The North-American Culture War

I was born in the decade that followed the Second World War.  Mother was English.  Dad was Canadian.  I am witness to the Americanisation of my Canadian culture, to the ‘culture war’ that has since raged north of the 49th parallel.  My cognisance (but, with few exceptions, not my spelling) was shaped by American English, which grew steadily in the post war era as information technology advanced north, across the border.  Language was the spear and the American dictionary was the tip of that spear.

European English (or British English) informed my early education.  ‘Cheque’ is a financial instrument.  ‘Check,’ as American English spells the same word is not correct.  Yes, there are correct spellings and incorrect ones.  Alternative spelling (as the dictionaries printed in America show) are just errors put into the dictionary.  ‘Practice’ is a noun, when spelt with a ‘c.’  ‘Practise’ spelt with an ‘s’ is a verb.  The position of the word in a sentence changes the spelling, which isn’t a feature of every word certainly, but there are common words, used every day, that people misspell because people are no longer taught correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.

American English freely turns nouns into adjectives and adjectives or verbs into nouns.  ‘Quote’ is a verb.  ‘Quotation’ is a noun.  Advertising (yes, ‘s’) often boasts ‘free quotes’ rather than free ‘quotations.’ American commercials on television exhibit this error, (yes, it is an error), every day as if it is an acceptable alternative.  ‘Cognisance’ is correctly spelt (yes, spelt not spelled) with an ‘s,’ rather than a ‘z’ (pronounced zed, not zee just to make it rhyme in a nursery rhyme).  There are numerous examples, of course, too many to list here, but the word ‘license’ comes to mind because, in American English there is just one spelling but ‘licence,’ spelt with a ‘c,’ is a noun and a verb when spelt with an ‘s.’

My language isn’t pilfered by individual words alone.  Grammatical changes and sentence structure have been forced on me and the culture that shaped my youth.  Turn on CNN (Cable News Network) and listen as each broadcaster messes up verb forms. ‘Would have been’ is most often misused, rather than say ‘had been.’  ‘If the President would have come out with that policy sooner,’ and other examples like it, ring my cognisance like chalk screeching on a chalkboard.  Connectives, like ‘and,’ ‘but,’ ‘so,’ are never necessary at the start of a sentence and prepositions are never necessary at the end of a sentence.  Pick up any book, published by an American publisher, and you will find lots of examples.  The solution is easy; re-structure the sentence, which is something editors fail to do.

There is a tendency for dictionaries to function as a ‘standard for the language,’ a common perception, despite the fact that the content of English is changing every day. Dictionaries, (one supposes their publishers), include colloquial expressions in the lexicon as if they have been ‘certified’ by an authority. American English dictionaries follow rather than lead so turning to a dictionary as an authoritative source for spelling and pronunciation becomes a dubious exercise that leaves the language in a constant state of flux. Of course, the acceptance of computer technology (since the end of WWII) has radically increased the pace of this progression. Listen to any news broadcast (particularly from America) and you will observe that the word ‘military’ is used as a noun (consistent with its definition in an American dictionary where it is both a noun and an adjective) when, in fact, it is not a noun. It is an adjective. Misuse of the word is so widespread in American English that the assertion that the word is only an adjective seems wrong. In Canada, we use the term ‘armed forces’ as the noun and ‘military’ as an adjective, say in the phrase ‘military objective,’ or ‘military weapon.’ The misuse of the word, accepted in American English, is changing my (Canadian English) language.

This process is assisted by the English spellchecker, provided by Microsoft, which assumes that Canadian English is the same as American English. Thankfully, I can change the spellchecker to British English, which allows the word processor to include the ‘correct’ spelling with the ‘incorrect’ American English spellings. Words like ‘colour’ (the correct spelling) are not highlighted as incorrect, unless I change the setting to American English (something I am loth to do). Lest you imagine that I am cranky, there is real cause for my objections. Take the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News Network as an example. The announcers use the word ‘military’ as a noun, particularly the young people, and avoid the term ‘Canadian Armed Forces,’ which is the correct terminology, the correct ‘noun.’ My language is being colonised (yes, an ‘s’ not a zed) and too many of us don’t seem to realise (ditto) it. If you check the Cambridge Dictionary (which includes both American and British spelling) the correct spelling is referenced but, in the textual explanations, American spellings are used, likely because the online version (which I use) was heavily influenced by American English, which suggests that the battle for ‘correct’ English is indeed an uphill struggle.

Geoffrey Brittan


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