BRITISH VERSUS AMERICAN!


No, this isn’t a deathmatch.

Sorry to disappoint.

This is a polite and civilised post on the differences in regional language and how it can affect your writing.

When I write, I just write. I write narration as it pops into my head. I write dialogue as it sounds natural to me.

Not for one minute did it used to occur to me that my readers would not understand what my narrator/characters are saying simply because they ‘aren’t from ‘round ‘ere’.

I was wrong not to take that into consideration.

There, I admitted it.

If ‘certain someone’s’ come along and cheer at that announcement, I shall be having words with them. You know who you are!

So … when did this awareness kick in?

Well, theoretically, it SHOULD have kicked in around a year ago when I started letting people from across the pond loose on my writing on my favourite critiquing site. They’d reach certain words/slang, and I’d see a comment that looked something like this: <<huh?. Or one of my favourite comments: <<this an Engrish saying? :P. (yes, that second one comes complete with cheeky face and purposeful misspelling, LOL).

This works both ways, though. I’ve read stuff by US writers, also, where I’ve not had a flippin’ clue what they’re saying because they’ve slipped into slang only familiar to them/their region.

Since signing my contract for my debut novel, Darkness & Light, I’ve had to work closely with an editor. Said editor is (yep, you’ve guessed it) American—as is my publisher. And I’ve had many a ‘discussion’ with her about my too-British terms.

Some may argue that said British terms should remain 100%, as my main character is British, the story is set in England … however, on reflection, I have to agree (on a certain level) that some of them need to go.

Why? Well, for more than one reason.

1)       British slang/colloquialism is HUGE! What is said/how something is said can vary from county to county. From the south to the north, all regions have their own language that often requires translation by other Brits if they don’t live that area.

2)       Why restrict myself? I would love for Darkness & Light (and any future works of mine that are published) to be read across the pond. What if I had the potential to reach US readers, but their inability to understand what’s being said in my book sets an instant barrier? I would hate for that to be a reason they couldn’t enjoy something I’ve written—to risk alienating an audience.

HOWEVER, I have ensured enough of the Brit in me remained to ensure my work stays authentic. After all, it wouldn’t sound like it was written by me if it didn’t sound at least a little bit British.

What about you? Have you ever strayed too far into your regional slang? Have you/would you tone it down a little if it meant more readers could understand your work?

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24 thoughts on “BRITISH VERSUS AMERICAN!

  1. Wonderful post. I honestly have no idea if I’ve strayed too far into American colloquialism. After all, it’s all I know. 🙂 Even as I say that, I think it’s important to speak on a level your readers can understand. I don’t mind looking up a saying once or word once in awhile but not constantly. So if I’m writing for an audience overseas (that would be ya’ll folks in Europe for this American — not Yankee), I’d think it’d be important to not go crazy with American slang which don’t translate well.

    I just finished reading Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost. One of her main characters is English, and he uses terms which I would think are very British and not used in the US, however, they’re understandable. Wanker for example. 🙂 So a bit of colloquialism is fine, but I think writers should keep the audience in mind.

    1. Thanks, Reena. I’m slowly learning more American sayings, possibly because I spend so much time chatting to Americans, and I’ve even on occasion allowed American sayings to bleed into my chat. I think some has to remain in your writing for authenticity, and also as it allows some regional education to the reader, but as you said, it also has to be understandable. 🙂

  2. Can I say it? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease, can I say it? Pretty please? 🙂 haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahaha 🙂 You sooooooo know what I want to say, right? 🙂 🙂

    But on that note … regional dialects and those little terms are a BIG issue even in the US. I’ve found readers who were lost in my own stuff because I’d used a saying or phrase and they are IN the US WITH ME! But I was brought UP in the north and lived 15% of my life there so I have a mix of crazy sayings and what-nots. 🙂 So it’s not just you. 🙂 We all have that problem simply by way of living in various parts of the world. 🙂

    Oh and I mark this one as helpful. 😉 LOL

  3. I have a boring standard midwestern USian accent, so I don’t use too many regional terms of my own in writing… BUT, I do love regional slang/accents/sayings in general. Working on a creative nonfiction novel at the moment, about half of which takes place in Newcastle, England (talk about WEIRD phrases up there… oh those geordies…). I’m trying to keep the local voices as true-to-life as possible (but I guess it’s easier to do in something like that, because the story is framed through the eyes of an American narrator, who translates the strange slang for the reader… hmm).
    I do wish some Brit-to-American books would retain more British language though. I mean, did they really need to change all the “queue”s to “line”s in Harry Potter? c’mon >.>

    1. Um … no American accent is boring to me, Ellen. 🙂
      As far as UK slang go, the geordie accent has got to be one the toughest, because you have that AWESOME accent to work past, too.
      Thanks for visiting my blog. 🙂

  4. I have had the same problem with my writing. Some folks have said in their critiques they don’t know what certain words or sayings are or what they mean. I have tried to be cognizant of that when I’ve gone back into my edits and I’ve tried to weed those phrases out that would be completely lost on others who do not live in the US. It is difficult but needs to be done if we want global appeal. I know that’s what I’m going for!!!

