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Since I've started writing Sherlock fanfic, I've been more conscious of, well, not sounding like an American. More precisely, not having modern-day Brits sound like they're from America. And I have some people who can work with me on this, but I'd also like to work up the kind of language that pulls people used to British language out of a story.

I've found a pretty comprehensive list of American terms that aren't common in the UK, things like cell phone vs. mobile, tylenol vs. paracetamol, that kind of thing. What's harder are the phrases and word choices that aren't obviously American but just don't sound right. There's a syntax, a way of saying things that I think can scream American to people not from around here. And it's harder for me as an American to spot.

So I was wondering: those of you from the UK or other places that learn UK-style English, are there certain language issues that make a character not seem British? Or if you're an American who's made use of a Brit-picker, have you been told to avoid certain things? (I know some of you who write hobbits probably have more familiarity with British English than I do, even if you're not British yourself; don't be shy.)

I'd like to come up with a list of things to avoid in y own writing, for when I can't work with a native British beta. So if there's something that seems more American than British and you can take the time to type up a list, I'd very much appreciate it. (If there's interest, I'll also make the list available once I'm done with it.)


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2014 08:12 pm (UTC)
I'd love such a list. Have you thought about posting this request at hp_britglish?

I have found this Wikipedia page fascinating. Fascinating and daunting to the extreme, have to say. ;)
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:49 pm (UTC)
Right, I'm going to have to sit down with that Wikipedia page when I have the proper time to delve. Looks, as you say "fascinating and daunting to the extreme."

I hadn't even heard of the hp_britglish group, though they might be quite helpful. My concern is, I'm not a member and while I could join up, it would feel a bit like gatecrashing to just post a request project for my own project. Are you active? Would you like to post a link for me? Or am I just being a bit over-cautious here? If you don't think it would be rude, I'm happy to do that myself.
Mar. 19th, 2014 11:02 pm (UTC)
HP Britglish is super helpful if you have a specific question about a phrase or a word usage. Usually, many people will comment on a post, and often the variety amongst British English can be documented in the answers, as well. Not always helpful if you are looking for a definite answer but interesting. :)

I am a member but more of a silent lurker as I can't contribute anything. My advice would be to join the comm and watch it for a month, so you get a feeling for the group. I think some of the more active commenters would probably jump on your request, but perhaps it's better to come with specific questions to this community, rather than with the huge project you have in mind. People there are definitely resourceful and very helpful.
Mar. 18th, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)
As an ESL writer.. wow this is hard. We just learnt the word lists at school and along the way you pick up american vocab, just not too much. Usually when conversing with my US friends I remind myself that some words come better across when I say, jumpdrive instead of usb stick, cell vs mobile, lorry vs truck, bonnet vs hood ect

Here is a nice ESL blog that explains the differences and here is another nice resource

Oh and I forgot to add, my style/grammar book (Harbrace College Handbook also gives insight between UK English and US English... I think.

Edited at 2014-03-18 08:32 pm (UTC)
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks for all those suggestions. I'll check them out ASAP - they all sound like good ideas.
Mar. 18th, 2014 08:36 pm (UTC)
I know that early on I was told to avoid the word "gotten" like the plague. "Forgotten" is apparently all right.

Here's a useful article on the grammar differences.

Mar. 19th, 2014 07:40 pm (UTC)
Very helpful! Thanks for sending it along. I'd heard of the gotten thing, too, btw. I think it has to do with the way verbs are conjugated, it sounds weird even to me and I'm only an American heavily influenced by British syntax. But it's a good reminder to add to the list.
Mar. 18th, 2014 09:18 pm (UTC)
Ooh, gosh, that would take me a while to do systematically, but it's a fun idea! If anyone finds an existing list online that we can contribute to, will happily do that (or you could start one!)

Otherwise, I'd have to build a list up as and when I'm reading and things strike me, which wouldn't be a quick process but would be entertaining to do...
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:06 pm (UTC)
I know. It definitely is overwhelming. If you asked me for a list of commonly American expressions, I couldn't do it - even if my dialect wasn't a mishmash of British and American English, which it is at times. And even if there was such a thing as a single American dialect. This country is huge sometimes, and people in Texas don't talk like folks in New Jersey on all points, and I'm not just talking about accents.

Anyway, I think I will start working on a list. I've not been able to find one, if one exists, and I find these things interesting on their own. If anything does occur to you over the next few weeks, feel free to mention it here.
Mar. 19th, 2014 08:05 am (UTC)
"Gotten" is the big one. Another that jumps out at me is "fit" as a past tense: we'd say "fitted." Similarly "spit" as a past tense - we'd say "he spat on the ground."

