American English versus British English: Spelling

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American English versus British English: Spelling

Post by Batesblogger » 08 Dec 2014, 12:51

I have seen many books and works out there that use either of these two different type of spelling, and some that, quite horrifically, bounce back and forth between the two.

Sentences such as: I hate the red colour of the drapes at the theatre.
I hate the red color of the drapes at the theater.
or I hate the red colour of the drapes at the theater.

What are the opinions on this? When writing, do you suggest using American English spelling or British English spelling? Do you ever mix the two depending on the situation?

Obviously your location and where you learned spelling and grammar will have a huge impact on this. Have you ever changed the way you personally spell things to suit your audience better? Have you ever received a bad review because the reviewer did not agree with the version of English spelling you chose?

As a reviewer, do you believe you should mark down on the book because of the choice of spelling? If it is obviously set in America, but they use the British spelling of the words, would you hold it against the author? And vice versa?

Just curious about everyone's opinion on this topic. Personally I think that the British spellings are more romantic and sensual. They look better to my eye and have a better "flow" in my head when I read them. I know they sound exactly the same but that is just my perception.

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Post by moderntimes » 11 Dec 2014, 21:46

An interesting question but one that's easily answered. Use the grammar and spelling for where you live. Don't try to mix them because it makes no sense to do so. Naturally, if you're quoting something that your character has written, such as a letter found at the crime scene, you'd use the spelling of the character.

I read a mystery thriller about a year ago that offered a clue to finding the bad guy. When referencing a US Interstate highway, the crook said something like "...drive north on the I-680" which helped ID him as native Californian. Folks in Cali say "the I-10" whereas other people in the US omit the article and just say "I-10".

In my 3rd mystery novel (recently completed), I've got a surgeon originally from New Zealand who forms a romantic affair with my private detective protagonist. And she uses British-preferred dialogue, adding of course the NZ spark. But I've not had her write a note or letter, so all we hear is her use of British phrasing and I write her dialogue with US English spelling.

Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to write in dialect, such a deep South American hillbilly, or a Cockney or Irish brogue. You can "salt" the dialogue with a few colorful phrase that denote the person's origin but trying to write using dialect is a mistake as I see it. I recently reviewed a book in which some of the characters speak thick Cockney, and the sentences are nearly indecipherable. An actual example: “...Jus’ ’im blowin’ steam ... about ’im what wif Nell gittin’...” Highly annoying, although the book itself was excellent.

I did slightly mark down the book for its overuse of jargon / dialect, but my reviews are never "starred" so I simply mentioned it as a slight annoyance. Hopefully the author will avoid such in the future.

There are other mechanical differences besides spelling, of course. Punctuation Brit style places the period or comma outside the quote, US style puts the period inside: "I'm sleepy", she said. vs "I'm sleepy," she said. And so on.

My recommendation is to use the preferred grammar for your audience. If you're writing for British readers, punctuate and spell that way. If for the US reader, Yankee style of course. But don't try to get "cute" and play games with spelling or punctuation.

Why? Because when you're trying to sell your book or find an agent or publisher, any sort of "cuteness" falls on deaf ears and usually racks up "no" scores quickly.

Neither you nor I am James Joyce, and taking liberties with the language paints the writer into a corner.
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Post by Batesblogger » 12 Dec 2014, 11:06

Excellent advice. Thank you for your input. :)

How would you suggest reviewing books then? I am American and so would see some of those differences as punctuation errors?
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Post by moderntimes » 12 Dec 2014, 13:34

A small intro -- I write private detective novels. The first 2 were purchased and published, the 3rd is pending. I'm however now focusing my energies on a supernatural horror novel. I also write short stories, articles, essays, and such. So I've been published (yes for real money) and have a modest publishing history. Nothing big time.

One of my writing "chores" is that I'm a book reviewer for a mystery website. I review about 6 books a month and so I get all sorts of mysteries, some British, some US, and some from Japan or Scandinavia or Italy or wherever. Most of the non-English speaking books are printed and edited in the UK and therefore use Brit-style punctuation.

When I review books, these have all been professionally edited and proofread, and therefore it's rare that I find a typo or grammatical error. When that happens I just ignore it -- a teeny typo in a 75000 word novel is nothing to worry about.

I did however recently review a Brit mystery in which, for some arcane and unexplained reason, all the dialogue was in italics! No "quotes" as we normally expect, but just italics. Well, reading a few words in italics is okay but whole passages is highly annoying and I did mention this in the review. I didn't downgrade the review for this, but maybe my complaint will get back to the publisher. If it's a new trend, it needs to stop.

