Thursday, February 9, 2012

FYI: A Little about Yanks, Brits, and Sex

I find the noted English spellings/slang particularly annoying. Europeans simply deal with Americanisms without making a fuss about them. We don't find it worth mentioning. Why can't Americans do the same?

We received the comment above in our recent survey. It is a reasonable complaint. If I was from the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, or any other non-US, English speaking country, I might also find this annoying. Although I’ve explained the rationale for why we highlight this and other items in the past, it has always been in the comments of a specific review, and I thought it might be a good idea to do so in a post.

While I’ll concentrate on language, this post is really about the entire FYI section of our reviews.

On Language

England and America are two countries separated by a common language. – George Bernard Shaw

My initial inclination was to apologize for my compatriots. I’m well aware of the stereotype of the “ugly American,” and know we are sometimes perceived as insular, with a sense of entitlement. I’ve experienced firsthand the greater knowledge that the average Canadian has about the world outside of their country- and even current events in the US- as compared to my peers. I’ve been guilty of some of these faults myself. It would be easy to view this section as more of the same. But none of this is the reason for why our reviews mention this. My main reason for including this is, and always has been, one of education.

To understand this, a brief explanation about how traditional publishing has worked in the US for as long as I’ve been reading might help. When a publisher contracts with an author for a book in English, it is typically for rights to publish and distribute the book in a specific region. While I believe this can vary, the US (or North America) is one of those regions, with Australia, the UK and other English speaking European countries, and potentially Canada as others. US publishers routinely re-edit books from other regions, changing spelling to US conventions and often changing the wording to remove regional slang, generally Americanizing the book. Some people have described the process as akin to a foreign translation.

I won’t even attempt to justify this process. I’m sure the publishers see it as a good marketing move, aimed at satisfying the lowest-common denominator of readers. The result has been that while many, if not most, Americans are familiar with some British and Australian slang, it is almost entirely from TV and movies, and limited. Their exposure to spelling differences between different English speaking countries is often non-existent.

With Indie authors publishing their own books, this regionalization is no longer happening. Personally, I see this as a positive, with the language differences adding character and color, giving a much stronger sense of place. However, for readers who haven’t experienced this before, it is easy to perceive the spelling and sometimes the differences in language usage as being in error. I’ve seen many Amazon reviews complaining about just these kind of things on books that I know are virtually error free, but use Australian or UK spelling conventions.

Educating readers and setting expectations for those who don’t realize there are differences is my primary reason for mentioning this in our reviews. I realize there might be some readers who aren’t willing to buy a book that hasn’t been Americanized for them. While my decision would be different, and I think they are missing out, it is also not my decision to make. Knowing has helped that reader, and helping as many readers as possible is the reason for our reviews, and has benefited the author who might otherwise have an unhappy customer that might give a negative review for a bogus reason.

What language differences are not okay?

As I mention above, I think the language differences add to the character of a book. When one of Vicki Tyley’s characters in Fatal Liaison is looking for a car park or Naomi Kramer’s Maisy May says, “no you can’t have my bloody bag,” it helps put me in Australia. When Helen Smith, in her book Three Sisters, describes coloured lights as “like Midget Gems,” I’ll suspect I’m no longer in Kansas, even if I have no idea what Midget Gems are. (If you’re interested, they are small chewy sweets, or candy to we Yanks.)

When language differences are not okay is when the language doesn’t fit the character. A Brit, fresh off his British Airways flight, asking a New York doorman to point him to the elevator, is going to be suspect to many readers. An American pre-teen girl telling a friend she wishes her “bloody father would sod off,” isn’t going to fly, at least for an American reader, unless she’s watching an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, or both well-traveled and a bit pretentious. Just as subtle differences in language can enhance a book, getting them wrong can detract.

This can present a problem for an author with characters from English speaking countries other than their own. If you’re such an author, the right editor or mix of beta readers might save you from making a significant gaffe.

Let’s Talk about Sex

And politics and religion. These three subjects are hot button issues for many people. Some percentage of readers abandoned reading this post or never started reading it at all because it mentions sex. For those readers who prefer that their romances be sweet or that book characters have sex behind closed doors, we try to let them know if a book isn’t a good fit. For those who like their reading to turn up the heat, we like to clue you in, too. If strong language makes you blush or conversely if you want the characters you read about to be like real people who sometimes use salty language, we want you to know about that too. Just as with language comments, this is to help match readers to books they are more likely to enjoy, based on their unique tastes.


What I want to make clear is that the intention of the FYI section is not to make a value judgment. Not every reader has the same taste. This section is a place to clue potential readers into things that might be a good or bad fit for their personal taste, but are irrelevant to the quality of the book under review.


Joansz said...

This post really hit home for me because my second book is set in England, where the main characters are American and I'm an American. My solution was to have the English characters use English phrasing (e.g. car park), but use American spelling and style (as defined by the Chicago Manual of Style) throughout.

