Minding the Gap


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

February 13, 2020 

Minding the Gap

Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.

Watch BBC News followed by CNN, and you’ll quickly notice that British and American English diverge in significant ways. When doing business with international clients, you’ll want to pay attention to these differences so that you can avoid misunderstanding.

Words and Popular Expressions

While British and American vocabularies align about 90 percent of the time, some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in meaning can cause communication to go awry.

For instance, if I were to recommend that we “table discussion on an agenda item,” an American audience would expect me to postpone the discussion for a later time, but a British audience would expect me to bring up the item for immediate discussion. To table something in British English means "to call attention for vote or discussion," whereas to table in American English means "to set aside."

Idioms and slang are also ripe for cultural miscommunication. You wouldn’t want to call a British colleague a Monday morning quarterback. (This American football idiom meaning “a non-expert who criticizes or second guesses decisions” would be neither clear nor polite.)

Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of other lexical differences between British and American English, while these illustrated tables from Bored Panda offer another nice comparison.

Editor's Recommendation: In any international correspondence, use plain language and avoid slang, idioms, and other culturally dependent expressions. To avoid problems, look up key words in a British dictionary and provide plenty of contextual details about your main points.

Communication Style

American business communication tends to be direct and straightforward. Conversely, business communication in England and other countries that use British English tends to be more tentative and self-effacing.

What the British Say What the British Mean What Americans Understand
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further She accepts my point of view
That’s not bad That’s good That’s okay or pretty good
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I would suggest Do it or be prepared
to justify yourself
Think about the idea, but do what you like

Source: Forbes.com

Editor's Recommendation: Unless you have already established a rapport with your international client, adopt a softer tone and lead up to your main point (rather than stating it directly).

Spelling and Punctuation

American and British English spell some words differently and have different punctuation preferences. However, these differences are merely stylistic and generally do not harm communication.

  American English British English
-ise vs. -ize endings Organize, criticize, recognize Organise, criticise, recognise
-or vs. -our endings Color, honor, neighbor Colour, honour, neighbour
-er versus -re endings Center, theater, somber Centre, theatre, sombre
Oxford comma Generally, yes Generally, no
Quotation marks Double quotations with end punctuation on the inside Single quotations with end punctuation on the outside

Editor's Recommendation: Your spelling and punctuation choices will vary depending on the communication situation. If you are writing routine correspondence to an overseas client, use the same spelling and punctuation conventions you do in the States. However, if you are creating a formal document or marketing copy for an international audience, align your spelling and punctuation with the style preferences of the intended receiver.

Final Note

Your effort to recognize and respond to cultural differences in your business writing will not only get your message across clearly but also create a sense of community with potential clients.

And that's something to say “Cheers!” about.


Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and past eTips for more strategies for cross-cultural writing.