Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

quote-two-nations-divided-by-a-common-language-winston-churchill-78-95-13One of the great advantages of eBook publishing is that even a first time novelist can now access a global market without difficulty. EBooks are just as easy to download in America, Canada and Australia as they are here in Britain. However, this has definite consequences which we writers need to bear in mind. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill have all commented on the confusion that arises in the differences in our use of language on either side of the Atlantic.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, my first few novels were published as print books only. It never occurred to me that they would ever reach a worldwide audience. I was writing for a British audience. Even now, I suppose I still do, but it is something I am very aware of as I edit my first draft. After all, I have more downloads of my books when they are on free promotion in America than in Britain and my American sales are rising steadily.

We Brits tend to be aware of Americanisms because of the vast amount of American films and television programmes that we watch. For that reason we probably have less difficult reading novels by American writers that the other way round. So it follows that we British writers need to ensure that our American readers are not confused by words with which they are not so familiar.

Things are changing. These days, on both sides of the Atlantic, we are aware of common differences in word use such as pavement/side walk; car boot/trunk; car number plate/licence plate; rubbish/trash and so on. Nonetheless, we British writers need to ensure that our use of words and expressions are clear from their context.

PantsTwenty five years ago my husband went on a business trip to San Diego. He was taken aback when he went to pay his hotel bill and was presented with an eye-watering laundry bill for a few shirts and underwear. When he came to examine it, he realised that in filling in the form, he had ticked seven pairs of pants. These days, the pants/trousers confusion probably wouldn’t have occurred.

I suppose I became aware of the problems that can arise relatively early in my writing career. Soon after the publication of my first novel, I went on a river cruise on the Danube. Making the most of the opportunity, I put a copy of my book in the ship’s library. There were several Americans among my fellow passengers. One day, I was approached by a very distraught American saying he was very surprised at my use of swear words in my book. That took me by surprise. I write cosies, that is books with no gratuitous violence or swearing. True my psychological suspense novels are more edgy than the mysteries, but I could think of nothing that he could find so offensive in All in the Mind. He opened the book and pointed to the offending word. He wouldn’t even say it. My character had just come into the house laden with heavy carrier bags of shopping and tripped over a grip left near the door. This sent her careering across the corridor into the wall injuring her elbow. I doubt in real life that she would have said, ‘Oh dear.’ What I had her say was ‘Shit.’ The English passengers around me found the American’s scandalised reaction very funny and began to laugh. One of them tried to explain that in England the word is quite mild as expletives go. I’m not sure he was ever convinced. His objection may have been personal rather than typically American, nonetheless, it has made me very wary about the language I use. What are deemed offensive words by one nation may seem mild to the other. I now have an American beta reader who helps keep me on the straight and narrow.

Some writers may believe that such things do not matter. But my advice is ignore the problem at your peril. A British writer friend of mine received the following one star review  – ‘Full of British slang and confusing terms to us Americans. Not sure how you wind the lead to put a Hoover in a cupboard (what is that?) and “lounge cum kitchen” really sounds unappetizing, unless you’re in a brothel.’ It did not help that this was the first review for his book on

Out of interest, Wikipedia has a Glossary of British terms not widely used in the United States which some British writers might find useful.

acronymsOne of the biggest problems I have as a reader is with acronyms. They are bad enough anyway, but those related specifically to American organisations often leave me confused  In the book by an American writer that I’m currently reading, I’ve had to look up several but though I’ve Googled “ORI” and “ICE”, I am still none the wiser. As far as I can determine from the context, they are both related to official bodies dealing with pharmaceuticals. The problem works both ways. I’m very conscious of them in my own writing. For example, in the novel I’m currently writing, it would sound totally unnatural for my characters to constantly refer to the Irish Republican Army rather that the IRA. One solution is to write the name out in full the first time and use the acronym thereafter. But that is not as easy or natural as it sounds. Will they remember 100 pages later? More often than not, I end up writing the name in full in square brackets after the acronym as in PIRA [Provisional Irish Republican Army] and the CIRA [Continuity Irish Republican Army]. It seems rather clumsy, but I can’t think of a better way of doing it. Does anyone have any suggestions?

And I haven’t even begun to mentioned the differences in spelling! That’s a whole issue on it’s own.

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