“Very British!”

“The French moi is learning some very good English indeed!”

“The British phrases were delightful and the language unlike the usual in American books (using “old thing” as a term of endearment).”

“I read British crime fiction to get a good dose of the settings and Marsh portrays place and culture like a fine painter.”

Image by freestocks.org

Recent comments from reviews and my Beatrice Stubbs Facebook page reflect a theme. One discussion developed as to why American English and British English differs in spelling. Someone suggested it was because you used to pay per letter in US advertisements, and so extraneous letters were cut.

But that’s not actually the reason. At the fundamental level, US and UK Englishes diverge because of one man: Noah Webster.

This is an extract from a really excellent history of language book, The Adventure of English, by Melvyn Bragg. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I haven’t found a better book on the subject of why English became a world language.

The departure of American English from British English was hastened by Noah Webster, an English teacher, who wrote the American Spelling Book. Children were taught to spell phonetically, by chanting the syllables of polysyllabic words. For example, Ce-Me-Ter-Y. As a result, American speakers of English tend to pronounce each individual syllable of a word, which a British speaker may sound as a weak form, eg, laboratory. Webster also applied a logical approach to spelling, dropping what he saw as unnecessary letters. So colour became color, cheque became check, and plough became plow. In the west, where opportunity lay, the language grew as wild as the lifestyle. Bigger and better was the only way to speak, and to write. Colourful images from drinking, gambling and fighting spread like a rash; to be cherry merry, to pass the buck, and to show your grit. Tall talk involved exaggeration and hyperbole, and American English still shows the influence of the Wild West Tall Talk today.

Extract from The Adventure of English, by Melvyn Bragg

Of course, American English and British English continued to grow and adapt, absorbing and inventing new items of vocabulary, causing some confusion.  For example: ‘mean’: (US = angry, bad humoured; UK = not generous, tight fisted). Rubber: (US = condom; UK = eraser). Let’s not get started on football, chips, fags and bums.

Photograph by Ali Morshedlou

When I first started out as an author, I joined various critique sites to get feedback on how I could improve. It was a bruising but educational experience. One of things that frustrated me was the number of times people found ‘typos’ in my work, which weren’t typos at all, but the UK spelling of ‘traveller’, ‘dialogue’ or ‘theatre’.

In conversation with a just-starting-out writer last week, he asked me for advice on whether to use the language of his target readership – thriller readers in America – as opposed to his own British expressions, spelling and grammar. It’s not an easy question to answer.

Seven books into my series, I find over 70% of my readership come from America and Canada. However, as you can see from the comments above, their very Britishness is part of their charm.

My feeling is that if you have a British main character, it makes sense to stay with UK spellings. If the characters are international or the action takes place in the US and you’re familiar with the differences, go with US English. Just make sure your editor and proof reader are equally skilled with a different version of the language.

Photograph by Reuben Hustler

Personally, I love reading books in other kinds of English. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey takes place on Trinidad and introduces us to the rich speech of the island. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is a fabulous immersion into Australian vernacular. Marlon James rejoices in the dialect of Jamaica in The Book of Night Women. The English of Ireland is used to great effect in Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. All these accents, all these unfamiliar words make language and literature all the richer.

Wouldn’t you agree, Old Thing?


The partial quote in the title is widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Images courtesy of Unsplash



    2 replies to "Two countries separated by a common language"

    • Barbara Doran

      I am not sure about the US, but in Canada British television is a great hit and many of us only watch British shows. One prime example of British TV is, of course, Coronation Street. I work at a University and I was surprised when I first came here how many professor are true Corrie fans. To those who don’t watch it, I am sure we sound like we are discussing family. Doc Martin is another show that many like plus all the oldies of which there are too many to list. There is a great demand for British TV because the actors are excellent, the writing is excellent and the shows are authentic. American soap operas are no longer real and not watched anymore. So I don’t think for Canadians there is a great problem to understand the British venacular. We enjoy it actually. Books are the same. So keep on writing “British” – we love it.

      • jilljmarsh

        Coronation Street? That is such a surprise!
        Thanks for your insight, Barbara and I promise to keep it up.

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