When first indie publishing, an author who is not American will have to decide whether they want to write for the American market, and which type of spelling to use.
I choose to write my books in American English because that's where the biggest book buying market is, and most non-US readers are used to the spelling and word differences. But it can be confusing!
Today’s article is from Rachel Stout at New York Book Editors, who provide professional editing for independent authors. She gives some useful advice around these cultural and language differences.
It’s no surprise that Americans and Brits use their common language differently. We know that trucks are lorries and diapers are nappies across the pond. You can probably name five or six word swaps right off the bat without even thinking about it.
Lines are queues, bangs are fringes and biscuits are cookies.
Given context clues, even the word differences that aren’t well known would be pretty easy for most readers to decipher.
But I’m not here to help you understand that when your British friend tells you they’d love some chips, they’re not talking about Doritos, or when your American pal gets up from the table to use the bathroom, they probably weren’t hit with a sudden mid-meal urge to shower. Like I said, I’m pretty confident you can make those deductions yourself. My goal today is to show you how to use these fundamental differences in the way Yanks and Brits communicate to enhance your writing.
Fiction Must Be Believable
As writers, we want our readers to be immediately and completely immersed in the world we have created on the page. An engaging story doesn’t just depend upon plot, characters or setting. Those are all important aspects, of course, but there is also the necessity for your book to be believable, realistic. This includes works of magical realism, fantasy, paranormal fiction and the like—in these cases your world building contains elements that suspend disbelief, thus necessitating your book be realistic to what you have created. Paraphrasing the famous words of Mark Twain, fiction must be believable—reality need not be.
One of the biggest pitfalls in writing is the attribution of an inappropriate voice to characters or the narrative. This includes children who speak like adults or convey a sensibility of the world that goes far beyond precociousness, historical fiction that doesn’t just evoke the period in which it is set, but adopts the writing style most common of that era, too, or, you guessed it, characters of foreign extraction who are not properly depicted in dialogue or narration. No matter how great the writing surrounding these dialogues or thought processes are, the misuse of voice is as irritating as it is unbelievable.
Sometimes the writer jerks the reader out of the realm of believability with an overdone, exaggerated Brit leaving the room with a “cheerio now, luv!” or an American obtusely making an exit with a hearty “see ya later, dude!” Other times, a writer makes no changes at all to speech patterns or syntax even though they are writing an entire novel that takes place on the other side of the Atlantic. This one is less jarring, but still gives the reader an odd sense of displacement.
For example, when published in America, the first three Harry Potter books were Americanized much more heavily than books four through seven (Harry Potter grew to a worldwide phenomenon somewhere between book three and book four). In fact, in the original printings of the first Harry Potter book in America (not even mentioning the difference in title), even “mum” changed to “mom,”* which sticks out like a sore thumb in a book that so deeply and prevalently takes place in Great Britain (albeit, the underground wizarding world, but the British underground wizarding world, nonetheless).
Correctly attributing speech patterns, syntax and vocabulary to your British and American characters will do wonders for the believability of your writing and will all but eradicate any niggling sensations a reader might feel when reading a piece of dialogue spoken by a character who is ostensibly from London but sounds more like the author’s neighbor in New Jersey.
There are nuances upon nuances that make up the differences in speech between the United States and the United Kingdom (not to mention the hundreds of regional dialects), but if you can master just these five major, easily adoptable ones, you’ll be golden as far as most readers are concerned.
You thought you left these pesky grammar words behind you in school**, didn’t you? Don’t worry, we’re keeping it really simple here. The grammar is correct for every option, there are just preferences in usage of these little words. The biggest difference in the use of prepositions between American and British English are found with the words “at,” “on,” and “in.”
When discussing time in the UK, “at” is used most commonly where “on” is used in the US. Here are a few examples to clarify:
British: I’m visiting Sarah at the weekend.
American: I’m visiting Sarah on the weekend.
When discussing schooling in general (as opposed to describing just one day at a specific school) Brits will use “at” again while Americans most commonly use “in”:
British: “I read that back when I was studying literature at university.”
