What’s wrong with these sentences?
1. The Ireland rugby team are playing today, so my husband will be glued to the TV.
2. If I hadn’t got up so late, I would’ve got the bus.
3. I’m going to work at the weekend.
1. It uses a cliche.
2. It’s repetitive.
3. Working weekends is just plain wrong.
Not what you were expecting? Then you probably speak American English.
All of these sentences are correct and sound natural in British English. There are lots of differences in how our language is spoken and written on opposite sides of the pond that are more subtle than sticking in an extra ‘u’ in words like ‘favorite’ or using strange expressions.
I’ve written before about things to consider when writing a character with an accent different from yours. Since I gave you the above examples, I’ll explain the differences they represent between British and American English before I talk about how they affect my (and possibly your) writing.
1. Collective nouns
In the U.K. there are lots of nouns that sound singular (team, committee, staff, family, etc) but because they’re made up of several people they take a plural verb. Brits are more likely to say, “My team are playing this weekend” or “The committee weren’t able to agree” or “Our staff travel around the world” because these things are a collective, not a singular entity. The same goes for company and team names (“Manchester United are playing tonight.”)
To Americans, these sentences look plain wrong because the nouns themselves are singular.
2. Got vs gotten
From a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary, it seems that ‘gotten’ disappeared from British English sometime in the mid- or late-18th century. I’ve never heard a Brit use it (except in some phrases, like ‘ill-gotten gains’), but you’ll find it in older texts.
In American English, ‘gotten’ is used as the past participle of ‘get’, and is often used to distinguish the process of getting something (“I’ve gotten head lice more times than I like to admit”) from having something now (“I’ve got head lice”). It’s also used as a past participle for phrasal verbs with ‘get’ (e.g. get on, get off, get to).
In today’s British English, you’d use ‘got’ as the past participle in every context.
3. Pesky prepositions
When I taught English as a foreign language, prepositions were the bane of my students’ existence. The way we use prepositions sometimes makes sense, but my students often had to memorize prepositional phrases because there was no rational explanation for why one preposition was used instead of another.
To make matters worse for my poor students, Brits and Americans don’t always agree on how to use prepositions. The British phrase ‘at the weekend’ (‘on the weekend’ in American) is one example of this disagreement.
How this affects my writing
My current story features an English heroine and an American hero who’s lived in London off and on for ten years. My hero is familiar enough with British English that he understands the heroine’s different way of expressing herself.
The problem is that the American audience I intend to market this book to won’t understand some of the things my heroine thinks, or the way she thinks them. Her grammar may look wrong, and the vocabulary she uses may force them to look at the context and make an educated guess about what she means.
As far as I can see, those of us who write British characters for an American audience have a few choices. (Sorry for all the lists today.)
1. Avoid using sentences and expressions that are exclusively British.
Not only is this limiting, but it would be impossible for me since my heroine is a press officer representing a charity called IDEA (so there are sentences where she’d say something along the lines of “IDEA are doing x, y, z” – and she’d pronounce ‘z’ as ‘zed’).
2. Americanize her.
(Or, if you want the British spelling, ‘Americanise’ her).
This is a pretty crappy option, and one that risks me looking like I haven’t done my homework. Not a look I wear well. It’s also condescending to think American readers can’t understand that other cultures speak English differently.
3. Have my hero interpret for American readers.
This works in some cases but starts to sound unnatural after a while, especially since my hero will usually understand her perfectly well.
It also clearly doesn’t work when we’re in the heroine’s point of view and she doesn’t voice her thoughts out loud.
4. Let my heroine be naturally English and hope for the best.
On this note, I’m curious about how you react when you read a strange-sounding sentence spoken by a foreign (to you) character. Do you assume the author made a mistake? Does it motivate you to look up a colloquial expression online? Does it throw you out of the story, or make the story more intriguing and realistic for you?