Writing British English & Writing American English

Someone asked me a while back if I would ever set a novel in the U.K.

I’ve been tempted. I even have the first few scenes of one on paper. (Yes, paper. You remember paper. It’s that stuff the kitten chases when you crumple it into a ball.) If I’m smart, or at least cautious, a few scenes is as far as that novel will go. Because it doesn’t take long before I/you/whatever writer we’re talking about here comes to one of those spots where British and American English branch off in different directions and chooses the wrong path.

A good copy editor could save our writer, but a good copy editor doesn’t always pop up at those forks in the road, so the writer marches bravely off in the wrong direction and ends up wandering through the wilderness. Days later, she stumbles into town, having missed a few meals and sporting twigs in her hair and mud on her clothes.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I'll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I’ll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Where was the copy editor? Semi-comatose at the computer. Or firmly rooted in the wrong version of our shared language. I’ve been a copy editor. We can’t be specialists in everything. We do a bit of fact checking, but nothing guarantees that we’ll check the right facts. And a word we recognize as right? Unless we’re fully bilingual in English, we won’t stop to question it.

When you’re paid by the word, you don’t have time to ponder deeply.

So I don’t assume a copy editor can save me. Whatever version of the language I write in, I’m responsible for getting it right.

I’m not a careless listener. When I started writing fiction, I trained myself to hear not what I thought people said but what they really said. Because speech isn’t even close to the English that we’re taught is correct, and nothing sounds as phony as characters speaking in perfectly formed sentences. I used to listen to snippets of conversation and then write down as much of them as I could remember, paying attention to word choice, to unpredictable phrases, to pauses, to the ways people waited each other out and cut each other off, to run-on sentences and sentence fragments, to the genuine and glorious insanity of the spoken language.

A high point in my eavesdropping career was a conversation between a Minneapolis cop and a man—white and presumably drunk, although I couldn’t swear to that second part—who was lying on my neighbors’ front lawn. The cop was trying to persuade him to move on, and the man, by the time I started listening, was sitting up and holding a hamburger in the air like Exhibit A.

They said a few words back and forth, then the man was on his feet and heading down the street and the cop yelled after him, “I’m gonna come to your house and sit on your lawn and eat hamburgers. See how you like that.”

It was a mix of things that made this memorable. The “and…and…and” rhythm of the cop’s comment. The “see how you like that,” which made him sound like a twelve-year-old. But mostly it was the sheer craziness of a cop, with his gun and his club and the full weight of the law’s machinery on his side, threatening to sit on someone’s lawn and eat hamburgers.

I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down as much of the exchange as I could, because if I let it wait I wouldn’t believe I was remembering it accurately.

So, there’s my proof—my hamburger; my Exhibit A—that I’m not an untrained listener. Move me from Minnesota to Cornwall, though, and my carefully tuned ear goes off key. I do listen to the Britishness of British speech, and I keep a mental list of phrases I love, because even the clichés sound fresh to me. Someone says, “Oh, she’s away with the fairies,” and I laugh as if she’d invented the phrase. I’ve been hearing it for nine years now, but it still makes me picture fairies.

M. has two stock phrases that sound fresh to me, although I know she didn’t invent them: “He’s all talk and no trousers” and “she’s all frill and no knickers.”

When we bought our house, we asked a different M. to give us some advice about the garden. She showed us a broken pot with blade-like leaves growing out of it, which had been left behind.

“If you have to have these,” she said, “make sure they stay in the pot. Those,” and she pointed to some other plant, although I can’t remember what, “are invasive, but this is a thug.”

I laughed and got one of those blank looks you get when you’ve laughed at the wrong thing. She wasn’t being immensely clever. Thug is a category of plant that any gardener here recognizes—one step worse than invasive.

So yes, I listen and I appreciate and I remember. But I still hesitate to write either Cornish or more standard British dialogue. Sure, I can tuck in a phrase or two, but after that? I’d write something I think is neutral and without knowing it rely on something hopelessly American. Because it’s not the phrases you hear and remember and are delighted with that matter. It’s the ones you don’t hear. It’s the times you don’t stop to question yourself but turn out to be writing your native English instead of that other, related language.

