That’s dialog, not dialogue. But this article is not about American spelling. It’s about the way we talk.
Over the last few years, I’ve read quite a few books written by British authors, particularly independent authors who don’t have the means to pay for an editor or simply don’t see the point in spending the money. I completely understand, but with American characters comes American dialog. While it may seem like an easy task to write American speech (we both speak the same language after all!), it’s far more difficult than you might think.
Believe me, I know. As an American, I’ve done the opposite, written British characters—only one actually, the mother of Catherine from my Heart series. Not only is she British, but she’s an English tutor, so her British English has to be perfect, or “spot on” as the Brits would say.
The rest of my characters who lived in Britain were originally from Egypt and now live in America. Therefore, their English is blended. But that British English teacher has really caused me grief. Whenever I write her dialog, I keep it to a minimum and ask for help from British colleagues for the little bit she does say. I want it to be as authentic as possible. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and if it’s not, I certainly hope any British readers would inform me of mistakes I may have made.
Now when British authors write the narration, it can be as British as can be. Only the dialog must be American when applicable.
So, without further ado, the following is a list of mistakes I’ve seen lately, along with the correct American way of saying the same thing. In the future, I may add to this list as I come upon more issues in British books. (Incidentally, some of these might be Australian too. If they aren’t British, my apologies.)
Bloody: We don’t use bloody as a curse word. Ever. To us, bloody refers to the red stuff. I actually have read a couple of books by American authors using the word and was flabbergasted. They must read a lot of British books like I do! Now I do have one chapter in Half-Jew entitled, “The Bloody Truth,” a double meaning regarding DNA tests, but trust me—in regular speech, we don’t say it. We use damn or the “F” word or some variation like freaking or friggin’.
Car park: parking lot
Sort: We don’t sort ourselves out. We may sort through papers, but we don’t sort situations or get things sorted.
Get on together: Friends get along well. They may “get it on,” but that means something else entirely!
Who knows what he’s on about: Who knows what he’s talking about?
Fancy: Fancy dress, yes. Fancy shindig? That too. Do we fancy someone or fancy doing something? Nope.
Rubbish: nonsense, baloney, hogwash, bull, crap, B.S. (word choice depends on the personality of the character); or garbage or trash, if you’re referring to what you throw away.
Rubbish bin: trash can or garbage can (but we do have recycling bins—don’t ask me why!)
Piss off: We don’t tell people to piss off. Someone might be pissed off, meaning angry, but in this context, we would just say “F” off (the whole word, not just the initial).
Sod off: “F” off, go away, shut up
Happy Christmas: Merry Christmas
Endorsement: license (as in driver’s license)
Queue: We wait in line not in a queue.
Hospital, A&E and Operating Theatre: We go to THE hospital not to hospital. Also, A&E is the emergency room. For example, “Mark’s in the hospital. They took him to the emergency room, and he’s in surgery right now.”
Brilliant or “brill”: We don’t use the word brilliant for great. A color can be brilliant, or an intelligent person might be brilliant, but if we’re happy about something, we would never say, “Brilliant!”
Telephone: We don’t ring people. We call them.
Go: We don’t make a go of it or have another go. We give it a try or give it a shot or do it or try to do it or take another turn.
Hire car: rental car
Suspect: I suspect she’s doing well: no. I imagine (or I think or I guess) she’s doing well: yes.
Touch wood: knock on wood
Lovely: When we say lovely, we are usually being sarcastic. Some women might use it once in a while to genuinely describe something or someone, but it’s not common. Also, men would definitely never say it unless they’re being sarcastic.
Post letters: We don’t post letters. We send or mail them, even though the mail goes through the US “Post” Office. We simply don’t use it as a verb unless we’re talking about posting something online.
I could do with a bath right about now: I could really use a bath.
Lift your game: up your game
Give it a miss: I know what this means, but how would we say it? Maybe, “I’ll sit this one out.” “I think I’ll skip it this time.” “No thanks, not for me.” Depends on the context.
Keep pace: keep up
Kitting up: Maybe suiting up? I’d never heard this one until recently.
For “F’s” sake: That’s one we don’t use. For Christ’s sake, for gd’s sake (not that this is any better!)
Shall: It’s rare that we say shall, although on occasion some of us might. I have before but almost as a joke or as a cute way of saying something.
A coffee is a foreign thing. We drink a cup of coffee, or we drink coffee. Do you drink a tea? No, you drink a cup of tea. (Or a cuppa as you guys say, another thing you’d never hear from us.) “Would you like some tea?” That would work.
Straight away: right away
Trail biking: dirt biking
In due course: in due time, or just plain “soon”
Firstly: first, or first of all
Parked up: parked
Rear vision mirror: rear view mirror
To be keen on someone or something: Dogs have a keen sense of smell, but that’s the most common use of the word “keen” here. We aren’t keen on people, just like we don’t fancy them. We like them, we might have a thing for them, a crush on them—context again.
Have got: have gotten. Go ahead and cringe. I don’t care. If you write American dialog, you have to know it’s gotten.
Holiday: We don’t go on holiday. We take vacations. We use the word holiday in the context of religious or celebratory days like Christmas, Rosh Hashanah or something like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or July 4th .