American: “I read that back when I was studying literature in college.”
When discussing distance or action toward (American!) or towards (British!) someone or something, Brits tend to add a “to” after the describing or action word where Americans will generally not. The latter is most common when using the verb “write.”
British: Our new house is near to the school
American: Our new house is near the school.
British: I promised Brian I would write to him.
American: I promised Brian I would write him.
This one is simple, but important to note! In the UK, collective nouns are often addressed as if referring to a plural group (taking into account the many individual things or people making up the group word) and in the US, collective nouns are always addressed as if referring to a singular item (taking into account that one word is being used to describe the group).
British: The staff are working together well.
American: The staff is working together well.
Auxiliary (Helping) Verbs
Remember these? They’re the verbs that we use alongside other verbs to indicate the tone, tense or voice of the main verb we intend to use. We’re going to look at a few key differences between the US and the UK here—the big ones that will clearly show your reader that you know what’s going on!
First, the word “shall,” which in America is perceived as an outdated and/or overly formal word, but is quite commonly used in the UK. Brits occasionally use the word to express something they are planning to do in the future, where an American uses the word “will” in its place.
British: I shall head over around noon.
American: I will head over around noon.
“Shall” might also begin a question that asks someone for his or her opinion. In the latter situation, an American is more likely to use the word “should.”
British: Shall we take the dog for a walk?
American: Should we take the dog for a walk?
Another helping verb that has a couple of different uses between the two countries is the word “do.” When paired with “need,” Brits will often use the contraction “needn’t,” where Americans opt for the longer “don’t need to.”
British: You needn’t come with me to the store.
American: You don’t need to come with me to the store.
In the UK, this little two letter verb can also be used as a substitute for an entire action phrase when replying to a question, where Americans would drop it all together, and leave the action phrase as implied.
In response to the question: Are you planning to come over later?
British: I might do.
American: I might.
“Planning to come over later,” is what is implied by its absence in the American response and is what is contained in the “do,” by the Brit.
Since English is, at its core, a confusing language full of irregular verbs and pronunciations that make absolutely no sense to a non-native speaker, it stands to reason that there are some seemingly arbitrary differences in the past tense versions of certain verbs between the US and the UK.
Most simply, these are verbs that can correctly end with the traditional “ed,” but are equally correct when finished off with a “t.” The latter is much, much more common in Britain than it is in America. So, you get:
Now on to something a little trickier: the use of the present perfect tense in Britain and its relative non-usage in America. Don’t worry! You don’t have to go back to your grammar books—I’ll explain just the part you need to understand for our purposes.
Speakers of American English generally use simple past tense when describing actions done in the past. In comparison, the Brits use the present perfect, meaning they add a “has” or “had” in front of the past participle. I promise, this is actually pretty easy to figure out. Some examples:
British: I’ve already seen this episode.
American: I already saw this episode.
British: You’re not late; we’ve just arrived, too!
American: You’re not late; we just arrived, too!
See? Not so difficult after all.
“Have” vs. “Take”
If you want to get fancy, in this section, we’re talking about the use of delexical verbs, which are verbs used in a context where their meaning is shifted onto the noun in the sentence (e.g. to “give him a hug,” rather than “hug him,” where “give” is the delexical verb). Both Brits and Americans use delexical verbs, but what’s interesting is that they choose different verbs to mean the same thing. In the UK, it’s the word “have” and in America, it’s “take.” (Hm…I wonder if the relative passivity of having something versus the aggression of taking something is of use to note here…it’s interesting, nonetheless!)
British: I’m so tired—I’d love to have a nap.
American: I’m so tired—I’d love to take a nap.
British: She’s having a bath at the moment.
American: She’s taking a bath at the moment.
And those are the biggies. There will always be odd one-offs that don’t necessarily adhere to any rule, like when a Brit is “in hospital” and an American is “in the hospital,” or when people in the UK live in a street whereas those in the US live on one, or when using the telephone, your British friend will “phone” or “give you a ring,” whereas your American friend will “call you,” but if you can master the five differences laid out here, the believability and seamlessness of your writing and dialogue will greatly improve.
