01/11/2017 SOMETIMES IT IS A MERE MATTER OF STYLE
This blog site was conceived as a forum to explore some idiosyncrasies of written English in the USA, and the unstated reference point is, of course, the British usage of English. Here we mention those differences which really amount to nothing more than what style is preferred.
Those of us who got our formal education on the English Language outside the USA, especially in a former British colony, will encounter quite a few instances when we must reorient our English to the way Americans prefer it. Sometimes the difference is a mere matter of spelling (e.g., color versus colour, labor versus labour, defense versus defence). But other times it goes beyond the choice of vowels or consonants and takes a form more subtle and, yet, perhaps more serious.
It took me a while to realize that Americans say/write “backward,” “toward,” “homeward,” etc., where the British add an “s” to those adverbs and adjectives. Employing the (familiar) British forms does less harm than one might imagine, but I have run into an editor or reviewer who took issue with the British form of the adverb!
The Chicago Manual of Style is thorough and authoritative on such differences, and it regards much of it as a matter of style. However, as noted, not all referees agree. Also, that manual is pricey for an individual writer (although most libraries will have the series). The Manual is updated from time to time, making your current issue obsolete. So it’s helpful, when one is in doubt, that there are more affordable guides like Grammar Girl, etc. And then, of course, the most accessible source is the internet. Finally, if you must rely only on the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, it will do: it may not tell you the difference between the British and American forms (because it is not really an etymological tome), but if you should type in the wrong (i.e., “British”) form, its search will default to the American version.
It is better to refer to those sources than to rely on mnemonics and conventional wisdom. From time to time I have come across mnemonics which stress that “America prefers simplicity” or that America “likes short cuts” (and so the version with a simpler spelling or fewer letters must be the American form). Unfortunately, that is, well, simplistic—and misleading! The better caveat to remember is that English is an idiomatic language (and hence sometimes counter-intuitive!). To disprove the claim that Americans prefer shorter versions of words or expressions, I will cite a tongue-in-cheek counter-claim that I learned in the UK long ago:
“The Briton gets out of his flat, down a lift, into a car, to go watch a film; but the American will get out of his apartment, down an elevator, into an automobile, to go see a motion picture.”