READERS' EDITOR: Let's not be nasty to the Americans

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We're in the dock this week in the distinguished company of Tony Blair. Here's the indictment from Angela Crum Ewing of Reading, who writes: "We may have a Prime Minister who thinks the American way is good. But I don't. Why is The Independent on Sunday using the American spelling of `practice/practice'? Every well educated person knows that the noun is `practice' and the verb `practise'."

First, Ms Crum Ewing, I'll come clean and admit this was a mistake. Our style is to follow the English practice (not practise) of distinguishing between the noun and the verb. But is the American way necessarily worse? "Practice" and "practise" are one of a group of words where the spelling differs by one letter between the noun and verb forms. Other examples are device/devise and advice/advise. These are easy to distinguish because the pronunciation changes and it always looks awful when they're wrong.

But American usage always sticks to "practice" in both senses, which seems pretty neat to me. Too often we're over-hasty in condemning the American influence on the continuing evolution of English, while not being harsh enough on sloppy standards of our own. (Books from American publishing houses, for example, are generally edited to a far higher standard than their British counterparts.)

So let's not be nasty to the Americans. We may mock the folksy Texas- speak of George Bush, but instead of flexing an Anglo-Saxon sneer when the President says "gotten" or "I guess" we should remember he's preserving traditional English usage which was exported by the Pilgrim Fathers and would still be recognisable to Chaucer.

Let's also be fair to Mr Blair. His English teacher at that bastion of public school tradition, Fettes College, was the famous Eric Anderson, who went on to be head of Eton. It would be astonishing if the finer points of English grammar had not been drummed into Blair Junior in such a way as he would never forget them.

Flagging standards

It's either Sod's or Murphy's Law (or both, as I'm sure you'll be rushing to the mailbox to let me know). Just as I polished off this column last week on the finer points of what it means to be British, elsewhere in the paper we were perpetrating a howler under the heading: "What does it mean to be British?" Geoff Hinchliffe, of Thetford, writes: "In reference to this question from page 20 of the IoS (30 January), could the answer be `being too ignorant to know which way up to fly the national flag'?" Ouch.

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