x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Softening the impact when English worlds collide

One of the trickier issues that presented itself as I composed a style guide for The National concerned what should be done about Americanisms.

One of the trickier issues that presented itself as I composed a style guide for The National concerned what should be done about Americanisms. Life was more straightforward when I worked in London for The Daily Telegraph, which somewhat grandly banned each example provided there was "a reasonable word of our own". Here, the case for British English as our mode of expression was irresistible (though an Englishman would say that). Nevertheless, a degree of flexibility was desirable given the range of American influences, and the large numbers of Americans and Canadians, in the UAE.

Snatches of American conversation have, in any case, crept into everyday usage, and not only in the Emirates. Many people in the UK now routinely order food or drink by saying "can I get..?" in place of "may I have..?". Worse, the question "how are you?" frequently brings the reply "I'm good". With the language in such disarray, what possible hope was there of persuading North American colleagues to use good when meaning virtuous or well-behaved rather than to indicate that they were in robust health or did not require a second helping of food?

Instead of abandoning the struggle, almost before it had begun, I chose to persevere while also granting concessions to reflect the cultural mix. Our American/English glossary, prepared as an appendix to the style guide, borrowed its title from George Bernard Shaw: Two Countries Divided By A Common Language. Its lofty aim was to strike a balance, applying common sense rather than adopting a "no surrender" stance, and it began with an assurance that North Americans should take no offence at the decision to favour British English.

Questions of right and wrong did not arise, I wrote; the choice had been made "for perfectly logical reasons to do with the history and traditions of the region". The introduction acknowledged that certain words and phrases had become interchangeable through usage. "Apartment/flat is a good example of acceptable synonyms, while the phrase 'French fries' is readily understood to mean what the British call chips."

For good measure, I ruled against altering any direct quotation to make an American speaker seem British. In compiling the glossary, I also took the precaution of seeking the help of one British colleague and one American. Even so, The National's clear preference is for the English variant whenever conflict arises. Defence is never defense. A boy practises his tennis daily, this being his practice. We go to the theatre, having purchased tickets using the product of our labours. Cars are cars, and have bonnets not hoods.

Proper nouns are exempt. We refer to the attacks on the World Trade Center, but revert to centre for subsequent references not giving the title in full. But employees work from Monday to Friday, not Monday through Friday. Events happen on Tuesday, they do not happen Tuesday. In the spirit of flexibility, however, candidates may stand or run for office and films may be movies. Although there are lapses, the style guidance and rules are generally observed. Whether they are always understood is another matter. I shall never forget the look of confusion on the face of a Canadian colleague who was clearly trying his best to reconcile the rule on different spellings with the rule on not tampering with direct speech.

In all seriousness, he asked: "Are you sure we can change the verb from practice to practise? I mean, it was an American and he was being quoted directly." Colin Randall is the executive editor of The National. crandall@thenational.ae