American vs British spelling

August 4, 2010

J, a long-time reader of this blog, emailed me in exasperation:

I have a gripe, and I thought you might have written on the subject.

It’s American spelling.

There is nothing wrong with American spelling, but when a product from New Zealand [or Australia, the UK, South Africa, Canada, etc.] is trying to become “international” and use American spelling in all of their marketing material, I get a tad upset. This is because as far as I can gather Americans are a minority in the minerals industry. My AdWords impressions of American phrases is an order of magnitude less than the British phrases (geologic modeling vs geological modelling).  The most offensive aspect of this is that they want to use the word “modeling” in their ads for a “geological modelling conference” organised by an Australian professional body that uses British spelling.

Am I just a grumpy old man??

My response:

This perennial argument has plagued Australian/NZ/South African/Canadian/British companies for years.  You might be a ‘grumpy old man’ but you join a legion of others who also get upset by this.

So, for some perspective and advice that I’ve offered other companies/individuals in the same situation:

  • Who is the PRIME audience for the product/conference/whatever?
  • Where it this PRIME audience located? (e.g. Australian geologists working in Africa; Canadian geologists working in the US; British oil patch guys working in Houston; Americans working in the USA; Australians working in Australia. etc.)
  • Don’t sweat it — choose ONE spelling variety based on your answer to the questions above and be consistent in its application. Use keywords in the metadata to provide alternative spellings that can be picked up by Google etc. The problem is that this choice of language/spelling can bubble up through all levels of the company — one company I worked for eventually made a decision at Board level, after a LOT of argument and time that would have been better spent on the business!

Be aware that most educated Americans in your field won’t be turned off by ‘modelling’, ‘grey’, ‘aluminium’ etc. — they should have had enough exposure to alternate spellings to just read it as they normally would; after all these words aren’t too far removed from their own variation. However, that’s human eyes, not computer/Google eyes. Which is why you need to get the alternate spellings into the copy/metadata too so that Google can pick it up. Perhaps be quite explicit and put a small sidebar-style box at the bottom of the page that lists the alternate spellings! Human readers will likely skip over it, while you achieve the aim of getting the search engines to index those words too.

Finally, here’s a list of words you might need to check for if you’re changing to one variety or the other:  https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2008/02/25/words-to-look-for-when-changing-spelling/

J’s response a day or so later was enlightening:

My complaining and your email helped [company name]’s marketing people change their mind about using the American spelling. Turns out that they had “advice” from a marketing agency that justified using American spelling as to not offend the American customers. They obviously didn’t look at the number of American users as they are a minority (perhaps 10%).

It’s amazing how a room full of the [collective] brains of [science] PhDs stop working when it comes to listening to marketing rubbish that these self-serving companies serve up. To me, sound marketing decisions can only be made after collecting some stats. Without the stats, you cannot plan a way forward, but these PhDs have no hesitation listening to some illogical gibberish when it comes to marketing issues. It is a scientific problem, yet they do not treat it that way! Arhhhhh!

Over to you…

What about your company? If it’s not located in the US, does it conform to US English for its marketing materials, documentation, text on the user interface, etc.? If so, why? If not, why?

I’d love to hear your responses to this — I’ve worked for many Australian software companies where they felt they had to change from Australian English to US English, in the belief that this was a way to get a foothold into the US market. Is this really true, or just marketing agency ‘spin’?

[Links last checked July 2010]


  1. thankyou, just subscribing via email

  2. […] Reasons to choose between British English and US English in your business are discussed in this article. […]

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