Guest author post

#Guestpost “Two countries separated by the same language” by Wendy Janes (@wendyproof). You say potato and I say…

Hi all:

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.

Wendy Janes author and proofreader extraordinaire
Wendy Janes author and proofreader extraordinaire

“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:


  1. 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”.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. US English usually uses the Oxford or serial comma, while UK English does not, unless it’s needed for meaning.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


You can connect with Wendy online via Twitter, and discover more about her writing on her Facebook author page, and Amazon author pages (UK/US).

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
What Jennifer Knows by Wendy Janes

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!

By OlgaNunez

I was born in Barcelona and after living in the UK for many years have now returned home. I teach English, volunteer at Sants 3 Ràdio, a local radio station, I'm a writer, translator (English-Spanish and vice-versa) and I'm a medical doctor and worked in Forensic Psychiatry many years. I also have a BA and a PhD in American Literature and Film, and a Masters in Criminology. I've always loved books and apart from writing them I review them often.
I write a bit of everything, check my books for more information and my about page for links.
My blog is bilingual, English and Spanish.

52 replies on “#Guestpost “Two countries separated by the same language” by Wendy Janes (@wendyproof). You say potato and I say…”

Thank you, Wendy, and Olga. I’d considered the spelling differences before, but the punctuation differences were new to me, and I learned a thing or two about word choice. Interesting!

Thanks, Jo-Anne. I must say between the different versions of English and my translations to and from Spanish I find it very difficult to keep all the differences straight in my head. That’s why it’s great to have sharp-eyed and really queued up professionals like Wendy to keep us on the straight and narrow. Have a great weekend!

I’m an ex-teacher, so I’m especially pleased to hear that you’ve learned something from the post!

Wow, fantastic post from Wendy. Lots to think about here. I’d never realized how many different people interpret terms differently. I’m Canadian, and I remembered speaking with my editor when I wrote my first book, asking which language to write in. She suggested I use American English because of the majority of North American readers. 🙂

Wendy is a star for sure. I normally use UK English, although I read so many books from everywhere (and studied American Literature) that I suspect it’s more hodge-podge than either. Well, if people have ever watched Fawlty Towers will know my ‘I know nothing. I’m from Barcelona’ line…

I was a bit puzzled when I got to the UK first as they kept laughing about that, but although I’d watched it back in Catalonia, there Manuel was from Mexico, not Barcelona. But I must say it’s a winning line…

I’m Canadian. I was sure I knew the differences much better The punctuation threw me. I’m with Debby. Easier to use US English it appears.

It seems so indeed, although I’m with Wendy that the main thing is to try and be consistent. I do remember a comment about Mummy being thought of as the monster in the US so now I’m careful with that. I think eventually we’ll end up creating a new language. And if text-speak is anything to go by… Thanks, Tess.

Yes, punctuation of quotations is so much easier with US English. I used to proofread a lot of non-fiction that was full of quoted material, and I’d breathe a sigh of relief when the publisher confirmed a book was in US English.

A while a go I was asked to review a book written by a Canadian all about the missing days in Agatha Christie’s life, when I said his American uses of words in this very English setting, and his choices of some of the content he’d used to try to make it authentic just didn’t sit well with me, he was very adamant that it was all ok because he’s checked the Oxford English Dictionary (I presume current version, not one from Christie’s time period) and his English mother-in-law. But he had purse, sidewalk, creek, all our roads as cobblestones, butterflies in January, crazy European cars and numerous other ill-fitting parts.

Bless! I remember reading a book by a Spanish friend of mine where his characters, police detectives, arrived to the UK and rented a car at the airport. A Bentley. I did tell him it made no sense, but he didn’t seem too concerned about it. I did see an Infographic showing visually different spellings and uses of words in the US, and of course the same is true in the UK (I remember how confused I got when I was doing locums all over the UK and I never even knew what the different types of breads were called in different places, breadcakes, cobs… And little children up North are bairns…)

That’s really interesting, Rosie. It’s not only the language but things like seasons and culture that are so important to get right to ensure a book sounds authentic.

Olga, you’ve also reminded me how important knowledge of culture is when writing. I’ve always been interested in how different countries eat different breads. I think it began when I stayed with a French family on a school exchange and I was astonished that their baguettes were so different to the sliced loaf I was used to.

I love this post! As an expat, I adore adding up the differences between UK and US English. As a book reader/reviewer, I do get annoyed though about the number of times writers get this wrong. Just recently I was trying to wade through a novel supposedly set in the USA, but with characters who carried handbags instead of purses, wore jumpers (which only 5-year-old girls wear in the US), did a course at University instead of going to college, and followed dinner with pudding instead of dessert. I gave up and suggested the author get a competent editor.

Thanks, Barb. I guess an advantage of sci-fi or setting stories in fictional countries or places is that one can make it up and such inconsistencies will not be noticed. But if the setting is very important it can be a pain. I guess if the story is engaging enough one might bypass such things but you’re right about the role of editors.

