Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Divided by a common language

During my six years in Canada, I have had the pleasure of sending many forms, documents and letters, not to mention lots of hard-earned cash, to the following address:

Consulate General of Canada
Immigration Regional Program Centre
3000 HSBC Center
Buffalo, New York

Notice anything strange there?

Canada officially uses British English spelling, which as a Brit I tend to notice only in juxtaposition with the US alternatives. In reality, American English is not only tolerated but crops up all over the place. I’ve seen a lot of strange mixtures of the two spelling systems - most Canadian research centres (it’s almost always a centre) have tumour programs, but the odd tumor program or even tumour programme might crop up.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that I’m in the middle of finali(s/z)ing a big grant application. We’re submitting it to a US government agency, who are funding fewer grants each year and are becoming less and less likely to send money out of the country. My department has a large British contingent and has always used British spelling. However I’ve managed to persuade them to use US spelling this time around.

My time in industry taught me that when your customers are largely American, using British spelling is detrimental. I think this is because Americans are generally much less accustomed to reading British spelling than Brits and Canadians are used to reading American English. Words like tumour, realise, centre, colour and especially programme tend to leap out of the page at them and remind them that this is a foreign company that's trying to get their money. My last employers switched to US spelling in all their materials based on this kind of customer feedback.

The same goes for grants. The last thing we want to do is constantly remind our reviewers that this research will not be taking place in the USA. Of course they will already know this, but when every paragraph keeps reminding them that this is not an American application, it must affect their opinion of the grant in some way. Using American spelling won’t give us an advantage, but using British spelling would be a definite disadvantage.

Any thoughts? I’ve cross-posted this at my other blog to see whether the comments of my predominantly US-based Blogspot readers are any different to those of the more international crowd at Nature Network, which also contains several editors and other professional writers…

If you're fascinated by sharks (and who isn't!) you might want to check out this post too.


  1. Hmmmm, interesting take. I will say, as an American, that British spelling *does* leap out at me as you describe. And I think that seeing it in a proposal would indeed serve to remind me that the applicant is not American.

    In my old lab we had a British postdoc who used British spellings in his lab presentations, and sometimes got teased about it by us Americans. So he even placed a little note at the bottom of his slides, stating that all spellings were consistent with the Oxford English dictionary.

    Would be interestiing to hear what those on grant committees think of this.

  2. I find the British spellings absolutely charming, but I do notice every single one of them when I'm reading papers or applications. I wouldn't have thought of it, but my uneducated guess is that it's better to blend in terms of language and let the science speak for itself. Good luck - it's hard to pry money away from us Americans right now.

  3. Bean-Mom: according to people at Nature Network, the OED is not always in agreement with the way most Brits and Canadians spell. At least with the ise / ize issue. Interesting.

    I'm hoping to hear from someone who's been on a US grant committee too - I only know people with Canadian experience.

    Post-doc: I agree, the last thing you want is to distract your reviewers from the science with your language. (Unless it's a horrible proposal, I guess, which this one definitely isn't). Thanks for your good luck wishes - it's hard times for everyone right now. We all know we're probably on a hiding to nothing with this grant. The major problem we're experiencing is that the less money that's paid out by the US government, the more American PIs apply for smaller speciality grants from charities etc. that we used to have less competition for...

  4. I love this topic, and wondered whether or not to bring it up at work. I will be looking forward to the response. In my opinion, if submitting to a US agency then use US spelling, as even if the reviewer doesn't object to the 'other' spelling, they will certainly notice it in passing and that will detract from content. I notice typos when reading and they catch my attention...yes, I know a different spelling is not a typo, but the concept is the same.


  5. Just tell 'em that all the cool kids in my department are doing it now!

    When I was arguing my case, it was the fact that our last employer used US spelling for good reason (i.e. customer reactions and feedback) that did the trick. I'd asked about spelling and style guides early on in that job when all my work got switched to US spelling.

    BTW, I take it you heard the story of one former rep being thrown out of an American lab after being told that the PI would only buy from a Canadian company if the Canadian government sent its troops to Iraq?

  6. Not that I expect it will be in your proposal, but the one British-ism that I know of that isn't just acceptable, but demanded by many Americans is "theatre." Almost every single person in my undergrad program point-blank refused to spell it "theater."

    And I went to school in the Midwest!

  7. Interesting! I wonder why that is? And you're correct, the word theatre does not appear in my grant application!

  8. I wonder if you can do a poll that would attract grant reviewers and find out if alternative spelling is distracting

    And I had no idea about someone being tossed from a lab because we weren't participating in Iraq. Wow!

    Sorry for the previous double post. I have no idea how that happened

  9. I'll tell you who it was next time I see you - didn't want to bring it up at coffee with others around!

    Don't worry about the double posts, it happens... I usually just delete one of them!

    p.s. I got a new contact lens prescription at my eye exam just now and things are suddenly much clearer!

