woman writing difference in spellings between American and UK english

Translating English to English should be pretty straightforward, right? After all, American English and U.K. English are essentially the same language. But differences lurk in the spellings and grammar of each.

Pronunciation and vocabulary differences aside, there are variations between the two dialects on paper, although they are fewer than the spoken differences. You’ll be able to get your general message across in either language, but for localized content in the U.K. you should be mindful of awkward phrases, potentially confusing turns of phrase, and outright errors.

Here, we’ll look at a few basic tips for businesses looking to translate their content from U.S. to U.K. English.

1. Pinpoint any industry-specific terms you frequently use.

This is helpful regardless of your source language or target language. Look into terminology in your content and ensure you’re using the correct U.K. terminology, whether it’s legal, financial, medical, or scientific.

2. For more-technical translations, be sure to adhere to U.K.-specific regulations and specifications.

For translations of financial documents, government-related content, or medical topics (e.g., medical device or pharmaceutical-labeling translations), you may need to follow specific regulations that can affect not only the translation but also the nature of the content. Be sure to check with any compliance requirements in the U.K., and make sure your linguist has expertise in the subject matter to help you avoid any inaccuracies.

3. Avoid land mines like awkward (or potentially offensive) wording.

Some resources on the web have outlined entire glossaries of U.S. and U.K. words and how they do (or don’t) mean the same thing in each language. For the most part, these differences are harmless, but be sure your translator is keeping an eye out for any that might mistakenly slip through.

For instance, if you’re talking about banking or finances, it might be helpful to know an ATM is called a cashpoint in the U.K. For medical translations, pharmacies and drugstores are known as “chemists,” which is likely unusual to Americans. A reservation is known as a booking in the U.K., an apartment is a flat, gasoline is petrol, mail is post, and so on.

This post has a great rundown of common differences in vocabulary between U.K. and U.S. English.

4. Pay attention to dates.

While not a hard-and-fast rule, American English tends not to use an article when writing out a date, while British English does. Americans are more likely to say “September 21st,” while U.K. speakers will say “the 21st of September,” adding an article.

Also, the day and month can get flipped when using the “day/month/year” format. For example, 3/4/2018 is March 4 in the U.S., but April 3 in the U.K.

Note: Fortnight is still regularly used in the U.K. for a period of two weeks.

5. Minimize use of colloquial phrases.

This is a good rule of thumb for weeding out fluff that is difficult to translate and doesn’t add real value to instructional or educational content.

6. Keep grammar standard to the target language.

U.K. English has a few grammar differences from U.S. English such as past tenses (e.g., dreamed vs. dreamt) and participles, hyphenated compounds, capitalization of acronyms, prepositions (“different to” in the U.K. vs “different than” in the U.S.), and collective nouns. Your translator should be versed in these differences, but be aware even the most straightforward sentences might need tweaking to read as true British English.

Get a good rundown of the differences in grammar and verb agreement here.

7. For e-commerce translations, note common retail phrases.

Retail jargon can be a bit different in the U.K., with important differences for companies selling products overseas to note. If you’re localizing an e-commerce site for the U.K.—a good idea, considering it’s the most mature e-commerce market in Europe—even calls-to-action and navigation can be affected by the language change.

For example, “on sale” can mean “available to purchase” in the U.K., while in the U.S. it means “reduced in price.” The term shopping carts is common in the U.K., but an alternative is “shopping basket”—“abandoned baskets,” or “dropped baskets.” For shipping, packages are often called “parcels.”

8. Ensure spelling doesn’t make your content stand out as translated.

There are quite a bit more u’s in British English than in American English: favourite, colour, honour, labour, and harbour, to name a few. Other differences include

-re vs. -er (centre vs. center)
-ce vs. -se (defence vs. defense)
-ise vs. -ize (recognise vs. recognize)
Double consonants, as in cancelled vs. canceled

Each has its exceptions, but it’s good to be aware of these common differences.

Need to publish some localized content in the U.K.? Engage a skilled British English translator today.

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