It’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? )
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.