  10. If you are consistent, which one presumes you would be, the un-American spellings should not count against you, particularly since you are applying from Canada. I cannot speak to the personal biases of all grant reviewers from all US funding agencies, but I don't think you need to lose sleep over this. A quick search of CRISP (i.e., funded PHS applications) turns up tumour, centre, visualise, programme, and so on. Poor diction and faulty grammar would be a more significant stumbling block. You may need to be careful of word choice ... not sure of a science example, but on the lines of biscuit vs cookie.

    In the reverse direction, you won't see British spellings coming back on any summary statements (or you shouldn't). NIH Scientific Review Officers monitor these to remove British spellings and other potential identifiers in written critiques so as to maintain the anonymity of reviewers (otherwise, the lone Brit or Aussie or Canadian etc. on the panel might stand out).

  11. Saw your comment on Writedit's blog. I review a lot for journals; when I see British spelling, I check journal policy before requesting authors change over to American spelling (if it's an American journal). Conversely, when I've written for British journals, I ask if I should switch spelling or if the journal's staff will do it for me (usually the latter). I cannot think of a case where British spelling influenced me. If there are language difficulties to the point where I cannot make out what the authors have done, I send the paper back and make it clear I'm rejecting pending language revisions and that I cannot judge the science fairly. So far this has not happened with grants.

  12. I don't recognize any words as having alternate spelling except the 'reali(s/z)e' and variants thereof.

    The thing is, there will be a person that reads this grant. I figure that the chances of this person actually being from the US being small. I say this because as I look around my department (and this might not be an accurate representation of the funding agency), I only know of 1 US born person that is faculty.

    My boss, who is canadian, gets made fun of all the time for saying "la-bor-a-tory" as opposed to "labratory". I guess it just depends on the person reading.

  13. Thanks all for your feedback! I should of course have said that consistency is the most important thing.

    That's very interesting that they remove any possible identifying language from reviews. I didn't know that - and that's why I love your blog, writedit!

    bb, I've generally found journals to be relatively relaxed about these things - although the comments that this post generated at Nature reveal how much thought goes into setting house styles.

    geeka, excellent point. This is an international business after all. And I've heard that the international language of science is bad English, so maybe the spelling doesn't matter after all!

  14. I think I would go with "when in Rome ...."

    I wouldn't have said it prior to my [American] post doc experience but I have heard it so many times that "this is not how we write things here, change". Of course, it might be even sligthly different since I am not a native speaker/writer in English so I guess the arguemnt would be that I wouldn't mind adapting into the 'current' dialect/language where I am?!

  15. I agree that it would highlight the non-American-ness of your grant and possibly be a detriment.

    I always notice British spellings. I've said before how I read everything in an American accent, but when I come across a British-spelled word, I hear it in an Engligh accent.

  16. Chall - interesting! You're European, right? So did you learn British or US spelling at school? Many German and French students I've known have a definite American accent when speaking English, apparently from watching lots of US movies!

    EGF, that just has to be confusing. Do you hear British-pronounced words in the middle of a whole load of American-accented writing?!

  17. Yes. That's why the alternate spellings are so noticeable to me.

  18. What about alternative word use?

    (I'm supposed to be describing how the work proposed in our grant application will cure all disease ever. It's easier to tease Americans instead. Sorry).

  19. I learnt English in a country that used British spelling and pronunciation. But I've also been living in the US for a long time, so I often get confused and have a tendency to switch back-and-forth when I write. Which is obviously not good!

  20. You should move to Canada - you'll fit right in!

  21. Ahh... yes, European (Scandinavian). For the first 6 years, before "high school" I was thought "the proper way of spelling, writing and speaking", which would be the British English ;)

    Then in high school I had a teacher that said "we could learn any version of the English laguage [Us, British, Australian etc]as long as we were consistent - which also meant we had to learn the British way of spelling as well as knowing what would be different in American spelling... I, along with the majority of my class, picked British English simply because it was closer to heart.

    Hence, I endured a tonne of mocking when I moved to Vancouver since I spoke with some kind of "posh upperclass British" which was the British we learnt. After a while I ended up with some kind of "Canadian with a hint of British" and now since I have been in the South of US for a while I know I have a more American version... and people tend to think I am from NZ or Canada since it is a mix?!?

    I have to admit though, I tend to adapt back to "British" [at least trying] when nervous or speaking to a native Brit. then again, ya'll is a very useful word ;) and American easier to pronouce when a little bit tipsy... imho.

    And I still spell neighbour and colour and stuff like that so I have to change it all when I write abstracts and papers since my boss is a native American.

    (I probably could have said it in a shorter paragraph. sorry about the space.)

  22. It's definitely useful to have a plural form of "you". In Northern England we tend to use "youse" rather than "y'all" though!

  23. Ha! I was taught British English, and used to be incredibly confused when I first moved to the U.S. (I knew there were 2 spellings, but it would take me a second to figure out which one was which). Now I think the U.S. spelling is winning, and I hear the British accent every time I read a British spelling of a word.

  24. The more I think about this, the more bizarre it seems. Does anyone know of any other languages that use different spellings in different countries?

    I think I will have to re-read Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue!


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