Grammar Geography: Does It Matter To You?


Today lovely blog readers and/or happenstance passers-by, I need your advice. And the advice of your reading friends; I want as broad a scope on this as possible so please, after reading, kindly bombard everyone you know with links to this post. Because I have a question that I need to know the answer to. Well, two questions, but they’re both about the same thing: the geographical considerations of grammar, spelling and language.

As in, when you’re reading a novel, do you notice whether it’s written in British English or American English? If it’s not what you’d expect, does it bother you? Does it distract from your reading? When it comes to whether a book should be written in British or American English, what should be the deciding factor? Where the author is from? Where the book is going to be published? Or where the novel is set? And why should it be?

(Yes, I know. Technically that was eight questions.)

I haven’t made things easy for myself in this arena to date. In Mousetrapped, I decided to use my own native spelling, i.e. British English. That was pretty straightforward. But when it came to words, I wandered into more of a grey area, operating under a loose rule that I’d use whichever term would be best understood by both sides. Holiday is a good example of this. Everyone over here knows that Americans don’t mean two weeks in the sun when they say it, and that that’s what vacation is for. So I used vacation. And street instead of road, store instead of shop and garbage instead of rubbish.

All the while feeling a little pang of betrayal to the language I speak…

It’s tricky because on this side of the Pond, we’ve grown up with both British and American English. We know what all your strange words mean, my dear Americans, because 70% of our television shows are made by you. For instance, I know perfectly well what Americans mean when they say things like soda, sneakers and trunk, but would Americans known what I meant if I said fizzy drink, trainers and boot to them?

Except—to complicate things even further—I wouldn’t say fizzy drink or trainers. As an Irish person, I’d say mineral and runners. (Yes, Irish people tend to call soft drinks/sodas minerals. And no, I don’t think any of us know why.)

But sometimes the American word is the word I use everyday, like movie, which I almost always say in place of film. (Especially since Irish people pronounce it as fill-um, and then are laughed at. Movie is less embarrassing.) But I would never say “I’m going to the movies.” I’d say “I’m going to the cinema” instead. My parents would say “We’re going to the pictures” and then I’d laugh at them. But then I once came across a review of a chick-lit book written by a British author, that was lambasted (good word, eh?) for the character’s use of the term. “WHY is she always saying movies?” the reviewer wanted to know. “It’s all movies, movies, movies with her. It should be FILMS!! She’s SUPPOSED to be BRITISH!!!!”

Yes, this is the point where the head starts to hurt a bit.

Even here on this blog I slide into American English spellings, because my version of Safari spell checks for American English and so when a squiggly red line appears under “organised”, I switch the ‘s’ out for a ‘z’ to make it go away. I don’t see this as a big deal; I don’t even see it as mattering, to be honest.

(But then I also think this is a blog, and spelling mistakes and typos aren’t a big deal, period. Maybe that’s a topic for another day. And using ‘period’ like that is a very American thing to say, isn’t it?!)

But of course, in books it does matter. I probably didn’t realize—or realise—how much it mattered until I created a book set in New York, populated it with Americans and then wrote it in British English.

I needed to set Results Not Typical in the States because that is the home of the crazy corporate environment, the only country I’ve worked in where my superiors made me do things like make deposits in the emotional bank accounts of my colleagues, and answer certain questions with words of three syllables or more. (Tip: homicidal has three syllables.) Results isn’t supposed to be realistic—it’s supposed to be a kind of larger than life, slapstick satire (or something…)—but its fictional world has to be believable, and I didn’t think setting its headquarters in a retail park near Mahon Point was going to cut it. Plus I wanted to incorporate things like the FBI, the FDA and 24-hour cable news networks, and Ireland doesn’t have any of those things. So I set the book in the US, and wrote it in my own language.

Which was fine, I thought. Until someone pointed out that one of my characters constantly calls her mother “Mum.” On the other side of the pond, where this character was born, has lived all her life and is in while she’s saying it, she would say “Mom” instead. And that is wrong. Right?

