British English vs American English in fiction

English. What a wonderful language, but how irritating that it comes in two flavours (flavors.) How should an author handle this problem?

If you’re a British author writing for a British audience, you can simply use British spellings. Colour. Organisation. Defence. Similarly for American writers – use American spellings. Color. Organization. Defense.

But what if you want to make your book as accessible as possible? Tricky.

Writers like Stephen King make no attempt whatsoever to cater for British readers. Never mind issues with spelling, his books are full of foreign words that British readers don’t understand. Faucet. Spigot. Sophomore. Jock. Bangs. Bellhop. It’s hard for a Brit to read a single page of a Stephen King novel without stumbling over some alien concept.

Then again, you could be even more authentic and vernacular, throwing in slang expressions that add welcome colour (color). British slang words like mate, gutted, skint, fuzz, shag, bog, minging or snog. American readers may end up baffled. They may not be able to read the book at all. Honestly, how do Americans manage without these words?

A compromise solution is to avoid words that don’t exist in the other language, and to minimise (minimize) the use of words that are spelt (spelled) differently.

George RR Martin seems to use this approach, whether deliberately or simply because high fantasy just doesn’t sound right in American. Instead of the word color (colour) he writes tint or hue or shade, or just writes the colour (color) itself – blue, cyan, aquamarine, or whatever. Instead of armor (armour), he tells us that a man at arms is wearing plate or chain mail or boiled leather. Sometimes he slips in an American spelling. It’s almost unavoidable. Very occasionally he uses a word that doesn’t exist in British English – gotten, for instance. Such words stick in the throat of a British reader, even if we know what they mean.

Sometimes publishers go to the trouble of translating books from British English into American English. The first Harry Potter book even had a different title in the US – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I think they were taking the piss (being absurdly unreasonable) here, but hey, it seemed to be popular enough.

In my latest soon-to-be-published novel, I’m aiming to write British English that hopefully won’t alienate American readers too much. For instance, instead of mobile phone (cell phone) I wrote phone. I’ve had to make some changes I wasn’t expecting. Abattoir became slaughterhouse, for instance. Fortnight became a couple of weeks. Thanks to my American proof readers for drawing those to my attention! I’ve avoided the use of the word colour (color.) I’ve written organize (valid in both languages) instead of organise (the more common British spelling, but off-limits in the US), but I couldn’t stop myself from writing armour or defence or reveller (all British spellings.) I hope that American readers will be able to handle this. I’ve even slipped in a small amount of British slang – the use of mate meaning friend, for example. It’s hard to write authentic-sounding dialogue without some use of slang.

What do you think? Do you struggle with American/British words or spelling in fiction? Do you look up unfamiliar words or just ignore them? How many strange words or spellings are too many for you, or do you find yourself revelling (reveling) in the vivid authenticity of strange slang words and phrases?

33 responses to “British English vs American English in fiction

  1. Reminds me of David Sedaris’s story where he was a kid with a lisp and had mastered the art of speaking with the letter ‘s’; e.g., instead of “take down the Christmas tree and eat seafood,” he would say, “take down the pine tree in the living room and eat marine life.” Great story. I think it was in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

  2. As an American, I actually find British language to be a nice seasoning rather than an impediment. Although I might feel different if it were as concentrated as King’s use of American specific words. (I have to admit I never realized those words were only local to America.) And maybe I’m receiving the benefit of British authors working to keep their stuff marketable over here.

    One thing I have noticed in a lot of British writing, is that the vocabulary often seems broader, at least in science fiction. For example, it seems like British authors use more colors, like cyan or aquamarine, than American writing which seems more likely to stick with primary colors. I suspect the American education system may be to blame.

  3. We watch several tv programs from the BBC. Some are heavy with words, phrases, and accents we find difficult to follow. There have been times we hit the ‘back’ button in order to play a segment again. Or, we have played the dialogue through our stereo in order to get a more distinct sound. It helps. But, some words are new to us. It adds richness in our opinion.

    • Hi Jim, some BBC productions are tricky even for British audiences! The BBC has come under criticism recently for poor audio quality in some of its drama (e.g. “Poldark”, “Jamaica Inn” and “Happy Valley”, referred to collectively as “mumble-gate”.) Regional accents can also be difficult – some accents I find very hard to understand, for example, some Scottish or Irish accents, or from cities like Liverpool.
      I think that popular series such as Doctor Who may have helped familiarise US audiences with the richness of British English. Are there any other British dramas that have been particularly popular in the US recently?

      • I don’t think I can answer that question of popularity. We tend to pick things less in the popular area. We enjoyed but were challenged by the series River. It had a cop from Scandinavia, people with Irish accents, and shady underworld characters. We repeated several of the segments of dialogue.

