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- Formal Written English
Formal written English is a version of the language which is almost universally agreed upon by educated English speakers around the world. It takes virtually the same form no matter the local spoken dialect. In spoken English, there are a vast number of differences between dialects, accents, and varieties of slang. In contrast, local variations in the formal written version of the language are quite limited.
Learners of English are in danger of being misled by native speakers who refer to American English, Australian English, British English or other varieties of English. While it is true that many regional differences between the forms of spoken English can be documented, the learner can easily fall into the trap of believing that these are different languages. They are instead mostly regional variations of the spoken language and such variations occur within these countries as well as between them.
The differences in formal writing that occur in the various parts of the English-speaking world are so slight that many dozens of pages of formal English can be read without the reader coming across any clues as to the origin of the writer, far less any difficulties of comprehension.
A popular American website about errors in English, written by a professor at a west coast U.S. university guiding his students towards preferred constructions of written English, contains almost nothing among its hundreds of entries with which a counterpart thousands of miles away in Sydney or London would disagree. Certainly, disputes about pronunciation and colloquial expressions used in speech abound. But in the written language these are relatively few.
A supporter of the view that there is an Australian written English, for example, and an American written English may counter that many examples appear in the lists of differences below. But to put this in perspective, the Oxford English Dictionary contains around 500,000 entries. And among the differences in regional usage that do occur, the majority are specialized or regional words which appear quite rarely in formal writing.
Differences in spelling such as "color" and "colour" arise more frequently, depending on the subject matter, but these cause no difficulty in comprehension. (Indeed, such spellings are sometimes used on purpose outside their home country in the marketing of products in order to convey some sense of exotic provenance.)
The scientific world has already taken advantage of the fact that there is just one version of English in formal written communication by making it the common language of scientific reports. Very occasional conflicts of spelling in this area have prompted formal decisions on which word or spelling to use. Committees have ruled, for example, that in scientific writing it is "sulfur" not the British "sulphur" and "aluminium" not the U.S. spelling "aluminum". But the number of such rulings is insignificant in the context of a vocabulary of half a million words.
English speakers, after all, share a common linguistic heritage. Shakespeare's writing predates the establishment of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom. Successful novels of the mid-19th century such as The Moonstone by the British Wilkie Collins, or Uncle Tom's Cabin by the American Harriet Beecher Stowe were published simultaneously in Britain and America without any thought that one or other audience would have any difficulty in understanding the writing of someone from another country. Equally, 150 years later, The Economist newspaper is published in London but sells more than half its printed copies in North America.
Although the regional variations in written English may be slight, the spoken language is another matter. But even here the broad geographical distinctions often used may sometimes have more to do with nationalistic sentiments than rigorous study of the objective facts. Speakers of General American and the British Received Pronunciation may find no difficulty in understanding each other's accents as a result of long exposure in the media, aided by the clarity of pronunciation that is a feature of both these accents. Yet, both may struggle to understand a broad accent from Glasgow, Scotland, or from rural Tennessee, or from Cornwall, a county in the southwest of England, or from the south side of Chicago, Illinois. By contrast, the Cornish accent may be easily understood by the inhabitants of the islands off North Carolina, where the accents are still little changed from their Cornish forebears. Equally, the accent of some parts of Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is virtually indistinguishable to an outsider from the accent of parts of Northern Ireland. Under the weight of such evidence, the generalization that there is a single British accent or a single American accent begins to become unsustainable.