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Writing: Which Version Of The English Language Do You Use?

Writing: Which Version of the English Language Do You Use?

An important decision for any writer aiming at the global market for English-language books is which version of English to choose. British author Debbie Young recently adjudicated a spirited discussion on this subject on ALLi’s private Facebook group, and here she shares its key points.

Debbie Young making a speech at her international school in Germany

Debbie Young forcing British English on an international audience at her high school graduation in Germany

One of the many advantages of self-publishing is that you are not bound by the house style rules of a traditional publisher. So here’s the big question: if you’re writing in English, should you edit your prose to suit the largest potential market, or stick with your native dialect?

I’m an English writer who spent some of her formative years living in the USA and in Germany, where I attended an American-style international school. I now live close to the Welsh border and I’m married to a Scot. These experiences have equipped me with sufficient grasp of various English dialects to translate in an emergency: American “rutabaga” = English “swede” = Scottish “neeps”, for example.

But when I’m writing, I adhere strictly to British English. When my American high school English teacher remarked that my writing was “too English”, I retorted “There’s no such thing!”

My self-esteem recovered sufficiently for me to take as a compliment a review describing Quick Change, my new flash fiction collection, as “very English”. (It probably helped that the sentence included the words “very subtle” and “very clever”.) I make no concessions for non-British readers in my books, though I translate the odd word in my personal blog, where such asides don’t interrupt the flow as much as they would in a piece of fiction.

I was therefore especially interested to read the responses to Michael N Marcus‘s assertion on the ALLi Facebook forum that “Americans and Brits can get confused writing for Canadians, unless they write in French”.

English, American or Canadian?

Image of US & British flags

“Britain and America – two nations divided by a common language” (attributed to George Bernard Shaw)

“The dual influence of British and American spelling on Canadian English can make life difficult for Canadian authors, and for American and British authors writing for Canadian readers,” said Michael.

“Whichever version you use, it’s important to be consistent so that you don’t look silly and confuse your readers. One solution is to set up your own style manual (just a list, really), and stick to it. Don’t mix “neighbour” with “labor,” for example. Choose one pattern or the other and don’t  mix them.

“Or you can just keep writing in American and not worry about the other countries that speak sort-of the same language. I don’t freak out when I encounter British spelling. “Programme” is not as disconcerting as having to convert pounds and shillings. Thanks to my membership of ALLi, I recently learned chuffed.”

(Well, I was chuffed about that – it’s a word I use a lot, meaning “delighted”. I’m a cheerful soul.)

Advice from Canadian Authors

Canadian author Sarah Ettrich, based in Toronto, Ontario, pointed out that you can set Word to use Canadian English (or British, or American), and provided a screenshot to prove it. She also uses a Canadian editor who is well-versed in Canadian English.

Word taskbar set to Canadian English

Sarah Ettritch’s Canadian English Word taskbar

“It’s not really that difficult to get it right,” she advised. “But I agree that there’s no need to use Canadian English when targeting Canadian readers. We’re used to reading American and British English. I use Canadian English in all my work. Nobody has complained (yet), and I mainly sell in the USA.”

Catriona Troth shared her perspective a Scottish-born writer, raised in Canada and now living and working in England:

“Having just written a book set in Canada, Gift of the Raven, I’ve had to relearn the Canadian English I grew up with. You’re right about the spelling – it leans towards British but there are plenty of exceptions. But you can’t assume the vocabulary is the same as American either. (bum not butt, washroom not bathroom, how’re you? not how you doing?) There is a dictionary – the standard one is Gage, but there is a Canadian Oxford Dictionary too.”

The Challenge of French Connections

cover of Let's Parler Franglais againEnglish-language authors are not the only ones who must consider local dialects.

“Don’t even think it would be easier in French!” advised Catriona. “A family friend of ours did his degree in Louvain in Belgium. Being fluent in French, he headed for Quebec, only to find he had to learn a whole new language. (Un gars ben ordinaire, anyone?)”

And then of course there’s always Franglais – but that’s a whole different story…

Our suggested tweet to share this post on Twitter:

“#Authors – which version of #English should you be writing in? https://selfpublishingadvice.org/writing-english-language/ by @DebbieYoungBN for @IndieAuthorALLi”

About the ALLi Facebook Forum

This post was triggered by a characteristically lively and constructive discussion on ALLi’s closed Facebook group. Access to this invaluable group is one of many benefits of ALLi membership. To find out more about ALLi membership, visit our website: www.allianceindependentauthors.org

This Post Has 51 Comments
  1. I have just completed a small book with the intention of selling it as an ebook. Being my first effort I have had to learn the hard way, by trial and error. The first couple of times became false starts but I finally settled into it and it has gone well since.

