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Separated by a common tongue?

From communication consultant Frank Andree, by way of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Toronto: "I enjoyed your observations on misspelled 'sound-alike' words in the April/May 1997 [CommWorld]. However, I have an interesting predicament that concerns differently spelled - but correctly spelled - sound-alike words.

"What would you do in the hypothetical situation of communicating a message to all North American employees of a multinational firm? The firm is headquartered in Canada, but has most of its employees in the United States. Would you use Canadian (aka British) spelling, or American spelling?

"Discussing 'the establishment of a theatre centre to meet labour's demands for a neighbourhood entertainment venue' might be perceived to contain a number of misspelled words - or not. It all depends on whether you live north or south of the 49th parallel. Any thoughts on managing this increasingly common predicament of communication professionals?"

My e-mail response to colleague Andree suggested he consider emulating the style of the Royal Bank of Canada's Letter, which is distributed hugely as a public relations device and faithfully follows the Queen's English. As a 40-year reader of the Letter I suggested that few here in the Lower 48 would be offput by "an occasional programme or perhaps honour.

According to Andree, "True, the [Bank's Letter] is written in the Queen's English, but you would expect it to be. This may not be the case for employees receiving information from what they see as their 'local' employer somewhere in the Deepest South. In this era of global communication, would you pick one version of the language for North American communication? Flip a coin? Canadians would see American spelling as capitulation. Americans might just see the communication as being rife with typographical errors (having, presumably, not been exposed to Canadian/British spelling as such)."

Libraries are closed this Sunday a.m., but if memory serves, it was Sir Winston Churchill who dryly observed that speakers of British and of American English are separated by a common tongue. Differences may sound inconsequential to some, but harken to this item printed in the October, 1994, Copy Talk, a journal of The Canadian Press, Toronto.

Under the head "Manoeuvring Through The Furore," one reads "CP is always taking it on the chin from people appalled that we take the u out of words such as favor and color. We have fallen in with the Americans, they complain, and are setting a bad example for Canadian schoolchildren. We do spell color, favor and a few other words without the u - but dispute that these are American spellings.... "Among cherished evergreens of la difference CP shows analyse, pay-cheque, pyjamas, defence, metre, licence (n) and a score more.

Where does all this leave Mr. Andree? Hard call, eh? Perhaps he should select a style, hew to it, and run a nonpareil boilerplate explainer in each issue. What do you think? Have you faced our colleague's dilemma? If you care to respond with your view or solution, please e-mail me (see below). Or send to

And speaking of choices, would you vote for a change in this paragraph from an Associated Press story about Harrison Ford's starring role in "Air Force One"?

"Ford feels the film takes on considerably more emotional heft as his character eventually faces a Hobson's choice between his daughter's life and the policy decision he has made." No succor for writer Douglas J. Rowe in the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual; pity that The Wall Street Journal Stylebook (4th ed.) was not at hand:

"Hobson's choice It is an apparent free choice that actually is no choice. Don't confuse it with a dilemma or quandary." Jot it down: Hobson's choice means no choice.

A glance at pg. 20 of the WSJ's bible might have spared embarrassment to the Boston Globe writer who was describing the number of sailors needed to work the sails on the USF Constitution:

"The ratio of sailors-to-sail, however, begs the question: Just how busy did it get on Feb. 20, 1815 (during a battle)?..." In the WSJ guide, editor Paul R. Martin says "(Beg the question) doesn't mean raising a question or evading the issue but, rather, the use of an argument that assumes the truth of what you are trying to prove."

* Thanks to Sean Williams, who writes employee communications at KeyCorp, Cleveland, Ohio, we have a wider focus on the answer to Terry Berngards's question (CW J/J '97) regarding half-mast v. half-staff:

"The argument is Army/Navy. The 'squids' all claim a flag can only be half-mast aboard a ship. The 'grunts' will always use half-staffs 'because our feet ain't wet.'

"As an editor, I prefer half-mast to describe heavily lidded eyes after a long evening on deadline.... "As Grandmother Wood used to say, "De gustibus," which is the short form of de gustibus non est disputandum - There is no disputing about tastes. Thanks, Sean; the dictionaries do favor half-mast.

* If your prose starts to sound whiney, you're writing frhetoric.

Editor's note: Communication World style is that if an author uses "Queen's English," we retain it in our articles. Otherwise we use U.S. style.

Alden Wood, APR, lecturer on editorial procedures at Simmons College, Boston, Mass., writes and lectures on language usage. He is a retired insurance industry vice president of advertising and public relations. His e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:Wood on Words; British and American spelling
Author:Wood, Alden
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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