How To Write With A British Accent

british flag 300x199 How To Write With A British AccentIt’s often tricky to learn how to write for people who speak a different language. I’m not talking about the plethora of international languages, but of the difference between writing for a British and an American audience. I’m lucky; I read a lot and so I know a lot of expressions from both sides of the Atlantic. However, it’s not just about vocabulary but about style, and that’s something that’s harder to change.

Differences In Style

Take the common or garden sentence, for example. If you are writing for a British audience, you can feel free to be a bit flowery. You don’t need to get right to the point, in a sharp, short American style. Instead, you can write meandering sentences, which include several clauses as well as a few polysyllabic words. That last sentence was a good example of British style.

If you write for a US audience, keep sentences short. Make one point in each sentence. Avoid using clauses. Get to the point quickly. (That’s the advice I got from an American copywriting friend. How am I doing? icon smile How To Write With A British Accent )

Vocabulary

Then there’s the vocabulary. A lot of books have been written on the differences between over here and over there, including books by Bill Bryson and many others. Many more have been written about the English, including books by Kate Fox and Jeremy Paxman. They generally agree that Brits tend to be (in speech if not in fact) more modest. Sentences often start with ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ rather than making bold statements.

There are also differences in terminology, of which I’ll list only a few:

  • Where you say closet, we usually say wardrobe
  • Where you say adjustable rate mortgage, we say variable rate mortgage
  • We say stocking fillers when you say stocking stuffers
  • We say stamped, you sometimes say stomped
  • We love words like bumph (uninteresting official paperwork)

We also like to take a slightly irreverent tone to anything we speak about.

Getting It Right

So, how do you make sure you get the tone right if switching from writing American English to British English? Here are some suggestions:

  • Watch Coronation Street, Eastenders or any other British programme
  • Set your Word spell check to UK English to catch spelling errors. (Don’t ask me why we have extra letters in ‘honour’ and ‘travelling’ but we do)
  • Get a dictionary of English usage that’s meant for the UK market
  • Ask a friend

This last tip is the one I use if I’m not sure about a particular expression. I have a bunch of writer friends from the US, Canada, Australia and even further afield, all of whom are happy to help with points of style.

What strange differences in terminology have you found when writing for people in different countries? I’d love to hear about them.


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About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on sharonhh.com. Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.

Comments

  1. I have NEVER thought about this. I have a bigger audience in America than in Britain but I am English myself so I write in an English style, sometimes I mix up my spelling though because of spell checkers.

    Shane – Inspiring your Success´s last blog post..Interview with Kelley Armstrong – Fantasy Fiction Novelist

  2. When I blog for myself, I usually write in an English style, but when blogging or writing for others, which I do frequently, I have to change my natural mode of expression slightly. I first thought of this post about a year ago, when checking some work an American writer had done for one of my UK clients, but I have also been asked once to remove the Britishisms from a piece of writing. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

  3. Spotted this over at #31DBBB Sharon. Nice post, and funnily enough a problem for me. I was educated in Britain, but have lived in Spain for many years. I naturally talk and write with a “kind of” Brit accent, but most of my readers are from the US.

    In the end I elected to carry on writing in my natural style, but to revert to American spelling, so I guess my writing is like me – hybrid!

    Mike CJ´s last blog post..Measuring & Recording Income Statistics on a Blog

  4. Margaret says:

    I worked for a US company that made smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and programmable thermostats for many markets. USA Fire Departments are UK Fire Brigades, and US hardware stores are UK Ironmongers. Small portable extinguishers can be kept in your car’s trunk (US) or boot (UK). These are the main vocabulary differences that I remember, in addition to the -ise vs -ize and color/colour, catalog/catalogue type of spelling variations. But I’ve read British mysteries for years, so keeping it all straight for different versions wasn’t as hard as I expected it would be . Canada and Australia, however, expect or accept some of both UK and US spellings, not necessarily the same combination in both places. English is a very interesting language, wherever it goes.

  5. Sharon, thanks for this post. It made me realize how messy my writing style is. I sometimes use British and sometimes American spelling, and that makes the articles and posts look somehow odd in the retrospective.

    They say that the Brits and the Americans are two nations divided by the same language. Interesting thought.

  6. Putting my academic hat on for a minute, Mike, I’ve read a lot about hybridity from Homi Bhabha – seems a natural state for location independent workers.

  7. It certainly is, Margaret – it seems that each topic has its jargon and this may vary from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

  8. Honza – oddly enough that quote was another impetus for this post. I find it best to stick to one or the other when writing, although I will admit that with Canada and Australia having words which switch between US and UK, as Margaret mentioned, writing for those can be a challenge.

  9. Great article, Sharon! I must admit – I’ve always been a little intimidated to go after UK writing jobs because of spelling differences and the fact that I am not familiar with common phrases. This is an excellent guide.

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  10. I write for an American market but as a Briton that can be quite difficult. Like Mike CJ does, I end up spelling in American-English but leaving my natural style in place.

  11. Thanks, Kimberley. You might also enjoy this post on Cockney Rhyming Slang.

  12. That works well in some cases, Beaman, but when clients want the work to sound as though they wrote it, then getting the typical style right can make a big difference. For me, it depends on whether I am writing a bylined piece (in which case they get my natural style) or ghostwriting an article or ebook (in which case they get whatever best meets the brief).

  13. Great post!
    I’m Canadian so I’m a bit of a UK / US hybrid myself :) I actually wrote a post a while back about how Canadian English is a bit of a mix of the two.

