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What Spelling Behavio(u)r Can Teach Us

Although modifying spelling for different audiences can be frustrating, doing so underscores an important lesson about good corporate communications

“Wait, are we using UK or US English for this?”

If you were asked to make a list of the most commonly overheard expressions in a UK corporate communications team, that question would come near the very top, second only to questions about who’s making the tea or comments about the weather, naturally.

It is understandable, for it is a truth universally acknowledged among communications teams that a misplaced ‘z’ in “organise” or ‘u’ in favorite is often all that it takes to sabotage even the most well-researched and thought out communication.

As a result, UK comms teams often resemble an odd variant of the famous World War II Enigma operation, with employees at all levels furiously decrypting and encrypting documents into the appropriate version of English before sending to internal or external audiences in Chicago, Hong Kong, or Edinburgh.

It is a maddening but essential ritual, and is an apt metaphor for the larger scale practice of global corporate communications and the challenges and opportunities that we face as an industry.

Why Are There So Many Versions of English?

But first, a bit of history – why is spelling so complicated for Anglophones? As with many odd features of modern life, like the metric system and mayonnaise, it began in the 18th century.

Up until then, English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic did not follow a standardiz(s)ed form of spelling. But, by the middle of the century, this began to change, and in Britain, the publication of dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755) helped form standards.

However, as the UK and US separated politically at the end of the 18th century, so too did their spelling habits. While the UK and its empire largely followed Johnson’s guidance, many Americans took their cue from Noah Webster, who aimed not only to replace British textbooks with American ones for the new nation’s schools, but also to help unify Americans through speaking and spelling in a standard manner.

In particular, he sought to revise spellings to mimic words’ pronunciation more closely (for example, “gaol” to “jail”, and “plough” to “plow.” ) Soon enough, just as railroads started to spread out across America, so did the spelling of “honor,” over “honour,” and “center” versus “centre.”

Lessons for Communications Professionals

Today, more than two centuries later, this “special relationship” between UK and US spelling is as strong and exasperating as ever. But it underscores the core of what makes successful global corporate communications: knowing your audience.

Good corporate communications is essentially about tailoring strategies and assets that correspond to the realities of different countries, markets, and demographic groups. It centers around asking yourself questions such as, “What do they need?” “How can we reach and influence them?” “How and with whom do they communicate?” And indeed, “How do they spell?”

Moreover, it is about being able to switch competently between these perspectives for different projects and clients, often within the course of one day.

Webster revised American spelling after taking the pulse of forces shaping his new country and responded accordingly – he knew, addressed, and influenced his audience.

To make an impact, global corporate communications requires the same approach, and the same degree of diligence and precision.

As Samuel Johnson himself said, “Language is the dress of thought.” Our colleagues and clients certainly would agree – and rightly so.

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