Writing In English - The American Way

If a guy says he is going to give a girl a ring, does he mean he is going to propose or merely give her a call? The answer depends on which side of the pond you are on.

As a British writer who writes novels set in America or with American characters, it can be a challenge to ensure that I write in the right language. Sure, both nations speak English, but there are so many words that are used differently that it’s not as easy as you would think. During the edit of my first novel Silent Lies my editor picked up on some basic differences. In England you post a letter while in the US you mail it. The English form a queue while the Americans like to make a line. The Brits wear trousers; the Americans wear pants – a difference which can be doubly confusing as ‘pants’ in England usually refers to undergarments!

And how about this sentence: the barman had a row with his wife when he rang her on his mobile to say he hadn’t booked return tickets for their fortnight’s holiday yet. Does that sound strange to you? In America this would translate to: the bartender had a fight with his wife when he called her on his cell to say he hadn’t reserved roundtrip tickets for their two week vacation yet. Eight different words in one sentence! Granted, I deliberately chose the sentence to emphasize my point (and no, it doesn’t appear in any of my novels in either form) but it shows how easy it can be to slip up if you are not vigilant.

One thing you can guarantee is that if you don’t pick up the Britishisms, as they have come to be called, the reviewers will. I have seen numerous reviews on American websites of books by British authors where the reviewer has complained about the use of incorrect terminology, sometimes with the added criticism that the writer needs to learn how to spell on the basis of all those ‘u’s in words like colour and labour or the inclusion of double consonants that have been deleted from many American words e.g. travelling.

Fortunately, by setting my Word program to American-English, any spelling slip-ups are spotted immediately, but it’s harder to catch the misused words because, no matter how often you read through the manuscript, the words don’t instinctively stand out as incorrect. After the first novel, I created a list of the Britishisms I was most likely to use and decided that before I started a full edit of future drafts, I would use the ‘find’ tool in Word to search the document for any inadvertent usage. I did this recently on my second novel and, sure enough, found a few that had crept into my writing despite my best efforts.

However, my list comprised only about ten words, which left me wondering whether there were other word-choice mistakes I was making. So imagine my delight when yesterday I discovered an article on the BBC website called ‘30 of your Britishisms used by Americans’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19929249). While this article was written from the viewpoint of British words which have become increasingly popular with Americans, it still provided me with additional words/terms which might not be used by American characters or be familiar to all American readers.

I was surprised to discover that “bit” (as in piece or part) or “proper” (as in correct) were not widely used in America. Both appeared several times in my latest manuscript. And the chances are, that even with this additional list, there will still be words more British than American in my writing.  But as I strive to make my books as authentic as possible to an American audience, I have to wonder - given my book is self-published in the U.S. but also available in the UK - what will British readers make of my word choice and spelling, especially if they happen to notice from my bio that I am British?

When you read a book do you notice the different word choices between American and British writers? Does it bother you? Do you have any favorite examples? I’d love to hear your comments.

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