Writing in US English: A Guide for South Asians

Writing in US English: A Guide for South Asians

Having been under the British rule for almost 200 years surely molded much of the South Asian culture that we see today. Us people from the Indian subcontinent (namely India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) not only ended up adopting parts of British traits like their education system, tea and biscuits, and cricket – but their language as well. Add to that some of our own expressions and colloquialisms, and boom! South Asian English was born.

However, when addressing American readers, the use of South Asian English will simply not cut it. Even British English widely varies from American English. When writing, it’s important to keep your audience in mind and be familiar with the language they use. Although writing US English as a South Asian can be difficult, with a few things in mind, you can give your writings a fresh American look – which this article highlights below.  

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Things to Unlearn

“Desi” or South Asian Words

Just like the British influenced the Indian language and culture, the reverse is true as well. Many words from Indian native languages like jungle, bungalow, and yoga have become a part of the global English vocabulary. But there are still some words that still belong only to the subcontinent. 

The use of uncle/auntie to refer to older people is common in South Asia. In US English, however, there are no uncles and aunties. Relatives are referred to as uncles and aunts. Anyone else who is not a blood relative is called by their first name or referred to as Mr. X and Mrs. Y. Similarly, when it comes to money, ‘lakhs’ and ‘crores’ are words people in South Asia use only. What we call 2 lakh dollars means two hundred thousand dollars in the US.

Compound Words

Another common practice adopted in the Indian subcontinent is the formation of compound words. Whilst these words are valid in the subcontinental context, this is a big taboo for US English. Words like cousin-brother and cousin-sister may give you information on whether your cousin is male or female, but in America, there are only cousins – their gender depends on the pronouns you use. Other words like time-pass or key-bunch can make sentences shorter here, but for US English, you’d be wiser to use phrases like “spending time” or “a bunch of keys”. 

Wrong Use of Words

There are some words that do exist legitimately in the English language, but South Asians have put a different spin on them. When ordering food at a restaurant to eat at home, the word “parcel” is often used. In US English, the correct word would be “takeaway”. 

Both “monkeys” and “caps” are common words that exist in US English, but “monkey caps” don’t. What South Asians call monkey caps, are known in America as balaclavas or ski masks. Thus, for South Asian writers, it is important to keep the American context in mind.

Pluralization

Pluralization is another aspect of the language that many South Asians struggle with. Unnecessary plural forms like “furnitures” and “datas” are often used. In the former case, when you’re addressing more than one, the correct US English term would be “pieces of furniture”. In the latter case, “data” itself is a plural form of the word “datum”, and so does not need to be pluralized again.

Things to Learn

Spelling

Since almost all of the entire Indian subcontinent was part of the British Empire, it’s of no surprise we lean more towards using British spellings. But perhaps the most significant difference between UK and US English is that of spelling and should be taken great care of.

Many words that end with “-our” like “colour”, “favour” and “honour” in the UK, get the “u” removed in the US, and thus become “color”, “favor” and “honor”. Another difference is for verbs that end with “-ise” or “-yse”. You do not “organise meetings to analyse situations” in America, you “organize” to “analyze” them.

Words with “-re-” or “-ae-” and “-oe-” also differ. Words like “centre”, “anaesthesia” and “foetal” do not exist in America. Rather, letters are either dropped or get their positons switched around. The words become “center”, “anesthesia” and “fetal”. 

A last important distinction comes for some words that end with “-ce” or “-se”. In British English, the word “practice” refers to a noun but “practise” is used as a verb. No such distinction is made in the US. In both cases, “practice” is used, and the meaning depends entirely upon context. Another word that belongs to this group is “license” where the letter “s” is used in both contexts.

Grammar

When referring to groups of individuals, British and South Asian English often use plural forms. In British or South Asian English, “Manchester United have won the Premier League last year…” is a grammatically correct sentence, though not a factually correct one (Sorry, Manchester United fans). But in America, this would be considered wrong. In America, “Manchester United has won the Premier League last year…” would be more appropriate.

Punctuation

Although it may not be noticeable when reading, punctuation differs between Americans and Brits as well. Americans prefer Oxford commas i.e. commas put before “and” in a list, whereas they are not used in the UK and South Asia. Americans are also more likely to use double quotation marks (“…”), whereas South Asians use single quotes (‘…’).

Words

When writing for an American audience, you should also keep in mind the words, phrases, and expressions they use. A full stop is called a period in the US, a wardrobe is called a closet, and a lift is called an elevator. Some words exist both in the US and UK English but have very different meanings. For example, the first floor in the US refers to the ground floor, whereas in the UK, it means the floor immediately above.

Tips and Common Mistakes

Avoid literal translation 

When writing English, South Asian writers have a strong tendency to think in our mother language and translate it into US English. This might work sometimes but often leads to weird sentences that are never used verbally. “I am eating lunch…” sounds grammatically correct, but “I am having lunch…” sounds better. 

Know When to Use Which Word

Some words, though they have English meanings, are rarely used outside this subcontinent. For example, “Shifting” in American English refers to changing the position of something, usually an object. But when relocating, South Asians use sentences like “I’ve shifted to a new house”, whereas the correct US English would be “I’ve moved to a new house.” Similarly, wishing someone a happy marriage anniversary would be grammatically incorrect. Rather, a greeting such as “Happy Wedding Anniversary” would be more sensible.

Avoid Use of Redundant Words

Another common mistake made by South Asian writers is using words that make the previous word redundant. For example, “Revert back” is incorrect, as the word “revert” itself means returning to a previous state or topic.

Keep Your Grammar in Check

Some words have become so incorporated in South Asian English the wrong way that we rarely notice the difference. It’s only when writing that these come into our view. Although many writers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh use the word “anyways” to move to a different topic, the correct word would be “anyway”. Students do not “give an exam”, rather they take it. 

One way to avoid this might be using Grammarly software – which is a free writing tool that can correct basic grammatical errors.

Change Your Language Settings

If you’re using a word processor software like Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you can change your language settings to choose US English. The software will automatically detect errors that do not reflect the American English language.

In conclusion, it is natural for writing in English to be difficult for writers of the Indian subcontinent, primarily because they learn English as a secondary language. But to write well and communicate effectively, you need to put in the effort. One way to improve your writing is by reading a lot and writing a lot. It’s also important to receive feedback from editors or writers whose English is better. Through enough revisions, feedbacks and practice, you too can master writing in US English, despite the cultural and linguistic differences.

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