Thursday, 3 July 2014

American English vs British - where does one begin and the other end?!

A moment of navel-gazing on the subject of the minutiae of writing.

I'm British, or British-English to be more precise, and my words are full of all the extra 'u's and French-style spellings. I'm aware, however, that most of my audience are American, and this tends to lead to some grammatical paranoia on my part.

Here are some examples of words and phrases I've fussed over, in fear of criticism from readers in the US and at home...

"...wrapped his legs around her waist in a vice hold..."
Americans use "vise" to denote the tool, but Brits use "vice" for both the tool and the moral habit. I stuck with the British version on this one.

I've used this word a fair bit through the series, but it's really an Americanism. Brits would generally just use "got" in place of it, but I think I've watched so much American TV that it's part of my language now!

"if it was" rather than "if it were"
I've noticed that American English speakers are REALLY conscious of the subjunctive, but it's not used as much in British English, even amongst the most educated and high-profile speakers. As I understand it, both versions are equally correct in British English, and "if it was" has always sounded more natural to me. More recently, however, I have been trying to use the "were" version in my writings (mostly out of fear of grammatical reprisals!). Since I've been doing this, I've noticed that the Prime Minister, MPs, BBC presenters and even Sherlock all say, "if I was" when describing hypothetical situations. And the other day, whilst watching Game of Thrones, I heard Charles Dance say, "if I were". It sounded really, really odd to me!

"to person x and I" rather than "to person x and me"
I'm naughty and I sometimes employ what's known as the creative use of the grammatical case/object-pronoun agreement. It's also described as a hypercorrection or solecism, and this one generally only happens in Brit Eng. There's a Wiki article on it here:
Like "gotten", it sounds quite natural in my speech, but probably irks others.

"a hill" rather than "an hill"
I always used to use "an" to precede words beginning with 'h' in my writings, but decided that was too archaic. I really wish I had used that now, as I itch to write it that way every time!

"the army were..." rather than "the army was..."
The collective noun is followed by a plural verb in Brit Eng, but a singular verb in Am Eng. I tend to stick with the British version.

Oxford comma.
I have mixed feelings about this when it comes to lists of things, and my writing probably reflects that!

In sum, I've tried to write in my native tongue, but in spite of my RP accent, I'm not sure that it's entirely British, or that such a thing even exists. These are just the conflicts I'm aware of, though I'm sure many of you will have noticed other terms and phrases that sound foreign.

Feel free to comment below if you remember any of these oddities in particular!

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