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Straddling the Divide

/by Ann Crew, creator of the Elspeth Duff mysteries/

As an American writer using British characters often in British settings in my stories, I am becoming increasingly aware that two languages, American English and British English, exist like closely related cousins but not twins. Sometimes, I am told, I may be saying something perfectly understandable to my British readers but they instantly know an American sat in front of a laptop tapping out the words.

Should I get ‘mad’ at the reader for pointing this out, or ‘angry’ at him or her? No matter how often I try to get British usage right, I can slip up on something as uncomplicated as the usage in the previous question.

Thanks to television and films [movies] the two languages are getting closer. I have also found that a generational difference exists. Someone in Britain who is eighty will use the language differently from [to] a teenager who watches too many American program[me]s on the telly. I shutter at teenagers’ usage on both sides of the Atlantic, but that is another topic. You can tell I am older.

Then, of course, the issue of spelling rears its ugly head and challenges your [or is it one’s?] head. What is the honorable [or is it honourable?] way to handle this? Spell check [this surely isn’t cheque] helps a little. You can see what I mean. Besides you [one] can’t trust Microsoft Word to get spelling or grammar correct in either the States or the UK. And I hate to think what Australians have to deal with.

Punctuation is another bugaboo. Do I use brackets or parentheses? What are inverted commas? Do I use one or two inverted commas before a quotation or are “quotation marks” OK? Where do commas go in a sentence? Do Americans use more commas or do the British—and where?

I won’t even try to discuss slang.

In my many trips to the UK I have discovered British English has a snobbish side, which Americans have always suspected. Tea to the working classes is very different from tea to Lady Buffoffington-Huffoffington. In America tea is simply a hot drink with an iced version. We don’t need an afternoon meal because we snack on unhealthy food all day long. To us an evening meal is called dinner or supper depending on whether our midday repast has been lunch or dinner. Perfectly clear, right?

What is the difference between pudding and dessert? These two words in Britain seems to have a distinction that I don’t understand, although maybe [perhaps] I just haven’t visited the UK often enough to learn it. Do you have pudding at home and dessert in a restaurant? Why the difference? To an American the distinction between the two words is perfectly clear. Pudding is a creamy kind of dessert usually made from milk and powder out of a Jell-o package [chocolate mousse packet?].

All fun aside, I am a serious writer of mystery novels and am frequently puzzled. If I were a famous author, I would have a martinet of an editor who would correct every misusage, spelling and punctuation mistake, and glaring or subtle Americanism that I have included in my narrative. S/he would be able to translate easily between the two languages and always do it correctly. If I wrote worldwide best sellers, an American and a British edition would exist and be distinctly different. The problem would become instantly moot. So much for not having achieved that kind of fame.

To date, I have relied on my British friends to correct my drafts and gaffs. They often suppress a smile. My mistakes so far aren’t terrible, just diverting.

Electronic publishing makes the choice of language even more mystifying. Copies of one’s books can zoom across the Pond in both directions and, in doing so, you don’t [one doesn’t] have to deal with the grim gatekeepers of US Customs or the UK Border Authority. Neither a passport nor a visa is required, but a decision by an author to write in one form of English or another is essential.

Recently at a writing workshop, the leader of our group said that ‘one needs to find one’s own voice’. If you are an American, you can tell immediately that she was British.

I have no answer to my conundrum. When I find one, I’ll rest more easily. Certainly I can’t use the style of this blog entry in my fiction.

If you have an answer or even an opinion as to which language an American author with a British protagonist should write in, do me a favor [favour] and let me know.

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4 thoughts on “Straddling the Divide

  1. I posted this on the site in the message wall earlier today :-
    “What a super blog post. The writer delivered an interesting subject with wit and a self deprecating humour that was refreshing. Oh the horror of it all, I am continually in a spin, I can’t even be sure that my commas are correct in my little English writing. I do believe that if the story is strong enough the grammatical peculiarities will be overridden. I read a great many “American” novels as I’m sure we all do and once I am immersed in the story the rest of it simply drifts away.”

    Read more: Shortbread Stories’s Messages | Shortbread

  2. Had to bite my cheeks to keep from guffawing inappropriately at work because of this. I’m an expat in Scotland, and after six years in this country I can’t remember any more whether I picked up a particular turn of phrase here, or brought it with me… or learned it from Australian friends. I give up.

    Facebook’s a particular torture — no matter which spelling I choose, it gets picked on either by British or by American friends.

    The worst part? I’m writing a novel set in the US and trying to stick to US language… but I’ve lost the ability to tell the difference. I can’t even speak my native language any more!!

    • Erica, I have a hard time remembering the differences as well. When editing this piece Ann used the word ‘shutter’. Fiona came back and asked if this was an Americanism, or if Ann had spelled the word wrong. Fiona thought it should be ‘shudder’. The problem was that I couldn’t remember, so I just instructed her to use the word ‘cringe’ which translates across countries. However, I forgot to change it on the blog, so it’s all a bit mute.

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