Most of my fanfic career has been spent writing in American-set fandoms, so I had to learn all this the other way round. The first mistake I remember being corrected on was having someone say (as British people would say) "I'm in hospital," rather than "in the hospital."

Time-telling phrases jump out, as well. We'd say "quarter to two," or "quarter past two." Also, we'd say "Monday to Friday," not "Monday through Friday."

"Quite" is one I find interesting - not something that will pull me out of a story, but which can lead to misunderstandings. In Britain, "quite" can be an intensifier ("Wow! It was quite incredible!") but is more often a modifier. At best "quite good" conveys rather mild praise. More commonly, it means "it's rather poor, really, but I'm being polite." I once abandoned a story because an American beta reader condemned it (or so I thought) by saying it was "quite good." Someone my Dad knows once got turned down for a promotion because his American boss said his work was "quite good." (Fortunately the boss questioned it, and the truth emerged.)

(However, while "quite good" usually means "not great, really," we do a lot of understatement. "It's not bad," can (and often does) mean "it's excellent!")

I'm sure I'll think of loads more later, as soon as I've hit "post comment." :-D
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:00 pm (UTC)
You have no idea how helpful this is to me! Actually, you probably know precisely how helpful it is. Even when working with a native British beta, I know my own comfort level as a writer is really helped by knowing how to use the language. I keep second-guessing myself on first drafts, and even if I have help to iron out the kinks, it will help me enjoy the language more if I can internalize some of these language issues at any point.

It doesn't help that I've spent what seems like half my life either speaking with Europeans who learned British English in school (I have family in Germany), and I was also influenced by my stint on study abroad in the UK myself. So sometimes I can't even work out what's properly American speech patterns and what's not. My head can be quite a confuzzling space sometimes. Thinking through these things makes me feel a little more straight in my thoughts, if nothing else.

One thing I've never quite been able to work out: when a British person says, say, half nine does that mean half to nine (8:30) or half past nine (9:30)?
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
I found that it took me a long time to become confident in actually using American grammar, since I was afraid I'd get it wrong. For months (years, maybe?) I would carefully write my stories to avoid having to use the word "gotten," for example, just in case I had misunderstood how to use it. Now, however, it often slips into my day-to-day speech. I've picked up quite a lot of American words and phrasings as a result of having to deliberately remember to use them in fanfic.

"Half nine" is a colloquial way of saying half past nine (9.30). You wouldn't use it in writing or in any formal situation, but would use it in casual conversation.
Mar. 19th, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
As I began to write in the Doctor Who fandom, I found that one of the elements of British English syntax that seems under-mentioned is the use of prepositions. We Yanks use different prepositions than the Brits do.


American: "Good for you!"
British: "Good on you!"

There are others that I can't think of at the moment. Having a Brit-speak beta, when writing in a distinctly British setting, is really the best thing to do. Glad you've got yours lined up already.
Mar. 19th, 2014 06:53 pm (UTC)
I agree, Aearwen, it really does help. The trouble is that mine (I'm talking about the inestimable lindahoyland) isn't really comfortable reading some particular things. That's not a criticism, by the way, she's wonderful and it's really good of her to know what she's comfortable working with. It's just that I'd like to have more of a handle on this for when I'm not able to work with her. Second best, but second best can be a bit better than it currently is, if that makes sense.

Good for/good on is a good one. I'd actually noticed that from folks I know in Germany (where they tend to speak British-style English), but had forgotten about it. That's going on the list as well.
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Just to complicate matters... I'm British, and have never said "good on you!" To me, it has connotations of "good on you, mate!" - the sort of thing men out drinking in the pub might say to each other, if they were reporting some suitably blokeish achievement. (Can't think of a non-British way of expressing this. Sorry!) "Good for you!" is slightly different. If used sincerely, it conveys a degree of moral approval. However, it can also be used ironically, when said to someone who's deemed to be boasting about some not very impressive achievement.
Mar. 19th, 2014 08:15 pm (UTC)
We would would say good for you, I've never heard anyone say "good on you."
Mar. 19th, 2014 05:24 pm (UTC)
"off of" always pulls me right out, i.e. "He got off of the sofa." Saying "he got off the sofa" or "he got up from the sofa" would be a better fit with my South African English certainly, and having lived in the UK for 7 odd years a while ago I think it would be more British too!
Mar. 19th, 2014 06:48 pm (UTC)
Excellent to know! That's one I've never heard of, but I'll definitely keep it in mind and add it to the list I'm preparing.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )



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