So what am I—and everyone else facing this dilemma—to do?

In a publishing house, answering this question is probably a little easier because each territory gets its own edition of the book. But a self-publisher can’t operate like that, or not quite like that anyway. On Amazon KDP you can select which territories you’d like to sell your book in and so, theoretically, I could make a US e-book that’s only for sale in the US, and a British English e-book that’s for sale everywhere else. But how would that work? Would it work? It gets mind-bendingly complicated when you consider that, for example, Irish customers buy their Kindle books from, as does any country that doesn’t have its own dedicated store.

I really don’t believe that where a book is set should determine what grammar and spelling is used, as that seems a bit daft. (Meaning stupid or silly, my American friends.) I would guess that writers write books set in places they don’t live in more than they set books in the places they do, and I’m sure they don’t change their grammar and spelling because of that. There’s also a part of me that thinks readers who have a problem with me writing in my own language should go read someone else, because why shouldn’t I? Why should I write in a language that’s not technically my own just to suit someone else? But then when I think of my New York born and raised—and set in—character saying Mum instead of Mom, that does seem wrong to me, and I want to change it.

So where’s the line?

If I decide that the spelling, grammar, etc. I use is determined by where in the world I’m most likely to sell the most books, that would settle it: it’d be American English all the way. But I’m an Irish writer and I want to write in my language. But then I don’t want readers to be confused or put off…

Oh, boy. What I’m feeling right now is quite similar to how I felt when I tried to work out the infinite loop plotlines of The Matrix.

So, I’m turning to you for help. Answer the poll questions and/or leave me a comment. How important is this British English Vs US English thing to you, and if it is important, why is it? And what should be the deciding factor when it comes to which is used in a book? The floor is yours…

37 thoughts on “Grammar Geography: Does It Matter To You?

  1. Paddy Hodnett says:

    Hi Catherine.

    I would suggest that as a writer from this side of the world, that you use the spellings and grammar that are used in the UK and Ireland.

    However, I would suggest that you use terminology that is appropriate to the setting of the piece.

    Hope this helps

  2. Northsider Dave says:

    The ‘runners’ remind me of the first time (just moved to West Cork) and I heard somebody say:

    “I have got to go for the messages.”

    I was most confused. I thinks to my self:

    “Are they in contact with a Spiritualist -Medium or picking up their post?”

    To those of you who are not from Ireland. They were talking about : SHOPPING!

    I often worry about my target audience and wonder if my humour is too regional. I also think it is very easy to pigeon hole your writing genre. Do you think it’s OK to use swearing in your writing? I do and then I go neurotic thinking:

    “I don’t think I should have put that there!”

  3. michaelharling says:

    Being an American living in Britain writing for Americans I feel your pain. You are right that, as a self-publisher, producing language-specific versions of each book is patently out of the question (just not enough hours in the day). My feeling is: where the book is set should determine what language is used in the narrative (and which spell checker is used in the document) but where each individual character is from should determine the words they use. Anything else and you’ll just drive yourself crazy.

    And, in general, I think it’s safer to use American terms over here than British/Irish terms over there; Americans don’t get out much, and there is only so much culture you can absorb watching Downton Abbey and reruns of Ballykissangel.

    • Tom says:

      As a dual citizenship holder of UK and America, I agreed with you until that last bit. That was rude and ignorant.

      • Zagorath says:

        Obviously there are exceptions, but I would agree with what he said.
        If you’re aiming for a larger audience, British and Australian (why do we always get forgotten 😦 ) readers are likely to know about the spellings and terminology used in America more than Americans will know the opposite. It probably won’t matter very much at all with realise vs realize, and only slightly more in colour vs color, but where there a different words completely it could make a significant difference.

  4. Paris Franz says:

    It is a bit of a head twister, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about this aspect of language in my work in progress, and have come to the conclusion that writing in an idiom that isn’t your own can have a detrimental effect. It’s very easy for the language to sound a bit unnatural, unless you’re good at switching between the two.