Ah, you’re saying, the grammar is all well and good, but what about all the words that are different? There are so many different names for things! How will I ever get all of those down?
Honestly? You might never. The grammar is what will set your writing apart in that subtle, non-obtrusive way that I spoke about earlier and the vocabulary is much easier to find and replace once the words are written.
However, I will call out some particular verbiage that you should look out for. These are some words that are used commonly in both the US and the UK, but mean entirely different things depending on which side of the Atlantic you are currently. This list is far from comprehensive, but should save you from some big blunders:
Bin: Just a receptacle for storing things in America, but in the UK, it’s where you put the rubbish
Bonnet: An old timey hat in America, the front of the car in the UK
Boot: Footwear in both America and the UK, but also storage in the back of the car in the UK
Chips: Thin potato crisps in America, what you might get at McDonalds in the UK (Americans call them “fries.”)
Flat: Simply having no incline or bumps in America, but what Americans call an apartment in the UK
Football: American Football is just called “football” in America and “football” as the Brits know it is called “soccer” in America.
Garden: A place for flowers and vegetables in America, but in the UK, this means the entire area around a house—what Americans call a “yard.”
Holiday: Specifically used to refer to defined holidays in the US like Christmas or Halloween, but in the UK, holidays refer to any time taken off of work or on a trip.
Jumper: Someone who probably jumps up and down a lot in America, but in the UK, this refers to what Americans call a “sweater,” and is the warm knit top you wear in chilly months.
Ladder: The runged apparatus one uses to get to things up high in both America and the UK, but in the UK, this also refers to what Americans call a “run” in a pair of stockings.
Mad: Simply angry in America, but in the UK, “mad” means “crazy.”
Pants: Trousers in America and underwear in the UK—definitely not one you want to mix up!
Pasties: In America, pasties are what strippers might wear over their nipples when they undress, but in the UK, pasties are delicious pies usually filled with meat or vegetables.
Pissed: Angry, again, in America, but in the UK, “pissed” means “intoxicated” or “drunk.”
Torch: A flaming club of sorts in America, a flashlight in the UK.
Trolley: A tram or similar transportation that rides along a track in the US, but a shopping cart in the UK.
So now you have a deeper understanding of why English speakers in America sound different than those in the UK – even if you couldn’t before quite put your finger on why.
Subtle grammatical changes can play a big role in making your work seem more authentically British or American, and thus, giving your characters level of depth that they would not have been able to reach otherwise. When used correctly, these alterations in grammar can help your reader feel immersed in your story and engaged with your writing and your characters, which is, of course, the goal for any piece of fiction.
*Oh, we haven’t even gotten into talking about punctuation yet, have we? If I were from the UK, these would be single quotation marks and the comma would be outside of them. Luckily, punctuation and typesetting should be of little concern to you unless you’re an American submitting an essay (paper to us Americans) to a British professor during your study abroad year!
**Bonus tip! “School” in America can mean anything from Kindergarten all the way through to Masters and PhD. programs. In the UK, however, “school” will only refer to primary and secondary school. Then, students will move on to secondary school and then to college or university (in the US, the two words here are interchangeable, not so much in the UK).
If you need professional editing help, check out New York Book Editors for manuscript critique, comprehensive edits, copyediting or ghostwriting.
Do you have any other grammatical examples or word swaps that trip you up? Share them in the comments!
Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli says
I write in Italian (because I am Italian), but when I started translating my books into English I had to consider which English variant I had to use. I’m not mothertongue, so I needed someone to edit and proofread my translation anyway, but I am European, so the English variant that was tought to me is British English. Moreover my main characters are European too, some even British, but there were also American characters and many different settings (different parts of Europe, America and some places out of this world).
So this is what I did: I choose once for all British English. This article of yours shows some differences with AE (not to mention the many regional differences). I can understand AE, of course, but I could not be realistic enough if I really tried to translate a novel into this variant.