I catch British journalists doing this when they interview Americans: “I just reached into the drinks cabinet,” they’ll have someone say. Into the what??? We don’t have drinks cabinets in the U.S. We have— Wait a minute, what do we have? Liquor cabinets? I never actually had one, so it’s not a phrase that has much life in my mind and I can’t remember what to call the damn things.

Let’s fall back on another example. A while back, I read an interview in which some American actor talked about his mum. His what? Americans have mothers and moms and mamas, but we do not, in any regional or ethnic accent I ever heard of, have mums. But it’s what the writer heard because it’s the word the writer uses. We translate without noticing.

I love running into stuff like that. It makes me feel gloriously smug. Not because I couldn’t do exactly the same thing but because this particular time I didn’t.

For a post about paying the tax on my car, I wrote about being in the post office and trying to conduct a bit of business that we couldn’t finish and couldn’t abandon and if you ever want to bring a small post office to a halt, talk to me because I know how to do now. After what seemed like forever, I was able to step aside and the woman behind the counter called out—

What the hell did she call out? At first I wrote, “Can I help the next person?” I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I left it because it got the job done.

The next day, hesitantly, I changed it to, “Can I help?” and then to “Can I help who’s next?” which is a weird phrase, and grammatically strange enough for me to believe I didn’t invent it, but I checked it with a friend anyway, and she confirmed it: That’s what the woman would have said.

So I got away with it, but I hesitate to write more that a few lines in any of the many versions of British. Because it’s not the stuff you hear that trips you up but the stuff you don’t hear. The stuff you take for granted, that your brain translates automatically. It’s the drinks cabinet. It’s the mum.

72 thoughts on “Writing British English & Writing American English

  1. Super picture of Fast Eddie there, what a little tinker! He has certainly given me a smile this morning. Writing dialogue is hard, full stop, never mind writing in a ‘foreign’ language. I admire those that attempt it! And then there are local nuances to consider. The mind boggles. I think I shall make all my characters mute. And then sit on someone’s lawn eating hamburgers.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on hampshire Hog and commented:
    Hmm, the problem is that there is no big organisation organising the language, no Acadamie Anglaise, as it were. The word that springs to mind is ‘railroad’ – a very American word, right? The word turns up in Dickens from time to time… I aasume that when Dickens was writing we hadn’t once and for all decided what to call two metal rails laid on the ground along which a steam engine runs…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reblog.

      I’m not so sure an Academie Anglaise, or Americaine. though. We’re too wonderfully anarchic to pay much attention to its ever-so-wise pronouncements, and even the French are pushing the language well ahead of where the Academie’s willing to go. My heart’s usually with the spoken language. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than the official one, even when a few of its choices drive me up the wall. Without it, we’d never have a phrase like up the wall.

      Liked by 2 people

    • An Academie Anglaise would state that there is one correct form of English when language is truly fluid and evolves over time. I find it silly the way the Americans and Britons take jabs at each other over our language differences. Trust me, when you are in an Anglo-American marriage, these things don’t matter. It’s English. The substance of the communication matters a lot more than whether it’s “humor” or “humour”. As I like to point out to people, “I love you” is the same on both sides of the Pond.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good points, all the way through. The only thing I’d add is that I can’t resist making fun of the differences in our language. I like to think I’m equal opportunity–I’ll make fun of either version–but my ear’s biased toward American. As long as we don’t take it all seriously, we should be okay.

        I hope. People who say horrible things and then claim they’re joking make me foam at the mouth. If I start to do that, throw something, will you?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree. We must keep the humor/humour because we must play with language too.

          One of the many reasons I married the Boffin was his keen wit. We were having breakfast one morning, and the subject of nutrition of cereals came up. After he spoke, I cracked at him, “The way you say vitamin makes me die inside.”

          He responded, “Die as in orgasm or die as in mental torture. Both are good options. Which one is it?”

          No way I could top that one.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Every time I go to a foreign place or even a place with a different regional accent to me (like Scotland) I am struck by the very Britishness of my turn of phrase.
    I use phrases like “turn of phrase” for a start.
    I also catch myself saying things like “come along” and “lets get this show on the road” and am acutely aware of the difference between what I am saying and whatever local dialect is.
    I am often struck by the differences in what would, on the face of it, appear to be the same language. Not only across oceans but some times just across the road!!

