English Grammar and Usage, In-House Counsel, Travel / Vacation, United Kingdom / Great Britain

The United States v. The United Kingdom

When I moved last year from Chicago to London, my morning workout changed along with my postal code: Instead of lifting weights and jogging on alternate days, I now jog every morning, plodding through my lap around Regent’s Park. Either the new exercise regime or my appetite for British food has affected me: Although I hadn’t realized it, I’ve lost a fair amount of weight this past year. (I started at only 5’10” and maybe 175 lbs; losing 20 pounds wasn’t necessarily a good thing.)

Here’s what I noticed when my wife and I recently visited Chicago: When you’re in your twenties and lose weight, your friends say, “Hey, Mark! You’re looking good!” When you’re in your fifties and lose weight, your friends whisper to your wife: “Pssst: Is Mark okay?”

Anyway, our son, Jeremy (you remember him), recently survived his medical school boards and visited us in London for a while. He joined me for a few of my morning jaunts. I sprinted; he jogged. We both went the same pace.

All of this prompted me to reflect on the differences between the States and the Kingdom. I’ve previously noted that the United States cleans the UK’s clock in a couple of areas, such as dryer and traffic-light technology. But the reverse is also true: The Kingdom beats the States in a couple of noteworthy ways….

First, folks in the UK use a word that exists, but is never used, in American English: “fortnightly.” A fortnight is fourteen days; fortnightly is once every two weeks.

In the US, we say “biweekly.” But “biweekly” is an abomination: It has two different meanings. Biweekly can mean either “once every two weeks” or “twice per week.” (In a sane world, biweekly would mean “once every two weeks,” and semiweekly would mean “twice per week,” but that’s not the world we inhabit.) So, in the States, half the time we don’t bother with the word: We write “biweekly,” realize that we’re creating ambiguity, and replace “biweekly” with “once every two weeks.” (We think for a moment about writing semimonthly, but realize that would be wrong: There are 24 semimonthly periods in a year, but 26 fortnightly (or biweekly) ones.) Or sometimes we write biweekly and then clarify with a parenthetical definition — “biweekly (once every two weeks)” — and then go on. Both solutions are outrageous.

The Brits win! Let’s adopt “fortnightly.”

The Brits don’t just win linguistically; they also win locomotively. When you get on an escalator in London, everyone (except those damn American tourists) knows the rules: Stand on the right; walk on the left. The escalators leading into Tube stations are thus a model of efficiency: Those who prefer to stand go to the right-hand side of the escalator; those who will walk move left. (The same rule applies to moving walkways, such as those at Heathrow Airport.) People thus move at their preferred pace.

In the United States, some people follow the “stand-right; walk-left” rule, but not everyone does. This creates a certain anomie, as the walkers are forced to jostle their way through crowds of people standing left and right.

The Brits win again! On escalators, stand on the right; walk on the left.

That’s not to say that everything’s great in the UK. I’m not a big fan of those exploding sidewalks. And, schooled in American English, I have to be careful when editing documents written in English English. Over here, for example, corporate entities are considered to be plural: “Microsoft are introducing new software.” (“Math” is also plural over here, presumably because it’s short for “mathematics,” which appears to be plural. In any event, students learn “maths.”) That’s jarring to American ears, but it’s not meant to be corrected. (On the other hand, a Brit looked at the cover of my book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law, and gasped: “There’s a typo!” Happily, no: Although the Brits spell “practising” with an “s,” the title of my book is correct in my native tongue.)

On other grammatical issues, I remain confused. The British misuse the possessive “its” (writing, incorrectly in American English, “it’s form of government”) and the subjunctive (writing, incorrectly in American English, “I wish I was”) so frequently that I’m at a loss to edit. Perhaps no one over here can be bothered with grammar, and folks routinely add apostrophes where they’re not needed and misuse the subjunctive. Or maybe the rules of grammar are different over here, and things that would be wrong in the States are actually correct on this side of the Atlantic. I’m a fairly curious guy, but not nearly curious enough to investigate the use of the subjunctive in English English.

Call me lazy, or a step slow. Jeremy surely does out at Regent’s Park.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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