Because it is spoken all over the world, there is no one right way of speaking and writing English that everyone can agree on. The two largest branches of English, American and British, can both be understood by anyone who knows one of them, but they are different.
There are three rings of English:
- Inner ring: 380 million who use English as a first language. Most of these live in America.
- Second ring: 450 million who use English as a second language. Most of these live in India.
- Outer ring: 450 million who learned English in school but do not use it often. Most of these live in Europe and China.
If you think of each ring as having about 400 million speakers you would not be far off.
Different forms of English have been used as a worldwide medium:
- British English: the original and imperial form of the tongue, it is the most common form of English in the second ring. Most who consciously use English as a worldwide medium use some form of British English.
- Spoken: Most of the British Commonwealth as a first or second language.
- Use: The Economist, BBC, EU, OECD, Al Jazeera, OPEC, PricewaterhouseCoopers
- American English: Spoken by two-thirds of those in the inner ring and the most widely taught form in the outer ring.
- Spoken: America, Canada, Philippines, Israel
- Use: Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, Hollywood movies, American and Japanese companies, the computer industry.
- Mid-Atlantic or OED English: This is a middle ground between British and American English that is used by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both British and American spellings are allowed, but the American -ize tends to drive out the British -ise (recognise, recognize). Both -or and -our (favour, favor) are used.
- Use: OED, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, United Nations, UNESCO, Encyclopaedia Britannica, ISO, Amnesty, Nature, The Times Literary Supplement.
- Special English: This is used by The Voice of America (VOA) to reach the outer ring. It is American English spoken slowly and clearly, with short sentences and few difficult words or idioms.
- Use: VOA
- Basic English: invented in the 1930s by Ogden Nash as an English simple enough for the whole world to use. It has less than a thousand words and simple rules for putting them together. Churchill supported it. It is difficult for those who already know Full English, but it is a good stepping stone for those who do not. It is based on British English and is meant for the outer ring.
- Use: The British Council, to teach English.
- Mere English: This is my name for the English used by Pam Peters in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. While she talks about the differences in English in Britain, America, Canada and Australia, she herself writes in an International English that keeps the middle course between all of these. It is like CS Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” – something common and acceptable to all.
- Use: The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
American and British English are close enough that either is fine for the two inner rings. British English, however, is more widely accepted since it is a perfectly acceptable form of English in America. Half of The Economist’s readers, for example, live in America.