It’s said that Britain and America are two nations divided by the same language. Yes, we have different words for some things: elevator/lift, sidewalk/pavement, faucet/tap, etc. We say plaster, not bandaid, and what would an American say if I asked them for a rubber? I would, of course, be asking for an eraser!
We also have different spellings – Americans miss out the ‘u’ from colour, favourite, harbour, rumour and others. They put a ‘z’ ( zed to us Brits, not zee!) instead of ‘s’ in words like organise, realise and recognise. They miss out the ‘e’ in words such as likeable, liveable, saleable. They miss the endings off some words so programme becomes program and catalogue becomes catalog.
I've heard a ‘rule’ that if you're writing for a mostly American audience, you should use the American spelling. I’ve also heard of one person who got a one star review on Amazon because of their incorrect (i.e. British) spelling!
My ‘beef’ is that, if we Brits can cope with American words and spelling in books written by Americans, then the same should apply the other way round – and yet I’ve had my editor trying to change my words to American spelling, until I objected! She even insisted ‘newsagent’ was two words, and refused to accept that in the UK it is used, as one word, for a person (or shop) that sells newspapers and magazines.
There are other occasions when one of my American critique partners has queried words or phrases, and sometimes a distinctly British concept. In my most recent chapter critique, she corrected the word ‘Maths’ to ‘Math’ – but the former is what every school pupil here calls that subject. When I wrote about someone being ‘in hospital’, she thought it should be ‘in the hospital’ – but that’s not what we say here.
An even bigger problem has arisen over what the British mean by ‘Sixth Form’, a phrase with which everyone here is familiar. No, it isn’t equivalent to sixth grade, as my CP thought. It goes back to the time when our school years were numbered differently from American schools. The first year of high school used to be called the ‘first form’ and so on, until you got to the 15-16 year olds who were in the ‘fifth form’. After that we continued into the ‘Sixth Form’ for two years. Even though our school years have now been numbered to correspond more to American ‘grades’ from Year 1 to Year 11 (we don’t use the word ‘grade’), the words Sixth Form are still used almost everywhere for the 17/18 years olds. Some schools have a ‘Sixth Form Annexe’ for the senior students and some areas have separate Sixth Form Colleges for the senior pupils from several different schools in that area.
So here’s my quandary: if I’m writing a novel set in Britain and about British people, I think I should use British spelling, phrases and other concepts. However, if this is going to lead to confusion among my American readers who, like my CP, may think ‘Sixth Form’ means 10-year-olds, what do I do? I tried to bring in the meaning of ‘Sixth Form’ in the first chapter by linking it to ‘senior students’ without having my teacher characters explaining in detail (which of course they wouldn’t need to do in a British school!). However, my CP either didn’t understand this, or forgot about it when she got to a later chapter, as she queried whether a group of 10 year olds would be staying up so late at night on a trip to Paris!
I have to accept that she is representative of an average American reader, therefore it seems I need to find some ‘mid-Atlantic’ method of describing this kind of thing, to make it understandable for American readers while at the same time not sounding totally weird to my British readers!
Without wanting to appear controversial about all this, it has made me wonder whether American writers ponder in the same way when using or referring to American concepts, traditions or customs that overseas readers might not understand. I look forward to some interesting comments!