    In an annoying way I flit between very British proper queens english, and annoying hipster gen-y phrases such as “Coffee is awesome because…caffeine”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. Absolutely love, love, love the Hamburger Cop story. And since I’ve accused you of “sounding British” as I read your posts, here’s what I’ll point out that sounds to my American ears as not-so-American:
    “She wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.”

    Some thoughts: isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are “other”? How does a woman writer “sound” male? How does a thirty something author “sound” like a teenager? How does an American “sound” British?

    Liked by 3 people

    • It would be interesting to bounce those snippets off other readers and see if they hear them the same way. In fact, I’ll do it. Let’s see where it takes us. Thanks.

      As for creating characters who aren’t us, I can only speak for myself: I have a range within which I trust myself and a much larger range that I don’t mess in. I’ve seen lots of writers push themselves outside their zone of competence, and I’d be happy to miss that experience, thanks. It’s embarrassing to read. It would be worse to write. In part, I think, how well you handle it depends on how well your ear’s tuned to the speech patterns and lives of the group, and in turn that depends, in part, on the life you’ve lived. How close have you lived to that group, or are you making it up out of stuff you’ve seen on TV? (In which case it’ll be crap.) The closer you’ve been and the more comfortable you are there, the more likely you are to be able to pull off a convincing bit of dialogue–although even that isn’t guaranteed. Some people find writing their own speech patterns difficult.

      All told, it’s complicated. And fascinating.


    • I have been mistaken for being British on another blog, so I completely understand what you are talking about, Karen, and I am writing just as me. Here I am thinking about going into fiction, and I am so glad Ellen posted about this kind of mixing.

      My writing style has become so blended because my life has. The job will be extra hard to untangle all of that.

      Liked by 1 person

          • It’s possible that my ear’s blended, but–oh, hell, I hope not. A friend of a friend is a professional dialog coach, and next time I run into her I’ll have to ask. She has an incredible ear for that.

            I wonder what would happen if you bounced some writing off someone who doesn’t know anything biographical about you–where would they think you’re from? Because people do tend to hear what they expect to hear.

            Liked by 1 person

              • I’m skeptical about forums. You get such a mix of people–some of them wonderful and some of them worse than useless (she said tolerantly). But I guess the mix of responses would tell you something about what people hear. Are you part of any writers’ forums where you haven’t said anything biographical? You could start a new thread, ask if people would help you out by guessing where you’re from based on the content of a few paragraphs (without telling them why you’re asking) and see what you get. If you want to control the experiment a bit, try it in two different forums. In one, ask if you’re British or American. In another, ask if they can guess where you’re from with no hints given. If they say New Zealand, or Germany or Ukraine or Mars, you can fairly well write them off as useless.

                If you do it, I’d love to know how it goes.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Want to try posting a snippet here, anonymously, and asking readers which country they think you’re from? I’m going on the theory that most readers won’t have followed the comments here.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. And then there are those of us caught between two worlds fitting in neither anymore. A very strange place to find oneself. I enjoyed the “mum” anecdote….had not been aware that this was an issue in writing…..am going to be on the lookout now for little slips like this here and there…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You touched upon some wonderful points. It would be easier to differentiate, if we spoke two entirely different languages, but since there is so much overlap, it is easy to hit wrong notes, so to speak, when writing the other’s speech.

    The only ways an American would be talking about his or her mum is if he or she is a naturalized American or if he or she grew up with a parent who came from a “mum” country. The Sprog calls me Mum, Mom, or Mama depending what takes her fancy. I sincerely doubt the journalist encountered the actor with that sort of background.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful cat. It looks just like the one I had that disappeared one day. I am doubting she ended up i the UK though, since there is an ocean separating us. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love writing dialog (dialogue)! When I can hear the different voices of the characters inside my head and then simply write down what they say, it’s like magic. Of course, I have no real idea whether I’m any good at it … have to get a book OUT THERE and see what others think, first!

