Skip to main content Skip to navigation

All socialists are Communists.

It might be more accurately said that all Communists are socialists. In the Communist vocabulary “socialism” is seen as the more general term which includes various political philosophies including Communism. Many Western European socialists during the Cold War were vehemently opposed to Soviet-style Communism, as are most socialists today. The term “socialism” is often used by advocates of mixed economies in which capitalism plays a substantial part, moderated by a government which regulates the economy to promote public welfare. Many social critics using socialist analysis do not clearly advocate any specific political or economic system.

Back to list of misconceptions.

Communism could never work because it goes against human nature. People are naturally more competitive than cooperative

This argument is actually dealt with by Marx himself in the Manifesto, where he puts forward his view that there is no such thing as fixed “human nature.” Human attitudes and behavior are constantly reshaped by the changing economic systems in which people find themselves. Engels went on to spend a good deal of effort showing that early hunter-gatherer and village societies depended far more on cooperation than on competition.

The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the classic argument against social Darwinism in his Mutual Aid (1902), and leftist social scientists have developed it further. In many cultures prestige or authority are more highly prized than property, and competition may be expressed by acts of even radical “selflessness” such as giving away almost all one’s wealth in the “potlatches” of certain northwest tribes of Native Americans. Capitalism, socialists argue, simply brings these otherwise marginal emotions to the center and exaggerates them, stripping people of the strong ties which unite groups based on tradition, honor, religion, etc.

This is an argument that cannot be settled. No large socialist or Communist state ever managed to create a population of ideal Communist citizens–though it is worth noting that many contemporary Russians voice regret for the disappearance of old patterns of cooperation in the new capitalist era and are decidedly ambivalent about the virtues of competition.

Communists may have sounded naive when they foretold the creation of the new “socialist man,” but anti-Communists sounded equally naive when they asserted that contemporary attitudes toward property, work and money were universal truths unchanged throughout history. It was not entirely implausible to argue that if Europeans could change from believing in the divine right of kings, the necessity of permanent feudal ties, and submission to the Church, they could change further to reject individual self-interest, competition and private property as eternal truths which predominate in society.

Back to list of misconceptions.

Communists wanted to weaken our culture with experimental literature, abstract art, dissonant music, and sexual freedom.

I doubt that many people still hold this uniquely American view, since Communism has collapsed and the social features in question still thrive without any assistance from agents of foreign powers. When one used to point out to the folks who made this argument that all these were strongly suppressed in most Communist countries and denounced as forms of Capitalist corruption by them, they would reply that of course the Communists wanted to keep such filth out of their own lands–the goal was to weaken ours.

This argument is almost too silly to answer, but it worth noting that in the very earliest stages of the Russian revolution there was indeed a good deal of experimental art and music as well as sexual experimentation. Stalin, however, was far more bourgeois than revolutionary in his artistic tastes and morals, and suppressed such modernism as severely as did Hitler on the extreme right.

There were isolated exceptions to this pattern (art and music in Poland, fiction in Cuba, for instance), but generally where Communism prevailed there was a stultifying imposition of conservative artistic standards.

Those who used to make this argument probably knew little or nothing about this history; they simply associated Communism with everything they disliked. By the 1950s it was already a joke that conservatives would call anything new a “Communist plot.”

Of course, many experimental artists in Western countries became involved briefly or for longer periods with Communist movements, but in most cases they were drawn to them because their rebellious artistic tastes naturally led them to sympathize with revolution itself rather than their politics having caused their works to become more experimental.

Back to list of misconceptions.

Communism is the opposite of democracy

Again, history provides plenty of examples of undemocratic Communist tyrannies to justify this stereotype. Various rationalizations have been advanced by such regimes to justify their use of the term “democratic,” but they do not seem to me worthy of examination here.

The important point is that Communism as Marx and others advanced it was to be a sort of super-democracy. What Marxists originally objected to were the limitations of democracy. Bourgeois democracy was denounced not because it was democratic, but because its benefits were concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The notion was to democratize the economy as well as government. With all wealth being held in common and controlled by workers, the factors in society which most directly affect daily life would come under the control of ordinary people, no longer to limited occasional trips to the ballot box.