    I can copy accents pretty well verbally so that’s exactly what I do when I switch to another English style (UK, or Australian). I sort of say what I’m writing in my mind (and aloud at times if no one’s listening) to see if it sounds authentic for that accent. I also cruise the Google for that geographical area (.co.uk / .com/au) to look for industry buzzwords that I think aids in giving what I’m writing a more local flavour.

    Dana – The Writer’s Blog´s last blog post..Favourite Writer Blogs – GetPaidToWriteOnline

  14. I’m a bit of a linguistic chameleon myself, Dana, which is helpful in the writing biz. Using local Google is a good idea, as well as simply reading local media and dipping into forums.

  15. First visit and I really enjoyed my look at your site Sharon. I am writing from the opposite end of the spectrum of the US-UK debate I suppose and probaby from the opposite end of the age spectrum as well – lol.
    Two things come to mind – I read US and UK English literature a great deal. I dont have a problem when I read and I dont try to make it difficult for myself when I write.

    Equally I am aiming for a “universal” reader even though I wish I could write as well in Spanish French German and so on… althought I am trying to include other language links in my pages. (Also the internet is dominated by American pages on many of the things I am writing about so I very much want to go against this trend to find my niche.)
    However I will be visiting you on a regular basis.:)

    Susan
    writing on http://www.suevista.blogspot.com – “Vistas from Afar – a European garden blog”

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  16. omg! Sharon Even leaving a message on your site is a joy…. Susan

    Susan Bearder´s last blog post..My Garden and I – The Agave April 2009

  17. It’s a pleasure to have you as a reader, Susan. Finding a universal style can be a challenge, as you have to put your natural preferences on hold. Keep me posted on how you get on.

  18. Oh, by temperament and by usage I think I’m more inclined to write with a British accent. If only because I tend to meander a lot. And I tend to preface statements with I think and similar verbal props.

    But I love the straightforward American use of English, too.

    So I’m torn between these writing models. It’s much convenient to use American style as some British expressions sound quaint or queer to me.

    This is a splendid post. I’d learned a lot. I’d be back to pick up more nuances of writing well by raiding your well-stocked wardrobe, I think. “,)

    jan geronimo´s last blog post..The Lost Art of Being Silly

  19. I really liked this post! I didn’t realize until now that my style was English but my American teachers always made me shorten my sentences! Ha! I am neither American nor British, but studied British English. I love flowerly spoken language and writing. It is not until I read this post that I realized how much I miss it. I have lived here in the US for a long time. I am teaching my toddler to say rubbish instead of trash, lorry instead of truck…:)

  20. I have to confess that I have started using ‘Americanisms’ in my writing since I started blogging, purely because some of the things I was saying were being misunderstood by my audience, often in amusing ways!

  21. Meandering can be fun, Jan, but there are times when it’s nice to get to the point. I sometimes wonder if writing for several markets will change my own natural writing style. It hasn’t happened yet, but who knows?

  22. I blog for an American client and have to change my style for that audience, Lee. It can sometimes spill over into other blogging too. For this blog, I tend to write in my natural British style, but I’m also aware that most of my readers are American, so sometimes I have to edit.

  23. I suppose that would be my fear ie developing a hybrid that meets neither version of official english. Mind you, if you could find a niche where you could make people laugh by playing on this…. well, that would be something else.
    I think my mind was clarified on this issue once and for all when I lived in Australia for nearly two years back in the ’70s with two small children. I got into all sorts of difficulty with vocabulary misunderstandings, on one occasion dangerously so,when I was buying my first provisions for the family. It had never entered my head that Australian English was really American English;)

    Susan Bearder´s last blog post..Portugal and its Gardens – Madeira

  24. Hi, this is not really relevant, but it reminded me of an experience i had on stage in Germany working with a performer from Switzerland. we communicated in English and after the first night i asked him for feedback. He paused, then said “yes it was good , but come after”.
    The next night i waited in the wing for my cue, waited a bit longer and then entered.
    Again i asked for feedback and again he hesitated….”Yes, good….. but come …after”
    This went on for a week, each time with me delaying my entrance.
    Eventually we agreed that rehearsal was needed and so we arranged to meet at the weekend.
    “When will you be there, ?” I asked.
    “Before 3″ was his reply, so i turned up at 2.
    He arrived at 4.
    Only by opting to communicate in Spanish were we able to discover and correct his misuse of the two words.

    chris´s last blog post..Respounchous

  25. What an interesting post!
    I’m a Brit but I’ve been living in the US for ten years or so now. The things I have to do for my thoughts to go down well in the two varieties is a delightful puzzle. The vocabulary is one thing, but it’s the way I have to frame thoughts differently that interests me most.
    I think I’m often more worried about intrusion and imposition in British English, so I often need to sound more apologetic. Meanwhile in the US I might need to sound more inclusive and appreciative.
    So sorry if I’ve bothered you and thanks for reading!

    • Actually, you’ve made a good point, Vicki. A friend once said to me that Brits don’t like to seem pushy, while Americans like to appear in control. While that’s far too simplistic, it IS true that the two groups express themselves completely differently in conversation.

  26. Very helpfull tips, Sharon, and your points on vocabulary differences are so right. I like your writing – it’s funny too. I admire those who can write in different styles according to their audience. Is “Eastenders” still going on? I am out of the country since 2002 and I still remember it.
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  27. That’s interesting, Sarah! I think we all have a style we gravitate towards. Funnily enough, the only time I DIDN’T write long flowery sentences was in school essays, where teachers were always urging me to expand. Somehow that’s never been a problem since ;)

  28. The only problem I have now is that I sometimes get confused and use American English in day to day use, leading to complaints about my spelling ability!