Using proper English: Which one is right?

Posted on Oct 27, 2011


One issue that puzzles both English learners and native speakers is the difference between British, American, Canadian, and Australian English. This is not to mention South African, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh variants, let alone Jamaican, Indian, Singaporean, and a plethora of other styles. Speakers of English dialects usually agree that some aspects of the way they speak English are just their local flavour, but almost all think that some unique features of their way of speaking are unquestionably right.

The fact of the matter is that most styles are closer to American or British English, with Canadian and Australian styles somewhere in between (Canadian style a bit closer to American, Australian closer to British).

We can argue all day about whether it’s a sofa or couch, lounge, setee, or chesterfield. Let’s not even start on rubbers and pants.

This post, however, is focused on basic differences in written English styles. The table below provides quick and easy to digest information on the four major variants of English, American, British, and Australian. If you speak another type of English, or need to learn to write in another style, we apologize for not including it in our table. The table also does not provide a comprehensive guide to all issues, which could fill a book (and has, just search Google if you don’t believe us). It is just a quick overview of the major points that you will need to write convincing texts in each regional style. That said, we love to learn more about regional variations, so feel free to tell us about your style or disagree with us!

Language FeatureAmerican/US EnglishBritish/UK EnglishCanadian EnglishAustralian English
Serial commaAlmost always usedUsually not usedOften used by younger writers, not used by older writers Usually not used
Double quotation marks ( " ) vs. single quotation marks ( ' ) in normal quotes DoubleUsually singleUsually doubleUsually single
Punctuation inside quotation marks ("Darling," she said, "you look wonderful.") vs. outside quotation marks ("Darling", she said, "you look wonderful".)InsideOutsideInsideOutside
Common past participlesBurned, dreamed, gotten, leaned, learned,proven, sawed, smelled, spelled, spilled, spoiledBurnt, dreamt, got, leant, learnt,proved, sawn, smelt, spelt, spilt, spoiltUsually burnt, dreamed, gotten, leaned, learned,proved, sawn, smelled, spelled, spilled, spoiledUsually burnt, dreamt, got, leant, learnt,proved, sawn, smelt, spelt, spilt, spoilt
Collective nouns singular ("the team is") vs. plural ("the team are")Singular Singular or plural, depending on emphasisSingular or plural, depending on emphasisSingular or plural, depending on emphasis
Standard date orderDay/month/yearMonth/day/yearMonth/day/year and Day/month/yearMonth/day/year
Standard time format12-hour (6:00 a.m., 6:00 p.m.)24-hour (6:00, 18:00)12-hour (6:00 a.m., 6:00 p.m.)24-hour (6:00, 18:00)
-or vs. -our (color/colour, neighbor/neighbour)-or-our-our-our, sometimes -or
-er vs. -re (center/centre, theater/theatre)-er-re-re, sometimes -er-re, sometimes -er
-se vs. -ce (license/licence, practise/practice)-se-ce-ce-ce
-ise vs. -ize (realise/realize, organise/organize)-ise-ize-ize-ize

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    • Very nice article and good information, but Canadian English is not “a bit more” like American, it’s almost the same.

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  18. Hi folks,

    To add to your great chart above, both -ce and -se are used in British English: ‘license’ and ‘practise’ are verbs, while ‘licence’ and ‘practice’ are nouns. There must be some others that fit into this pattern. Anyone know any more?

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