    I am now right on the cusp of publication and would you believe, this very question popped into my head a couple of days ago, leaving me in a bit of a quandary. It wouldn’t take too much work to convert my British English text to American English text. However, it would be impossible for a poor author to accommodate every alternative of the English Language.

    No, the only thing for it is to write succinctly, pay attention to the correct usage and spelling of words for the version of English you have chosen to use. In short, get on with informing readers with some good writing. Readers all over the world are intelligent enough to know what’s going on. Should one two grammar-police officials give you a hard time with the differences in our glorious language you can be sure that they need to get a life!

    I will just have to take a chance and put my trust an intelligent American market. I will be publishing in the British English I grew up with. I just hope that will be the right decision.

  2. As a postscript, my Canadian friend Debra Esau Maione, whose husband Dennis Maione has just self-published his first book “What I Learned from Cancer”, has just alerted me to this entertaining take on the environmental impact of using various versions of English (and different typefaces too). Definitely worth a read!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/03/true-cost-comic-sans-infographic_n_5737590.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000063

    You’ll find Dennis’s book here, by the way, if you’re interested: http://prompterstolife.com/shoppers. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a book that the first review has called “The book every oncologist should read.”

  3. If it is English it is ENGLISH, not American English, Canadian or any other version. The original is English and the original is best!!!

  4. Thanks for such an interesting and informative article. I love it. I’ve been in aviation for many years and got exposed to Australian, Canadian, British, and American English. Growing up in Germany with an English aunt, I was exposed to British English as a kid already. That changed dramatically when I entered aviation many years later.

    Civil Aviation was – and still is – dominated by American English. Simply because the American aircraft manufacturers ruled the market until Airbus showed up and took some part of the pie. Yet this is a hybrid airplane, with parts and system suppliers from Europe and the U.S. Not to mention different expressions in English. Despite of standardization, a landing gear (Am.En.) is called an undercarriage in British English. Apart from the language, measuring is another issue as well. That again led to a situation where you always had to deal with metric system and fractions. Not only on the same aircraft but even within one single part on that aircraft (e.g. fuselage). However, that’s a totally different story, maybe worth another discussion. Both systems live side by side in the US as well.

    What I was going to say is, that American English was the one that dominated later on in my life. I spent a full decade living and working in America, not only teaching Avionics in a classroom full of technicians but also writing their training manuals.

    My wife is an American, and we live currently in Malta, Europe. Yet, American English is rooted so deeply in my brain, that I think, write and copy edit automatically in American English. Besides, the majority of readers is still in the US, with [still] the largest book market.

    It’s not just that American English – and its lingo – is the one I really live and breath, I think that the line between all those variations get more and more blurred in favor of the American one. This is mostly the result of US movies, shown on TV in almost any country you live in. People get more and more used to the American way, which in return suits me perfectly. 🙂

    – Hans

  5. I love that you wrote this article! I struggled a lot with this when I started writing. I figured Canadian English, which I know best, was too niche. I considered writing in British English, but I don’t know all the proper words and spellings, so I knew I’d mess things up. But I also had an aversion to writing in American English, which I know I could do, because as someone who grew up in Canada, a Commonwealth country with a British monarch, it just didn’t seem right.

    In the end I chose what I know best, Canadian English, and I don’t care if anyone has a problem because it’s what I like.

  6. I’m a Canadian author and I prefer to use Canadian/British spelling. I’ve recieved some flak over my spelling, that I must love the letter u or that my novels have spelling mistakes, but I brush it off. I love my language heritage, and I won’t change to please any market, American or otherwise. Most people understand the difference and really don’t care.

  7. Late to the party again, so nothing new there.

    I wrote my current book using British English – but unlike John I use double quotes for speech marks because, for some reason, it’s what I’ve always done, even 40 years ago!

    However, I have a project planned which is a thriller set in the US and for that I will use American English.

    My take is it depends on the market you are aiming for. I know a lady who has published for several years now and had comments about her books where American readers complained about all the grammar and spelling errors in them, when all she had done was use British English. One particular bone of contention was between round and around, which are used differently on either side of the pond.

    As someone else said, though, the difference in spelling is the least of your problems. It’s often the deep cultural differences that are difficult to grasp.

