You’ve been asked to edit a document according to a dialect of English the document wasn’t written in. Maybe it was written in British English and needs to be in American English. Or maybe it was written in American English and needs to be in Australian English. What should you look for? How deeply should you edit?
It can be fairly easy to translate something into your native English dialect because you’ll recognize when something’s amiss, even if you don’t know whether it’s correct in the original. It’s harder to translate from your own dialect into another, unless you’re already familiar with the second dialect. It’s also hard to know what in your dialect isn’t done in another.
The first things to consider are who your audience is and what should be localized. The less familiar your audience is with other dialects of English, the heavier you want to edit.
What should you focus on in this type of edit?
- Grammar and usage
- Hidden differences
English dialects share many words, but be alert for the words that have different meanings in different dialects. A British vest is an undershirt, while an American vest is a sleeveless sweater (something Brits would call a waistcoat). In Australian English thongs are a type of sandals, while G-strings are a type of undergarment. In American English, both words are used to refer to a type of undergarment.
You’ll also come across words found in one dialect but not in the other. Cookie is found mostly in American English, while British English and Englishes heavily influenced by British English call a small, flat baked good a biscuit. American biscuits are altogether different (but equally yummy).
Sometimes you can catch these differences by paying close attention to logic and meaning. But a working familiarity with the dialect you’re translating into will give you a head start. Check dictionaries that cover the dialect you’re translating into when in doubt.
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Spelling differences are not as straightforward as you might think. Most of us recognize –or and –ize as American English spellings, while –our and –ise are British English. But not everyone is aware that the –ise ending isn’t universally used in British English and that Canadian English splits the difference by using –our and –ize. You need to be familiar with the spelling conventions of the dialect you’re translating into.
But what counts as different spellings and what counts as different words? Is Mum a different word than Mom, or simply a different spelling? I’d argue that they’re different words, just as Ma is, and that the difference could be geographic but could equally be personal preference and family culture. I call my mother Ma, my children call me Mom, and a friend of mine calls her mother Mum. We are all from the same city, attended some of the same schools and know some of the same people, yet we use three distinct words for our mothers.
Grammar and Usage
Shouldn’t the grammar be the same for all dialects of English? For the most part, yes. But each has tendencies the others don’t. If you really want a manuscript to sound like the dialect you’re editing for, you’ll want to pay attention to grammar as well. Grammar differences might not jump out at readers, but they will contribute strongly to the voice of the piece.
For example, British English uses try and, while American English allows try and only in informal prose. The preferred form is try to. When British English uses have got, American English uses just have. And while American English will use have gotten for a change of state, British English will only use gotten.
Most of us know that American English uses double quote marks (“ ”) for quotations and puts sentence-ending punctuation inside the quote marks, while British English uses single quote marks (‘ ’) and puts sentence-ending punctuation outside. What do other Englishes do?
As well, American English prefers the em dash (—) for a dash, while British English often uses the en dash (–). Check the style guide to see the client’s preferences.
As you review the project with your client, ask some key questions:
- Who’s the audience? Do they switch between regional differences easily?
- What should be localized? Is the audience familiar with non-local terms or concepts?
- Is the word in question one with another meaning in the other dialect?
Keep in mind, too, that when it comes to language usage Americans like rules, while Brits like having a good ear. The American approach aims at a level playing field, while the British approach leads to more regionalisms and classisms.
A good rule of thumb is to do your research. Read the client’s style guide—thoroughly—and ask questions. Research the style of English that you are asked to edit in and become not just familiar but comfortable with it.
And if you’ve become tired of reading articles and skimming dictionaries, ask an editor friend for some advice. We’re a community for a reason! Perhaps you can chat over cookies—er, biscuits—as well.
A version of this article originally published on October 27, 2017, on Copyediting.com.