Last Friday I asked you, lovely internet folk, to help me make a decision on whether or not I should use British or US English in my set-in-New-York-but-written-by-an-Irish-gal novel. You can read the original post here. My question was: what should be the deciding factor in whether a book is written in British English or US English?
The problem is that my novel, Results Not Typical, is written in British English, i.e. it’s organised in there, not organized. BUT the story is set in New York, so I used American words, i.e. trunk instead of boot. BUT I didn’t always use American words, because one of my main characters continually says Mum instead of Mom—and that’s because, honestly, I didn’t even flag it. I didn’t know. My mistake. BUT would US readers—who are my biggest readers—be confused by a book that for all intents and purposes seems to be as American as apple pie (ignoring the Mum/Mom debacle for a second; let’s pretend I’ve already fixed it) but is written in British English? Would it be better if I just went all in? BUT I’m Irish, so why should I? Can’t I write in my own language? Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to not set a book in the States?
The only one of those questions I know the answer to for sure is the last one, and it’s yes. But as it was too late for that, I had to find answers to the other ones too. So I asked you, and here’s what you said*.
Would you say that grammar geography is something that matters to you, as a reader?
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What should be the BIGGEST deciding factor in whether US or British English is used?
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It is likely to affect your reading experience?
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And here’s some other interesting things you said about it:
- “I would feel slighted if someone from over the pond “dumbed down” their work in order to make it “easier” for me to understand. Isn’t that part of what reading is about? Learning something new? For instance, when I heard the title of the first Harry Potter book, it drove me nuts. What’s wrong with the word philosopher? I was insulted that the publisher’s thought we Americans haven’t heard of the Philosopher’s Stone.” –Virginia
- “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.” — Paris Franz
- “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.” — Bellareview
- “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.” –KathyF
- “The deciding factor should be the character’s nationality, not the author’s or the setting … 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.” –Pop Culture Nerd
- “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.” — Catana
- “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.” –jelillie
- “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.” –sydneycarroll
- “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.” –Cameron Lawton.
So I think this is what we could all decide upon, in the end:
- The spelling and grammar should be the author’s own, unless the author is prepared to write for his or her biggest audience. (It is less distracting for a non-US audience to read US English than it is for a US audience to read non-US English, thanks to television, etc. so writing for your US readers is a viable option.)
- The words or vocabulary used by a character should be determined by where the character is from, because fiction is about getting readers to believe that the world you’ve made up is real and true. When my character, supposedly born and raised in New York State, said “Mum”, it wasn’t believable. Likewise if you had a Londoner speaking in Dublin slang, it wouldn’t ring true. So, the character speaks like they’re supposed to speak, regardless of where the person who invented them is from.
- If a character is saying things they shouldn’t, it negatively impacts the reader experience, so this is definitely something the writer has to be aware of. I know this point may sound obvious, but I didn’t think of the whole Mom/Mum thing, now did I?
What I’ve decided to do is go through Results again making sure that although the spelling is British English, all the words used are as realistic as they can be. I’m sure it won’t be 100% authentic because I’m not from the States, but why do I feel like Amazon Customer Reviews will help me out if I get anything wrong…?
*I wrote this post on Sunday February 5th, three days after the original post was published and taking into account approximately 60 responses. Therefore the percentages may differ from what appears on the post now, if more people have responded since.