It is often said that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” (attributed to George Bernard Shaw). Most of the time it’s easy to understand each other. But when it comes to Americans who want to write and publish in British English, things get a lot trickier. 

This article shares some tips and tricks, and a few pitfalls to avoid, when preparing to submit to a book publisher or journal in the UK.

UK publishers’ attitudes to style

Some of the major UK book publishers, such as Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, have New York offices and publish in both styles. However, many book publishers and journals based in the UK use British style exclusively.

Increasingly, publishing houses will accept a style that doesn’t quite match their house style as long as it is consistent. However, this mostly refers to presentational issues like referencing, and UK spelling and punctuation are strictly observed. Even in those cases though, it is a good idea to understand the standard style and follow it unless you feel very strongly or need to conform to common practice in your field.

Standard reference works in the UK

There is no equivalent of the doorstop Chicago Manual of Style in the UK. Every publisher has their own style guide, and the differences between them can be minor, but strictly enforced.

One useful general style guide is New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors. This started as an in-house guide at Oxford University Press (OUP) but has become a popular and handy little reference work for all matters of style in the UK.

Hart’s Rules is used by OUP and others alongside their own house style, usually to cover anything not laid down in the publisher’s own style guide.

For spellings and meanings of words, the gold standard is the Oxford English Dictionary. But as the online version is subscription-based, a good free alternative is the Cambridge Dictionary.

Some common misconceptions

So, where do you start if you’re trying to get a grip on UK style? First, to make things a little more confusing, you may have a few assumptions that are not always true:

  1. UK English always uses -ise, not -ize.

Actually, both -ise and -ize are accepted. Hart’s Rules itself uses -ize. This comes down to personal or publisher preference.

Note that even when -ize is accepted, -yse is standard:

Example: I realized I needed to analyse the data.

  1. UK English doesn’t use the serial comma.

The serial comma is not compulsory, but remember its other name is the Oxford comma, and OUP is not the only UK publisher to use it. However, those who don’t use it tend to dislike it, so make sure to check the style guide for your publisher or journal.


Apart from the serial comma, the rules around UK punctuation are pretty straightforward.

  1. In the UK, single quotation marks are used, with double for quotes-within-quotes

Example: As Smith (2003) reminds us, ‘the serial comma is also known as the “Oxford comma”’.

  1. UK-style punctuation is always placed outside the quotation marks, except when a grammatically complete sentence is quoted

Example: She said, ‘I’ll meet you at the café tomorrow afternoon.’

  1. Where US style uses unspaced em-dashes, the UK uses a spaced en-dash

Example: There were several cases – in the UK and the US – of confusion about punctuation.


The main problem with UK spelling is that it’s full of extra letters that will look unnecessary if you’re used to US English. You can set your proofing language in Word to English (United Kingdom) to flag these, but it helps to know what to look out for.

Some examples:

Extra letters: mouldarchaeologycataloguecolour

Reversed letters: centretheatre

Scientific terms with more old-fashioned spellings: haematologyoestrogen

s for c or zdefenceanalysecosy

Measurements, times, dates

British English commonly uses the metric system for measurements: builders measure in millimetres, and items in shops are bought in grams. However, you can also buy a pint of beer or milk, walk many miles, and be six feet tall. In brief, it is a bit of a muddle. When in doubt, use SI units.

For times, both 14:00 and 2:00 p.m. are used; usually publishers should specify this in their house style.

The format used for dates is 15 March 2024.


Word choice is probably the most significant hurdle in communicating effectively in British English.

Unfortunately there is no spell checker that will warn you that pants means underpants in the UK, not trousers.  

A few common examples:














full stop



A Guide to the Main US/UK Differences

As an editor working across both styles, I have this list stuck to my desk at all times. Add to the word list any items you use often or find particularly tricky.




-ise or -ize (check publisher preference)

Serial comma (x, y, and z)

serial comma optional (check publisher preference)

Double quotation marks

single quotation marks

Punctuation inside. He said “Hi.”

Punctuation outside. He said “Hi”.

unspaced em-dash

spaced en-dash

January 15, 2024

15 January 2024



amid, toward

amidst, towards

behavior, favorite, etc.

behaviour, favourite, etc.



Dr., Mrs.

Dr, Mrs










per cent


practice (noun), practise (verb)





If this all sounds complicated, why not hire a professional editor to help you? Copyeditors and proofreaders in the UK are expected and trained to be fully familiar with US style, and so they will all have experience of converting text in either direction.

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