Differences in British and American English (for writers)

Pop quiz.

What’s wrong with these sentences?

1. The Ireland rugby team are playing today, so my husband will be glued to the TV.

2. If I hadn’t got up so late, I would’ve got the bus.

3. I’m going to work at the weekend.

Answers

1. It uses a cliche.

2. It’s repetitive.

3. Working weekends is just plain wrong.

Boy with Union Jack and American flag painted on face

© Duncan Walker

Not what you were expecting? Then you probably speak American English.

All of these sentences are correct and sound natural in British English. There are lots of differences in how our language is spoken and written on opposite sides of the pond that are more subtle than sticking in an extra ‘u’ in words like ‘favorite’ or using strange expressions.

I’ve written before about things to consider when writing a character with an accent different from yours. Since I gave you the above examples, I’ll explain the differences they represent between British and American English before I talk about how they affect my (and possibly your) writing.

1. Collective nouns

In the U.K. there are lots of nouns that sound singular (team, committee, staff, family, etc) but because they’re made up of several people they take a plural verb. Brits are more likely to say, “My team are playing this weekend” or “The committee weren’t able to agree” or “Our staff travel around the world” because these things are a collective, not a singular entity. The same goes for company and team names (“Manchester United are playing tonight.”)

To Americans, these sentences look plain wrong because the nouns themselves are singular.

2. Got vs gotten

From a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary, it seems that ‘gotten’ disappeared from British English sometime in the mid- or late-18th century. I’ve never heard a Brit use it (except in some phrases, like ‘ill-gotten gains’), but you’ll find it in older texts.

In American English, ‘gotten’ is used as the past participle of ‘get’, and is often used to distinguish the process of getting something (“I’ve gotten head lice more times than I like to admit”) from having something now (“I’ve got head lice”). It’s also used as a past participle for phrasal verbs with ‘get’ (e.g. get on, get off, get to).

In today’s British English, you’d use ‘got’ as the past participle in every context.

3. Pesky prepositions

When I taught English as a foreign language, prepositions were the bane of my students’ existence. The way we use prepositions sometimes makes sense, but my students often had to memorize prepositional phrases because there was no rational explanation for why one preposition was used instead of another.

To make matters worse for my poor students, Brits and Americans don’t always agree on how to use prepositions. The British phrase ‘at the weekend’ (‘on the weekend’ in American) is one example of this disagreement.

How this affects my writing

My current story features an English heroine and an American hero who’s lived in London off and on for ten years. My hero is familiar enough with British English that he understands the heroine’s different way of expressing herself.

The problem is that the American audience I intend to market this book to won’t understand some of the things my heroine thinks, or the way she thinks them. Her grammar may look wrong, and the vocabulary she uses may force them to look at the context and make an educated guess about what she means.

As far as I can see, those of us who write British characters for an American audience have a few choices. (Sorry for all the lists today.)

1. Avoid using sentences and expressions that are exclusively British.

Not only is this limiting, but it would be impossible for me since my heroine is a press officer representing a charity called IDEA (so there are sentences where she’d say something along the lines of “IDEA are doing x, y, z” – and she’d pronounce ‘z’ as ‘zed’).

2. Americanize her.

(Or, if you want the British spelling, ‘Americanise’ her).

This is a pretty crappy option, and one that risks me looking like I haven’t done my homework. Not a look I wear well. It’s also condescending to think American readers can’t understand that other cultures speak English differently.

3. Have my hero interpret for American readers.

This works in some cases but starts to sound unnatural after a while, especially since my hero will usually understand her perfectly well.

It also clearly doesn’t work when we’re in the heroine’s point of view and she doesn’t voice her thoughts out loud.

4. Let my heroine be naturally English and hope for the best.

On this note, I’m curious about how you react when you read a strange-sounding sentence spoken by a foreign (to you) character. Do you assume the author made a mistake? Does it motivate you to look up a colloquial expression online? Does it throw you out of the story, or make the story more intriguing and realistic for you?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Differences in British and American English (for writers)

  1. Fun post–I got every answer wrong–LOL. I lived a long time in New Orleans, the next-best thing to a foreign country, and when writing native New Orleanians, I write it as they speak it. “Yeah, you right” means “yes, you are correct.” “I’ll be there for 4” means “I’ll arrive at 4.” A street median is called a “neutral ground,” and “red gravy” is tomato sauce. I think you follow the correct language for the character and trust the readers to figure it out. (I bought all the Harry Potter books when I was in London a few years ago so I would have the “real,” unAmericanized versions.)

