I'm acquainted with some of the differences between the U.S. English I speak, and other flavors of English. Wikipedia has a term, Commonwealth English, which I'll abbreviate CE. I know, for example, that holiday equals vacation, the loo equals the john, and toilet equals bathroom. But there must be lots of other terms and expressions of mine that will have a different meaning in CE than what I'm used to, that I don't realize. And vice versa.

How do ELU users deal with this? How do ELU habitués avoid inadvertently setting up barriers to understanding in their ELU posts?

I searched among the existing ELU tags and found ten questions labeled commonweath-english [sic].

-- Edit -- I apologize for noting being clear about the raison d'être of this question from the start. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of communicating with people whose English is a bit different from my own. My main other language is Spanish, and living in the U.S. is a fun place to speak it, what with so many different flavors of Spanish living in close proximity with each other, in an atmosphere of camaraderie, identification and mutual support.

This question was motivated by the mensch question. There is a substantial camp of ELU users in that thread that are bothered by the idea of a yiddishism like this being used on StackExchange, since it is apparently used primarily in the U.S. This made me wonder how SE users handle the problem in general.

Ideally, I'd like to hear from some users that felt strongly about the inappropriateness of using an apparent Americanism on SE. I'm now doubting whether that is likely to happen on Meta. Is there some way I could adapt my question to make it work on Academia, instead of Academia Meta?

I would ask that if you have an approach or a coping mechanism to contribute, please put it in the form of an Answer (rather than a Comment), so that it can be up or downvoted.

I'm looking for answers that focus on positive coping mechanisms, not on finding a better way of classifying the major varieties of English spoken in different parts of the world. (That would be a different question, and one which someone else is welcome to pose!)

  • 2
    That tag should probably be fixed. I'm not sure why this would be more of an issue or barrier to understanding on ELU than any other place, like the other Stack Exchange sites, Wikipedia, etc.
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 5:56
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    "You're getting your knickers in a twist, mate" as an Englishman might say. I know Americans tend to say "bunch" instead. But did you still understand me? I could begin writing in Italian but I know that is a different language, AmEng, BrEng, AusEng etc. etc. are different dialects, not languages. Sta calmo, rilassarti (chillax!)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 6:52
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    I admire that you try to avoid trouble preemptively, but the truth is there's no trouble here to avoid. Just as there are no precautions taken when you go out to the bar with a mixed crowd of British and American people. That said, there are the tags british-english (abbreviated BrE by commenters here) and american-english (AmE), if you care to use them. Perhaps the reason you "commonwealth English" search didn't turn up much is because, eg, Canada is in the commonwealth. As is India. (And whaddaya know, we also have indian-english and canadian-english).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 12:14
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    Please change your title to "Tomayto, tomahto." To BrE eyes, "Tomato, tomahto" are the same word! :-) Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 12:15
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    @Mari-LouA: We also say "panties" instead of "knickers" in that case.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 16:49
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    I'm from Ireland, which is very much not in the Commonwealth, a native speaker of English, and I'm as surprised as anyone to suddenly be told the language I've been speaking all these years is Commonwealth English. The term is not universally used or even well-defined. Wikipedia can't even seem to make its mind up whether British English is synonymous with Caribbean English (it certainly isn't).
    – smci
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 7:46
  • @smci Do not try to turn this into a political debate.
    – mrr
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 9:00
  • 1
    @MilesRout: I'm not doing any political debate in the least, I'm talking nomenclature and usage. I'm pointing out that that term is not a) well-defined let alone b) universal. I had never heard it until now. If we insist on using the term, we need to either define it, or pick a different term. I suppose it would include Caribbean English and Singlish. The Wikipedia definition needs improvement.
    – smci
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 9:56
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    Your question is confusing. Are you saying that the entire SE system is against regionalisms, or just ELU? At ELU we just expect to be understood or to ask to elucidate, we're all open here to all the varieties, this is after all a language site. I don't think there is a problem here at all. So you spell it 'colour', I don't wish you or your feudalistic barbarism of a monarchy anything terrible beyond chronic hangnails. It's not a barrier.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 14:59
  • @Mitch - That sounds like good material for an Answer! (To understand my motivation, I recommend looking at the afore-cited Mensch Question. Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 21:25
  • @Mitch Monarchy is objectively the best system by every available metric.
    – mrr
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 1:04
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    @aparente001 I did read the mensch question. It's still not clear what direction your question is going. Whatever it is in that question that bothers you, I don't see any of those things as a pervasive problem on ELU or SE. Do you? Please elaborate and give links to examples.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 2:33
  • @Mitch - Whatever coping mechanisms people on SE in general and ELU in particular have worked out, I'd like to hear about. In other words, if it is not a pervasive problem, why isn't it? Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 3:30
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    @aparente001 If purple polka-dotted giraffes from Neptune licking all the paint off houses in towns in prime-numbered zip codes is not a pervasive problem, why isn't it? I'd like to hear about that.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 10:43

1 Answer 1


With English as a language there are the basics which are relatively common, but there are a lot of words and phrases that are localised slang or colloquialisms.

If I am talking to someone (especially online where their initial confusion is not obvious) who is not a native English speaker, or to a lesser extent someone who is not a local English speaker then I try to avoid such colloquialisms. Similarly I would quite possibly avoid using imperial measurements for many people; much of the English speaking world has switched to metric, or at least has a good understanding of it. While the USA is still heavily biased to the imperial system, is uses a slightly different selection of imperial measures. For example a US gallon is smaller, and I can't ever remember hearing an American referring to a person's weight using stones and pounds, while in the UK it is virtually unknown to refer to someone's weight just in pounds.

There are of course some words which have very different meanings in the UK and the USA and best to avoid those. "Going out for a fag" for example has very different meanings, while a fanny refers to 2 different parts of the anatomy. Going in to shops and asking for pants would get you different items of clothing.

In the original thread about mensch, I wouldn't have understood the word nor from where it was used would I have been able to correctly infer its meaning. My guess would be based on the word untermensch which has unfortunate associations but would have just left me thinking human.

Overall I tend to take the view that language is for communication. If the choice of phrases in a language gets in the way of communication then it is failing in its primary reason for existing.

  • Thanks to your answer, I edited the question to clarify my intent. I hope you'll edit your answer to talk about how your approach to avoiding communication problems on ELU. Also, could we give the poor mensch a rest in this thread? Thanks. Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 11:34

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