I’m a Brit – born and bred. I’m also a copywriter, through and through. Put those two together and you get someone who’s sufficiently qualified and experienced to write compelling copy in British English.
And not any other kind of English, guvnor.
It sounds self-evident, but you’d be surprised how many clients (and, in 17 years as an in-house marketing communications specialist, how many colleagues) have asked me to write their copy and content ‘in American English’.
The rationale is varied and, inevitably, spurious. It makes them sound more technically competent, apparently (yes, seriously). It makes them sound like they’re part of something big and Stateside (tenuous). It makes it easier for foreign speakers of English to read (my derrière it does!)
And when I’m gently pushing back, the point they consistently fail to understand is this: I can’t write American because I do not speak American.
Course you do, they insist. Just use a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, and turn ‘-our’ into ‘-or’. That’ll do it.
What they’re missing here, of course, is that the mastery of any dialectical variation of a language depends not only on orthography (spelling), but also on vocabulary. And that’s a real Donald Rumsfeld of a problem – because when it comes to vocabulary, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Take the word ‘tap’, for example. OK, we all know that in the US they call that a ‘faucet’. But how many other words do they have, erm, other words for? Words that we, on our tiny little island, have never heard and have no idea are in common use over the other side of the pond?
I call a spade a spade. In American, that implement may be called, for all I know, a soilsplice. (Nice, huh?) I don’t know because I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen an American refer to such a thing.
I call a ballpen a biro. There’s sound provenance behind that, because it’s named after its Hungarian-Argentine inventor, but do the Americans use the same eponym? No idea – because I’ve never heard or seen an American refer to such a thing.
I call a vacuum cleaner a Hoover. Again, impeccable inventorial provenance, and the chap in question was even American, to boot – but do the Americans call it that? No idea – because I’ve never heard or seen an American refer to such a thing.
And although I love my overstuffed and in places slightly rotten shed, I don’t know if that’s what Americans call where they park their scarifiers or not. In fact, I don’t even know if they call them scarifiers. Because I’ve never…. alright, you can guess the rest.
Consider the American boss of mine who constantly chided me for writing ‘whilst’, as opposed to the apparently more normally American ‘while’ (how the hell was I supposed to know?). It’s a perfect illustration of the same phenomenon – I can’t second-guess how an American writes anything, because I have no native knowledge of American English, just the bits and bobs I’ve absorbed through film, literature and television.
In short, I am simply not qualified to produce anything for you in American English. Of course, it’s possible to Americanise (or ize? That’s the subject of another blog entirely!) a British English draft, and I’ll take the red pen like a man. But the idea that we know a language simply because we are familiar with some of its characteristics is absurd.
Sure, American English is ultimately extremely close to British English, and this means the two are almost completely mutually intelligible – but understanding is a passive process which is not necessarily entirely scuppered by gaps in vocabulary, whereas writing or speaking language is an active process in which an ignorance of vocabulary can lead you express something that is both unfamiliar and unintelligible.
I can read some Portuguese and some Spanish because I speak (bad) Italian, but I do not have the knowledge of vocabulary necessary to write in those tongues.
I can read some Dutch and Afrikaans because I speak German, but I do not have the knowledge of vocabulary necessary to write in those tongues.
Even in French, which I speak and write at home every day, I have no idea whether what I am expressing is vocabulary that is normal usage for, say, a Swiss or a Belgian or a Senegalese French-speaker.
So, my plea to you is this: don’t ask me to write your website, or your brochure, or your article, or your case study, in American English, because, bluntly, I don’t necessarily know when I’m writing Britspeak and when I’m not.
And that could turn out to be a proper ‘mare, mate.