    • Katrina Latham

      Love your New Orleans examples, Suz! Your experience living there shines through your stories. My husband’s from a part of England that has a very particular dialect, and I think it’d be fun, but really tricky, to set a book there. It’s hard enough for me to keep straight which words/phrases are English and which are American without throwing dialect into the mix.

      And I think Harry Potter would sound odd speaking American. Such a shame they “translated” the books.

  2. Great post. Glad to hear other writers struggle with this. But since you have first hand experience, use it. Readers are smart enough to figure it out and I like that characters show differences in syntax, speech patters, etc. It keeps them real, which keeps the story real. It might seem jarring at first, but then it’ll settle out. And if it’s something really “off” by American standards, make an issue of it in dialogue the first time, then drop it.

    • Katrina Latham

      Thanks, Kaki! That’s what I plan to do. Fortunately, I have great crit partners who can point out expressions that are jarring, because both languages are so familiar to me now I forget what other Americans wouldn’t be familiar with. In fact, I forget lots of American words. Seriously, the number of times I’ve stood in my mom’s kitchen pointing at an object and saying, “What do we call that thing again?”

      “You mean the blender?”

      Then I have to pretend like it’s called something different in Britain because I feel so stupid for forgetting it’s the same damn thing.

  3. One of my on-line crit partners is a Brit, and we have great fun exchanging “we say it this way” comments. My daughter now lives in Northern Ireland, and she’s married to a Brit. She speaks a combination of both ‘languages’.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • Katrina Latham

      Has your daughter’s accent changed, Terry? Mine has, and my family is merciless about teasing me about it. I bet your daughter and her husband have some great stories about misunderstandings over the language. One thing my husband’s learned is that whenever I smile and nod at him, it’s because I didn’t understand a word he just said. Happens more than I care to admit 🙂

      • With my daughter, it’s more speech patterns and vocabulary than accent. I can’t understand one word in twenty that my son-in-law says. He’s got a nice Suffolk accent, which is bad enough, but then their idioms are totally off the wall to an American. He ended up giving me a book to help me ‘translate.’ But I’d thing eight times before using those in a book without making sure there was another character around to translate!

        Terry
        Terry’s Place
        Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  4. Option #5: Hero pokes fun of her British-isms once or twice to point them out to the reader, and then we get it. Send the bobbies home, no Grammar Police arrest for you.

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  6. I’ve read quite a few novels with British characters (Harry Potter, anyone?) and I feel like they reach a great comprise by using British “slang”, or one Britich-style word here and there. This way, I still understand them but I feel like I’m getting one step closer to being initiated into the Brits Club.

    • Katrina Latham

      *raises sword* I dub thee Lady Mallory, initiate of the Brits Club.

      I like the idea of using a smattering of new words, Mallory. Nice one.

  7. Great post! I missed most of my tweet stream on Monday, so I’m just now catching it. I read the Americanized Harry Potter, but they still have some of the British-isms in there (snogging!). Then I listened to the British version of the audio books. So I got to compare them a bit. There were a few differences (bangs/fringe, sweater/jumper), but actually not as many as I expected.

    • Katrina Latham

      Was there anything that was really difficult to figure out or that threw you out of the story, Jami? I know I’ve had those moments in real life – where I end up staring slack-jawed at someone (usually my husband) while I try to figure out what the hell he’s talking about. But in fiction different vocab usually gets me more into the story, the characters, the setting. If it’s done well, I mean, and isn’t every other phrase. I’m wondering to what extent it’s like that for other readers, too.

  8. Hi Katrina
    What a fascinating post. As a Welsh person, living in England, and published in the US, I can certainly relate to many of the points raised.

    I don’t think I’m a typical British person, from what you say, because I cringe if someone says something like ”The team were on form today.’ I want to scream ‘the team WAS – it’s a singular entity!’ Of course the spelling is a problem too. I set my spellchecker to ‘US’ when I sent my last MS to my US editor, and then found she’s set hers to ‘English’ to try and compensate for what she thought would be my settings, so we were completely at cross purposes.

    As I always say ‘Divided by a common language’! 🙂

    • Katrina Latham

      So glad you stopped by, Lyn! I work in communications, so I often have to train colleagues on our organizational writing style. The collective noun thing always trips them up, and I tell them exactly what you said here: “We are one organization.”

      And I’m constantly misspelling things. Fortunately, I can get away with it by telling my manager, “That’s correct in American English.” It usually isn’t. I just have very poor spelling skills, but it’s a great excuse. Same thing whenever I misuse a word. But that’s what makes English fun, no?

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