There I go, confusing the students again.

Earlier today, I left a message on a course website, instructing students to bring to the next session any questions they have about (among other things) 'essay writing/revision'. This set off a panic in some that there might be an exam that they hadn't yet known about. That's because the words revise and revision are used very differently in American and British educational contexts.

My intention was to refer to the writing and revision of essays. American college (= BrE university) students become accustomed to the practice of writing, revising and re-submitting draft upon draft of their essays, especially in Freshman comp (i.e. a first-year university course on how to write--particularly, how to write an academic essay). In this context, revision refers to the process of creating a new version of a text, through editing and re-writing. Thus, gives first draft as an antonym for revision. This sense of revise/revision is not foreign to BrE, but in the context of of what British students expect to do, it is not the first thing that comes to their minds.

Instead, they think of the BrE-only meaning 'to review/study material in preparation for a test/exam'. Thus in BrE one can revise for exams or revise Chemistry, while in AmE the object noun for the verb revise would have to refer to some kind of text: revise an essay. Look up "How to revise" on websites, and one gets lots of information about how to prepare oneself for examinations (see, for example, this). Look up the same phrase on .edu (i.e. mostly American university) sites, and one finds advice pages on how to improve a first draft of an essay (such as this one).

I continue to use revise to mean 'create a new version of a text' in BrE contexts because it is a 'legal' meaning of the word here, and there isn't a very good substitute for it (rewrite scares the students, edit makes them think that they just have to proof[-]read). But usually I take the time to clarify my intention. In this particular course, the fact that they have to revise and resubmit their work has been discussed for ten weeks now, so I relaxed a bit and assumed we were speaking the same language by now. The ambiguity created by my virgule (slash) undid all that teaching, it seems. The ambiguity, of course, is whether essay writing/revision means 'essay writing and essay revision' or 'essay writing and (exam) revision'. I have to tell myself that the ambiguity created the problem. Otherwise I'd have to believe that no one's been listening to me harping on about first and final essay drafts all term, and believing that would be very bad indeed for my self-esteem.


  1. Well, 9 weeks of using a word in a new way doesn't seem likely to override the terrible meaning ingrained by 15 years of school in the UK: SATs start at what age now? Isn't it six or thereabouts? The first sense of the word to pop into a British student's head will always be the pre-exam meaning, believe me; no need for self-esteem difficulties! :)

  2. My pre-graduation educational experience in England in the 60s and 70s was that essays were handed in, kept (sometimes for weeks), and then, if not lost, returned customarily with just a single annotation: a grade in red ink. It must be so much better nowadays to get helpful feedback and to be able to submit more than one version. If we had been allowed to, we would have edited our text.

    In my own current researches, I observe that, in the US, writing is seen more as a craft to be learned than a talent to be mysteriously inherited. Writers there are made, not just born. It is, I'm told by a reliable source, part of the American can-do attitude. We, in late 20th-century England, we never taught to write, as must be obvious from my posts here.

    For students I knew who postponed their coursework, much pre-exam activity wasn't so much revision as vision.

  3. Ginger Yellow, if my understanding of the BrE "revise" is correct, AmE just uses "study". In many cases cramming is definitely the more accurate word (and students do use it), but you're right, professors usually don't encourage that!

  4. I think we just don't make the distinction. Studying for an exam means really hitting the books and making sure you know what you're talking about for the big day. Or we can use study in a more general sense, as in "what are you studying at the university?" and the answer to that would just be your major. I'm not sure we use it in the new material way you're talking about, actually...

  5. Indeed, AmE has an extra sense for study that BrE doesn't. The OED says:

    To make a close study of (a subject), to ‘bone’ up (on, in), esp. in preparation for some display of knowledge. U.S. colloq.

    But I have to take issue with their colloq. label. Cram is colloquial, and bone up is colloquial, but study in this sense is standard in AmE.

  6. "Review" is an AmE synonym for studying material for an exam.

