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What exactly does \documentclass[american]{article} do with the definition of a language and in what case is it useful to define a language?

What is the difference to \documentclass[british]{article}?

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The standard document classes (article, book, report etc.) have no such options. The babel package provides hyphenation patterns for different languages (although I don't think there is an american or british option, just english). Is that what you are thinking of? – Ian Thompson May 22 '12 at 14:59
@IanThompson -- babel does have UKenglish and USenglish options, which should trigger the desired hyphenation patterns. english = USenglish in babel; canadian and american also load the u.s. patterns, while australian and newzealand use the british patterns. – barbara beeton May 22 '12 at 15:10
@barbara --- Indeed it does. It also has british; I should have checked the manual before commenting. – Ian Thompson May 22 '12 at 15:19
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Options supplied to \documentclass are global options and are available to all packages. So while the built in classes do not care about a language option like american or british, the babel package likely does.

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And other packages, such as varioref are also aware of those idiomatic global options. – Gonzalo Medina May 22 '12 at 15:24

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