With the globalization of literature, it is perhaps time to write an addendum to an excellent text first published in 1940: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, even if How to Read a Book is itself a bit paradoxical. :p

BooksAndPals said...

I'm sure there are others with differing opinion on this, Joan. My thought is the way you are doing it is the right way. If your narrator is identifiable and English, there is a case to be made for English phrasing in the narrative, but I don't think that is your situation.

I'm unlikely to think there is a problem as long as spelling and style are consistent and characters are true to who they are in their dialogue.

I've heard of the Adler and Van Doren book, but never read it. Would you recommend it?

Lynn O'Dell said...

Excellent post, Al!

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Lynn.

Joansz said...

I would recommend the Adler and Van Doran book. I've found their principles useful in several ways over the [many] years since reading it. For example, when evaluating whether a reference book is valuable to me, I first review the table of contents, especially an annotated ToC to see if the book is worth spending time on. I've also found the principles are useful for the few book reviews that I do.

"If your narrator is identifiable and English, there is a case to be made for English phrasing in the narrative, but I don't think that is your situation." In the second book (sequel to the one you reviewed) I mostly had to be careful that the dialog rang true, I also had a scene or two that was from an English character's POV, so the narrative had to reflect that too.

Walter Knight said...

I'm confused. Should I go to the restroom, or use a loo? I dont think we have loos in Texas.

For me 'sod' is a grass covered surface, but some in the UK disagree. And what is 'bloody hell' all about? I thought 'Hell' was just hot, hot, hot.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Joan. It sounds like I should give it a read.

Walter, I heard a rumor that Bubba was fixin' to get a loo.

Paul Callaghan said...

As a former English teacher who taught in New Zealand after coming from London, the clash of the language can be interesting or grating. NZ examiners insist on British English spellings. But then they encourage 'Kiwisms' like "skite" meaning to brag, or phrases like "as mad as a meat axe", or "the best thing this side of the black stump."
As an online writer I often use US phrasings because much of my market is in the Americas. However, I can't quite bring myself to spell "colour " without the 'u'. If I am writing fiction then I will use the spellings appropriate to the characters and settings. As most Americans I have spoken to don't seem too bothered by British spellings, I wonder why editors and publishers feel the need to Americanise (deliberately with an 's'). My favourite change was in the title of JK Rowling's first book where The Philosopher's Stone became The Sorcerer's Stone for the book (at least the early editions I saw.) I can't believe that Americans couldn't understand Philosopher. Perhaps the famed, but not necessarily accurate, insularity of Americans is something that is encouraged by such attempts to homogenise our languages.

Joansz said...

I think that there is no such thing as "American" English. Just travel around the country and you'll hear different phrasing and pronunciation--all valid and all regional. As far as I can tell with my "American" ear, the same thing is true in England where there is a vast difference between say a Yorkshire resident and a London native. In fact, I had to turn closed captioning on to watch Trainspotting so I could understand what was being said. We get even though. My friend and I saw Rent in a London theater and the gal sitting next to us kept repeating, "Not a word, not a word."

Bev Robitai said...

I think you're doing the right thing with your reviews. It's all about education and helping the reader, isn't it?
I use pure New Zealand language in my theatre mystery books because that accurately reflects my setting and characters. I like to think that in some small way it's helping readers in other countries to feel more at home in this varied world of ours! Insularity is a terrible handicap. Too right, mate.

BooksAndPals said...

@Paul: My suspicion is there are a few things at work here. Like you, I think most Americans are going to be okay with British phrasing and spelling. But those who aren't combined with being insulated from them by traditional publishing and some readers possibly being sensitive to the possibility of the possibility of proofing issues in Indie published books means there will be a fair number of readers who will misinterpret a non-issue as a problem. However, that group may also standout in reviews and discussion, making them seem like a bigger percentage than they are. (I think a certain amount of the American insularity is the same kind of thing. One or two bad apples can seem like the norm.

As to why publishers have done this, I suspect it has to do with the history of spelling in America going back to Daniel Webster and his efforts on spelling standardization. That history is also reflected in our education and the attitudes of some American readers.

Joan: That is certainly the case with the spoken word. If you're trying to reflect a dialect of regional accent in dialogue. I *think* in word usage in writing it is possible (although maybe not always desirable) to word something in a way that would not seem out of place in any region of the US, but there are plenty of examples of words that would fit some areas and not others. My use of "fixin'" in my response to Walter above isn't almost always isn't going to work outside of Texas (or a Texan). People only drink from a "bubbler" instead of a water fountain in the Northeast (or maybe just Massachusetts). Whether a soft drink is called a pop, soda, soda pop, or Coke varies by region. So it is also possible to run astray with various strains of American English. I wonder how many readers would pick up on an error like that?

