Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.

I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.

Semi-relevant photo: What's more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the guy on the right looks like he's about to brain the guy on the left. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Semi-relevant photo: What’s more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the big guy on the right looks like he’s about to haul off and brain the guy on the left. If you squint, the whole thing begins to look like a brawl. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.” 

I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.

In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S.  Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.

What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.

Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?

Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.

We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.

Karen went on to write, “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?”

The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.

I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.

Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.

But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.

Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.

Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.

But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.

I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.

I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.

Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?

The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.

Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.

49 thoughts on “Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

  1. I think idiom is often the thing that gives away a person’s origins when writing. It’s often then that I can tell if someone is writing British, American, Australian, New Zealander or African English. Or maybe it’s just that I love idiom so that’s what I home in on.

    I suspect that people pick up words, phrases and structures of speech from their environment and then blend them with their original speech patterns. My mother-in-law was born in Baltimore but moved to the UK in her teens and then switched between both countries. People consequently find her very difficult to place because her accent and vocabulary has that transatlantic drift thing going on.

    Since emigrating to America two years ago, my two middle sons have adopted American English but the oldest and youngest are still firmly British English speakers. Nothing about my accent or vocabulary has changed at all. I am still very Scottish. I do, however, now use the word “awesome” in the American manner.

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    • And that awesome must stand out like the beam of a lighthouse.

      I’m fascinated by the rhythm words make on the page–the way they follow the rhythm of the spoken language–and I think each version of English has its own rhythms. I’d guess that these make up a large part of are accents–as much as, say, the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants. But I’d love to hear that from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

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  2. I think it is quite hard to tell, (unless you use words like quite which apparently sound brititsh) there is the inevitable dilution of language brought about by living in another country, but there is also the immense ( ;-) ) overlap of the cultures.
    There are “americanisms” which are now found in common usage in the UK and there are a great many American programs on the tv. For example, where I wouldn’t use the words, band-aid, I would have no trouble knowing what you meant. I would always use the word plaster mind you!

    There are however, occasional tell tale markers, your use of the word wrench marks you as an American to my ears (eyes?) in the UK we would refer to them as spanners unless we were specifically talking about a torque wrench which is a specific and different implement!

    I have answered this topic quite a lot on your blog, but I am generally fascinated by the way two country’s languages can be so different when they have both evolved from the same thing. Unlike many of the British I don’t find consider British English to be correct and American English to be wrong, I just find it a fascinating example of parallel language evolution :-)

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  3. Fairly recently I created a character whose vocabulary far surpasses my own. Not only that, English is not his first language so his dialogue is littered with affectations. I spent a lot of time with a thesaurus whilst scratching my head before finally deciding to lock him in a dungeon for the rest of eternity. Now I know to keep within my limits!

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    • Great story. There’s a Canadian writer (whose name, damn it, slips my mind right now) who does a great job with an immigrant character. I listened to a segment on the radio, and the bit of dialog that stays with me is, “That guy, he’s not with us no more. He committed suitcase.” But the writer’s himself from an immigrant family–or at least neighborhood–and knew his stuff. Another writer trying it would be more likely to sound condescending.

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  4. In watching a lot of British TV shows I have noticed their use of the past participle of the verb to do with should and would. It seems they always add it at the end whereas we in the U.S. and in particularly North Carolina would never say “should have done” just should have or more probably should’ve. Am I crazy or is this real?

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  5. I think it’s near impossible not to absorb the language norms of whatever culture you find yourself immersed in. I work in a field where the only adjective we know to use is some variant of the word “fuck” (yes, I’m a professional drunken sailor). I’ve always been predisposed to swearing, anyway, but it’s that much sweeter now that I’m getting paid for it (sometimes, at least). Anyway, it’s hard to switch gears when I come home and have to deal with a backyard full of kids whose parents probably won’t appreciate me calling them “Fucking fuckers!” because they’ve spent the day digging into a tree trunk with sharp sticks.

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  6. I totally agree with Karen. Your writing is why I had thought you were British! I was actually disappointed to learn otherwise, LOL, as I love your writing. It makes me feel at home (because I lived in London remember, not because I’m British). But since you still write like a Brit, I have no complaints really. {chuckle}

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  7. I don’t think you should try to keep your vocabularies separate. While it may be helpful with wrenches and spanners, it would make language quite a bit less interesting. I watch a lot of British TV and enjoy the differences in vocabulary, accent, rhythm, idiom. Your life experiences will (and should) be reflected in your speech and your writing.

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    • Yes, but if that mixed vocabulary creeps into the speech of a character who’s spent her entire life in Minneapolis, I have a problem on my hands. That’s the thought that haunts me. If I can keep some consciousness of which is which, I should be able to control it, but I’m not sure I can.

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      • Yes, in that particular case I can see that there might be a problem. I suggest a proofreader from Minneapolis to keep you on the straight and narrow. ;) Or give your character a new background. British parents?

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        • The parents aren’t negotiable.

          Actually, I appreciate you trying to solve the problem, but it’s okay just to let it sit there. I’ve been an editor and copy editor. A good one with an invitation to wade in could save a writer from outright mistakes, but no one really can substitute for the writer on this. You can’t, as a copy editor, rewrite the dialog to that extent. You just can’t. It’s something, when I turn back to fiction, that I’ll have to wrestle with.

