General

A Writer’s “Labo(u)r”

We all have our “pet peeves” – those tiny aspects of life that drive us, privately, bananas. English author Delphine Woods (who has written a decidedly British novel – Footsteps in the Ocean – that is quite a good read) has one…

…It is American-English coming out of the mouths of British characters.

As an, ahem, American who writes some British characters, I could not resist a comment:

[Screen capture of Instagram.]

It is also possible an American writer just may not realize – or, as the British say, realise – that there is a British-English expression for something often “ordinary” that they as an American are trying to describe. It is a tricky business. And with any book now immediately available globally, oversights, sloppiness, or just plain ignorance, may jump up from a page and irritate you as a reader.

So writers now must be extra-vigilant. While I was writing Passports, I recall being warned by several British who were proofreading the draft that I had inadvertently expressed myself in a British style at times mixed with its American style most of the time. I was doing so not in dialogue, but in the narrator.

I went back through the draft and made a concerted effort to make certain the narrator was only in American. Thus while I write a “narrator” in “American” in my books, the speech coming from British characters is also “British” to the point you would probably read that he or she “says,” for example, “labour” and not the American version, “labor.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has an extensive list of British words and their American equivalents. I’ve pulled out a choice few “Britishisms” and put the American equivalent next to it below in parentheses. As an American you may see some “Britishisms” on that list you may never have before encountered:

Blanket bath (sponge bath); cling film (plastic wrap); current account (checking account); engaged [of a phone] (busy); first floor (second floor); flyover (overpass); ground floor (first floor); hot flush (hot flash); lollypop lady [man] (crossing guard); naughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe); plain chocolate (dark chocolate); recorded delivery (certified mail); roundabout (traffic circle); shopping trolley (shopping cart); spring onion (scallion); tea towel (dish towel); trainers (sneakers); windscreen (windshield); worktop (countertop).

I have lived here in England for nearly two decades. There are still times I don’t understand a “Britishism” tossed at me in conversation. Or my English Mrs. will warn me if I have just said something not normally heard here: “You’re speaking American.”

If you are an American writing British characters, you have to be mindful. It is probably necessary to get a “British-American” dictionary. Seriously.

[Excerpt from Passports. Paperback. Photo by me, 2018.]

Did you catch it in that excerpt? In Passports, there is a British woman in that scene: “Natalie.” In it, she “says”… “practice” not “practise.”

It is over five years ago now since I wrote that, and I’ve written a few hundred thousand more words since. I don’t know for sure why I used the “c” and not the “s” for her there. Some might think that’s a mistake or oversight… and it could be.

However, as I look at it again, although the word is pronounced more or less similarly in Britain and in America, knowing me, it is entirely possible the “c” from “Natalie” may have been an attempt on my part to be a bit “too clever” about a difference in accent – to the point I may have even outsmarted myself.

[“Passports” on my desk. Photo by me, 2016.]

“Virginie” had been an au pair in the U.S., so she may uncontroversially say “practice.” But “Natalie” probably should not. But I know I had also been very careful about “slips” like that popping up and I may have been trying to convey that “Natalie” said “practice” there in a tad more of an “American” style so as not to be “too English” in her accent because of to whom she is speaking – a Frenchwoman who had perfected her English in the United States, and had become accustomed to speaking English with an American accent.

For another issue is indeed non-native English speakers: those largely on the outside “listening in” to us, so to speak (no pun intended). I will always recall working at a London university and meeting a foreign student barely 24 hours off a plane from Pakistan who had never been to England before. He spoke English fine, but as I spoke to him he sat in front of me with a confused look on his face. Finally when I mentioned I was from New York, his demeanor – demeanour here in England – changed; he smiled broadly and said he was happy to have learned that. His teachers back in Pakistan had been educated here in Britain, or were from here, he noted, and did not speak English the way I did, and he had been horrified that he did not easily understand me.

Regardless, a major pitfall in having set the “spell check” to “American” since the narrator is “American,” is it is not going to highlight what perhaps should instead be a “Britishism.” Obviously for that excerpt no British proofreaders had caught it pre-publication either to bring to my attention; and I can’t be 100 percent sure there aren’t others like it elsewhere that clearly were outright errors in that book or in my other books. No matter how many times we re-read something, and others read it, and even an editor does, everyone may just “miss” something. As nothing in life is perfect, no book is perfect either.

[On my desk: Rembrandt Peale, American, 1805. “Thomas Jefferson.” And two British union flags.” Photo by me, 2018.]

The fact of the world today is most British are also usually more aware of many Americanisms than the reverse, which is mostly due to the massive amount of U.S. media the British are exposed to. In comparison, while Britishisms are seen in the U.S. (especially if you are an “Anglophile” and watch lots of imported British television or films), they are not necessarily as commonly known among most Americans. Some words – such as “soccer” there is “football” here – Americans probably know, but many other everyday British expressions may leave quite a few Americans amusingly baffled.

All that said, I have also seen complaints about the reverse: British authors writing American characters and occasionally having those Americans “say” things most Americans would not.

Sometimes perhaps we get too worked up about these things as well. As Alfred Hitchcock reportedly once said in response to a passionate fan who questioned him about a small mistake in one of the great director’s movies: “It’s only a film.”

It all can make for some fun, too. Our Catskills, New York house builder, for one, a decade ago often had to talk with my wife. At times we wondered if they were indeed speaking the same language.

Have a good day, wherever you are, and whatever type of English you may speak. 🙂

3 replies »

  1. Hi 🙂
    After reading this post I thought I might ask you for a little help, although I totally understand if you don’t have the time to do it. I have written a query letter for an english book I have written, but since I’m Norwegian
    I can’t quite shake the feeling that I might have made a really stupid mistake in that query letter that would make a native speaker flinch. I was just wondering if you would have the time to read the query? It is one page and I plan to send it to US agencies first, but I have just gotten really paranoid about mistakes…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person