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American and British English: Quick Guide for Scientific Writing

The noticeable differences between these two varieties of English pertain mostly to spelling and punctuation. When you use American English, the commas and the periods go inside the quotes—no matter what. (Yes, it’s strange. We don’t know who started this trend, maybe the early Americans wanted to be rebellious toward the British in the early years of America’s history. There are also some subtle spelling differences that need to be addressed, either by changing them over (if you have the target journal) or by addressing the author asking what English conventions they prefer using. These differences can be spotted by using our handy guide to American vs. British English. Our guide below covers differences pertaining to spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.

(I) Spelling

This table, from our fellows at Oxford, should help with the spelling patterns.

British spelling

American spelling

Examples of British/American spellings

Comments

-ae-

-e-

aestivate/estivate
aetiology/etiology
anaesthetic/anesthetic
haemoglobin/hemoglobin
leukaemia/leukemia

Beware aero- words, which are the same in British and American spellings, e.g. aerofoil, anaerobic

-oe-

-e-

oestrogen/estrogen
oesophagus/esophagus
oedema/edema
diarrhoea/diarrhea
dyspnoea/dyspnea
manoeuvre/maneuver

-re

-er

centre/center
fibre/fiber
litre/liter
metre/meter
titre/titer

-our

-or

behaviour/behavior
colour/color
humour/humor
tumour/tumor

Note that ‘tumor’ is becoming the standard international spelling in gene and protein names (e.g. tumor necrosis factor)

-logue

-log

analogue/analog
catalogue/catalog
dialogue/dialog
homologue/homolog

Note that -logue forms are sometimes used in US texts

-lyse

-lyze

analyse/analyze
catalyse/catalyze
hydrolyse/hydrolyze
haemolyse/hemolyze

Applies only for verbs derived from ‘lysis’

-ical

-ic

anatomical/anatomic
biological/biologic
morphological/morphologic
serological/serologic

Note that -ical forms are often used in US texts

-ence

-ense

defence/defense
offence/offense
licence (n.)/license
pretence/pretense

-l

-ll

fulfil/fulfill
enrol/enroll
distil/distill
instalment/installment

But beware, e.g., install/install, compel/compel, which are spelled the same in British and American English

-lled, -lling, -eller

-led, -ling, -eler

labelled/labeled
labelling/labeling
modelled/modeled
modelling/modeling
modeller/modeler
travelled/traveled
travelling/traveling
traveller/traveler

-trophic, -trophin

-tropic, -tropin

adrenocorticotrophic/adrenocorticotropic
gonadotrophin/gonadotropin
thyrotrophin/thyrotropin

Words suffixed by ‘-trophic’ meaning nourishment (e.g. heterotrophic) are spelled the same in British and American English, as are words suffixed by ‘-tropic’ meaning directional growth (e.g. geotropic)

Lose the ‘l’. You might’ve noticed from the table that the British add extra l’s to certain words (e.g., travelled or labelled). But, for words that have a double-l before a suffix is added, the second l is eliminated when an -ly enters the picture. For example, Americans write skillfully, whereas the British write skilfully. (The word skill has a double-l before the addition of a suffix, thus this rule is applied to it.)

To ‘z’ or not to ‘z’. A common issue that is seen in the transition between American and British English is -ize vs. -ise (or -yze vs. -yse). Below are some words that preserve -ise no matter which version of English you use.

advertise
advise
arise
comprise
compromise
demise
despise
devise
disguise
enfranchise
excise
exercise
franchise
improvise
incise
merchandise
premise
revise
supervise
surmise
surprise
televise

Able to remain silent(e). The use of a silent ‘e’ in British English is common practice. You might see these pop up in spellings that have the suffix -able at the end. For example, likable (American English) vs. likeable (British English). This phantom ‘e’ also pops up in words like aging (American English) vs. ageing (British English).

Heading in the right direction. British English favors the ending -wards (e.g., towards) while Americans use -ward (toward).

(II) Grammar

Some of these subtleties you might be more familiar with, but some may also surprise you.

Comments on the comma. This may come as a shock to you, but it’s the Americans who prefer the use of the Oxford (serial) comma, while the British opt to not use it at all. Hopefully this barbaric practice doesn’t change your opinion of their swarthy accents; they may be comma heathens, but just listen to the BBC.

Quoting the greats. There are a few things about quotes that need to be ironed out. With the exception of some scientific disciplines (like math or computer science), Americans put their commas and periods inside the quotes, no matter what. Your house could be attacked by rabid bears, and the great American grammarians would still not budge on this matter. On the contrary, unless it’s dialogue, the Brits put their periods and commas outside of the quotes.

Quote-ception. What you think you know about double quotes and single quotes is not what you actually know about them. Leonardo DiCaprio channelling aside, Americans use double quotes when they quote something, and use single quotes when they quote something inside another quote. For example, “Sir, I’m not sure you understand, but the word ‘tweet’ has nothing to do with computers. Are you from the future?” However, in British English, this would be reversed: ‘Sir...the word “tweet” has nothing to do…’ In other words, their default is to use single quotes, but to employ double quotes when there’s a quote within a quote.

Comma-gain? The use of the comma after abbreviations like e.g. and i.e. is an American convention. For example, Americans would write the following: “The clam, i.e., a common mollusk, is definitely tasty.” The British would write this: ‘The clam, i.e. a common mollusk, is definitely tasty.’

The perfect present. The Brits have a thing for the present perfect tense to express an action that happened rather recently or directly affects the current moment. For example, ‘I’ve just devoured a massive sandwich.’ Note the use of ‘just’ in this sentence. The use of just, already, and yet are staples in instances of the present perfect in British English. In American English, you can get away with saying, “I devoured a massive sandwich.” You may get some weird looks (usually in the flavor of “Who cares? I ate a salad.”), but it’s correct for manuscripts utilizing American English.

No stopping us now. Americans put periods (full stops) after abbreviations like Mr., Mrs., St., Dr., and so on. Not so for British English folks: Mr, Mrs, St, Dr, ...

(III) Vocabulary

This is Spelling: The Sequel, but with an added twist.

Below is a handy table we’ve adapted to fit our need-to-know terms. Perhaps you are editing a cover letter or are working on a paper in transportation engineering; either way, these are often the terms that slip through the cracks.

British

American

aluminium

aluminum

anti-clockwise

counterclockwise

At weekends

On weekends

grey

gray

plough

plow

programme

program

transport

transportation

tyre

tire

Yours faithfully

Yours truly / Respectfully yours

Yours sincerely

Sincerely yours

Putting it mildly. A cultural habit, in both America and Britain, that directly affects writing in a scientific manuscript is the use of euphemisms. Scientific papers should not have them, no matter which version of English you are applying to the paper. No matter how clean “sacrificed” looks in the methods section of a paper, you should substitute it with “killed” or “humanely killed” instead.

You have successfully made it through our guide for British and American English! Congratulations! Now on to be as precise as possible in your quest for editorial perfection. No pressure or anything…


(Please retain the reference in reprint: http://www.letpub.com/index.php?page=author_education_american_british_english)


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