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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bell

Localising English

Article contributed by the late Andrew Bell (The Cycling Translator)

“An Industry? I thought it was a verb!”

“Language localisation is the second phase of a larger process of product translation and cultural adaptation (for specific countries, regions, or groups) to account for differences in distinct markets, a process known as internationalisation and localisation.”

“Localization has several meanings. The term has recently been used to refer to the practice of supporting local purveyors. Medically, it is a restriction to a particular area of the body. But one very basic definition, “to make local,” is the succinct expression of what it means to localize: to render a product or document so comfortable for a local user that the possibility of foreign origin is not even considered” (

Localization for me usually involves editing a text from American English into British or Australian English; however, as an autodidact, the process for me has been much more of an instinctive one, going by “feel” and “sound” rather than being based on any deeper linguistic principles or understanding of “why” I was making the changes I made I just knew what sounded American, and what sounded British or Australian. The process would be simple if it were just a case of choosing “Australian English” in Word and spell-checking the text, which you might think would largely be a process of replacing “ize” with “ise”, “gram” with “gramme” and so on; however, it’s not that simple.

Australian English is closer to British English than US English however it is much more sleeves up, has huge differences in lexicon, greater influence from Celtic English and significant differences in grammar and syntax (only last weekend my wife rolled her eyeballs at the football [Australian] and said “It’s a “mouthguard” NOT a “gumshield”!”). An Australian newscaster will report that someone was “bashed” or “king hit” not “beaten up”. We play soccer not football (Australian Rules Football is “football” on the west coast, Victoria and South Australia, and in NSW and Queensland “football” refers to rugby league [or union]) and a Hill’s Hoist is a contraption for drying your washing! Australian English uses “program” not ” “programme”, “labour” not “labor” with the exception of the Australian Labor Party, and “gotten” and “anyways” are increasing in use, at least among my kids! We also use “truck” not “lorry”, “lollies” not “sweets” or “candy”, “ute” not pick-up truck and so on.

The Macquarie Dictionary will suggest “ise” instead of “ize” but use of both is acceptable although I have had to explain that to a client who expected “ise” in a non-American text and clearly wanted more value for money (“value for THE money” in US English). So in many ways boundaries between English variants do blur, but a consultative process with the client with explanations for your decisions where necessary produces the best results in my experience. What my recent research into the process has given me is a better (although nascent) understanding of the grammatical rules of American English and has helped me understand the reasons behind my editing choices and the ability to defend these decisions with clients.

For example, I’d always known that the following dialogue from “She’s having a Baby” was beautifully American, but couldn’t explain the points of grammar:

Jefferson, can you tell grandpa why bumble bunny was such a happy little rabbit? Because he went to college. Oh, boy, are you a smart little fellow! And what did he get in college? A master’s degree? A master’s degree. And what do you suppose would have happened to him, if he hadn’t gone to college and gotten that master’s degree? Probably end up working on a loading dock and hating every minute of it. Well, now you’re going to college and get a master’s degree, aren’t ya? (“She’s Having a Baby”, John Hughes)

I now understand, and am better able to explain that American English prefers the bare infinitive, e.g. “going to college and get a master’s degree…, where “to” is omitted, whereas most Brits and Aussies would prefer “going to college and you’re going to get” or “and to get”. That said, some differences are less obvious, e.g. that some institutions in American English take a definite article, e.g. “they’ve taken grandpa to the hospital” “he’s studying at the University” when they wouldn’t in British or Australian English. The list of differences is immense and would take a day to list, but I will include a couple of useful articles (including one excellent one from Wikipedia) which will be useful resources.

Do you need to be an expert in linguistics to localise between English variants? I’d argue that you don’t. Certainly, it helps to have a background in linguistics and to understand rules of grammar (descriptive and prescriptive) but careful investigative work on the WWW, plus a bit of background reading […] will definitely increase your skill set in terms of understanding the process of localisation, and will give you the tools to defend your linguistic choices during the process always a winner with the client.

“a web-site targeted at Australian readers should not be so formal and it’s best if it demonstrates relaxed mood, amicability and desire for direct communication”

I would recommend, if you don’t have a solid background in English grammar, that you do undertake some remedial work not to impress colleagues or so that you can pepper your conversation with references to the mandative subjunctive and so on but rather so that you personally will have a better understanding of the reasons for your language choices during the editing process. While I’m talking about the editing process, I think it’s worth mentioning spellcheck. Spellcheck in Word will pick up many elements of American English, but the software isn’t foolproof. I do a lot of medical work, including translation, copy-editing and localisation, and Word won’t pick up all differences between American medical terminology and English. Words like “oedema” vs. “edema” and “haematology” vs. “hematology” will usually be flagged, but not all.

I’ve recently started using a specialist spell-checker called Spellcheck Anywhere, which costs in the region of $30, and which has a British English or American English medical spellcheck (although spot the typo in the URL) and which I find useful. I also use Stedman’s medical dictionary software, which I bought from Wordfinder a Swedish company providing Scandinavian <>English dictionaries (and others), which can be installed on your PC (it baffles me how I functioned in the days when I had to thumb through a REAL dictionary to find a term!).

Another standard tool for checking US vs. UK use is the Oxford Dictionaries website. I also use a macro in Word called “PerfectIt”, for which you can download individual style guides for US, UK, AUS English, European use, etc. very useful for QC once you finish a job, and in particular for consistency across texts.


In conclusion, one article I particularly recommend for anyone localising from American English into another variant is “American and British English Differences” from Wikipedia (author not stated), but I’d also recommend Mencken‘s “The American Language” (my copy is ex-Philadelphia public library and v. old) and Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue“, although there are many more.

“Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as ‘impacted,’ and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born.” (Simon Heffer, “Style Notes.” The Telegraph, Aug. 2, 2010)


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