During the Cold War, foes of Communism constantly articulated the struggle as being between Communism and democracy, while Communists insisted instead on seeing the struggle as being between Communism and capitalism–a term that was largely replaced in the U.S. by phrases with more positive connotations: “free enterprise” and “market economy.” Refusal to acknowledge this difference in usage probably led to more mutual misunderstanding and wasted breath than any other.

Communists may have often betrayed the ideal of democracy and even sometimes condemned it, but the original socialists were inspired by it and created the idea of socialism as an extension of it.

Back to list of misconceptions.

The Communists want to take over the whole world.

Let us begin by acknowledging that Marxists indeed advocated that all the world should become Communist, but not by hostile takeover. Rather, they advocated a series of national revolutions around the globe which would allow the victorious workers ultimately to join together as one, abolishing the very idea of nationhood.

Indeed, when the Russian Revolution succeeded, a fierce debate erupted over whether it was legitimate to try to build Communism in one country without the support of other revolutions elsewhere. A counterattack by defenders of the old order was mounted by the “white Russians” (contrasted with the “red” Communists) aided by such foreign powers as Great Britain, Japan, France and the United States (which sent troops that never actually entered combat). In such circumstances, it is understandable that the new government should decide to press ahead without outside support, and that it would later try to generate revolutions abroad from outside.

The idea of a threat of world conquest by Communism was usually based on the experience of the period after World War II, when the Soviet Union imposed a series of Communist governments on the often unwilling populations of the countries they had occupied. They insisted that they were not conquering but liberating these nations from the shackles of capitalism. Having extended the bounds of the Revolution beyond the borders of the USSR, it was unthinkable that they should retreat and allow power to fall back into the hands of their bourgeois masters. Probably more important, however, was the desire of the Soviet Union to surround itself with a buffer of sympathetic, easily controlled states which could protect it from another invasion of the sort Hitler had carried out to such devastating effect.

The West viewed this move as purely an aggressive one, a forerunner of further campaigns of world conquest, and viewed the Soviet-backed Chinese revolution and the Chinese-backed Korean War which followed as proof of a general program of Communist expansionism, as was the Chinese conquest of Tibet. This was strong evidence, not lightly dismissed.

Yet the USSR did not in fact invade and “take over” China, and by 1960 had abandoned its former ally, and the North Koreans did not fall under the sway of China, stubbornly refusing to follow the Chinese lead to this day. The simple model of military conquest which dominated Western rhetoric about Communism during the Cold War was often a misleading guide to events, prompting American Presidents, for instance, to identify the Vietnam War as a Chinese project when it was in fact a civil war in which the Vietnamese Communists–both then and later–were often hostile to the Chinese. The invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese is another contest seen as an instance of Communist aggression when in fact the more liberal Vietnamese might have been able to prevent the genocide carried out by the radical–not to say insane–Communist Khmer Rouge if the Americans had not driven them out.

The Vietnam War was enormously prolonged because of the American conviction that the fall of Saigon would be swiftly followed by the fall of Laos, Cambodia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia in a “bloodbath.” When Saigon did fall and the Americans left, many people suffered; but the predicted bloodbath and fall of “domino” states did not ensue. The Vietnamese were far more nationalist than expansionist, whatever their political beliefs.

Yet it would have been a foolish political leader indeed who did not take seriously the threat of invasion by Communist troops. Because of the secrecy of the Russians and the paranoia induced by the nuclear arms race fueled by both sides but led most often by the Americans, this threat was often wildly exaggerated. Hindsight tells us that much of the Cold War rhetoric envisioning the Soviet Union and its allies as bent on the military conquest of the rest of the world was mistaken; but their non-military and indirect military interventions posed serious threats that help to explain the inflamed rhetoric.

However the history of actual Communist states is analyzed, the notion of forcible imposition of Communism on unwilling majorities is certainly contrary both to Marx’s beliefs and those of most Marxists.

Back to list of misconceptions.

Communism is a secret conspiracy to take over the world.

It is easy to see how this idea got started: some of the early radicals in the First International were indeed participants in secret conspiratorial movements, and in the Stalinist era the Soviet government routinely tried to recruit Communist Party members abroad to commit espionage. Now that the archives in Russia have been opened this effort is well documented. In addition, when Communist organizations were banned or suppressed, they naturally retreated underground, just as other persecuted groups like the early Christians have done. But to characterize Communism generally as a secret conspiracy is absurd.