I'm very meticulous in my writing (and yes I may have the occasional typo in my postings but that's fast stuff). But when I'm writing for "real" (my novels and short stories, etc) I go thru my text with a finetooth comb. I "finished" my 3rd novel in April but it took me till September before I was satisfied with my revisions and proofreading. Naturally, when you sell a book or article or story, it receives several proofreadings and edits (for content and style). So professionally published text is normally error free. And when I'm reading a UK-published book, I just accept the Brit-style punctuation and spelling. No biggie. And no, those are not errors per se.
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Post by Aspen_Reads » 17 Dec 2014, 13:06

I sometimes find myself switching back and forth between British and American English spellings, and I am not British. I think I do this because I mostly read British authors who use that language.
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Post by moderntimes » 18 Dec 2014, 05:59

Aspen, if you're writing a forum post, this is of course okay but if you're writing to submit for sale and publication, you must choose your side, and stick with it, not switch. Editors will downgrade your submission accordingly if you vary your spelling style. Also, you should spell depending on to whom you're submitting, British or US editors/agents, etc..
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Post by KS Crooks » 19 Dec 2014, 19:10

I live in Canada where we traditionally used British spelling, but being in such close proximity to the United States we use American spelling as well. Often Canadians use both types of spelling in the same piece of writing, whether it be a letter, poem or novel. I do try to stick with one way of spelling a word in anything I write and not write "colour" then later in the book write "color" or "centre" then "center". I simply look at the different spelling and use the one that is prettier...the high school method of voting.

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Post by moderntimes » 19 Dec 2014, 20:14

It also depends partially on your audience. Regardless of whether you live in the UK or in Canada, if you're looking to sell your book mostly to US audiences, it might be more reasonable to effect the US-preferred typography and spelling. Either way, however, as you say, be consistent throughout. Don't mix the styles. Any inconsistency in your grammar or spelling or other mechanical problems will ever so slightly irritate the editor to whom you're trying to sell your book, and you do NOT want to irritate your editor!

Of course, if you're for example writing a US-based story but in the book, one of the characters is British or Canadian or whatever, and writes an extortion note, you'd want to use Brit-style spelling in that note (and maybe how they catch the person?).

And also, when you sell your book, the publisher and editors will help you "tweak" your book in the right direction.
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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 25 Mar 2015, 23:28

I just love British spelling. It's more accurate.

Judgement--the e in the middle makes the g soft. With judgment (American), there's no e there to do the job!

Cancelled--the double-l keeps the silent e from jumping over and making the first e say its name. Canceled could say cansealed.

Gray and grey--both accurate, but grey just seems classier, ya know?

Pyjamas--it's just prettier than pajamas. I use it in my books shamelessly, knowing that it's British and that it overrides my spell check. (Pyjamas is the only British spelling luxury that I allow myself.)

I know that wasn't exactly the question, but oh well!

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Post by RobC » 26 Mar 2015, 08:31

zeldas_lullaby, It happens the other way around, too. I use British spelling, because it is what I know. But some words, I prefer the American. eg "skeptic" (American) rather than "sceptic" (British). On occasion I have caught myself writing "favorite" (American) rather than "favourite" (British).

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Post by moderntimes » 26 Mar 2015, 14:30

On gray vs grey, generally in the US, grey is retained for hair color descriptions and gray is for non-person colors.
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Post by sjauhar » 26 Mar 2015, 15:06

I think it may also depend on the person who is using the language. I have a background in Theatre and a majority of people who study or are in Theatre use the UK spelling of this. We tend to think of Theatre being the Stage and Theater being were one goes to see movies. If you were writing about someone who is British, then I would expect to see UK English being used, but that doesn't mean you can't use US English instead. It's probably more of a personal preference but if you are going to write in UK English, then you should adhere to all the rules and not just pick and choose what you want because it's pretty (or looks cool). It's such a hard decision as well as some British Authors have had their work edited to US English for the US readers (like Harry Potter), but I don't know if US Authors have done the reverse.

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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 26 Mar 2015, 15:50

Aw, come on. Let me have my pyjamas.

I've read a few books in British, mainly sequels that did not come out in paperback in America, so I bought the paperback from UK. It was cool! I learned lots of fun words, like kerb (the trunk of your car--who knew?).

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Post by moderntimes » 26 Mar 2015, 18:38

Kerb is I think a curb. The trunk of a car in England is the boot. Defroster is demister, windshield is windscreen, hood is bonnet.

Best of all is the older Brit term for hubcaps: "knaveplates" -- great, what?

This comes from when old horsedrawn carriages owned by the wealthy had small flip-down stepstands just at the outside of the rear wheels, plus a handle on the carriage, so that the servants could ride along, precariously standing on those little metal steps and hanging on for dear life. These are the same in style as with some large limos in present day use by heads of state, with flip-down steps for the secret service agents to ride on.
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Post by yett23 » 31 Mar 2015, 02:21

There's much to learn from his forum thread, especially from moderntimes. My take on this is that if, as an author, you start with American English, stay with it for the sake of consistency and don't switch. I'm an editor, and in the course of my work. I take note of the spelling and expressions or idioms. I used to teach English and covered a session on the differences beween Americah English and British English. Spoken English is another story because then one needs to focus on pronunciation.

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