English: To Anglicise or to Americanize

As an American who has live in the US, Canada, the UK, and China, I have had to adapt my spoken and written English over time. All four contexts have different forms of written English (yes, there is such a thing as Canadian English, not to mention Chinglish), but this page will only discuss a few of the common style mistakes I have encountered between British English and American English.

To -ise or to -ize

The most noticeable difference between British English and American English is the two ending -ise and -ize. Now, for most writing, the difference is as simple as choosing the English style to write in: British (-ise) vs. American (-ize). This is true almost all the time. The one major exception is when you write for something at Oxford University Press: if you are writing in British English for OUP, you need to use -ize. Here is the explanation in New Hart’s Rules (for Americans, think the British equivalent to Turabian):

Oxford University Press has traditionally used -ize spellings.… They were favoured on both phonetic and etymological grounds: -ize corresponds more closely to the Greek roots of most -ize verbs, -izo [or -ιζω].

Anne Waddingham, New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 49.

Quotation marks

Another noticeable difference is in the use of quotation marks, both within the main text and in the scholarly apparatus—footnotes and bibliography. In terms of the choice of which quotation marks to use, it is as simple as choosing the English style to write in: British (single quotation marks [‘’], with nested text in double quotation marks [“”]) vs. American (double quotation marks [‘’], with nested text in double quotations [“”]) . Furthermore, in both, block quotes should have the margin moved in by ½ inch or 1.25cm and should not be wrapped with quotation marks.

Now the main challenge comes here: where do you put the punctuation mark?

  • American:
    • Commas and periods, always within the closing quotation mark.
    • Colons and semicolons, always following the closing quotation mark.
    • Question and exclamation marks: if it is part of the quotation, within the closing quotation mark; if it is not part of the quotation, following the closing quotation mark.
  • British:
    • When quoting a phrase or an incomplete sentence, punctuation marks are following the closing quotation mark.
    • When quoting a complete sentence which, therefore, requires the punctuation mark to make sense in its original form, place the punctuation mark inside the quotation marks. For example, ‘Jesus wept.’