Anyway in my books, when an American character speaks, I make him/her use EA words, when they are completely different from the UK version (e.g. a US character would say ‘soccer’, though I’m always using BE orthography in the dialogue). Moreover I normally don’t use slang in my books (in Italian) so I was not forced to put much of it in the translations.
Actually this worked very well so far. American readers even liked the fact my books are in BE, because they feel they are more realistic this way.
The problem came when AmazonCrossing published the English version of one of my books. This English edition is the only non self-published one of mine. Amazon Publishing is an American publisher so they obviously chose AE, but my book is set in London! It’s a crime thriller involving the Met and with many London settings. Having the characters using AE slang was plain ridiculous.
The book went very well in USA, even though many readers complained for the wrong English variant. But that was a big problem in UK (and even in Australia). The readers didn’t like this choice, and I understand them completely. That resulted in more critical reviews and prevented most readers from even approaching my self-published books, which are in BA. In the end, it was a damage to my image as an author in UK.
So this English variant thing is definitely a very important matter.
Chris Bardell says
Very worthwhile article. Almost impossible to write truly international English, but this article gives some solid tips.
Thanks especially for the collective noun mention. Collective noun plus singular verb sounds *incredibly bad* to Brit ears.
And infomercial makers take note: no Brit says ‘a 10 dollar value’. Instead, we would say ‘worth 10 dollars’.
NB: guessing that people will be along shortly to pick holes in the article. Linguistic debates can get bloody…
Joanna, thank you so much for this. My debut novella comes out next week, and it’s set in Old England. Talk about a challenge! I don’t want to irk any British readers, but also want my American readers (the majority most likely) to understand what I’m saying. Really appreciate the insight for further incorporation! And if my readers have any problems, I’ll happily quote my old Scottish colonel in Africa, “Dry yer eyes cupcake, and soldier on.”
Rachel Leigh Smith says
I’ve always loved this quote, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
I watch enough British TV, thanks to BBC America, Netflix, and being a Whovian, that I’m rarely thrown with words. It’s the different accents that can leave me scratching my head trying to figure out what the character said.
Something I notice is the difference in use of “I would have” vs. “I would have done”.
I did recently confuse my hostess in Scotland by saying I had a load of pants to wash. I showed up with an harmful of corduroy trousers, not my undies. Oops.
Jonathan Gunson says
“Lines are queues, bangs are fringes and biscuits are cookies…”
A treasure trove Joanna. I’ve book marked this article for reference. I’d also be interested in your take on the following. Given the types of stories you write, you’ll have a view:
“Harry Potter” v “Pollyanna”.
It seems to me that American stories frequently exhibit a strong moral tone, a life message to be learned as the focus, sometimes to the point of mawkishness! I feel this is the case far more frequently than with British stories which seem to be more deeply rooted in Royal history, Arthurian legend, Celtic folklore, religious history and spirituality. This is not always the case, but it occurs more frequently than with the US counterparts.
I suspect the reason may be that the UK has thousands of years of religious history and folklore, whereas the US by contrast has a profound “moral” sense and ethos that was established by the the first European arrivals, the founding fathers, that persists to this day.
I feel these differences show up in the stories of the two cultures, and see this particularly in children’s stores, which is my own area of interest.
Rachel Stout says
I love this point–the first thing that jumped into my head was Roald Dahl and all of his children’s books that center around evil adults…and that the resolutions aren’t necessarily always morally “right.” Interesting analysis and something I definitely would want to explore further.
Peter Martin says
I have this problem. Albeit a Brit by birth, I have lived overseas for over 40 years and worked with so many Americans, my ‘English’ is a bit of a hybrid. While trying to write my WIP set in Yorkshire, England, I actually have to check phrasing and spelling to make sure I’m staying ‘British’.
Another problem is that most of the technical writing I did as part of my job, with American companies, had to be in ‘American’ English.