This is my list for now, but it will grow as I think of more. Be sure and bookmark this article to use as a reference, and if you think of something to add, let me know in the comments.
Bathroom: In the comments, I was reminded of the bathroom differences. In the United States, it is most common to have everything in one bathroom: toilet, sink, shower and/or bathtub. More recently, I have seen some new houses with a door to the toilet, so it’s really a room inside a room. In other words, a toilet room inside the greater bathroom. But this is not nearly as common as the all-in-one.
There are also half-baths, usually the downstairs bathroom in a house. A half-bath only has a toilet and sink, while the full-baths are upstairs (although every house is different, and some houses have all full-baths, even downstairs). People would still call it the same thing, although some women will say “powder room” for that one. Most men would call it a bathroom.
As for the reference word, we never say “loo.” Military or ex-military personnel might call it a latrine. In the home, it’s a bathroom, but in public places, it’s a restroom. (I guess you’re resting while you’re sitting on the toilet!) Some people might call it “facilities,” though not as common. We also never say toilet to refer to the room, as that is only used for the toilet itself. So we wouldn’t say, “I have to use the toilet,” or “I’m going to the toilet.” Instead, “I have to go to the bathroom,” or “I’m going to the restroom. Be right back.”
Whilst: while. Whilst does not exist in America. It’s always while.
Mobile: cell or cellphone
Wing mirrors: side view mirrors
Car boot: trunk
Car bonnet: hood
Car wings: fenders
Gear stick: This is a gear stick in America as well, but it’s usually referred to as just plain “stick.” If you’re teaching someone to drive, for example, you would explain how to move the stick. Now a manual car is called a stick shift, or someone might ask if it’s an automatic or a manual (or a stick shift).
Indicators: Technically, this is correct, but it’s more common to call them turn signals or blinkers. Then there are the flashers, which is when you turn on the hazard lights. (Both flashers and hazard lights are terms used for the same thing.) There are also indicator lights on the dashboard, warning of a problem: check engine light, oil pressure low, etc.
Zebra or pelican crossings: crosswalk (But this is if your character is in America. If the book takes place in Britain, the American would call it whatever it’s called there.)
Tailgating (up my jacksie): We also use tailgating, but up my jacksie would be “up my a**.”
Dates: Not that this would be in dialog, but in case it is, Americans write the month first, then the day, then the year: February 13, 2018 would be 02/13/18. In dialog: “He has a doctor’s appointment on February thirteenth,” or, “He has an appointment on the thirteenth.”
Pram: stroller. The old fashioned kind is a baby carriage, but these days we generally use strollers.
Proper: We also use this word but not as often and not usually the same way. Depending on the sentence, we’d use maybe “really” or “perfect,” something like that. “The carpenter finally made a proper dining room table for his family after years of dealing with a makeshift one.” In a case like this, we’d say “real.”
Chuffed: happy, pleased, excited
Give a toss: give a crap, don’t care
Carriageway: divided highway or just highway or freeway. Southerners may call it a four-lane.
Were or was stood, sat: were standing or sitting or just plain, stood or sat. We simply do not use stood or sat as a past participle and will use a different tense.
Tosh: nonsense, garbage, crap (We seem to use crap a lot!) And we’d rarely say “utter” in everyday language. We’d be more likely to say, “total garbage,” or “total crap,” than “utter nonsense,” although it wouldn’t be unheard of.
Lot (as in “this next lot”): group
Toilet roll: toilet paper
Should have done: should have (without done unless you say, “I should have done it.”)
Round: I see “came round” a lot in British books. “He came round again.” We would say, “He came around again.” Remember Tom Petty’s song, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”? We don’t often leave off the “a” unless you’re really emphasizing someone with a thick accent, maybe from the South. Example: “He went round the back.” Or, “He went round yonder.”
Dressing gown, indoor shoes: A dressing gown is a robe or bathrobe. Indoor shoes might be slippers, unless you’re talking about real shoes that are simply more comfortable.
Precisely: We use this too, but more often than not, we’d say, “exactly.”
Chips: fries or French fries
Excellent: Yes, we use this word, but when you say it in the same way you’d say brilliant, like an exclamation, we’d be more likely to say good or great.
Jacket potato: baked potato
Bang on: right, exactly, exactly right. If it’s a verb as in, “He was banging on about something or other,” we’d say, “He was going on and on…” or “babbling on.”
Tele: television (We don’t shorten it unless we call it a TV.)
Television program: It can be called a program, but we normally say “show” or “TV show” or “television show.” They’re all common. Another example, “Hey, did you see that show on TV last night?”
Dived: Dived is also correct in American English, but “dove” is more commonly used. There is an explanation on Grammarist here.
Third week running: third week in a row
Motorway: expressway, freeway, highway
Petrol: gas or gasoline
Hold-all: duffle bag or gym bag
D.M. Miller is the author of the interfaith “Heart” series as well as the romantic suspense, Mexican Summer, the poetry collection, Dandelion Fuzz and the memoir, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity. The product of an interfaith marriage herself, Miller’s work explores the difficult themes of religion, politics, ethnicity, culture, family, ancestry and love. See her books on Amazon.