the diversity of English dialects. Yet when we write, we insist on trying to be model British citizens? Is this so that we can be globally understood? If this is the case, American English should be (and is) the ligua anglica of the globalized world. This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.
  • Holding on to the traditional use of something is actually a little bit nonsensical: Functional fixedness is a form of cognitive bias that “limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used”. This mental block may well limit creativity, innovation and the evolution of the language. (Again, think of Shakespeare.) Perhaps controversially, I would even contend that a large measure of the enormous American creative output is exactly because they have been able to create their own brand of English, and that they see the language as malleable instead of inflexible.
  • The point of learning a language is to make yourself understood, and to understand others. In writing, spelling is indeed important, simply because you are not taken seriously if your writing is riddled with errors. But American English spelling is just easier, and young people, as well as second language speakers are far less likely to get stuck on the arcane quirks of British English spelling than they are on American spelling. The result is that communication in American English is easier and less intimidating.
  • And American grammar is so much easier and drastically less confusing. Take formal and notional concord. In British English, you can say either “Which team are winning?” or “Which team is winning?” – depending on whether the collective is/ are considered a team or a group of individuals. In American English, it is always “Which team is winning?”

Source: Wikipedia


American English is not the poor cousin of British English. It isn't a mistake. To imply that it is, is to ignore the prolific literature and other works coming out of the USA. Language is for communicating effectively, and it should not be made more difficult than it needs to be. American English is simpler and easier to use, but it that doesn't make it less effective. Moreover, for countries like South Africa, who are still mired in British English, it smacks of elitism and a strange alliegance to a former colonial master. I say ignore the snobs and speak and write the English you're most comfortable with, and don't look down your nose at those who use the language differently to you. It only makes you look uncool.

And yes, I know my writing still holds on to many British conventions (like my preference for using adverbs like 'differently' instead of the more American 'different'). I take my language the way I take my tea: the way I want it. English is my language as much as it is the Queen's. Deal with it.

More recently, during a debate in the House of Lords in 1978 one of the members said: “If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is.” (We should perhaps bear in mind that the House of Lords is a largely powerless, nonelective institution. It is an arresting fact of British political life that a Briton can enjoy a national platform and exalted status because he is the residue of an illicit coupling 300 years before between a monarch and an orange seller.)”

― Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way


I look forward to your comments.



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