English is a highly adaptable language. It can absorb nearly anything that’s thrown at it, and conform to whatever is required of it. It’s also a major export and English is spoken in some level of competency by one out of every four people in the world (and that number is increasing).
When working with English, you often need to take in the cultural context of where your work is going to be received. The way words are spelt is going to be different, as are the names of objects and actions.
There are some obvious differences to be aware of, the majority of which are between British and American English.
Let’s look at a few spelling examples…
The -our/-or suffix. Do you write colour or color? Harbour or harbor? Parlour or parlor? The first is British English (also followed by the majority of Australians and Canadians) and the second is American.
The -ise/-ize suffix. Do you write organise or organize? Civilise or civilize? Patronise or patronize?
One l or two. Do you write travelled or traveled? Marvelled or marveled? Fulfil or fulfill?
And then there’s a difference in which word you use…
Do you throw out the rubbish, the garbage or the trash?
Do you walk on a footpath or sidewalk?
Do you ride in a lift or an elevator?
Or a tram or a streetcar?
Do you cook with coriander or cilantro?
Cultural differences are important and if you’re writing for a culture that isn’t your own, you need to make sure you’re getting it right. Otherwise, your writing could come across as unknowledgeable or false.
What can you do about it?
Use the dictionary!
Australian English mostly adheres to the Macquarie Dictionary (there’s an online version available for a subscription fee), but for British English, your best bet is to check out the Oxford English Dictionary (the online version includes British, US and World English). And for the US the Merriam-Webster is one of the preferred sources.
But also, use your internet search engine or an online dictionary. Just make sure you check the location of the usage.
Look at news websites for the country that you’re writing for. Read some of their stories and get a feel for their language.
If you’re struggling, hunt for a native speaker and ask them. Local knowledge is always best.