As we all know, English is a universal language. There are several countries where it is spoken as a first language and a growing number where it is the principal second language, the Netherlands being one of these.
Differences and doubts
The problem for the latter group is that among the native-speaking countries, there are distinct differences in grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as in vocabulary. The two main adversaries in the war on linguistic dominance are Britain and the United States although other nations, such as Australia and Canada, are also important when considering which English to use.
These differences aren’t a great problem when it comes to speaking, but they can affect everything you write; for example, even something as basic as beginning a letter or email can present a problem: do you add a comma or a colon after the greeting, or do you use nothing at all?
In the U.K., the practice is either to write ‘Dear Mr Green’ with or without a comma depending on the company style, while in the U.S., they would write ‘Dear Mr. Green:’
So how do people in second language countries like the Netherlands know whether they are correct in their language usage and even more importantly, whether they are being consistent? It’s often a puzzle, and what makes it worse is when the native speakers within a country don’t agree on changes that have come into use over the years.
English in evolution
There’s no doubt that American styles and practices have influenced British English over the years and changes have taken place particularly in the area of spelling. However, it’s also possible that these changes might have taken place anyway. Language evolves constantly; if it didn’t we’d all still be speaking as they did in Shakespearean times.
Examples of this evolution are that past tense forms, such as ‘learnt’ are now often spelt as ‘learned’, and the single ‘l’ in ‘instal’ has now become ‘install’.
But not everything has changed. After all, in the U.K. they still use ‘instil’ not ‘instill’ and all Englishes use ‘sent’ as the past of ‘send’ and not ‘sended’, which would be the logical development. So getting things right can be a minefield of uncertainty, and this can even be true for native speakers themselves.
Settling on a solution
The question now is how to find a solution. Well, the key to all these issues is to simply try and be consistent. Whether you use ‘organise’ or ‘organize’ doesn’t really matter (and indeed, the Oxford dictionary allows for both) as long as you choose one form and stick to it.
The easiest way to start is to select the type of English you wish to use from the Tools menu in your Word or other word processing program when you begin composing a document in English. Then ensure that the spelling and grammar checkers are on. If you want to use American English, any British English you inadvertently use will be underscored: in red for spelling and green for grammar.
Avoiding the arguments
As for the other aspects of language use that aren’t covered by this tool, such as different expressions, vocabulary and even the use of certain prepositions (in the U.S. they say ‘on the weekend’; in the U.K. ‘at the weekend’), these will only become apparent if someone points them out to you.
With these pitfalls in mind, a good general approach is to avoid using expressions and idioms in your writing; use standard vocabulary that you know is understood worldwide; and check preposition use by looking up the words you’re combining them with in a good mono-lingual dictionary (e.g. Oxford or Longman’s Dictionaries for British English; Merriam Webster for American).
As with all things in language, knowledge is the key, but it starts with being aware that you need to be consistent. It’s both unprofessional and confusing if you use different punctuation forms, grammar and spelling in the same document. Added to this, you’ll almost certainly arouse the ire of the specialists amongst your readers. So, make sure you edit your work carefully.
The most important C
There are various versions available of the three (or even five) Cs of good writing, but none of them seem to include the importance of checking. In other words, because consistency is key to professional communication, don’t forget to check, check and check again!