First, it is important to note that Karl Marx fought against the mostly anarchist-dominated factions of the First International which advocated secrecy and terrorism on the very sensible ground that a successful revolution would need the backing of the majority of the population, and that such support could be generated only by widespread public understanding of the Communist program. TheManifesto was published precisely to encourage such public understanding and begins by mocking the stereotype–already in place in 1848–of Communism as a dark underground plot. Marx spent most of his life trying to explain Communism in many books and articles.

If anyone is responsible for the general public ignorance about Communist goals and ideas it is the capitalist press, which carefully avoided publicizing them. Reams of paper were spent routinely on denouncing the ideas of leftists and detailing their actions or threats, but almost never were their writings or speeches reproduced or seriously discussed. Theodore Kaczynski (“The Unabomber”) had more success using blackmail to get his ideas before the public than did anyone from the American Communist Party in its most successful period.

The goal of Communists has always been to generate mass movements leading to popular revolution involving the overwhelming majority of the population. The idea that we might wake up tomorrow ruled by fierce Marxists who had seized power in a coup was as loony as current right-wing fantasies about U.N. black helicopters taking over the country.

However, if we nuance this misconception a bit, more than a little truth emerges from it. Although the Communists led by Lenin were not secretive about their aims, they did successfully take over the 1917 revolution whose combatants mostly did not agree with their ideas. Although Lenin’s group called itself the Bolsheviks (majority), they in fact constituted a very small minority within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. Their determination to be the leaders of the new state, their strict organizational principles, and their conviction that they could realize the the unspoken will of the masses as “the vanguard of the proletariat” led them to justify monopolizing power, suppressing all rivals, most of whom were eventually exiled or executed. They did have popular support, especially among workers and soldiers in the cities; but it is not at all clear that their philosophy was clearly understood or accepted by the Russian people generally.

Another notable instance of a revolution turning Communist was the uprising led by Fidel Castro (1956-1959) in which he did not proclaim his beliefs until after he had come to power.

In both cases, popular support for the Communist leadership was eventually generated by a combination of education, agitation, national pride, censorship, oppression, and the exile or execution of opponents. When Communist leaders have generated genuine widespread popular support (Mao in China, Stalin in World War II Russia), it was generally because they were seen to be fighting against an immediate threat on behalf of the people and not because their Communist ideology generated great enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, majorities within many Communist nations did come to believe in and endorse Communist ideas. Many can be found who are nostalgic for the good old days under Communism within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and there have been notable instances in which Communists have been returned to power by popular vote in former Communist dictatorships.

On the whole, it must be said that the general aims and ideas and much of the strategy of socialists and Communists have been freely available to anyone who wished to pay attention.

Back to list of misconceptions.

Misconceptions, Confusions, and Conflicts Concerning Socialism, Communism, and Capitalism

Conservative Ideas about Socialism and Communism:

Communism is a secret conspiracy.

The Communists want to take over the whole world.

Communism is the opposite of democracy.

Communists wanted to weaken our culture with experimental literature, abstract art, dissonant music, and sexual freedom.

Communism could never work because it goes against human nature. People are naturally more competitive than cooperative.

All socialists are Communists.

Socialist and Communist Ideas about Capitalism:

Capitalists and capitalist states are always motivated by economic considerations.

Capitalists promote war to increase profits.

Capitalists commodify and simplify culture.

Capitalists despoil the environment.

Socialism is more appropriate in underdeveloped countries than Capitalism.

Capitalist ideals:

The free market brings better goods at lower prices, so restraints on the free market all bad for all.

The spread of Capitalism means the spread of freedom.

Everyone has equal opportunity under capitalism.

Privatizing services makes them more responsive.

Communist ideals:

Socialist planning can stabilize the economy and develop it in a rational manner.

People can be trained to value common property as much as their own private property.

Centralized socialist states can evolve into democratic communitarian societies.

Socialist governments with strong democratic traditions regulating mixed economies can avoid the problems of traditional Marxist governments.

Off-campus syllabus

On-campus syllabus



Research Paper Assignment

Because this is a compressed eight-week course, the research assignment needs to be done in an efficient manner. It is urgent that students be in frequent communication with the professor about their research, letting him know about questions and problems they have, leads they’d like to explore, etc. This sort of communication is a central part of the research process.