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  8. I suspect that I’ve read too many British novels, or watched too much BBC and find myself picking up some bits of Brit-speak. Consciously in some cases because I find quite a bit of their idioms or word choices charming. Had to chuckle at the mention of Hoovering because it sent me back to 1980 when we named a ewe Hoover for her ability to suck up the most grain. ;)

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  9. I think that the voice of someone who has been immersed in, and thus influenced by, a significant period in a culture other than his own, is entirely legitimate – although stuffy sentences like this one are a pain wherever encountered. Really, if it comes naturally to you at this point, why isn’t it natural? Aw, go ahead!
    It’s different, of course, if you’re claiming the authority of another voice. But for your own voice – it’s legitimately yours. I mean, language is a process after all….

    Your fan,
    Claire O’B

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    • Since I’m writing nonfiction these days, it doesn’t seem like crisis material. But when I go back to fiction–and I have part of a novel that ran itself into a wall (notice the wording there: I had nothing to do with it, officer; I was sitting behind the wheel but honest, I wasn’t driving). I’ve interrupted that sentence too much. Where was I? I do hope to go back to fiction, and if my voice in floating somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic it’ll be a problem.

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      • you moved, you changed environments, why would you expect to be immune to changes in your very personality and language? Your “new” voice is your legitimate voice and so much richer than straight USA or straght Brit. You gain, you don’t lose when you morph into something else. As for fiction, you could wade out and create characters who are also the result of enriching experiences, including linguistic. After all, multi-culturals are the future :)

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        • It’s been interesting hearing everyone’s take on this–and it’ll be interesting seeing where I go with this. And I don’t mean that in the traditional Minnesota way, where that’s interesting means I don’t like that. It is genuinely interesting. Thanks for weighing in.

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  10. As usual, I love posts like these. I think one’s own language is the sum of all the language one absorbs. And by one, I definitely mean me. I certainly use the word bits, as well as clever, and immensely. Often. Perhaps it stems from my mother, or reading actual books, or blogs like yours, or maybe it comes from talking to Brits. Maybe they’re just the right words to use.
    From the language of your blog, if I didn’t already know your origins, I’d say you could convince me you’re speaking English from anywhere English-speaking.

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  11. Oh, this is all so delicious.
    I agree with Karen. I picked up on the second example (bit), and thought, “Oh, it’s rubbing off!” But after Karen pointed out “immensely clever” I realized that wouldn’t sound right without a British accent.

    As far as your voice here, it sounds (to me) exactly like what you are–a transplant. There’s baseline East coast that runs through everything with a few British bits hoovered up over time. I don’t detect Minnesota, but I imagine I might *hear* a little of it if we met.

    When I write British characters, I have to say their dialog out loud. I have to feel what it does to my mouth, how it rolls around in there. I have to get all the things right that other commenters have mentioned–cadence, word choice. There’s a particular *snap* to it. Especially if they’re sassy.

    I’m also painfully aware of my limitations. Overdo it and the character sounds like a cartoon. My quest is to sprinkle just enough to make the dialog possible.

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    • Thanks for the observations. Someone I managed to float through 40 Minnesota winters (and summers) without much trace left in my accent or speech. I have yet to say “rubber binder” in any context but a comment on the way I don’t talk. I thought it meant I was accent-proof, but apparently I’m not.

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  13. Great post. I am perhaps the opposite of you in that I am an Australian living in the US. Living here, United States, has sharpened my ear to my language (Australian – for those English readers with an antipodean view). In addition to the vocabulary, I hear how different cultures place the stress differently on certain words. I recall, after not being to Australia for a number of years, being fascinated hearing statements with rising intonation. I heard them as questions. I also noticed, for the first time how Australians added the “eye” sound to many words: chrissie (Christmas), barbie (BBQ) , pressie (present) and many more.Thanks for taking me down memory lane.

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    • I know what you mean. These days, when I hear an American accent (other than my own or my partner’s), I’m struck by how–well, American it sounds. And occasionally when I hear a radio actor doing an American accent I can’t quite figure out whether they’re overdoing it. the ear’s a funny thing.

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  14. I just started reading your blog today, so my experience may not be representative. Having said that, I have not found anything (yet) that struck me as especially British in your vocabulary. Of course, I am a huge fan of BBC America, so I might not recognize it when you do use such. All I know for sure is that I LIKE your writing well enough that I just ordered your book, Open Line, on Amazon. (Yes, I know, your link went to B&N.) As penance for getting it from a reseller (which means you don’t make anything from the sale), I promise to do a review of it after I read it.

    Now, if I could just figure out why the Like widgets on WordPress stopped working on my desktop, I could show my appreciation of your writing in another way.

    I have followed you and I just reblogged your post about the absurdity of American politics, especially the Pentagon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tim, for all of the above. A review would be wonderful. And, oddly enough, I’ve never felt bad about people buying used copies of my books. Let’s face it, I don’t make a hell of a lot out of the sale of a new copy. As a reader, I love used books myself. As a writer, I have a very strange relationship with used bookstores. I look for copies of my books. If I find any, I feel bad that someone didn’t want to keep them. If I don’t find any, I feel bad that not enough are in circulation for any to have washed up on this particular shore. And yes, I do know how absurd that is.

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