    I think it’s a bit more straightforward in dialogue – have the characters speak in the language of where they’re from. So, yes, an American would say ‘Mom’, instead of “Mum’.

    Thanks for bringing this up – it’s helped me clarify my thoughts on my own book!

  5. BucksWriter says:

    This is a very familiar issue for me as a Brit with two small nephews who are half American 🙂

    I also use some American words as and when it will make communication easier. However, there are some common phrases in American English that I just can’t use because they sound all wrong to me.

    I suppose the key thing is that language is always evolving and technology now allows for much more intermingling of both language and culture. With regard to a book I think I would focus on being true to the character’s voice, so if the character was from the deep South I’d probably throw in a few suitable linguistic patterns, without going overboard as that can also be very distracting.

  6. bellareview says:

    Good questions – and interesting too!
    First – have you ever noticed that Penguin classics use ‘organize’ etc.? That’s not US spelling, z/s is both British, the US has just adopted the z and we got used to it. I prefer to analyse with an s though.
    Then – I recently opened a book by a US author which was set in the UK and his use of sidewalk/sick/color annoyed me greatly (Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, didn’t read it in the end).
    In my own novel in progress some bits are in the US as well. Here, I just switch. I agree that an American says Mom, not Mum and garbage, not rubbish. I obviously don’t change the language of my British characters, just the US ones – and when I’m referring to the pavement in New York, I say the sidewalk.. Makes sense?

  7. KathyF says:

    I think American language is a lot more expansive than you think. “Street” and “road” are both used equally as often, as are “movie” and “film” although “cinema” is used less frequently and usually as a proper noun, ie “I’m going to the Apollo cinema”. This is why I think it’s very difficult for non-native speakers to really grasp all the subtleties of a dialect. Southerners speak differently from northerners, etc.

    But I would definitely have a character speak and think in her native language. An American would rarely call a mother “mum” (but it happens). Nor would they be likely to use the words “keen” or “scheme” in the same way, and please never forget that “homely” is an insult!

    Other than that you should just use British English and spelling and punctuation. This is what people would expect, reading a book published technically, anyway, in Britain. Americans aren’t distracted by spelling and grammar much, but I would be very dismayed to see an American character using British words unless she lived here and had adapted.

  8. Pop Culture Nerd says:

    The deciding factor should be the character’s nationality, not the author’s or the setting. My brother spoke like an American the entire twelve years he lived overseas. Conversely, I have Australian friends who have lived in America for ten years but have retained their native lingo. The narrative can be in British English, but the goal is to make your characters as believable as possible. Anything that makes readers think, “She wouldn’t say/do that!” distracts them from the story.

  9. David Gaughran says:

    This is a tricky question, but I’m going to out myself as a hack, a shill, a philistine, and a slave to the almighty dollar and say that the deciding factor should be the language most of your (target) readers use – which is probably US English.

    While UK readers are aware of the peculiarities of US English (and various idioms they prefer), the opposite is rarely true. Many UK and Irish (and Australian and Canadian) writers have found that when they write in their native idiom, US readers can ding them for typos (where in actual fact they are using proper British/Australian/Canadian English spelling). Aside from that, our terminology can throw them off.

    When we say that we “hung up” a phone call, they have no idea what we are talking about. Even worse, if we said something like “My throat is killing me. I must have smoked twenty fags last night,” it means something very, very different to them!

    I’ve seen writers approach this problem with three solutions:

    1. Bringing out separate UK and US editions. The problem with this is that your reviews and sales are split across two books – largely preventing any kind of momentum. And it just creates a logistical headache anyway, reader confusion, and more work – which is never good.

    2. Putting UK and US editions in the same book. This can lead to readers thinking the book is twice as long as it is (Amazon estimate the page count for them), and it’s inelegant for all sorts of reasons. Plus it doesn’t solve all the issues, e.g. what language should the blurb/marketing/website be in?

