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!
Is “There are no evidence. . .” a correct use of the change between is and are?
Lindsay Duet says
Hi! This was a great article. I’m not sure if I missed something but I had a follow up question. When writing a british character, should you switch up the spelling of words like color and humor when writing dialogue for said character? I’m planning on writing a british character into my book and I really do want to do it right.
Joanna Penn says
I would keep spelling consistent with specific words. You can indicate British-ness through turn of phrase.
Patricia Furstenberg says
This is a fantastic post, quite humorous in places and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It answered a few of my questions – and some I didn’t know I had – about writing a dialog between a national of US and one of UK.
Barb Cash says
This was very helpful–thank you. One thing I’ve noticed that wasn’t mentioned was that American English speakers say:
“My situation is different from (or than) yours”
and British English speakers would say:
“My situation is different to yours.”
Keep up the good work!