As George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘ The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. ‘
Great article and now bookmarked
Joanna Penn says
My English is also hybrid after years of blogging and writing for the US market 🙂
Tom Burkhalter says
On a historical note, when Americans started selling airplanes to the Brits back in World War II , the pilot’s information manuals came with a glossary of equivalent terms. As one example, when the Brits say “accumulator” the Americans say “battery.” I was introduced to this at a young age, when I read Elleston Trevor’s Squadron Airborne, about an RAF Spitfire squadron in the Battle of Britain; it had a glossary at the back that was, I think, devoted mostly to RAF slang of the period, like “trolley-acc.” Take the mention above of the word “trolley,” combine it with “acc” as short for “accumulator,” and what you have is a battery cart used to provide electrical power for an engine start.
Chris Bardell says
Surely you mean “aeroplanes”?
Thank you for this, Joanna. I’m American but find most English usages (and spellings) more graceful. In many instances, the English usages are also more concise. I’ve shared this wonderful post with my own Daily Journal readers in tonight’s edition. I will also link to it in my Writers’ Resources list on my website at HarveyStanbrough.com.
As a matter of interest (perhaps), I read an article one time in which the author contended that American English is closer to Shakespearean English than Brit English is. The reason (again, he contended) is that when the colonists broke away for North America, the two versions evolved differently.
I believe that’s correct. I also believe a huge part of that divergence is owing to the dumbing down of language in America and the more graceful, steady evolution in Great Britain.
I hope you’ll write another article some time or other on the various dialects in Great Britain, especially referring to differences between “regular” or “proper’ English dialect (if there is such a thing), “Cockney,” Welsh and Irish.
Finally, regarding punctuation, on this side of the Atlantic whether end punctuation goes inside or outside the closing quotation mark depends on the style manual (if any) the writer uses and on the end punctuation itself. I won’t offer examples because I’m inherently lazy, I’ve already taken up enough space, and I champion consistency within a work rather than following some silly style manual.
Jennifer Jensen says
As an American who spent 2-1/2 years in Ireland, this is great! (Although it’s still difficult for me to separate British English from truly Irish English.) I’d picked up on school not meaning college, and people being “in hospital” or “at uni,” but I love the preposition & auxiliary verb explanation. And I still remember my surprise when a young Irish friend used “whilst” in conversation!
One thing to add: sometimes the meanings change to the point of a major faux pas. In the US, “fanny” is a gentle way of referring to your butt, i.e. “fanny pack” or “sit on your fanny.” Across the pond, it refers more to a woman’s private parts and isn’t something you’d use in casual conversation. And asking someone for a ride (or offering one) in the UK has a sexual connotation–ask for a lift, instead!
The other one I had to adjust to is program vs. scheme. To an American, a scheme has a nefarious connotation – someone is trying to take advantage of you. It made me laugh to hear people talk about government schemes–of course the government is trying to con us! 🙂
There is a great clip of one of the British comedians interviewing a Kardashian, and she kept referring to her fanny. It was hilarious because she didn’t understand why everyone was laughing (and why he was saying more and more outrageous things).
Another one I’ve noticed is that Americans say they “lucked out” to mean something good happened. Here in New Zealand, it means the opposite.
J. R. Tomlin says
This is a very good post.
One difference I don’t think you meantioned is what I consider a large but subtle difference: the use of the word ‘got’. Americans tend to use the ‘got’ to replace almost every imaginable verb. This is something Brits rarely do in my experience. For example where you said *Oh, we haven’t even gotten into talking about punctuation yet…” a Brit would be much more likely to say “we haven’t even come to talking about punctuation. (or something of the sort)” I am not saying they never use the word but tend to use it for it’s literal meaning instead of using it to mean… everything. 😉
Also Brits use determiners less with certain nouns. They are more likely to say “I went to hospital” instead of “the hospital”.
The national differences between England, Scotland and Wales and regional differences are even more striking. They can be so complex they are a whole separate study. 🙂
Rachel Stout says
Such a good point! “Got” is another word that definitely separates English speakers on either side of the Atlantic.
It’s much more universal for Americans (like myself!) than it is for Brits.