Bev: Thanks for your comment. That is what it is about for me. English, of all varieties, is such an infuriating, yet rich, language.

Joansz said...

This topic is interesting to me for another reason. I'm currently the editor for the Ricardian Register, the quarterly for the American Branch of the Richard III Society. As editor, I solicit article contributions from around the globe, UK (parent) and society branches in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US (that's the one I belong to). I am not aware of other branches at this time. I've made it my policy to maintain the article author's spelling and style. I reckoned that society members are more tolerant of these differences. Besides, anything quoted from the 15th-century will look completely different still, and forget spelling.

Walter Knight said...

Wot? Do you mean to say that a 'cricket bat' not used to squash bugs?

I just edited a friend's Manuscript. He is from South Africa. I am still trying to figure out, what is a 'Fat Lizard?'

Joansz said...

"Wot? Do you mean to say that a 'cricket bat' not used to squash bugs?" :D

"I just edited a friend's Manuscript. He is from South Africa. I am still trying to figure out, what is a 'Fat Lizard?'" Walter, even though I can take a wild guess at the meaning, I think this is exactly the issue both writers and editors face when the works are aiming to sell to a global market. Some how, the word or phrase needs to be defined either implicitly through context, or explicitly by explanation in the dialog or narrative. And one needs to do this while avoiding author intrusion.

Kris Bock said...

It seems like British authors think all Americans are Texans. This is especially true with books from the earlier part of the 20th century. Even if the American characters aren't identified as Texan, they drawl and use words like "gal" or "little lady." I always wondered if a disproportionate number of Texans traveled to Britain, or if that was just the most noticeable American accent.

Walter Knight said...

It might be the hat, not the accent. But y'all probably right, stereotypes exist.

If you want to get even, just yell at the top of your voice that you do not believe Scotland is really an independent country. See what happens.

BooksAndPals said...

*BigAl shakes his head at Walter*

Are you trying to start a riot?

Vicki said...

This reminds me about the “Where the bloody hell are you” Tourism Australia advertising campaign:

Where the bloody hell are you

But this version is even better:

Where the bloody hell are you – take II

P.S. What do Americans call car parks?

BooksAndPals said...

Vicki: The first one had me thinking about a visit, but the second one made me think I'd be better just staying home and laughing. :)

As soon as I figure out what a car park is, I'll let you know. (A "parking lot")

Joansz said...


Vicki, Australia is still on my bucket list--but then I'm not a Texan, so maybe I have a chance. :p

Vicki said...

Al: I thought they'd put you in two minds. :)

Joan: Australia welcomes everyone... Connecticans and Texans and all. ;-) I hope you make it Down Under.

Walter Knight said...


I love "The best thing this side of a black stump." A New Zealand friend once told me never to mess with the Kiwi. New Zealand once attacked the Ottoman Empire (WWI) and taught those Ottomans a proper leason.

Sorry BigAl, I love roasts. I see a red glow when I finally check out.

Walter Knight said...

Not to be outdone in 'colourful' phrases:

"The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass all the time."

Anyone know what this means?

Vicki said...

If it's talking about a dog's ass, then it must be Americian in origin. Dog's don't have donkeys Down Under... ;-)

Vicki said...

Oops... apologies for the erroneous apostrophe in the above. Where's the edit button when you need it?

BooksAndPals said...

The dogs are getting quite possessive over something they don't even have, Vicki. :)

Vicki said...

LOL You got me, Al. :)

Vicki said...

Walter, just doing a bit research on that expression and it looks to be attributed to a number of people and even movie characters.

There's also a song with that title:

I'm curious now. I hope someone else can shed more light on its origins.

Walter Knight said...

This is serious cultural commentary. We are not talking about dawgs, or dingos.

Unknown said...

Great post as always, Al. Thanks for mentioning my book. I couldn't find a way to post a picture of Midget Gems on here so I have posted one on my blog:

@Kris Bock - you know we had a Texan Embassy in London for a while when Texas was a republic? Maybe there were/are a disproportionate number of visitors from Texas to the UK...

BooksAndPals said...

I found a couple brands (imported) are available on, but if commonly available in the US, they are either not that popular or more well known under a brand name rather than the generic.

Walter Knight said...

They closed the Texas Embassy in London? That's an outrage! I'll be writing my Congressman about that. It must be budget cutbacks.

Also, I humbly apologise about my insensitive joke about Scotland and Scottish national identity. The Scots have had a hard time of it, what being the natural enemies of the English, Welsh, Japanese, and most other Scots. Damn Scots, they've ruined Scotland.

Walter Knight said...

The Texas Embassy building in London still exists. The impressive Georgian structure sets next to the National Gallery and Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

The Texas Embassy is now a fine restaurant serving Tex-Mex food, and is open to all. It's on my list next time in London.