        • OK, I don’t know River, but it sounds very interesting. Unfortunately we don’t have Netflix, but maybe Amazon will screen it for us at some point, or we’ll look for it on DVD. I’ve seen other stuff by Abi Morgan, the screenwriter and enjoyed it.

        • River is a policeman in London. He has appearances of people in his life who are dead. It complicates his work and his personal relationships.

  4. Seems to me that “fortnight” is a perfectly acceptable word for Americans. I do realize that some people don’t know the meaning of it, but that has more to do with having a limited vocabulary than the word being un-USA. I think we’ve know the difference between mate (spouse) and mate (friend) from context. Surprised that “gotten” is not used where you are. It did take me awhile to realize that get that “queue” means a line of people (or cars, or whatever queues up), I think I had to look up “snog” while I was reading the racier parts of Harry Potter. though picked up “shag” from a difference source. Such a great word, but doesn’t seem to have picked up much popularity here. Mobile phone, I think is ok with US readers, but gutted, skint, fuzz, bog, minging and abattoir are all completely foreign to me.

    Seems to me that people reading books that make them feel like they are being transported to a different culture. I think part of the popularity of spy-type movies is that the characters are always globe-hopping. So, as long as long as you aren’t using words that we can’t even look up, or that we can’t glean from context, I agree with the comment above that the British language is a “nice seasoning rather than an impediment.”

    • Fortnight. I’m glad of that. It’s a nice word.
      Queue, yes, that’s a very important word for British people. We do it a lot.
      Gotten, we just say got. Gotten sounds like a word Tolkien invented for hobbits to say to each other.
      Snog and shag, both essential, although you won’t find the latter in Harry Potter.
      I’m hoping that I’ve got the balance right in my latest writing. I’m including some British words to add colour, but avoiding anything I think will be alienating. There’s already enough British character just by using a British setting for the book.

  5. It helps to be a foreigner to both. If I don’t know the word, I just look it up in the dictionary.

  6. Stephen King unashamedly wrote in American English. JK Rowling unashamedly wrote in British English. Indeed, I understand she insisted on British actors for the Potter films(movies – damn, you’ve me doing it now!) You’re British so write in British English. The great American reading public will still understand it, they’ll just know in the back of their minds that a Brit wrote the book. If, as I hope, your book becomes an international best seller then I’m sure the publisher won’t mind forking out a few hundred bucks to have it altered for the US market if necessary.
    You’re right though. English is a wonderful language but I’m biased!

  7. I think the issue that most British readers are familiar with American terms where they differ from the British term
    faucet= tap
    hood =[car] bonnet
    diaper =nappy
    rooster =cockerel

    etc, etc
    most American readers are not familiar with British terms. to the same degree due to the predominance of American culture.

    Howver, I think over the next 20 – 30 years our languages will converge due to the internet and perhaps we will see a few more “Britishisms” creeping into American English 😉

    • Yes, I think the languages may well converge (or perhaps reconverge, since they were once the same.) American English has certainly started to creep into British. Hopefully we can export some of our own best words!

  8. So cool, I just read an article that used the word Bonnet to mean car hood, which I had just read about in thesciencegeek ‘s comment. Oh,and btw this article is so good that I have to include the link to it.

  9. Klingons are the warrior race whose culture is based on strength, combat, and ritual but the missing keyword here is honour and spelt in the American way = honor. I use these strategies when writing my Star Trek posts which I’m sure would meet with Captain Kirks approval. (

    • Hi Spacer Guy, yes I can see how you’ve written your blog, mostly using words that work in both versions of English. Star Trek is interesting in this regard, as it assumes a united future global culture. What would be the common language of this culture? My guess would be US English, with words and phrases absorbed into the language from other cultures. Language never stays still!

  10. I had no idea that “gotten” was a legitimate past participle. You’ve taught me something I should’ve known.

    I rarely have a problem with British English, certainly not when the difference is a minor spelling difference. If there were a lot of slang involved that might be a different story, but I’d probably get the gist of it from the context. I think these differences contribute to voice, which I’d hate to see taken away for the sake of pleasing some American who doesn’t feel like working a little to figure things out. Besides, it’s fun to learn new words, especially ones that get used frequently elsewhere. So mate, I have no idea what these words mean, but I’ll give it my best guess:

    gutted: so…taking the insides out of something…what else?
    skint: absolutely no idea. “He skint his knee when he fell?”
    fuzz: I thought this was also American slang for police. Does it mean something else too?
    shag: Austin Powers does it.
    bog: wet and muddy…no idea what else.
    minging: absolutely no idea.
    snog: absolutely no idea.

