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International House of Grammar

By the time you read this post, I will have taken my friend Cara to IHOP for the first time. She’s Swedish, you see, and not only are their traditional pancakes different from ours, but additionally, they don’t eat them for breakfast, so she’s pretty excited. So am I, since while I’m a really good cook and baker, my pancakes suck. I spent most of my twenties confused about what I was doing so wrong and making attempt after attempt to improve my pancake-making skill. By the time I got to my 30s, I just threw down my Amex card and started going out to pay other people to make them for me. I have no regrets about this decision.

But it’s always made me chuckle that we call it International House of Pancakes since the pancakes they serve are, for the most part, uniquely American. There is a fair amount of grammar that is also uniquely American, and with that—Ta-Da! – I’ve arrived at the subject for today’s post, the differences between American and non-American grammar.

If you’re anything like me...and first off, if so, I’m sorry…you’ve agonized over these words, wondering if you’re using the right one. Turns out whether it’s “right” or not depends on where you live.

Here are the most common words which you’ve undoubtedly come across in your reading and writing and have wondered which one is correct. I’ve made you a handy chart:

** for “backwards.” In the rest of the world, backward is also used in a non-directional sense, to mean outdated or antiquated, as in “His father’s backward views on gender equality made him angry.” In America we use one word for both directional and non-directional. Makes it easy for our brains to keep straight.

There are also other word differences from the US to the rest of the world. Words like colour/color or favourite/favorite. And then there are words like cancelled/canceled and travelled/traveled which are correct in American English with either one “l” or two and blow our minds on account of that. (Though the American word police tend to prefer both of these words with just one “l.” I like using two in my personal writing. Makes me feel more international, unlike those pancakes I’m totally craving.)

Another VERY IMPORTANT distinction between American English and the rest of the world English is in the use of quotation marks. We use double quotes for everything except a quote within a quote. Example:

“Did you hear what the doctor told you?” she asked him.

“Which part? I heard, ‘No, you can’t drink while taking antibiotics.’ But I also heard, ‘You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do.’” He shrugged and went back to checking his email on his phone.

(For the record, I’ve never had any kind of conversation like this. Ever. Nope.)

This shows the double quotes for the dialogue portions and the single quotes within the dialogue for when the male character is quoting the doctor. British English is exactly the reverse. This is that same section using their quotation style:

‘Did you hear what the doctor told you?’ she asked him.

‘Which part? I heard, “No, you can’t drink while taking antibiotics.” But I also heard, “You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do.”’ He shrugged and went back to checking his email on his phone.

A common error I see when editing is the use of single quotes for non-dialogue related quoting. In a thought like this, you still use double quotes: Surely it was just a “suggestion” from the doctor. He didn’t really mean it.

You want your use of words to match the audience for whom you’re writing. So if you’re an American writing for a British or Canadian audience, you’d want to follow British grammar rules. And if you’re a Canadian or a Brit writing for an American audience, you want to make sure you adhere to the American grammar conventions.

But no matter who you are, don’t ever order the Herbed Chicken at IHOP. The word “Pancakes” is part of their name for a reason.



Originally published July 7, 2014

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