  8. Which version of English do we favour (or favor)? It’s a big question for bloggers as well as novelists. Visitors to my writing blog at Writers’ Village – located in England – come from all over the world. Once, I pandered to US tastes and tried to use US spellings (‘neighbor’) plus US idioms. It didn’t work because I got it wrong. Now I stick to standard UK English and, at times, shamelessly drop in UK idioms (‘tatty by-byes, chuck’). Visitors find it quaint – and come back for more!

    1. I can see how that could happen, John. It’s the same reason I tend to standardise on UK spelling and grammar in this ALLi blog, because it’s what I know and can be confident about. I’m conscious that sometimes the guest writers might find it a little high-handed, but I have to stick with what I know, for the sake of consistency at least!

  9. Great article Debbie, thanks 🙂

    Now this is a debate I had with my editors from the first book of my series and we all come to the same conclusion. Because my stories mostly take place in the US, with American characters, I stick to US English for spelling and vocabulary. I use single quotation marks for speech though. I have an American editor and a British editor. Similarly for proof reading.

    It can be a challenge though!

  10. I write in UK English and most of my sales and fans are from the US. The writing should be true to the characters.. After that, using the version of English you are most comfortable with will give confidence to the reader. That’s what I believe.

    1. I’m with you on that thought, Eliza. And if you don’t write what you’re comfortable with, and what comes naturally to you, your story can quickly become stilted, a little like putting a piece of text through Google Translate. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but it certainly won’t have the same natural flow.

  11. Interesting discussion. I firmly believe that an author should write in whatever ‘language’ is more comfortable and natural – but the decision also depends on the type of novel being written. Alison Morton, above, for example: her heroine is American, the dialogue Alison uses would be out of place were she to use UK English. Likewise, I remember having a discussion with a friend about using the term “I’ll kick your ass”. The character speaking was English, but had been working in the US for a few months. I maintained that as this was a heated exchange she would use her native tongue and say “I’ll kick your arse” – we don’t use the term “ass” over here (well we do – but to us it means a donkey or a mule, not someone’s backside!)
    And perhaps that answers this whole question – use terms that are fitting for your characters, period and genre.

    And note that it is not just spelling that is different, the way we use words and tense is often markedly off-centre. UK English will use “dived into the pool” US English “dove into the pool”. And there is a remarkable difference between US and UK use of punctuation as well – especially commas! I’ve given up worrying about Amazon comments from US readers who complain that I don’t know where to put a comma. Maybe I personally do struggle with this – but my highly experienced very professional UK editor does not. Americans use commas differently to us here in the UK. End of debate.

    My personal problem (irritation?) is the use of Americanisms in historical fiction. UK uses the word ‘nappy’ not ‘diaper’ (although technically, even nappy would not have been used in many periods) Sidewalk v pavement is another I come across often, and drapes v curtains – but there are many of them. Does it matter? Perhaps not – providing the author is consistent. Finding ‘Anne dove her hands into the water and found that the diaper was now coloured pink from the die from the red drapes” is just nonsense for a novel set in Tudor England (OK I know the entire sentence concept is nonsense, but this was the first example I made up!)

    I am now wondering why on earth would Anne be washing/laundering diapers/nappies along with red drapes/curtains…. 🙂

    1. I think writing historical fiction brings even more issues to consider, Helen. I know of at least one person who is also a respected writer of historical novels who has been put off reading a book in which the characters’ conversation included a word that wasn’t coined until a hundred years or so after the story took place. While I would be deterred by anachronisms, e.g. Henry VIII taking a phone call, I can’t say it would bother me if he was seen to use a word that was invented only after his death. I personally don’t have a detailed knowledge of when most words came into common use, so such hiccups would pass me by. Yet another reason that I don’t think I’d ever have the confidence to try writing historical fiction!

    2. Hi Helen,

      I totally agree with you in respect to grammar and punctuation. It’s a hard mountain to climb. I use UK English because I’m from the UK. But I was fortunate enough to find an American editor who was both willing and capable of editing my book without changing it. Now if I could only find English critique partners…

  12. Debbie – thank you! My ‘linguistic insurance’ is that she had a British English speaking father.

    Veronica – ah, the spelling thing. I took the decision that as I am a British English speaking writer and the book is produced in the UK, I’d keep to the British system. It also adds another layer of difference if readers are into that sort of thing. 😉

  13. This is a thought-provoking post, and everyone brings up a very good point about when to use what type of English. I’m an author of Highland historical romance novels, so have always been able to use the UK English with which I grew up in Canada. I had never thought of what I would do if I were to write a story based in the US. The dialect, of course, would change, as it would if I were writing a story based in South Africa, or Australia. But what about the spelling? I’ve always been staunchly UK English because it’s a reflection of my Canadian heritage. But if I were to write a story set in the States, what spelling would I use?