    Please no moratorium. You are my sole source of cute kitten pictures and I enjoy them greatly!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I remember reading Maeve Binchy novels which were usually set in Ireland with Irish characters. Every once in awhile she’d introduce someone from the U.S. Into a story but didn’t adjust the speech. What sounded charming coming out of an Irish character’s mouth, sounded weird and wrong when spoken by an American. I can’t imagine that someone at her level of success wouldn’t have a better copy editor.

    Please keep the Fast Eddie pics coming!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eddie’s building a fan club here. I see all the signs.

      Interesting about Binchy. I can offer two theories: 1, she was being edited by someone in Ireland or the U.K., whose ear didn’t pick up the problems, or 2, she’s so damn popular that her books are rushed through without the editing they need. Or both.


    • Excellent point. It reminds me, irrelevantly, of one of my favorite bumper stickers from I hate to think how many years back. It read, “Bad cop, no donut.” I spent entirely too much time pondering the meaning before finally giving up and just enjoying it.


  10. You touched on something that seriously bothers me — the part where people walk around thinkin that everyone speaks properly. Or subtitles that read, “Do you want to go fishing?” when what was obviously asked was, “Wanna go fishin?” Almost no one, in life, or in narrative media speaks properly.
    Drinks cabinets always sounded to me like cabinets full of cocktails :P haha! I occasionally stumble over British slang when I read my friends, but the best one has got to be the Canadians, who have hydro poles. We say someone drove his car into a telephone pole.
    “The what?” she asked.
    “The telephone pole!”
    “What the hell is a telephone pole?!”
    (And LOL at thug, because without English gardening books, I wouldn’t know that, either!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never heard of a hydro pole. If I had to construct the meaning out of the roots, I’d guess a pole made of water. Or a pole in the water. Or a typo. Thanks for expanding my vocabulary.


  11. I read the whole post this time, despite Fast Eddie’s most adorable appearance in your blog. I love the British vs American English posts because I am smug like you and know everything about the two dialects. In fact, I consider myself bilingual (bi-dialectual?) and not because I’m Canadian.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m new here and just gleeful.
    The story I’m writing at the moment has an American transplanted in London with a British love interest. I’m always afraid one or the other sounds off and try to keep my Brit-speak to a minimum. If I’m stumped, I email my friends in Newbury for advice (is a sledge hammer called a sledge hammer in England? To my surprise, the answer was “yes”).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’ve joined the mad crew here. (Oops–mad used that way is a Britishism.) You’re smart to check with people, and lucky to have the right people to check with. And isn’t it odd the things a person needs to check? At one point, my agent challenged a phrase in The Divorce Diet before submitting it. Wasn’t ten-penny nail a Britishism? she asked. I double checked, because I didn’t trust my memory, but I’d first heard it from my father, the first American-born child of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family and a New Yorker to the core. Turns out it’s as American as, um, freedom fries.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I just popped over to nose around and found this wonderful post — it’s one of the ones listed by Word Press.

    I love the Cop & Burger story … wonderful.

    And I love the differences in American and British English. In fact, I owe my current career as a medical writer to it. I lived overseas and got a job for an international organization (WHO) as a secretary because I was bored and lonely not working. My boss was a Brit. One day he handed me an article that he had written for publication and asked me to “revise” it. To me, that meant to edit it. I edited the hell out of it — it needed it. He took it back and used 90% of my edits, and continued to have me write things for him ever afterwards. It was well into the time I worked for him when I learned that to a Brit “revise” is more akin to “proofread.” All’s well and all that!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Does my vocabulary look too British in this? | Notes from the U.K.

  15. Whenever I’m writing anything to an American friend (and I have many), I always use ‘mom’ to refer to my friend’s mother, and ‘mum’ to refer to mine, but rarely both in the same sentence or paragraph as that would confuse both of us.

    Tell me, do Americans do much word-inventing? I don’t know if this is particularly British or particularly me, but I invent a huge number of words and phrases that I use frequently. And over the years I’ve had to explain them far more to Americans than I have to Brits, even when neither knew exactly what I’ve meant! I’m talking about nicknames for animals and partner or for – well anything really. (And I did a post some while back on this but a lot of people completely missed the point of it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems to me that we do invent words a lot, but I wonder if we do it in a different way. It’s an interesting question that I don’t have a decent answer for. If it’s not a pain in the neck to find, send me a link to your post, would you?


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