Dialect Masterclass
  • 8-minute read
  • 27th August 2023

Dialect Masterclass

There are a number of spelling, grammar, and punctuation variations covered in our guide to British, American and Australian English(opens in a new tab). This guide will cover a few other issues that are maybe not quite so obvious or clear-cut.

We recommend the following dictionaries for each dialect:

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about niche and complex English dialect issues and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.



Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

Dialect and Referencing/Style Guides

What do you do if a client has asked for a certain dialect, but their referencing or style guide follows the conventions of another dialect?

For example:

  • The client has asked for American Psychological Association (APA) referencing, but named their dialect as UK or Australian English.
  • The client has asked for US English in their in-house style guide, but various of their instructions follow UK English practices.

In-House Style Guides

In the case of in-house style guides, if it’s a client you’re doing a lot of work for, it’s well worth getting in touch with them, checking what their preferences are, and following them.

If they don’t have any particular preferences, you can’t get hold of them, or they ask you for advice, it’s usually best to follow dialectical practices over in-house ones. Leave a comment to the client explaining your editorial decision.

Referencing Guides

In the case of official referencing guides such as APA, MLA, and OSCOLA, we again advise that you contact the client if it’s a large piece of work or if you are likely to be working with them for a long time.

If, for any reason, it’s not possible to contact the client or otherwise confirm their preference, here’s our recommended approach to dialectical clashes.

Titles and Direct Quotations

Dialect will not change the spelling of words or use of punctuation in titles or direct quotations, which will depend upon the original work.

For example:

The Sparkling Secrets: Unveiling the World of Exquisite Jewelry

The word “jewelry” in the above book title would be written the same even if the work was written in UK or Australian English (“jewellery”).

Referencing-Specific Punctuation

Anything that is specifically an element of the referencing system (e.g., the positioning of commas and periods) should follow referencing guidelines.

For example, see this MLA 9th ed reference for a journal article:

Smith, John. “Exploring the Impact of Technology on Education.” Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2022, pp. 123-145. doi:10.xxxxxx.

Even if this reference were to be written in UK/Australian English, you would still put the period inside the closing quotation marks (as per US English), as this is stipulated by MLA 9th.

Quotation Marks in References/Footnotes

If titles in references/footnotes use different quotation marks than those used in the text, you should use your editorial judgment and leave a comment for the client to check their institution’s style preferences.

For example, if an article is written according to MLA 9th rules but in UK English, you may see that single quotation marks have been used in the text. However, MLA 9th stipulates the use of double quotation marks in the works cited list.

There is no definite rule regarding how to proceed, so you should follow the client’s lead, make sure that there is a logic behind the quotation marks used in the text/works cited list, and leave a comment to the client explaining your decision.

Incidental Words in References/Footnotes

Words that might be used to describe the format of a source within the reference list (e.g., “catalog”) will follow the rules of the preferred dialect in the same way as the main narrative.

For example:

Smith, J. R. (2023). Art Unveiled: Exploring Masterpieces of the 21st Century. [Exhibition Catalog]. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If the article is written in US English, then you would leave “catalog” as is. If it is written in UK or Australian English, you would change catalog to “catalogue.”

Quotations, Titles, and Organizational Names

We touched on this in the previous section, but there are some things that shouldn’t be changed from the original dialect they were written in. These are:

  • Organizational names: The WHO will always be the World Health Organization, and IPSO will always be the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
  • Quotations: When quoting directly from a source, you should maintain the dialect in which it was written.
  • Titles of works: The titles of third-party works (books, journal articles, blogs etc.) should be kept in the dialect in which they are written.

Be careful when making blanket changes using Find and Replace; there may be some words that you shouldn’t change due to the reasons listed above.

Parenthetical Dashes

Commonly, UK English uses the spaced parenthetical en dash, and US English uses the unspaced em dash.

Usage in Australia varies. The Australian Government Style Manual recommended the use of unspaced em dashes up until 2020, but now recommends the (sparing) use of spaced en dashes. Other editorial guidance may vary, so it’s best to follow the client’s lead, be consistent, and leave a comment if necessary.

Different Terms and Usages

You are most likely aware that there are terms that are used differently or specific to certain dialects. Some of these are frequently given as examples, including:

  • Car boot (UK/Aus) vs trunk (US)
  • Mobile phone (UK/Aus) vs cell phone (US)
  • Pavement (UK) vs sidewalk (US) vs footpath (Aus).

Other terms and usage issues are less obvious, however. Read on for more information about how dialect-specific terms and usage can cause problems.

Dialect-Specific Idioms

Dialect-specific idioms are usually fairly easy to spot and check; things like “for the birds” (worthless/trivial; US English), “like a donkey’s hind leg” (crooked; UK English), or “lower than a snake’s belly” (despicable; Australian English) are colorful enough to stand out as being worth a quick check.

Sometimes you’ll see the same idiom but with minor variations: for example, “knock on wood” in the US is “touch wood” in the UK and Australia (the actions change too!).

Same Words, Different Usage

Some words have the same meaning in several dialects but their application is slightly different.

For example, the verb “to intern somewhere” is, according to various dictionaries, a specifically North American usage. Similarly, the adjective “elasticated” (in common use in UK and Australian English) does not appear at all in Merriam-Webster.

You’re really only likely to come across these issues when reading text by or talking to someone who is a native speaker of that dialect.

Same Words, Different Meaning

The most difficult to spot are those terms that are the same but which have different meanings in different dialects.

“Quite” is perhaps the most common of these. In US English, it is fairly synonymous with “very.” In UK English, however, it is often used to temper a statement. So “the meal was quite good” in US English means it was very good, but in UK English means okay (but not fantastic).

The use of quite to mean very does still occur in UK English, but it’s often seen as being a bit old-fashioned and overly formal (e.g., “‘Oh, that was quite amazing!’ said the archduchess excitedly.”).

Degrees of Formality

Another thing to watch out for when writing in a dialect not your own is how formal the term is for the situation in which you’re in. It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the exact level of formality inherent in a term or phrase.

Generally speaking, more formal or official terms tend to be (if not common) then at least recognizable by speakers of different dialects; when you get into the realm of slang and colloquialisms, things get a bit more localized.

Don’t assume that (because you’ve heard that a dialect uses a term) that it will be the most appropriate term to use in any given instance. For example, when talking about the washroom in UK English, it is likely to be “WC” or “facilities” in official documents, “toilet” in general parlance, and “loo” (among any number of more unsavory names) casually.

Dealing with Sneaky Dialect-Specific Variations

So what to do? If you’re not a native speaker of a particular dialect, the best thing you can do is to stay alert to the fact that dialectical variations in terms (and in grammar: see the use of the past participle got/gotten or the Australian use of the present perfect tense) do exist.

If you’re editing a document intended for an international English-speaking audience, try to minimize the use of idioms and less formal language and turns of phrase.

If you’re not sure, try a quick Google or ask another editor who is a native speaker of that dialect for advice. Check the recommended dictionary in that dialect. If all else fails, leave a comment to the customer highlighting the issue to them.

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