STEP ONE: Choose one of the following books to research and sign up for it in the second week activities within the threaded discussion: “Sign up for research topic.” Check first to make sure that no one else has chosen your topic. If someone has, choose another topic. If you have questions, be sure to correspond with the professor about them. If you have another book you’d like to research, check first to make sure it is practical. Only a small minority of books have any extensive amount of scholarship published about them for you to draw on.

STEP TWO: Borrow and read the book(s) chosen as soon as possible.

STEP THREE: (simultaneously with Step Two): Identify scholarly articles and books and other research materials about your book, using The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database at This database is confined to SF scholarship, and is much more efficient than the MLA International Bibliography. Note that you have to search for your author as a SUBJECT, though an AUTHOR search may turn up relevant nonfiction by that author. However, the MLA International Bibliography also analyzes individual chapters in books made up of separate articles, so you should use it as well. The electronic version is available through the library. Go to the DDLS page at and scroll all the way to the bottom, and click under “Databases” on “Humanities” and scroll down on the next page tht loads to find MLA. (Pro Quest, often recommended for other classes, is not particularly useful for this one.) If you need assistance with library resources, please refer to the DDLS course page ( or contact Beth Lindsay at or phone her at 509-335-7735. Write up a preliminary annotated bibliography of items that look useful, using MLA bibliographic style, with a sentence or two for each one explaining why you think it might be useful. Post the annotated bibliography in Activity 3, in the “Document” entitled “Annotated Bibliographies.” Look especially for recent bibliographies or checklists on your topic and use them. Remember to track down sources that recent writers seem to cite as important.

STEP FOUR: The professor will comment on your bibliography and make further suggestions for research. It is crucial to act on these promptly. Meanwhile order the books you need through DDLS. You should order copies of articles from journals by ordering them through Iliad at .Iliad can supply both articles in journals WSU lacks and use interlibrary loan services to supply others, though there will be a longer delay for the latter, and you should not depend too heavily on such materials for your research, since you have so little time.

STEP FIVE: As you read, take notes addressing the following questions:

  1. What kind of SF is this? (Draw on Palumbo and Landon.
  2. In what ways is it typical of its type? What other books you have read does it remind you of? How?
  3. What makes it unique?
  4. What are its outstanding qualities?
  5. What are the chief topics addressed by scholars who have written about it? What are the main controversies surrounding it? Characterize the various sides in any debate and try to understand their arguments.
  6. What perspectives or theoretical approaches seem to be used by these scholars?
  7. How useful is the scholarship? What did you learn from reading it that could help you in teaching about this work?
  8. Are there aspects of the work which seem to have been inadequately discussed? Can you explicate these yourself?

STEP SIX: Create a study guide aimed at a high school reader, drawing on the research and your own knowledge to introduce and explain the work without summarizing the plot or making it possible to substitute a reading of your study guide for the book itself (in other words, don’t use Cliff Notes as your model). You can use ideas from my own study guides, but feel free to try different approaches that you think would be useful.

STEP SEVEN: Your paper will consist of an introduction answering the questions above and any others that you deem pertinent, the study guide you have created, and a bibliography (this time NOT annotated) of sources cited in your paper. Submit your paper in Activity 6 in the “Document” entitled “Submit Research Paper.”

STEP EIGHT: Read and make constructive comments for improvement on the papers of other students in the class.

STEP NINE: Taking into account the professor’s comments and those of your fellow students, revise your paper. All papers must be revised and must address the concerns raised by the professor. Submit the final revised version in Activity 8 in the “Document” entitled “Final Draft of Research Paper.”

Papers will be judged on usefulness, clarity, thoroughness of research, and quality of writing.

