UK or US English – Which Should You Write In?
by Tom Ashford
Two countries with a shared history and a common language that is ninety-nine percent identical between regions. Yet sometimes that one percent seems to divide us even more than the War of Independence. Is it colour, or color? Unionise or unionize? Aluminium or aluminum? (That last one does actually have an answer, but one side isn’t going to like it much.)
Of course, it doesn’t really matter. Language is primarily a form of communication, so as long as the person to whom you’re communicating understands what you mean it’s been used successfully. There’s no “right” or “wrong”, only two slightly different approaches.
But it does raise an important question when it comes to writing a novel that’s going to be published all around the English (and non-English) speaking world. Which variant of the language should you be writing in?
Here are some things to keep in mind.
It seems to be generally accepted in the writing community that one side of the pond tends to be better at accepting the other’s language nuances than, well, the other.
Readers in the UK (and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, for example) are used to reading both British and American English. Whilst we’re keenly aware of what we see as the “proper” way of spelling things, we hardly balk at the idea of writing “neighbour” without a “u”. We adopt a stiff upper lip, if we even notice it.
It doesn’t always appear to be the case in the United States, however. Although the vast majority of Americans are just as fine with British English as we are with theirs, there are still a few who think “enrolment” or “monetise” are spelling mistakes, forgetting that English may have once originated from a little old place called England (I can say this – my wife is from Texas).
And we shouldn’t care that a very select few aren’t as worldly with their knowledge of language… except they tend to be the ones that then leave comments on Facebook ads or leave reviews on Amazon complaining about the multiple “spelling mistakes”. And whilst we also shouldn’t care if they make fools of themselves, the rest of our English-speaking audience have no way of telling if those mistakes are real or not unless they’ve already read our book themselves.
Some authors take to adding a disclaimer in the front of their books (or even on their Facebook ads) to let people know. It doesn’t appear to affect sales.
It’s hardly surprising that the US ebook market is bigger than that of the UK – with a population of 320,000,000 compared to 66,000,000, it should be!
As such, it might not be a bad idea to adopt a US style guide in order to “appease” the US market and more easily appeal to a much wider audience (this is presuming that you’re not already a native US writer).
While it could be seen as a little false to write under a style that isn’t actually your own, it would hardly be the first time an author has adopted a dialect for a story. And plenty of English-language books have been written by authors for whom English wasn’t even their first language. If it helps sell more copies, that’s a good enough reason for choosing to do it.
Americanise, Not Americanize
As I wrote earlier, I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to approach this dilhemma. There’s nothing inherently better in UK or US English than the other, each has a multitude of different sub-dialects and phrases, and there’s nothing wrong with a writer from one region using the spelling or language from the other whether for artistic or commercial purposes.
Case in point: Stephen King from the US uses the UK’s traditional system of showing speech (a single ‘) and Terry Pratchett, a UK author, used the US’ (“). I doubt anyone even notices, let alone cares.
But for those who care: here’s my view on it.
I’m a British writer, and therefore I think I should write in British English. Not because I think it’s better – because it’s what comes naturally to me. To suddenly spell “colour” without a “u” when I don’t spell it that way would seem artificial. I suppose it doesn’t make any difference to the story or the readers, but I wouldn’t feel as if I were writing authentically. It wouldn’t feel like me.
But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t Americanise my language if I were setting a story in the United States. I just wouldn’t Americanize it.
This is what I mean by that: if my American character was walking along the pavement and waved at his neighbour, I wouldn’t suddenly write neighbour as neighbor just because he’s in the United States. My language – and therefore the language of my narrator – is British English. My character’s nationality and geolocation doesn’t change that (unless, potentially, I’m writing in the first person and really want to make it feel authentic to the character).
However, I would write pavement as sidewalk. I would write lift as elevator, and mobile phone as cell phone. I wouldn’t want to break the reader’s immersion, which would certainly happen for anyone expecting an authentic American setting if I used British terms. But this isn’t so much a difference in language as it is in my choice of words. I wouldn’t have my American character say, “Hello, old chap!” either.
Doing so safeguards you against any change in location for future books, too. Imagine if readers enjoy your book set in the US (full of American spelling) and then move on to a different series you’ve written set in the UK. Suddenly their new favourite author is using not just different terminology, not just a different dialect, but a whole different set of spellings. Sure, you could argue that it makes each book even more authentic to its location… but you could also argue that it creates a sense of inconsistency within the style of writing your readers should be growing to love and expect.
But to reiterate: there’s no right and wrong approach. If there were, what would a dual-national do in this situation? I think the best attitude is just to decide on what seems right for you and then stick with it. Somebody will probably complain either way.
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