Grammar Geography: The Results


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 becausehonestly, 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…?

[Smiley face]

Click here to find out more about Results Not Typical, just 99c in the Kindle store.

*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. 

10 thoughts on “Grammar Geography: The Results

  1. LIssie says:

    I read a indie fiction book, written by an American, but set in my home, New Zealand (where we spell like the Brits). I was waiting for to stumble – but she didn’t she’d obviously either lived here a while or got a local editor – the one thing she did was talk about Cabbage Palms – which really jarred – they may look like Palms but they are called Cabbage Trees.

    I have no idea if the rest of the book was using US or UK spelling – couldn’t care less – it was the scene setting and vocab that has to be right for the locals.

    I’d suggest you just use an US editor – that’s the simplest solution

  2. Northsider Dave says:

    I know they are not books but? I Just had a thought about filums and movies. Hmm….?

    What do you think about Oirish films like the Quiet Man Catherine? Or American accents in Hollywood biblical adaptations or even English accents in the Life of Brian.

    I personally don’t think it matters. If they are good or better still funny. It does the job!

  3. Bernie McGill (@berniemcgill) says:

    Excellent blog Catherine, as always. I agree that the fictional character’s spoken language needs to be consistent with the place and time that she or he is from, but it’s an interesting question whether or not the narrative voice needs to be consistent with that. I don’t know the answer. I’m still pondering it.

  4. Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

    As a developmental editor specializing in fiction, I was intrigued by your last post and intended to answer in detail, but was on a deadline and missed my opportunity, obviously. 🙂 I admit I am probably more sensitive than most, but here’s what I think: I agree with Bernie that a character’s dialogue absolutely needs to be consistent with the place/time she is from. But I also think the narrative should match that. (Think of the difficulties inherent in this crappy example* in which I am pretending to be you—a crappy writer you, not the good writer you are—writing with the conclusions drawn above, using an American character in New York but your own native spellings in the narrative: The driver saw an available space along the kerb, and swerved and bounced into it. “Oh dear,” Cathy thought, “we’ve hit the curb.”) The narrative language should be tied to your milieu. POV matters, as does first or third, present or past, and so on, but even if you’re writing in an omniscient POV the reader will tend to project the protagonist into that, so matching your language to the milieu is important.
    (*My example is bad for another reason: what if you’ve got an American character in London? But it’s early and I haven’t had my caffeinated hot beverage yet. My point is that when you conclude that the spelling and grammar should be the author’s own, it seems to disagree with your second chart above, in which almost 59% of your respondents say the biggest factor should be setting.)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      This is why this isn’t a straightforward issue! 🙂

      Using that example Jamie I would use British spelling throughout, both in narrative and dialogue, because that’s my language. I’m just not prepared, regardless of where I set books, to write in anything other than my own language, because I don’t think I should have to.

      But when it comes to words, I would go with what the character should be saying based on where she’s from, e.g. I would have her say “trunk” instead of “boot” and “hood” instead of “bonnet.”

  5. sirkeystone says:

    Okay, sorry for weighing in too late, but I am in the same pickle. My main character in my first of a series (we won’t see his point of view often) Is an expatriated Englishman whose accent still shine brightly after a couple of decades in the US Air Force. I am writing everything that is presented in his view point as British English, and all else (such as the secondary character being a Brazilian boy living in Cuba in the early ’70s) in American English.

    It’s is an espionage/conspiracy theory series. And I won’t even say thriller at this point, because for the first few novels, I’m experimenting with the presentation of fact for the Main Character. There is action, but not for action’s sake.

    My point is, I wish for his (and his FBI agent sister) British side to be prevalent because that is part of who he is, but the novel is set in Arizona, with a melting pot of South American, Russian, Canadian… and I could go on.

    So, my question would be, what about writing a person’s accent? The words would be acceptable there, would they not? I use the same habit for the Russian characters, Nyet for no, Da for yes, Tovarishch for friend, I just use translation brackets the first few times and use the language as I would if I were mentioning someone’s name in a dialogue (not very often.)

    The key thing for me, Is the target audience going to notice? Will they care? And does it interrupt the flow if it confuses the reader? But then, I’m not a grammar hound…

  6. Dave says:

    I came across this on Twitter and it was actually something I was researching lately.

    Firstly, well done for taking the time to write all this up. It’s something many people avoid.

    2 points I’ve heard continually thrown around in regards to this:

    1) If publishing for profit e.g. sales etc., then surely shouldn’t one spell for one’s main market?

    2) I’ve been criticized for mixing up English-geo spelling, and criticised for spelling one way and adding in location specific words not related to the geo specific spelling. e.g. I criticized him for being a twat.

    On top of all that now unleash the bevy of people that think twat means something else in the U.S. compared to the UK. I am of course referring to the beanism of twat meaning “plankhead” or similar such lighthearted insulting references.

    Damned if you don’t, damned if you do. Personally, I just like a good read no matter the geo location. As you so rightfully pointed out, it’s a part of what reading is. Don’t quite get a word, look it up!

    It’s also 2012, and global boundaries are mixing as is linguistic terminology.

  7. gillyfraser says:

    Having read your ‘My Comment Policy’ below – I’m wondering if I’m taking my life in my hands here by daring to mention my own blog… oh well, life is dangerous, what the hell.
    I only will mention it because I picked up the ball from this post and ran with it in a post of my own – but I did link back to here, so you did get the credit!
    There – now I’m taking my ball and running off to hide behind a tree…

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