    Hmmm … you’ve all given me a good deal to think about. And I love it! : )

    1. Yes, that is a puzzling one, Veronica – I have to say I’d stick to my English spelling, but concentrate on creating localised dialogue, unless I had an American first-person narrator. Now there’s a thought…

  14. Alison, with your background as a linguist and translator, you of all people understand how important it is to get the details of the language right, and I must admit I have admired the ease with which you give your heroine exactly the right vocabulary and phrasing in your excellent Roma Nova series – particularly challenging considering her Atlantic-hopping background!

  15. Well, I was ambitious, but after a life of translating and dealing with clients across the US, I was reasonably aware of the regional variations in the New World. Fiddling with vocabulary, grammar, syntax, structure and linguistic shifts is how translators have fun. Sad, I know!

    The heroine in my books was born in New Hampshire with a British father and a Latin-speaking, Roma Novan mother. When her parents died, she was fostered by cousins in Nebraska, then at 18 moved to New York.

    The key to writing in another idiom is keeping your style simple and clear, and using standard vocabulary and sentence construction.

    Of course, vocabulary must be right and I used a style sheet as for any translation work: purse for handbag, subway for tube, regular for normal, etc. There are basic structures to check such as ‘Do you have?’ instead of ‘Have you got? To get my protagonist’s mixed voice right, I spent hours listening, transcribing and analysing TV and NPR programmes. I have notes about notes.

    So, applying all my linguistic knowledge, I wrote my book. I then double checked the narration and the heroine’s dialogue. The other characters speak British English, TG. (Don’t all Romans? 😉 )

    I then sought out two US exchange students at the University of Kent who would be willing to help; one came from Indiana, the other from New York with a father in the NYPD. Perfect mirrors for my heroine’s linguistic influences. They went through every line of my manuscript with me. I’m crossing my fingers, but I haven’t had any complaints. Yet.

    But it ain’t easy…

  16. I tried doing a trilogy in US English but only on spelling. It was a mistake and I withdrew it and re-edited back to UK English.
    One reason was touched on here. I could not use US idiom with conviction and confidence and nor could my editor.
    However the main reason was much simpler and is therefore much overlooked in discussions such as this:
    We are mostly storytellers – I certainly am. When I sat down to tell a story in a pup, an old Irish tradition, the audience, my listeners, my readers, were participants in a well known form of drama.
    A drama in which the participants know how the game is played. So they play. They willingly follow were the story takes them, and if a few words are new to them – no problem. If the story is well told, they will travel with me and be involved. The drama will envelope them.
    UK, US, Canadian, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, South Africa, India or anywhere else where English is a spoken they know how to play this drama game.
    They will mostly not notice the difference if the sameness is strong. That sameness is the art of the story teller.
    That is what is important not the name, the label or the variety the tool we use.
    Our art and craft is about making labels redundant.

  17. Hllo Debbie:

    Thanks for an interesting discussion. I write in American English as most of my novels’ scenes take place in the United States. However, there are so many dialectical differences from sea to sea, it is sometimes difficult to understand what natives of certain area are saying… in English. Texanese: An expression of doubt – “W’al, you can sometimes never always tell.” is authentic. Characters should speak in their natural local manner of expression whatever the location of the story. I have varied language dictionaries in my bookcases, and at my click on my computer. I also build my own dictionary.

    Best of success…

    Warren.

    1. I love that piece of Texanese, Warren! All too easy for someone who’s not a native to miss such gems, or to get them wrong, which breaks the spell for our readers.

    2. Warren, As a native Texan, I have never heard “w’al” used in speech. Now Y’all for you all is commonly said. Googled it as well and still can’t figure out what the sentence meant.

      Respectfully,

      Laura

  18. Enjoyed the Facebook discussion, and the article! Not a linguist, so write ‘what I know’ – British English – and SO hope nobody will ever, ever, call my writing ‘quaint’, ‘cos it ain’t aimed to be.

    Please, please, if it ever is, tell me?

