Tuesday, September 11, 2012

UK and US - divided by the same language?

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!


  1. As my youngest is in Sixth form now, they do use Y12 and Y13 instead of upper and lower sixth. It has to do with AS and A2 parts of A levels.
    Use what is necessary for English readers to understand and trust American readers to get it. Many enjoy British phrases.
    Editors should be able to copy edit in both languages. It is fairly simple to change MS Word to English (American) or English (British)

  2. I totally agree with you, but as a proof-reader and editor, I'd say write it in British English and hire an American editor or proof-reader for the US version - or your publisher will anyway.

    I think most Americans are intelligent enough to understand British English, but I wasn't aware of the sixth form/sixth grade dilemma. Stand your ground on the UK spellings, but if she feels strongly about something like this, perhaps you can agree to let her have that one or re-write it to read 16 - 18 year olds.

    Good luck!

  3. Michelle, thanks for the info about Y12 and Y13 - but I'm less sure about trusting Americans to 'get it' ;-)

    Diane - my publishers are American. One editor did ask me whether I wanted to retain British spelling (I said yes), the other didn't ask and changed to American spelling anyway!

  4. This is an interesting dilemma, Paula. My tween book was heavily edited by an American editor and, although she kept British spellings, I had to change a lot of the phrasing and verb structure to reflect sharper US-style writing. While I learned a lot and worked hard, I'm now reclaiming some of my continuous present verbs for the print version I'm hoping to organise myself!

  5. That's interesting about the phrasing and verb structure, Rosemary. The main one I'm aware of is when we would say 'Have you got...?', Americans would say 'Do you have...?' And one word I always cringe at is the American 'gotten' which we don't use!

  6. I say, if the story is set in the UK keep with the British spellings and phrasing.
    I'm an American living in a southern state. I write about southern settings. My editor rephrases my dialog to northern dialect. It makes me crazy. My husband commented that my Georgia characters sound like they're from New York.
    Besides that, I think the British sound more sophisticated and I can understand it perfectly.

  7. Sandra, I hadn't realised editors changed your dialects. Not surprised that drives you crazy. Even I, as a Brit, can 'hear' (in writing as well as in speech) the difference between southern dialect and a New York accent! It's something similar to an editor making an Irishman sound like a Londoner!

  8. For what it's worth, your paragraph that discusses what Americans "miss out" is British usage. We'd say "leave out." :)

    I personally have no problem reading a British book with British English. However, you may have to expect that small American publishers will want American English--the bigger houses will probably accept British English.

  9. So there's another difference, Jen - 'miss out' vs 'leave out'!
    My question still remains - why, if I'm writing about British peope in Britain, should I have to use American English. My English characters would NOT say elevator, faucet, sidewalk etc!
    Maybe more to the point, do American writers ever consider that other nationalities may not understand their references to things that are only used in Amerrica? I still have no real idea what 'sophomore' refers to and I don't understand fraternities either, but American writers assume that I will understand these things!

  10. I say if your novel is set in Britain, use the British spellings. It will only add authenticity to the story. Like they say, when in Rome...

    And, after all, no one would expect a writer of historical romance to change the language to something more modern. It would ruin the whole feel of the story.

  11. I agree, Debra - but it seems American editors don't! In my experience, anyway!

  12. Paula, in America the four years of high school and the first four years of college are-1) freshman, 2) sophomore, 3) junior, 4) senior. Also, if something is referred to as sophomoric, it means immature. A fraternity is an elite group or club of college men who, in my opinion, usually act sophomoric. Their female counterpart is a sorority.

  13. Thanks, Sandra! We don't have the equivalent here in the UK but I think some American writers simply assume everyone will understand these terms!