The North-American Culture War

I was born in the decade that followed the Second World War.  Mother was Scottish, born in India during the British Colonial Period.  Dad was Canadian, raised on a farm in Grimsby Ontario.  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 mispel (yes, one s and one l) because people are no longer taught correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. Even journalists fail to know the difference between ‘different from’ and ‘different than’, and ‘fewer calories or less sugar,’ which we learnt in grade 6, in my day.

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 fit 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,’ rather than ‘had the President 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 one.  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 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.

One of the most brutalised words in English (that seems to be tolerated in American English) is ‘way,’ which means ‘route.’  How often have you heard ‘way better?’  ‘It tastes way better,’ or ‘it fits way better,’ or’ it looks way better.’  ‘Way’ does not mean ‘much.’  It’s a diction error.  It isn’t, yet, in the American lexicon but, in time, it will become an alternate meaning, as American dictionaries follow language use (or misuse) rather than lead it, and when it does, it will still be a diction error.

Another Americanism, is ‘less and fewer.’  The label on my orange juice advertises ‘less sugar and calories,’ which is wrong.  It should read, ‘less sugar and fewer calories.’  ‘Less’ is volume, ‘few’ is number.

The word ‘people’ is a plural noun.  The word ‘peoples’ doesn’t exist in English, though it has a following in American English and Canadians seem to accept it, which warps my language. There is a long list of examples, many more than I can list here.

Many of the ‘forced’ changes are political, like ‘fishers’ instead of ‘fishermen’ and ‘firefighters’ rather than ‘firemen,’ (to list just two instances) to remove gender distinctions from the terminology. “They” is “used to refer to a person whose gender (= sex) is not known or does not need to be mentioned, to avoid having to say “he or she” (this is a reference from the Cambridge Dictionary) which changes the declensions of every verb in my language.

I wasn’t consulted or allowed to vote for or against these changes. It means that the agreement between subject pronouns and verbs in a sentence will not agree, as they should agree. Plural nouns and pronouns should have plural verbs; my grade 6 teacher was quite insistent on that point. The Americanisation of my language and my culture has an inexorable, relentless downward trajectory. I doubt that Mrs. Clarke is alive today, which is a good thing; she is spared the pain.

Addendum 19 February, 2022

About ‘Freedom Convoy’ Protests in Ottawa: January 28, to February 20, 2022

Canada wasn’t built on protest. In 1867, the British North America Act passed the British Parliament, received Royal Assent and, with the stroke of a pen, we became an independent nation. We were not shaped by protests then, or now. We are witnessing the consequences of a culture war, the Americanisation of our country, by an alien culture whose proponents hurl sputum at news reporters and many who wish that January 6 2021, when the Capitol in Washington was overcome by insurrection, should inspire the same kind of event in Ottawa.

There is no tradition of insurrection in this country. The fact that anyone would contemplate it is evidence of the extent to which many hold ideas that were spread across this country’s border, in recent years, by ‘ultra conservative leaning’ American media.

It is shocking that people can so easily lose their grip on public policy and parade in the streets with Canadian flags (turned upside down) and a flag long associated with a Confederacy that once provoked civil war in the United States. Radical voices will blame the federal government and the PM, though the demonstration has little to do with Parliament, the PM or the rest of us. 

Geoffrey Brittan

Join the Conversation

  1. I share some of your beliefs regarding spelling, sentence structure and grammar. However, my American wife has cleverly converted me to a more relaxed approach to communication. Alas, I’ve dropped the “u” from all “our” words and adopted check for “cheque”. I vaguely recall the William Lyon Mackenzie rebellion in Lower Canada and while the rebellion failed it did pave the way for changes in how Canadians were to be governed going forward. I don’t believe the Jan. 6th protest here in the US to be quite what CNN and other legacy media would have us to believe. But … that’s just me.

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