Kristina Adams says
As someone who writes about British and American characters, this post is really useful! However, I would say that with the rise of the internet and American TV, the differences aren’t as big for the younger generations. You’ll find very few millennials who use ‘shall’ in the first example, but they might in the context of the second.
Trolley can also be used as a verb to mean someone who’s drunk. E.G. ‘He got trolleyed last night.’
Rachel Stout says
This is totally true! I also think it’s really interesting how it affects regional accents in both the US and the UK. It’s more surprising to find a really strong Southern US accent nowadays than it would have been even 50 years ago, for example.
Amy Draper says
I have a British character planned for the second book in my series. I have saved this to my Evernote research files to remember when I’m writing and editing that book. Thanks for the great reminder about these often (oft?) overlooked cultural points, Joanna!
Very useful but I think a lot of Americanisms are creeping in to UK English. However I would just point out that I never use the word store. I’m more likely to use shop or shops.
How about Department store? We have always called places like Debenhams a department store, not a department shop.
My first few books made no accommodations for US English at all, and could be called “very British”, but after several “confused” (that’s me being polite, lol) reviews, I adapted.
Nowadays I write as I please, but the whole thing goes past an American editor and an American proofreader too, with specific instructions to highlight anything that sounds wrong or that might be misunderstood. It changes the manuscript a great deal, but at least now the end result is a smooth read for both sides, which is basically what we really want isn’t it? I think that jarring a reader is a big no no, so I absolutely always advise British author friends to at least have their proofreading done in the US, or one of each if you can afford it!
I’m an Australian, and we don’t really fit neatly into either British or American English. We probably tend more towards the US usage, but there are still deep differences.
Phrases ending in ‘of’ confuse me; for example, “in back of” (in Oz we would say behind), or the excessive inclusion where it doesn’t seem necessary, for example, “he was a much taller of a man than I expected”, we would just say, “he was a much taller man than I expected”.
Context to me is more of a problem. We don’t have spring break, or homecoming parades, or senior proms, or college, or halloween, or fall, or thanksgiving. All these social markers are very shallowly understood outside the US. No doubt the UK has similar customs that would be equally mysterious to most Australian readers. Fixing up words and grammar doesn’t do a thing to overcome these differences, although I understand that it helps to reduce barriers for readers.
It’s a relief to read a locally published book where I don’t have to run a parallel mental conversion track for the words, usage, and context.
Joanne Macgregor says
One that regularly trip me up is the use of “out” vs ‘out of’ – so we (in South Africa) might say, “I got out the car.” In the US, this would mean I got the car out (of my handbag?). They say, “I got out of the car.” I always have a good few native US speakers, editors and readers go through my manuscripts. One phrase that reduced my American editor to tears of laughter: “I tooted on the hooter” (I blew on the horn) which he said could be read as, “I farted on the boob!” 😀 Don’t get me started on pavement for tarmac and sidewalk for pavement!
This article is a thorough effort but I fear American readers taking it as gospel may be left misled. In some of the above examples the “American” sounds more common to me [a Brit] and other examples seem erroneous by omission. E.g. “shall” vs. “will”; it is not that “shall” is merely a more formal way of saying one plans to do something — it is a way of explicitly demonstrating certainty or commitment. One might use it in an informal setting to emphasise something is definitely going to happen, e.g. “you shall go to the ball!”.
Please just get British people to give feedback on British characters and environments. When I see a British character ‘cutting in line’ (jumping the queue) or a barmaid giving wait service in a ‘pub’ it makes me cringe.
Also, regarding units… WE _DO NOT_ USE METRIC FOR EVERYTHING.
And numbers. “One-thousand six-hundred” vs “sixteen-hundred” etc.
And countless other things like introductions “Hi person I’ve never met, my name is Henry” — no no no.
Cool article, and very helpful! A couple of quibbles:
1. I am a New Englander, and I would never say I would “write Brian”. You write letters TO people. Seriously, I thought “I’ll write him” was a British locution.
2. When I was a little girl, a jumper was an article of clothing. It was the sort of dress, often without zippers or buttons, that you pulled over your head. It was quite confusing to me to come across jumpers that boys wore!