Thanks, Barb. So pleased you enjoyed this post. As an ex-pat I think you’re in a privileged position! Yes, as you and Olga suggest, a good editor can really help to get this (and so many other things) right.

Great post. I’m fascinated by the differences in the languages. Didn’t know the punctuation rules when using quote marks were different.

Thanks, Mary. It’s a fascinating subject and a minefield. Thankfully we have Wendy to guide us. Have a great weekend!

Thank you, Mary. I’m so pleased to hear you share my fascination. Yes, although punctuation of speech is the same, punctuation of quotations is different.

Olga, you’re right it can be a minefield! I’ve only recently found out that the word “table” used as a verb means to “bring forward for discussion” in UK English, and to “remove from consideration” in US. A potential cause for confusion if misunderstood at a business meeting!

Hi Olga. I’m pleased to know your mother is doing better. Nice to meet Wendy. Hugs.

Thanks so much, Teagan. She’s better, thanks. Yes, Wendy is fabulous.

Hi, Teagan.

So pleased that your mother is feeling better, Olga.

Thanks for saying I’m fabulous! 🙂

Thanks, Pete. You should see what they do to Spanish…

Scary, scary, and the numbers are much higher on the other side…:)

This topic causes me endless fascination and headaches. As a UK-born author who’s lived in the USA for 12 years, I write fiction populated by both British and American characters, set in an English village… but with the USA and Canada as my primary target market. I’m also an indie author, so I dread being accused of “typos” when the word, grammar and punctuation choices are deliberate and carefully checked. And yes, I often have to sneak in a bit of context when talking about biscuits, or flapjack. Or pants! And the parts of a car are a total nightmare. Even more subtle are word choices like “come see me tomorrow” (American) versus “come and see me tomorrow” (UK). As I recall, Fifty Shades of Grey was particularly famous for getting most of this stuff wrong.
Wendy, I often think if the USA and UK were ever at war, I could get a job spotting the spies for the other side who don’t get it quite right! And it amuses me no end, when reading a book by a famous author like Marian Keyes, to spot the words I’m convinced they changed for the US market. Unless people in Dublin really do leave their cars in parking lots, which I highly doubt.

Pauline, great comment! I’ve seen people who include a disclaimer about such things at the beginning of their book but I guess it’s impossible to do it correctly to everybody’s taste. And big publishers have much bigger pockets and can afford different versions but…

Loved reading your comment, Pauline. I have to admit to a childish giggle whenever I hear about men wearing pants to the office. Even better when they’re wearing vest and pants. Gosh, yes, you have the perfect experience to spot those spies.

Great post. I blogged about this as well recently because I love the subject. I grew up in Germany, was tought UK English, moved to Australia a few years back and was surprised by the many differences, not only in regard to spelling. As a writer having an US editor can be a challenge, but in a positive way. …. I won’t even mention how often I had to ask people to explain what they were talking about when we went to Nz.☺

Thanks for your comment, Iris. You’ve made my head spin. I think however much we want to cater to all readers, there are very small differences and niggles that very few people would catch and eventually it has to be acknowledged that all books come from somewhere and are written by somebody and that person can’t be omniscient and be from everywhere. We have to try but there is no perfect book (at least I haven’t come across it, although I’ve read some pretty good ones!).

Agree … bottom line, as much as we should have a “clean” book when it comes grammar and spelling, in the end it’s the story that counts.

Fascinating! I was aware of the spellings, parentheses, and some of the word meanings, but a lot of the rest, not! What a headache for an editor/proofreader! My editor lives in England, and bless her for knowing all this!

Thanks, Noelle! My mind boggles. I’m happy to do translations but I need to make sure a good proofreader checks the result because the differences with the rules in Spanish are also huge.

Thanks so much, Vashti. It’s been a very worrying time but things are looking up. After so many years living in the UK I’m more familiar with everyday use of UK English, although I studied American Literature and I read many books written in US English… 😉

[…] Here I leave you a sample in Sound Cloud and You Tube so you can check the fabulous narration of Marlin May. He’s told me he’s also available to adapt books written in UK English to US English (I’m sure you all remember Wendy Janes’s great post about the differences between the two. You can refresh your memory here). […]

As I told previous commenter Pete, my first encounter with the spelling problem was when I was 9 or 10 and my spelling test for that week came back with one of the 20 words marked as incorrect. Well, that was ridiculous, as I never misspelled any words! 😀 Under the influence of my English grandmother and the English literature I had been reading since age 4, I had spelled “honor” as “honour.” The teacher agreed to accept it as correct “just this once” but told me to use American spellings going forward.

I freelance mostly for American outlets (print and web), but for a few years I was writing regularly for a British magazine and so got quite comfortable going back and forth between the two languages; and I cater to both on my food blog.

Hi Jean, I can only imagine the sense of injustice you felt when your correct spellings were marked as incorrect at school! Thanks for sharing.

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