    1. “Quaint” is definitely not something I aim to be, either, Clare – and I’ll let you know if in the very unlikely event that I spot your writing heading in that direction!

  19. US spellings are not a problem, thanks to spellcheck. The real difficulty in trying to write US English is word choice and phrasing. In my opinion those of us on the eastern side of the Atlantic shouldn’t try to reproduce US English. All we could expect would be to sound ridiculous by mixing idiom from different parts of America or different ethnic backgrounds or different generations. I’m Irish, and I find it difficult enough to write convincing UK English because of regional variations. JJ

    1. You’re right, JJ, getting the spelling right is only a tiny part of the challenge, and the easiest – and I agree, on this side of the pond many people are no more aware of the diversity of US English across the whole 50 states, than the average US citizen appreciates the differences between Geordie and Liverpudlian, for example.

    2. JJ Toner: >>… US spellings are not a problem, thanks to spellcheck. The real difficulty in trying to write US English is word choice and phrasing.<<

      I agree with the second sentence of your statement (see above). Yet, I have to disagree with you saying that US spelling isn't a problem because of a spell check feature. Every spell check feature is unreliable. It works only in combination with the user's knowledge to decide when to accept or to dismiss its recommendation. Word is famous for that. 🙂

      Grammar isn't even the same in some cases. Let's just take the verb 'diving' (infinitive = to dive). If you use it in the past tense, then it will be [in Br. English] "he dived to the bottom of the lake", while the inflected 'dived' turns into 'dove' in Am. English.

      In my opinion, a spell check is good as a 'first pass' run to catch those typos you did inadvertently during writing, but that's it. Beyond this you need to use additional third party software that specializes in either grammar, spelling or both.

  20. Interesting article.

    Chuffed is my favourite word but that’s ‘cos I am a tad British. I write in UK English, and have been told by US friends that they love the ‘quaintness’ of my English, and that they learn new terms to bandy about.

    I am not sure I could teach my brain to write in any other form of the English language, it has enough problems with its own version!

    1. Haha, glad you’re also often chuffed, Glynis! British English is such a rich mongrel of a language, don’t you think? I am very glad that it’s my native tongue, as by using it we also use parts of so many other languages.

      1. When I lived in Cyprus, the Cypriots insisted on speaking English. When asked why, they said it was the one language the world understood. Just as well, my Greek was very limited in the first few months, then I noted similarities in both languages, and it became easier to learn.

        1. I took some Greek evening classes a long time ago and found it fascinating to discover how many words our languages shared. Once on holiday in Greece I had an allergic reaction to something when I was in a tiny remote village and lay awake half the night worrying how I would convey my problem if I became hospitalised, unable to breathe. A few days later, back in Athens with throat restored to normal, I confided my fears to a multilingual Greek friend (Greek, English, French, German). “I had no idea what Greek was for tracheotomy,” I told him, and he gave me an old-fashioned look. “Why, of course it is ‘tracheotomy’,” he replied.

  21. For me the question is, which language to write in? My mother tongue is Finnish and because I lived in Sweden in my teens, I also speak Swedish, but my three novels are written in English – in British English. I don’t think I could even entertain trying to change to any other English if I wanted to…!

    (I wrote a piece about why I write in English for the latest issue of Scamagazine – link here http://issuu.com/scanmagazine/docs/scanmagazine_65_june_2014)

    A great article!

    1. Having read one of your books, Helena, I know how well your English flows. And of course writing in English will gain you a much bigger potential audience than Finnish and Swedish – though I was interested to learn recently via Edward Hancox’s interesting travelogue “Iceland Defrosted”, that Icelanders are the most published nation in the world on a per capita basis, with one in ten of the population publishing a book. I assume and hope they are all avid readers too!

    2. I think the best course of action is to teach the Americans to write, spell, and speak correctly. Problem solved. We English could help them with pleasure.

  22. Thanks for your article, Debbie. It was really interesting. I grew up in Australia but live in Norway now. I’ve written my first book in Australian English. Anything else would be unnatural for me:)

    1. I do think it’s best to write what comes naturally and feels right, Gabrielle – so hard to be as convincing in any other guise, unless you are a highly-trained secret agent!

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Debbie Young

Debbie Young writes warm, funny feel-good fiction, including the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which begins with the bestselling "Best Murder in Show". As ALLi's Author Advice Center Manager, she also writes guidebooks for authors. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, she is a frequent speaker at other literary events. Find out more about Debbie's writing life on her author website www.authordebbieyoung.com.

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