Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Two Great Nations Divided by the Same Language

An Introduction to The Zipipop Style Guide

Every organization should follow a style guide to promote consistency, efficiency and clarity in the production of written material. I have developed this style guide after many years of copy-editing experience working for European-based NGO organizations (e.g. CMI). Since my clients have been requesting a style guide, I have created The Zipipop Style Guide partly as a gift to them; which explains the emphasis on words commonly used in text concerning development issues.

The development of a language is driven by the need to communicate and its effectiveness is achieved via consensus. However, this consensus must be allowed to be in a state of flux otherwise a language will lose its ability to evolve: hindering its effectiveness and future relevance.

The Internet has become both a powerful tool for speeding up linguistic consensus, while conversely, providing vibrancy and innovation. Therefore, it has become the ultimate editorial resource – particularly with the advent of services like Google, (the lexical companion to Wikipedia) and Wikipedia's own Manual of Style.

"Britain and America...two great nations divided by the same language." – Winston Churchill

"We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language." – Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost

When choosing to write in English one has to decide whether to follow the British or American traditions. The trends are definitely favouring American English – since any quick 'Google Fight' will result in an American spelling being overwhelmingly victorious (go to and try out color verus colour, or, center versus centre, or, organization versus organisation). However, this is biased towards centres of web content production (namely the USA).

It is not yet, however, a clear cut case of which tradition to go for as many millions around the world are not yet ready to give up using British English. This is largely due to identity and tradition, but there are also some practical considerations. British English and its variants, sometimes referred to as Commonwealth English, are wide spread across the world in influential countries such as Canada, Australia and India, and it is the preferred choice of European organizations, such as the EU and many international bodies such as the UN.

What many people don't realize, however, is that in both traditions there are still surprisingly many options for exercising choice in both spelling and style. Here are some examples in the British tradition that are 'officially' recognized: organize, organise; learnt, learned; co-operation, cooperation; I have a car, I have got a car; and the list goes on.

The American tradition is much stricter but will still 'officially' recognize, for example, both: canceling, cancelling (Wikipedia link to Differences between American and British English). However, by looking for situations where there is opportunity of agreement, I have created a British-based style that allows for increased harmony between the traditions. And I have called it The Zipipop Style Guide.


Roderick said...

many thanks for this helpful guide!
one tiny point: it would need to be "British English and its variants..."
"It's" is a contraction of "it is", but here you have a possessive pronoun: his, hers, its.
you are doing a great job for the English language (both traditions!)

Richard said...

Much thanks for the correction. I am not so good at copy-editing my own writing. A Reuters journalist friend said that they should always have a colleague check articles before sending them to the wire. Unfortunately, however, this is rarely possible when blogging. But glad you found it useful and appreciate the encouragement.