As you know I’m taking a bit of a breather from my regular blogging to recover from recent emotions (my mother is doing much better, thanks) but as luck would have it, I have been in contact with Wendy Janes whom I met through Lit World Interviews (check here for one of her fabulous guest posts there). She is a fabulous writer and an excellent proofreader and she kindly pointed out a couple of things in one of my books that had bypassed my and my proofreader’s keen eye. I suggested she could share one of her posts in my blog, and she produced a wonderful post about the differences between UK and US English, something that as a translator I get asked about and think about often. The post was too good to just keep it waiting, so here it comes.
“Two countries separated by the same language”
Thank you to Olga for inviting me to write a guest post. As Olga is a translator I decided to choose a topic relevant to that aspect of her professional life. Unfortunately, my only knowledge of a language beyond English is the limited French I learned at school squillions of years ago. However, thinking about different languages brought to mind the similarities and differences between US and UK English, and how important it is for authors to be aware of the differences so that they don’t unwittingly mix them up.
I’m not advocating sticking slavishly to the rules. If an author does choose to mix things up, that’s fine, as long as he or she is making an informed decision, which is applied consistently throughout. (I’ve chosen to use UK spelling and US double quotes throughout this post. J)
In my role as a proofreader, I can do a much better job focusing on spotting typos and ensuring consistency if an author has already spent time making decisions (perhaps with an editor) on things like US or UK punctuation, spelling and style.
I have a basic US/UK checklist that I refer to when I start working on a proof. I’ve selected some items from it to produce the following six points which I hope you’ll find useful:
- Generally, for speech, quotations and emphasised words, US English uses double quotes and UK English uses single. Fortunately, the rules for punctuating speech are the same. However, they are different for quotations and emphasised words, which are set with commas and full stops inside quote marks in US English, and outside in UK English, as follows:
US: Edith was feeling a little “emotional.”
UK: Edith was feeling a little “emotional”.
- When dashes are used parenthetically they generally appear as unspaced em dashes in US English, and spaced en dashes in UK:
US: Edward had a quiet—but far too brief—moment to himself.
UK: Edward had a quiet – but far too brief – moment to himself.
- If you are referring to Mr, Mrs and Dr, these words are followed by the period/full stop in US English. UK English omits it.
- US English usually uses the Oxford or serial comma, while UK English does not, unless it’s needed for meaning.
- US English sets dates as Month, Day, Year, while UK English sets dates as Day, Month, Year.
US: January 14, 2010 or 1/14/2010
UK: 14 January 2010 or 14/1/2010
Where this can cause confusion is when a date such as 6 April 2010 is presented in numerals. US style would show this as 4/6/2010, which looks like 4 June to a UK reader.
- When it comes to spelling, I think most people are familiar with the following:
However, some of our spelling differences result in different meanings for US and UK readers, so authors need to be alert to these. For example, in US English you can pay for goods with a check, but in UK English, it’s a cheque.
Having established the basics, I’d now like to chat for a while about word choice, which I hope you’ll find as fascinating as I do.
Last year I proofread a book by an American author, set in the US and peopled by American characters. One sentence that really brought home to me the differences in our common language ran as follows:
“The Asian man sat in the diner wearing his new pants, eating chips, and watching football on the TV.”
As an English reader I am picturing an Indian man, sitting in a restaurant in his underpants, eating French fries while watching people kicking a round ball in a game that Americans would call soccer. I understand that an American reader could be picturing a Chinese man wearing trousers, eating what I’d describe as crunchy thin fried potato slices while watching people kicking and throwing an oval-shaped ball in a game that I would call American football.
I find I often have to “translate” words such as smart, mad and purse. For example:
“The smart woman was so mad she threw her purse on the floor.”
I picture a well-dressed woman who is insane, throwing to the floor the small object where she keeps her money, while I understand that an American reader would see a clever woman who is angry, throwing what I would call her handbag to the floor.
If an author would like his or her book to be enjoyed by people on both sides of the pond and elsewhere, I advise double-checking the text for clarity. I suggest re-working sentences to ensure that the intended meaning is as clear as possible. Adding a little extra context can help avoid confusion.
I’ve recently proofread a couple of books written by UK-based authors that were set in the US and had a mix of American and English character. One author chose to follow US style of spelling and punctuation and the other UK style, which was absolutely fine. Where things became a little complex was with direct thoughts and dialogue. There’s something jarring when an American character refers to pavement, lift, nappy and tap, and an English character says sidewalk, elevator, diaper and faucet. However, it’s not always clear cut, and I encourage authors to think carefully about their characters before making a decision.
It may be that the American secret agent in a novel has lived for so many years in England that he would naturally talk about walking along the pavement. His English-born contact may have watched so much American television that he would refer to the sidewalk.
In another book I proofread, there was a terrific tangle with the word mom/mum. The book was written in UK English, but an American character’s internal thoughts and spoken dialogue used both mom and mum. I think this one was difficult to call, but a call needed to be made. On the one hand, if we kept the UK English for everyone except the American character’s internal thoughts and spoken dialogue, then there was a danger the text would look inconsistent. On the other hand, having an American character referring to his “mum” could sound inauthentic.
If you’re keen to read more, The New Oxford Style Manual has a whole chapter about the differences between US and UK English.
Wherever you are in the world, whether you’re a reader or a writer, I hope you have enjoyed this post.
Here a bit more information about Wendy:
Wendy Janes lives in London with her husband and youngest son. She is a freelance proofreader (see her website here ), and a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service.
Wendy has contributed a number of short stories to anthologies, and her first solo novel, What Jennifer Knows, was published in 2015. A selection of short stories entitled What Tim Knows, and other stories will be available in the summer of 2016.
Her writing is inspired by family, friends, and everyday events that only require a little twist to become entertaining fiction.
I could not resist and had to share a bit more information about Wendy’s book (and I hope to share the next one too). It’s Friday after all!
What Jennifer Knows by Wendy Janes
A vital member of her Surrey community, Jennifer Jacobs is dedicated to her job as a dance therapist, helping children with special needs to express themselves through movement. Wife of a successful though reclusive sculptor, Gerald, she is known for having a deep sense of empathy, making her a trusted confidante. So when two very different friends, Freya and Abi, both share information with her that at first seems to be an awkward coincidence, she doesn’t tell them. But as the weeks roll by, the link revealed between the two women begins to escalate into a full-blown moral dilemma – and also brings to the surface a painful memory Jennifer believed she had long since forgotten. What is the right thing to do? Should she speak out or is the truth better left unsaid?
Thanks so much to Wendy Janes for her very informative post, and for her help with my own book, thanks to all for reading, and please, like, share, comment and CLICK!