  7. If your virgule means "and", why not write "and" or "&"?

  8. It might just be me, but I think reviewing is more a quick overview kind of word. Like, if you'd spent the last week studying, you'd review the material one more time on the morning of the test. Wow I'm posting a lot on this one - can you tell it's something near and dear to my heart? :)

  9. Interesting, if oblique, point by dearime above about virgules/slashes/strokes. Is there a standard meaning, such as and or and/or or or? If not (and I suspect there isn't), isn't it a very dangerous little mark to use at all? It could already be leading to confusion/ambiguity/error/fruitless blog-commenting.

  10. I must admit to being puzzled by your use of "virgule". I thought it was one of the few words I remembered from French dictation, but I must be wrong, since I could've sworn the meaning was "comma". I dunno what the French call the solidus.

  11. Just because it means 'comma' in French doesn't mean it means 'comma' in English!

  12. strange indeed :) In my American experience, We would "Review all the lessons/lectures? we had covered in class. Then we would go home and Study for the test/exam.

  13. A slash generally means "or." Just wanted to follow up on that. :-)

    From Chicago Manual of Style:

    "A slash most commonly signifies alternatives. In certain contexts it is a convenient (if somewhat informal) shorthand for or. It is also used for alternative spellings or names.


    Occasionally a slash can signify and—though still usually conveying a sense of alternatives.

    an insertion/deletion mutation
    an MD/PhD program
    a Jekyll/Hyde personality"

    On a related note, the "and/or" construction is just terrible in any case. And or or? What does that even mean?

  14. Roger Market

    On a related note, the "and/or" construction is just terrible in any case. And or or? What does that even mean?

    It's a wonderful device. In Britain, if not in places people pay attention to stuff like the Chicago Manual of Style, it has a very precise meaning:

    'One or the other or both'.

    You can have potatoes and/or beans means that you can have potatoes or you can have beans or you can have potatoes and beans.

    It's a perfect expression for when it's important not to imply that a choice is an exclusive one.

    If the Chicago Manual of Style doesn't recognise this, then it needs rewriting.

  15. Of course, I should have said that the Chicago Manual needs revising or even revision. The fact that I used rewriting is clearly very British.

    I'm fifty years older than your students, but my instincts are at least as strong. For me essay writing/revision is not ambiguous. Only a knowledge that it needed translation from AmE into BrE would create any doubt. Essay revision is an impossible collocation — unless it means reviewing past essays as a preparation for an exam or similar.

    For me there are two senses of revise, revision

    1. 'recast, re-evalue'
    2. 'review, re-examine, consolidate one's study'

    • The noun from sense [1] is countable by default:
    a serious revision of the policy is normal
    Revision of the policy is overdue is a bit odd

    • The noun from sense [2] is uncountable by default:
    I can't say *It's time for the revision — although I can use the revision to mean 'the revision which is required' in a particular context

    • The verb from sense [1] is transitive
    Moreover, in my speech the direct object must denote a mental construct — usually an opinion — not a physical text.

    • The verb form sense [2] is intransitive by default:
    I say revise for Chemistry not —revise Chemistry

    OK, it's unfair to expect grammatical clues in a written phrase like essay writing/revision. But you could have written essay revision/writing. The sheer oddity of it might have got students to pay attention instead of reading on autopilot.

  16. I don't agree with those who are saying that 'revision' as 'rewriting' is impossible in BrE. It may be unusual in academic contexts, but British Quakers, admittedly a niche group with a large number of specialised language uses, use the term 'revision' for re-writing our how-to-be-a-Quaker manual, the book of discipline. A 'revision committee' reviews, rewrites, and (since much of the book is extracts) changes and recompiles the selection. A number of examples of this pattern of use can be found in this introduction to the current volume:

  17. In the US we have books released as “revised edition”. This means that the text has been altered somewhat; not that it’s the original text but someone used it to prep for an exam. That’s what we do: prep (prepare), review, study, examine and, if having procrastinated, cram! If I were to take an older writing of mine and, say, adjust all pronouns to be gender-neutral, that would be me revising my original text.

    1. That's general English, rather than specifically American.

  18. The word in American English that has the same meaning and register as BrE "revise" is "review."

  19. American English does make the distinction. We use the word "review."

  20. Study. Brits revise, americans study.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)