Topics for Research


  • Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Winter
    Aldiss realized as he was writing the third volume of his Helliconia trilogy–which had been built around ecological and evolutionary themes–that a nuclear winter theme would fit into the book he was writing, and it became much more of an anti-war statement. It is a sort of counter-epic, structured in just the opposite order of most such works. Very little has been written about it except by Aldiss himself, but it’s worth tracking down what there is. One important article about it is available only in French. Deserves the sort of praise for its ecological awareness that has been lavished on Frank Herbert’s Dune.
  • Octavia Butler: Dawn (Volume I of her Xenogenesis trilogy)
    Butler is particularly interested in biology, sexuality, reproduction, and questions of freedom and its limits. (Butler now lives in Seattle).
  • Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous With Rama
    Although there may appear at first to not be much scholarship on this classic “giant artifact” novel, it is covered in almost every discussion of “hard” SF and in general discussions of Clarke. Famous for depending on “awe and wonder” rather than character for its effect, combining Clarke’s peculiar combination interest in hardware with transcendence. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY STACIA MISNER.
  • Samuel R. Delany: Triton (retitled Trouble on Triton)
    A satirical utopia stressing personal freedom and choice written partly in response to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and drawing on Delany’s own experiences living in a commune and in an experimental marriage in the 1960s. Should be read in conjunction with his autobiographical volumes about that period The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East Village 1957-1965 and Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love. Not for the squeamish–Delany is gay and into S&M (though the novel is much milder than the memoirs). Hint: there is a mailing list about Delany where the novel has been discussed, but read the book first–people talking about it tend to give away the ending:
  • Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
    The most famous of all alternative-history novels, in which Japan and Germany win World War II and conquer the U.S. Discussed in any survey of alternative history fiction. Hint: look for “alternate history” rather than “alternative history” as a subject. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY AMY LAPTAD
  • Philip K. Dick: Ubik
    Considered by some to be Dick’s masterpiece, this is a work filled with his trademark satirical ambiguity and confusion about the nature of reality.
  • Thomas M. Disch: 334
    A grim portrait of a dangerous urban future which wrestles with many of the ethical issues we are only confronting seriously today. Discussed in most examinations of Disch’s fiction or in scholarship on urban SF.
  • Harlan Ellison: selected short stories.
    Ellison is one of the most influential short-story writers in the field. Identify a couple of his most-discussed stories and compare them. Identify which volumes the stories appear in by using the “Locus Index to Science Fiction” at Ellison’s stories are as often fantasy as they are SF (he objects strenuously to being labelled a science fiction writer). His work is often dark and shocking, but brilliant. He can be quite verbose in discussing his own work.
  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
    Huxley’s anti-utopia is still widely read and influential. Place it in the tradition of utopian and anti-utopian science fiction. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY LIV LEID.
  • Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
    LeGuin’s most-discussed novel, an early attempt at exploring gender roles and ambiguity, highly controversial in some circles.
  • C.S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet
    The first volume of Lewis’ Christian SF trilogy, which continues with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Now rather dated, but Lewis is still popular with young Christian readers. If you’ve already read the first volume, you may wish to discuss the somewhat more interesting Perelandra instead.
  • Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time
    Many non-SF readers don’t recognize this as SF at all: a fierce attack on the medical establishment’s treatment of mental patients with elements of a future utopia. Included in most discussions of 1970s feminist utopias.
  • Joanna Russ: The Female Man
    A fiercely funny, highly experimental examination of gender roles by one of SF’s most uncompromising feminists, now retired from the faculty of the University of Washington. Discussed in almost every survey of feminist SF.
  • Robert Silverberg: Dying Inside
    Moving portrait of a man slowly losing his telepathic powers, by one of SF’s most influential and popular authors.
  • Olaf Stapledon: Sirius
    A sensitive love story of a girl and the super-canine she is raised with by one of SF’s most original thinkers. Not as widely discussed as some of his other works, but a better-constructed novel. Stapledon’s consistent themes are evolution and challenging traditional morals.
  • Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
    Sturgeon is famous for his sensitivity to character and especially to his depiction of children and adolescents. This is an unconventional approach to the future evolution of the human race with an emphasis on emotion rather than the flexing of super-powers.
  • James Tiptree, Jr.: Selected short stories
    Alice Sheldon, writing under this pseudonym, produced some of the most powerful short fiction ever in the field. Choose two of her most-discussed stories and compare them. Identify which volumes the stories appear in by using the “Locus Index to Science Fiction” at There is an award for feminist SF named after her.
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five: or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death
    Vonnegut has written many SF novels which he has persuaded his publishers not to label as such, thus breaking out of the SF ghetto into a wider audience. This anti-war novel about the Dresden bombing incorporates classic SF elements and is still widely read and discussed. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY GUY SMURTHWAITE.
  • H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
    Wells’ first science-fiction novel, enormously influential; discussed in any survey of time-travel fiction. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY MELISSA WEISE.