    3. Writing exclusively in US English.

    I’m not 100% happy about it, but I went for the last option, and I really think it’s the best of a bad bunch (at least until Amazon provides a neater solution). UK readers are very forgiving, having been exposed to US spelling in books, film, TV, and music from an early age. I have received zero negative feedback on this approach, and it really is the simplest solution for all sorts of reasons.

    My editor is Australian and converted the UK English of my first few titles (well, strictly speaking Hiberno-English) into US English. After a bit of practice, I’ve found I can write in US English quite easily, and it just needs a bit of cleaning up from there.

    Some side effects you should be aware of: naturally, with writing (and thinking) in US English, I noticed it creeping into my blog. Well, actually, I noticed one day that my blog was all in US English, and can’t even put my finger on when that “mission creep” began. That’s not too bad – most of my readers are in the US after all. However, if noticed US English (and US English idioms and phraseology) creeping into non-work communications (chatting online with friends etc.). Even worse, I heard myself coming out with a few US phrases when I was home for Christmas – and sounded like one of those Paddies that’s been Stateside for too long. Not cool.

    P.S. It hasn’t harmed my UK sales, which are almost the same size as my US sales (despite it being a much smaller market)

    P.P.S. I totally would have read a book set in a retail park in Mahon Point.

  10. catherineryanhoward says:

    Thanks all for your comments. Keep them coming!

    @Northsider Dave — The messages! Totally forgot about that one. That’s an even better example because it makes ABSOLUTELY no sense whatsoever. Brilliant.

    @David –That last line about Mahon Point made me laugh out loud. You might be the only one though. 🙂

    @Pop Culture Nerd — I think you’ve pretty much summed it up, and that’s kind of where I’m heading, I think. (THINK!)

    I think based on the comments and the votes that an agreement can be made that a) the grammar and spelling should be the author’s own but b) the terminology, phrases, etc. should be the character’s own. BUT I’m not American, and although I’ve lived there and am quite familiar with their language, I probably don’t know all the ins and outs.

    For example, I would know substitutes such as curtains/drapes, and I’m careful not to say regular when I mean normal, as “regular” here means occurring frequently. But I wouldn’t have thought of “hung up” as David pointed out, and I’m almost certain I’ve used that phrase in my New York-based novel.

    There’s also the danger that if you have one type of grammar/spelling and one type of language, readers might think it’s a typo/mistake. I think there’s a review of mine on Goodreads somewhere that bemoans “all the grammatical errors” even though it was proofread and so while I would never claim to have a perfect book, I’m certain there aren’t many if there’s any at all. The reader was referring to the use of British English.

    I think the best thing to do is not be an Irish writer who sets books in the States, but it’s too late for that!

    • O.H. Bread says:

      I think some of the examples given are very nit picky, like drapes vs curtains and movies vs film vs cinema. I believe Americans are more forgiving of writing style than some people here seem to believe. I’m sorry if authors are called out on typos and it negatively affects their rating, but that does not characterise (ooh….notice that?) an entire nation of readers.

      I read your book, Catherine. I talk and write in both types of language. I knew what you meant in the book at many points, but I also knew those same points were out of place for being set in America. It did distract me while reading, but I wouldn’t say it negatively affected my reading experience. It was just there, then I continued on reading.

      My suggestion was to write it in the geography of where the book is set. If that’s in America, then the region of that country because all the different regions have their own ways of talking, just like various parts of other countries. (It’s a small world after all)

      I disagree with your last point about an Irish writer not setting books in the States. I think you did a good job and it was probably a good exercise. 😉 X

  11. Catana says:

    It might be a good idea to make a distinction between spelling and vocabulary. As an American and a heavy reader, I’m so used to British spelling that I sometimes use either one without even thinking about it. I don’t realize I’ve done it until the spell checker tells me so. But vocabulary is a different beast. I know a lot of British usage and slang, but still sometimes have to do a lookup. The more slang there is, the more difficult it’s going to be for non-Brits. If the book is specifically set in somewhere in Britain, then forget the people who are disturbed by any usage but their own. If it’s too painful to learn something new, then that book isn’t for you. Alternate spelling exist. Different cultures exist. Live with it.

