How to Write in British English

Can I teach you to write for a British audience in five bullet points and some links?

No way. But I can give you an overview of the five ways in which American fiction (and nonfiction) authors can write for a British audience.

Why might you want to write for a British audience (instead of an international English one)? That’s beyond the scope of this quick post, but it must be relevant because I’ve been asked to give a talk on this topic for Cascade Writers Workshop at Anglicon.

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(Quick aside: if you’re thinking “Janine, why are you qualified to give this talk? You’re sooooo American like OMG,” you’d be right. But I also went to grad school in the UK–or “read for my M.Phil. at University College, Oxford”–so I grasp how Americans go awry and get it right.)

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The five categories, from least consequential to most:

1. Copyeditor tweaks. This is what I call the cosmetic level of writing for the British audience. So long as you sell a story to a reputable place (or hire a local), your copyeditor will fix these things for you. Included here are things like

  • Spelling: labor/labour, analyze/analyse, math/maths
  • Dates: July 31, 2016 or 31 July 2016
  • Formatting: The American said, “Hello, John.” The Brit said, ‘Good morning, John.’

2. Same concept, different word. This is every school child’s favo(u)rite. Do you take the elevator or the lift? Do you wrap your leftovers in plastic wrap or cling film? (My, those people across the pond have a strange vocabulary.) There are zillions of these, but they’re not the end of the world. If your editor doesn’t fix them for you, it’s probably because calling that lorry a truck is cute.

3. Same word, different concept. This is where things get tricky. If you want to watch football, but end up tuned to World Cup soccer, you’ll be disappointed. And just try to “table a discussion” at a business meeting. (Hint: the meanings are exactly opposite.) Whether your character wears a flannel or uses it to wash her face, these are hilariously confusing when done wrong. You probably will not be able to find and fix all of these in your own writing. Do you have a British friend who can read your work for you?

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4. Grammar. These are things you can look out for. Getting them wrong just looks wrong. While the cosmetics will make an editor shrug, and while the funny vocabulary will make an editor laugh, here are some Americanisms that make you sound stupid to the British audience. These will have an editor or reader putting down your work and writing you off.

The verb “to get.”
American – Present: I get the door. Past: I got a dog. Past participle: I have gotten the groceries.
British – Present: I get the door. Past: I got a dog. Past participle: I have got the groceries.

In conclusion: the word “gotten” does not exist. It makes you sound uneducated. Yes, I know, it’s actually more correct. In America, using “got” where you should use “gotten” makes you sound… like English isn’t your first language. Forget that. Simply substitute “got” in all cases. ALL CASES.

Contractions like wouldn’t’ve
While this is an informal construction in American English, it’s perfectly fine. You can use it in dialogue or an email to your mother. In British English, this is just not done. Not even in speaking. You will horrify people who hear you say it, and you certainly can’t write it. Maybe the Brits will catch up someday. Until then, use “wouldn’t have,” “shouldn’t have,” and “if I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked you a cake.”

Collective nouns
American: This band is awesome. (Band is singular; therefore we use the singular verb.)
British: This band are all right. (Bands are made of multiple people; therefore we use the plural verb.)

5. Cultural grammar. Do your best with these. These are the cultural expectations that go into everyday living. Some examples:

  • Unexpected phrases. What the heck is a sensible shoe?
  • Class accents. You can tell someone’s socioeconomic class by their accent. The upper classes randomly delete syllables, btw. This is why I pronounce the London tube station Marylebone as “Maybin,” because I heard it from my Oxbridge classmates before I saw it in person. Do you know how hard it is to find “Maybin” station on a map? “Marylebone” has little in common.)
  • Customs. Don’t tip the guy who makes you a mojito in a pub. In fact, don’t ask for a mojito. (I did once. The guy who made it ended up with a profusely bleeding hand and a trip to (the) hospital.)

Marylebone-MikeKnell

These bullet points should give you a jumping off point. If nothing else, they’ll make a British character in a mostly-American story sound authentic.

If you’d like me to expand on any personal stories mentioned above, leave a comment to request the one that interests you!

Here are some useful links for further reading:

Be proud. I managed to get through this entire blog post without once using The Quote from [George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain].

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About
Janine A. Southard is a Writer & Editor for narrative projects. She's a proven talent when it comes to mimicking voices and crafting content for videogames, articles, & fiction.