    Great post!

  5. I had a similar query when writing ‘A Simple Guide to Self-Publishing.’

    I had covered all aspects of the UK and US market, but I had written it using British grammar. This for me wasn’t questionable. I am British, therefore I write British.

    But who is my audience? I am hoping it will appeal to both markets…so what do I do?

    My editor is American, and absolutely fantastic. It was only when the first draft was sent that the question was raised over the styling. In the end, going back to my origins, I chose to stick with UK grammar. I queried the possibility of creating two editions, but for now I do not feel this is necessary. My guide has only just gone on sale, and should this query be raised, i may then change my mind. Only time will tell I guess.

    You can find out more about my various decisions at http://elenaransley.net/

    1. I’m lucky, Ellie, because I haven’t had to lose my British spelling or grammar, which I’m happy about. And you’re right–no way to know for certain if the right decision has been made until it’s been tried and tested.
      Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  6. Oh yeah, I’ve had those << huh? comments plastered over my work for my little Canadian slips o' the tongue, you know, like the man in the canoe thing? 😛

    And yes, I do tone it down as it's more important to me that the majority of people know what the heck I'm talking about, than retaining my Canadianisms (which I don't realize ARE Canadianisms until the folks 'cross the border/pond scratch their head at them.)

  7. HAH! All I know is when I go ‘home’ to Pittsburgh, I talk different than when I’m here though my ‘accent’ slips now and again.

    For me, different dialects gives me the opportunity to learn and being on various messageboards on the ‘net that have people from all around the world helps me learn different little things. My boss lived in London for a bit so she used to delight me with little things… make me know the joys of Dime Bars and that wonderful laundry aid called Vanish.

  8. LOL, Maria. I find a lot of the time that British English is very similar to Australian English, except for the Australian slang that takes some getting used to. I recall watching programmes like Neighbours when it first came to the UK, and peeing my pants laughing over them calling a hot guy a ‘spunk’. ‘Spunk’ over here is slang for semen (what can I say? I was a teenager who considered most sexual references worthy of giggles). 🙂

  9. Um…..G’Day?
    I think as an Aussie (and experimental author – i.e. Unpublished) I have the best of both worlds. It may have something to do with my early reading influences ( If you can decipher the slang in a Georgette Heyer book you can read anything and what could be more American than a L’Amour western?) that I find my writing to be more eclectic. As a child I was exposed (via TV) to American, British and Australian culture and language. My English mother came “Down-Under” with her family at 16 so my influences are slightly more English than American however, a large proportion of TV shows here are now American procedurals and sitcoms. This Aussie ecclecticness (is that a word?) or mixed influence shows up in the writing of several well known PNR authors who are Australian and Kiwi (New Zealander). I didn’t know until after reading the first few Riley Jensen novels that Keri Arthur was an Aussie (I looked it up because of the mild hints in the books) as her style isn’t very “ocker”. Nalini Singh gives no hints in her writing that she is a New Zealander. It also shows up in the VAST number of Australian actors working in Hollywood. I don’t think you could tell from my writing either (other than the obvious spelling differences). I’m very Aussie in my everyday speech though.

    Oh… and I have NEVER thrown a shrimp on the barbie! I always get visions of a midget (sorry, little person) and Vegas stripper wrestling in a ring!

    Big

    1. LOL–this is the second time today you’ve made me snort–and this time was on my cappuccino. 🙂

      To my knowledge, folks can still tell I’m British from my writing (especially as I’ve maintained all British spellings)–and a US fellow who’d never read my stuff before has apparently been walking around his home and repeating bits from my novel in a fake British accent. I’ve just tried to tone down the parts that were understandable only by someone from my neck o’ the woods–especially as the series of stories I’ve written aren’t set here. I also think what flies in narration isn’t quite so accepting as what can fly in dialogue. 🙂

  10. An extension of the whole slang/colloquialism dilemma comes about when you write fantasy (not Urban Fantasy). It’s fine to do a Christopher Paolini and invent a new language for your Elvin and Dwarvish characters but what do your humans speak? If you ignore this and just pretend they all speak English how do they speak? As has been stated, slang is specific to culture and even sub or regional culture and therefore not universal. I have found myself breaking down sayings and slang into origin and meaning to overcome this but it is tedious and doesn’t sound as good. “May the fleas of thousand camels nest in your arm pit!” or “Suffer in your jocks!” or “Get one into ya!” are all much more colourful. 🙂

    Big

    1. So true about the difference between narration and dialogue. Most good writers can be culturally ambiguous with their narrative but bad regional dialogue is like listening to nine out of ten American actors doing an English or Aussie accent. It grates. You can either do it or you can’t.

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