  12. Laura Rae Amos says:

    Ha, it seems like so minute a detail, but I worry about these things too. I’m American, in the US, but married to a British man for almost 10 years, resulting in my whole language being muddled and confused! I’ve had to have my editors and betas take Britishisms OUT of my US English books, lol!

    I have been immersed enough in British culture that I know all the word equivalents: sneakers/trainers, elevator/lift, etc. But if I didn’t – say, if I was reading a novel written in true-to-life Irish verbiage, for example (and I’d love to!) – I do think I’d be lost on some words. But also, I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, if I’m reading a book about Ireland, in Irish English, by an Irish author, I WANT the book to be authentic. I don’t want to read about an Irish girl who sounds like she’s from NYC, you know?

    So I say no – don’t revise. I once saw an indie author talking about how she planned to completely revise her British-published novel for American audiences, and in my head I was screaming, WHY?!? lol!

    For your own spelling and grammar, I’d stick with what you naturally write in. After all, it’s not wrong – it’s just different. Maybe it’s because we’re arrogant and egocentric, but I don’t think an American writer would ever consider NOT writing in American English, lol! Which means, you should just write in your own native language too.

    I really can’t imagine an American stupid enough to demand that an author write in a language that is not her own. Do people really do that? If I ever met one, I promise I’d slap her upside the head for you! (Translating across different languages is another matter, of course – like Spanish to English for example.)

    BUT, you’re right, where you run into trouble is if you are actually writing about another nationality. Then you do need your character to be authentic for that nationality. So for the “mum”, since she’s supposed to be an American, then that is a character authenticity thing. I would go ahead and find/replace that with another term. Easy enough fix. 😉

  13. jelillie says:

    Good topic of discussion. I think a person has to be true to their geographical character. It helps with the suspension of disbelief. That said, an error in colloquialism shouldn’t ruin a person’s reading experience.

  14. sydneycarroll says:

    I’m dealing with a lot of the same issues in my current WIP. It is a little bit frustrating because there seem to be no real rules in this situation, just myriad ways you can go wrong 🙂

    I’m an American, with both English and American characters in my (primarily) U.S.-set novel. I’m using U.S. English when it comes to spelling and formatting, but am letting the character’s POV dictate the word usage.I’m sure that will lead to issues with some American readers being unsure about some of the British expressions, but I think it’s better than missing out on the opportunity to have the characters express themselves authentically.

    It has taken me out of the story when I’ve read characters using words they generally would not. For example, an American character wearing a “vest” to her yoga class (novel set in America, by British author). Now I knew the author didn’t mean “that” kind of vest (i.e. a 3 button-thingy to wear with a suit jacket or 80’s getup involving acid-washed jeans and hair scrunchies), but it felt like author intrusion to me. But if a story is otherwise well-crafted, it doesn’t bother me too much.

  15. Cameron Lawton says:

    Excellent subject. It jars horribly with me when I read characters who are supposed to be British, working in Britain and doing things like taking a toll-road or freeway, going to the drugstore or cleaning the silverware from the table. Being such a mild-mannered tolerant sort I end up screaming at the computer or book.

    As you say – we (Brits and irish) have been brought up with American movies (fillums) which means that on holiday (vacation) over there I can drop into their vernacular with no problem, which is good because in my experience, if one doesn’t (and there’s an expression that gets me howled at in England – one) if one doesn’t they just stare vacantly, wondering what this “pavement” thing is or why i think my automobile should be wearing a hat (car / bonnet).

    To be fair I mght have the same difficulties if I tried to set a story in the States, unless my main character were British.

  16. Angela Watson says:

    I think there is some overthinking happening. For once, I have clear, succinct advice for you: 🙂

    If the characters in your book are supposed to be New Yorkers, they should talk like New Yorkers. If they’re Londoners, they should talk like Londoners. Anything else sounds inconsistent. Readers don’t care where the author is the from. They want to get lost in the novel. And they can’t do that if a character they thought was from Ireland is saying “y’all.”

