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I overheard a friend say:

"I was used to writing essays in the American style, where you have to take a position, be really passionate about it, and given arguments with references for and against, show why your position is the right one. I had to change to the British style, where you have to be quite detached, and balance out the for and against arguments, and explain the better position."

Assumptions:

  • I get that British and American senses of humour are different because of different historic cultural influences. Stephen Fry explains his theory that the British view of the world is pre-reformation (despite Henry VIII several centuries ago) and focuses on a passive view of the world that is unchangeable.That the American post-reformation and relies more on self-empowerment and individual responsibility.
  • I know both cultures have different philosophical contexts, the American influence on Locke's ideas of natural rights to life, liberty and property as a higher cultural claim. The British have a leaning towards Greek platonic modernism as a higher cultural claim.
  • (I'm writing as an Australian)

My question is: Is there evidence for a categorical difference between British and American literary argument style?

(My apologies for a dramatic oversimplification of the influence of Locke, and the fact that I have left out so many other significant influences. I get that he also had a significant influence on British law and Constitutional theory. My point was to paint a picture of the categories).

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I can't answer for the American system of essay writing, if there is one. However, I studied History and Philosophy to University degree level here in the United Kingdom and I was definitely expected to write in what you call the "British" style.

In other words, we were expected to report both sides of the argument fairly (to show we actually understood the arguments being made) before exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each side and drawing a conclusion.

When coming to a conclusion, we were expected to explain why we were rejecting the arguments with which we disagreed as well as explaining why the arguments we accepted carried the greater force.

I graduated in 1985 but, unless matters have changed dramatically since my day, then I would say there is a distinctive difference between American and British styles of essay writing.

  • Agree there is a difference - I just wish there was a way of putting it in categories. – hawkeye Feb 28 '15 at 8:40
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    I suppose the British approach is analytical and objective whereas the American approach is more subjective and evangelical. – Thomas Murphy Feb 28 '15 at 14:49

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