    By the way, I had a great root beer the other day. 😉

    • I agree that spelling isn’t really an issue, as educated readers tend to be comfortable with “foreign” words, and less educated readers just don’t notice 🙂
      Slang can be a lot of fun, as long as there are sufficient clues to deduce the meaning. I’m going to give your guesses a B+, with an A+ for your willingness to have a go!

      gutted: you’re on the right track. Think about how it might feel to be gutted. “Bloody hell, mate, I was gutted when my team lost.”
      skint: it’s an adjective meaning broke or penniless. “Buy me a beer, gaffer, I’m totally skint.”
      fuzz: same as your American version
      shag: that naughty Austin Powers has taught you rude words
      bog: actually means a WC or toilet “I’m off to the bog for a quick slash”
      minging: ugly, smelly or repulsive “I was gobsmacked when my girlfriend left me, but actually she was a right minger.”
      snog: kiss passionately “I snogged her sister in the car park.”

      • Thanks for the education! I’m really glad to have an expert in this particular subject right now because I’ve been working on a line in my novel which is from the POV of a young Oxford graduate who has just moved to the States to teach. I needed a beat that would sound distinctly British. I did a bit of Googling and came up with: “knees up.” Such as: “This party was getting to be a bit of a knees up after all.” Does that even make sense? Do people say that? Would a relatively young person say that?

        By the way, thanks for the B+! I’m sure that was a generous grade. 🙂

  11. It makes perfect sense, however “knees up” is a bit 1940s, so his grandmother might have said that. A well-educated young person might use it in an ironic sense. People would respond by either knowingly chuckling or staring in dull incomprehension.

  12. Here’s another idea, Tina. You could use classic British understatement. “This party was proving to be not quite as dull as he’d feared.”

  13. I am a devoted reader of British authors, particularly gardening and mysteries, and I find that when I write I use British spellings and turns of phrase. I don’t care whether people are familiar with them~I like them. Right now I am reading a book by a man who moved to Britain and I’m wondering whether I could, too!

  14. Faucet and gotten were originally used in Britain, that’s where they came from. (I’m a Brit, too.) See this (though it’ll be on other sites, too.) I’m not sure how widely faucet is used in Britain these days, but generally the water-mains tap is called a faucet, and when I was a kid in the 1950s our outdoor tap was called a faucet. Maybe it’s just fallen out of favour. I quite like the word ‘gotten’ and sometimes use it, to my husband’s annoyance!

    I don’t mind American English spellings, what bugs me more is a certain type of usage such as the way many Americans say or write ‘two times’ instead of ‘twice’, or leave the word ‘of’ out of a sentence. I don’t write fiction (though have tried, in the past!) but, for instance, in my blog posts and on my Facebook page, which are primarily read by Americans, I do stick to my British English spellings. I sometimes put the American spelling in brackets, in case I think it might be misunderstood (for instance, I’ve had a few misunderstandings when I’ve written about holidays when my readers have thought I’ve meant Christmas!) It’s easy enough if there are a lot of colloquialisms to put a few footnotes or even a glossary.

    Oh and if you’ve ever done any html or css coding you’ll know that if you use the British English spellings for certain words, such as ‘colour’ or ‘centre’ to change the appearance of a web page, nothing will happen because the code is designed in American English!

    • Thanks Val, some American words are inevitably creeping into British English. My kids sometimes say gotten, although I’ve never heard a British person use the word faucet. Don’t get me wrong – I love the fact that language evolves.

  15. Did the Harry Potter editor’s change anything in the first book other than Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. That I can understand, as “philosopher’s stone” would have a different (and thoroughly non-understandable) sense in American English, considering that “philosopher” has a completely different meaning in American English. I think.. Is “philosopher” ever still used in British English in the sense of “practioner-of-things-not-explained-by-current-sciencre”)

    Did they stop translating “British-isms” at some point around the fourth book (Goblet of Fire)? I notice that it is in that book that the “British idioms” really start to show up. Did Rowling tell them to stop taking away all those nifty (to Americans at least) idioms of color? The only thing I think they should have changed was to make up some other name for the food dish of “spotted dick”..

    • Hi jimw338Jim, thanks for your words! I haven’t read the US versions of Harry Potter, so I don’t know what changes were made to the text. “Philosopher’s Stone” doesn’t mean anything different in British English to US English. A philosopher is a philosopher; a stone is a stone. But the “Philosopher’s stone” is a specific legendary alchemical substance, whereas “Sorcerer’s stone” has no such connotations. So the choice of title says something about the expectations publishers have about their audience.

      As for spotted dick, generations of British schoolchildren have laughed at and been appalled by its name. It is as legendary as the philosopher’s stone itself, and was a school dinner staple in the 1940s. I have never encountered a real one. I think they died out some 60 years ago.

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