  17. Elyse/Pop Culture Nerd says:

    You can certainly write like an Irish person while setting a book in America if your protag is Irish and you write in first person POV.

  18. Heidi says:

    You have some excellent advice from some of the “folks” up above, so I won’t repeat. Just a thought, why not have your British character make frequent comments using British terms we Americans probably wouldn’t know. Then, have your American character’s react in humorous ways. For example: there is a joke floating around the US about how a British man walked into a school supply store, asking for “rubbers.” You hear the word “erasers,” whereas American’s (I included) here the word “condoms.” And isn’t a “Mum” some sort of flower? 🙂
    Just for the record, I adore your “voice,” and you haven’t lost me. I am surrounded by American accents all day long, yours is a refreshing change.
    Don’t conform too much and “keep on truckin’!”
    p.s. I’m about to become “Mousetrapped,” spending the day at Animal Kingdom 😉

    • Cameron Lawton says:

      Oh Heidi – thank you – you just reminded me of a toe-curling incident when I (a smoker) had spent an hour or more in a shopping mall near Boston. Coming outside with a British friend I remarked that I was “dying for a fag” … which caused the American lady passing me to nearly faint.

  19. ianhunter45 says:

    When I write about mobile phones in North America, I call them cell-phones. In the same book I call them mobiles when the plot moves to the UK. Other than similar examples of local usage I would always write in my own version of English. It’s part of one’s authentic voice.

    It’s quite true that in the English-speaking world outside the USA and Canada we are quite able to translate but the same isn’t true of our North American cousins. I remember the look of frozen horror on the face of the generously endowed wife of my host when I complemented her on her buns. Oh dear.

  20. Katherine Alva Cerulean says:

    I personally think it’s super charming to hear words and /or sayings that are different than my native ‘USA speak’. I really enjoyed seeing a bit of that in ‘Self Printed’ (which I just read BTW and it is awesome!).

    But as a fiction writer I do think what the character says should reflect where they’re from and how they would speak. I’m find though, with anything other than dialogue in a fiction book reflecting the author i.e. “Gee Mom, thanks for the raincoat.” Inwardly, Julie blanched; pink was her least favourite colour.
    I think speaking in your own awesome voice is more important than worrying about if American’s know British slang (my thought, all the cool ones do). Hope this helps.

  21. EP Vaughn says:

    Your natural tongue is a large part of your writing voice and charm. Don’t go changing to try to please every critic. You’ll forget who you are.

  22. Emma says:

    I was recently wondering about American/British spelling myself. I set a lot of my stories in the US but I use British English. I hope that the majority of readers don’t mind this and recognise what’s going on rather than thinking the writer can’t spell 🙂

  23. Oliver Lawrence says:

    I think this is a really interesting issue. As a translator, I am sometimes asked to translate into American English, although I am native British, and this can pose real problems, as I think it is easy to underestimate the extent of the differences between the two language variants and therefore to fall into the trap of, for example, letting a ‘pavement’ slip through if the text is supposed to be in US English. Besides spelling and vocabulary variations, there are differences in pronunciation and stress patterns/rhythm and in punctuation (e.g. the more widespread tendency to use the serial/Oxford/Harvard comma in the States).

    As for which variant to use when writing a piece of fiction, I agree with Michael Harling.

    By the way, ‘-ize’ and ‘ise’ are equally correct in British English; the choice is a matter of house style (OUP prefers ‘-ize’). As long as you remember that ‘-mise’, ‘-prise’, ‘-vise’ and ‘-cise’ words have to have the ‘s’ not a ‘z’. Phew.

  24. Jelzmar says:

    One of the reasons I like to read fiction from authors outside of America is to learn more about their culture. I can’t do that when the book has been Americanized. It isn’t the only reason, so one of the questions I was torn on answering. Obviously, I care about the story. If the story is a good story, then I’ll still like the book. It would through me out of the story if someone from the UK called their mother “mom” at any point. Unless, it was a point of the story to show distance, and that she is cutting herself off from her old life.

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