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Friday, 17 January 2014

I Will Never Write American

Today I was reading a book and, even though I enjoyed it, there was one thing that really annoyed me...and it's something I'm coming across quite often from American authors. I know the same thing probably happens when British authors write American characters, but being English I can't really comment on that as much.

Although the two versions of English are blending, there are still many differences between the languages and this is where, for me, authors slip up when writing different nationalities into their novels. It's also the reason I would never write an American character into my book or set it in the US. I'm not talking about American or British spelling here, what makes a story unbelievable is the speech the characters use, especially in YA and NA fiction.

For some reason, it is a common occurrence that authors who aren't British or haven't lived here take the 'stiff-upper-lip' stereotype of British people and then make them sound incredibly posh. First of all, most of the population does NOT speak like that and secondly, a lot of the language is either dated, tied to a certain age group, or has changed meaning entirely. I know the author may want to make a definite separation between the characters, but honestly? We're not a different species of people, and we really aren't that different in formality levels--especially teens .

One of the way I've noticed authors make this distinction is with the phrase "said in his thick British accent." Because there are many regional dialects and accents that change the language (I'm sure it's the same in the US) this comment just doesn't work. The author once again refers to the stereotypical British accent that most people do not use. I also find the constant distinction between the nationalities makes the British character out to be some kind of alien, as you hardly ever find the sentence "spoken in a thick American accent" in the same novel.

Anyway, in the book I was reading the other day, the British character sounded like he was plucked straight from Mary Poppins or Downton Abbey. I won't rant about how much this wound me up every time he opened his mouth to speak--as I would never stop--but here are a few of the things I've come across in books recently (all of the comments are based on my opinion of teen characters). I'm by no means saying the words are never said--I know they are--but based on my own experience (I left college just over a year ago so I'm in the age group) a lot of this language for a teen is dated.

*These are actual phrases I've seen in books. All of the comments though, are based on my opinion of teen characters*

How I’ve seen American Authors Use It
“You look smashing!”
Unless referring to the action of breaking an object, teens will generally use something else e.g "great"
“Oh crumbs!”
Unless you are a certain age or talking to a child, it generally refers to pieces of food. 
“Abso-bloody-lutely” used repeatedly
Although bloody is used quite often, I have never heard someone put it in the middle of absolutely as often as American authors make out we do.
Army/Special Forces
United Kingdom Special Forces
SAS / British Armed Forces / British Special Forces
“You know that bloke over there?”
People do say bloke but from my experience, teens tend to say ‘guy’ or 'man' more often.
“Crikey that was close”
I've never heard this from a teen. A more common phrase is "oh my God."
Apparently it’s the only drink we have and like.
We do drink coffee, hot chocolate, alcohol etc.
“I had a cracking good time”
More commonly, teens will say “I had a really good time” or “I had a well good time” The latter is more common (although not grammatically correct)
How do you do?
How do you do?
Unless in a formal situation most will use “What’s up? / You OK? / How you doing?”
“You looks spiffing”
I’ve never heard any teen say this.
“Come on old chap”
I've never heard it used but I think it's common with Cockneys.
Cor Blimey
“Cor Blimey that’s amazing”
Again, I've never hear it used but I think it's common with Cockneys and maybe a little dated.
“Cheerio” meaning goodbye
Teens more commonly use: See you (cya)/ Bye/Goodbye
“Everything’s Hunky Dory”
I’ve never heard anyone say this unless it was a joke.
Fiddle Sticks
“Oh Fiddle Sticks”
Once again, teens tend to use more expletives or “crap”
Hanky Panky
“I don’t want to see any hanky panky”
I doubt you’ll hear a teen say this. We commonly use “making out”
“What a load of rubbish” or a few expletives could work.

Here are some that aren't about making the character sound like a stereotypical Brit, but rather just differences that makes the character unbelievable.

A Few Lexical Differences That Trip Author's Up
License Plate
Number Plate

As you can see, even without the confusion of regional accents and dialects, it's hard to create a character if you don't know the language well enough. They may only be small errors--the odd word here or there--but they stand out to a native of that country. I'm sure Americans see it with British authors creating American characters so I'm not generalising or picking on people. I'm just writing about what I know.

For me, this is one of the reasons I invent my worlds; you can mix them both in the speech! It's also why, that unless I live in the US for a few years and pick up American English, my characters will always be European (if I don't make the loacation up). For me it makes the characters unrealistic if the language is incorrect as they don't come across as authentic. Personally, I feel that I should stick to what I know as I'm sure American readers do not want a book full of stereotypes and characters based on things I've seen in the movies. I mean, I don't like it when it's the other way around...

I took the list from: and there are plenty more that I didn't copy over.


  1. This was totally entertaining. Haha. I'm not British but I kind of get what you mean. But I still have to say that British accents are hot, even though that did not even connect with this post at all.

    Cindy @ In This World of Books..

  2. Thanks Cindy, glad you enjoyed it :-) I can't comment on the 'hotness' of the British accent as it's just something I've grown up with and there are so many varieties. I have heard that a lot from non-Brits though.

  3. What a fascinating post! Being American, I probably miss lots of mistakes made by American authors when they are writing British characters. I agree that unless you know a language well it is hard to write characters who speak it because it won't sound authentic. Even here if someone is doing YA they need to make sure the words sound like a teen and not an adult.

    The best part for me about your examples is that if the authors just kept the phrases the same as they would for American YA characters, they would have been all set (except for 2-3 of them). It sounds like lots of teen talk is more universal than people think!

    Thanks for sharing and for such clear examples.

  4. Thanks Jess. I agree, the languages are getting more universal with teen speech! I'm not sure why Brits are portrayed with such dated language really, and that is the difference which frustrates me as there is always a constant separation in novels like they're another species. Generally, if you get certain lexical words right (like from my second table) you would probably just be able to use phrases like American teens would as we're not that different :-)

  5. Imagine to yourself the confusion when I just cane to the US and in my head I had a mixer of British and American and then i came to and try to buy coriander and no body understood what I wanted till I met another foreigner like me and I discover that I need cilantro ...


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