“Carrot on a stick” vs. “the carrot or the stick.”

The Usenet Newsgroup alt.usage.english has debated this expression several times, most recently in spring 1998. No one there presented definitive evidence, but dictionaries agree that the proper expression is “the carrot or the stick”.


One person on the Web mentions an old “Little Rascals” short in which an animal was tempted to forward motion by a carrot dangling from a stick. I think the image is much older than that, going back to old magazine cartoons (certainly older than the animated cartoons referred to by correspondents on alt.usage.english); but I’ll bet that the cartoon idea stemmed from loose association with the original phrase “the carrot or the stick” rather than the other way around. An odd variant is the claim broadcast on National Public Radio March 21, 1999 that one Zebediah Smith originated this technique of motivating stubborn animals. This is almost certainly an urban legend.


Note that the people who argue for “carrot on a stick” never cite any documentable early use of the supposed “correct” expression. For the record, here’s what the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the subject: “carrot, sb. Add: 1. a. fig. [With allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.] An enticement, a promised or expected reward; freq. contrasted with “stick” (=punishment) as the alternative.”


[Skipping references to uses as early as 1895 which refer only to the carrot so don’t clear up the issue.]


1948 Economist 11 Dec. 957/2 The material shrinking of rewards and lightening of penalties, the whittling away of stick and carrot. [Too bad the Economist’s writer switched the order in the second part of this example, but the distinction is clear.]


1954 J. A. C. Brown Social Psychol. of Industry i. 15 The tacit implication that . . . most men . . . are . . . solely motivated by fear or greed (a motive now described as “the carrot or the stick”).


1963 Listener 21 Feb. 321/2 Once Gomulka had thrown away the stick of collectivization, he was compelled to rely on the carrot of a price system favourable to the peasant.”


The debate has been confused from time to time by imagining one stick from which the carrot is dangled and another kept in reserve as a whip; but I imagine that the original image in the minds of those who developed this expression was a donkey or mule laden with cargo rather than being ridden, with its master alternately holding a carrot in front of the animal’s nose (by hand, not on a stick) and threatening it with a switch. Two sticks are too many to make for a neat expression.


For me, the clincher is that no one actually cites the form of the “original expression.” In what imaginable context would it possibly be witty or memorable to say that someone or something had been motivated by a carrot on a stick? Why not an apple on a stick, or a bag of oats? Boring, right? Not something likely to pass into popular usage.


This saying belongs to the same general family as “you can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It is never used except when such contrast is implied.


Back to Nonerrors

The President’s English

A few residents of the United Kingdom and Canada have taken umbrage at my statement that “American English is quickly becoming an international standard.” “Piffle,” they assert; “everyone knows that the Queen’s English is the worldwide standard,” or words to that effect.
Let’s see if I can make this clear while being reasonably polite. First of all, note that I do not claim (though I could) that American English is the international standard, only that it is becoming a standard, alongside the older UK standard. Because so many people use it, it is important to understand its peculiarities.
When most English speakers were part of the Empire—or later, of the Commonwealth—British patterns of spelling, punctuation, and usage prevailed. Now we live in a different world. Chinese from Hong Kong and Singapore speak with a British accent for good historical reasons, but enormous numbers of them from Taiwan and The People’s Republic study mostly American patterns. Arabs from the Middle East, Japanese, Russians, Central Asians of all sorts, and hosts of other people study much more often in American colleges than in British ones. When treaties are being negotiated, international statements issued, meetings translated, and films dubbed, the lingua franca is far more likely to be American English than UK standard. American television and movies have alone spread American accents throughout the world.
This may be a deplorable fact, but it is a fact. Like many Americans, I warmly admire traditional English speech patterns and accents. This site in no way suggests that American ones are superior. They are simply more prevalent, in the world at large, and certainly on the Web. I am not an expert on UK usage.
It is also worth noting that in a surprising number of cases, American pronunciation and usage are more conservative than that of the British. Some instances are noted on these pages in which US speakers preserve older patterns abandoned by speakers in the British Isles.
My goal is to defend American standard usage from the bullying of non-American critics, and to warn Americans not to be parochial in assuming that everyone speaks like they do. For obvious reasons, careful writers have to pay attention to a relatively small number of differences, but we don’t have to let those differences whip us into a frenzy of mutual denunciation.
Back to Introduction