Truly Picky British-to-American and American-to-British Giveaways: How to Sound Like You Went to Oxford (or UCLA) Even If You Didn't

By Guest Lecturer Chris

So you know that you look under the hood of a Chevy and the bonnet of an Aston-Martin, you wouldn't make Giles drink coffee (not even Gold Blend), you're aware that America has four time zones and that you use the Tube in London, not the subway. You know that in England, public schools are private, that in the U.S. public are public and private are private, and British football is a lot nastier than the American version. Very good. Pip pip. Whatever.

If you're writing fanfic in a vernacular not your own, you should still get a native-speaking beta-reader to go over your fic. I don't care if you cut your teeth on Agatha Christie while living in Texas, or if you've read every American novel from Raymond Chandler to Jacqueline Susann while growing up in Wales. Even having every episode of "Buffy," "The Prisoner," "JAG" or "The Professionals" memorized is still going to leave gaps in your dialect, if it's not the same as the one you inhaled with your baby food.

Think I'm wrong? Here are a few dead giveaways that have been committed by writers on both sides of the Atlantic (and a few from Australia as well):

Vacation/Holiday: In England, Australia, and Canada, you go on holiday when you have time off from your job. In the U.S., you go on vacation. For Americans, a holiday is something that you get special time off for (if you're lucky) like the Fourth of July or Christmas. For the Brits, a vacation probably has something to do with legal matters and leaving an abandoned building. Don't make your readers expect the fic to take place around Christmas or in a right-of-way if that isn't the case.

Jumper/Sweater: No, a sweater is not some smelly guy who just got done with a five-mile jog. In the U.S., it's an article of clothing, a knit or woven heavy shirt that keeps you warm--or what's often known as a jumper in England or Canada. Strangely, in America a jumper is an entirely different article of clothing--the type of overall-dress most often worn by little girls or female private school students. While it's reasonable for Methos or MacLeod to refer to their articles of clothing as "jumpers," since they're both Brits by accent and attitude, please be aware that the Americans in your audience are going to be getting some strange mental pictures. Unless that's what you planned, of course.

Mom/Mum: veryone should know this one at this by now. Brits and Canadians favor Mum over Mom, and Americans the reverse. Neither is more babyish than the other. (So stop sulking and take the thumb out of your mouth.)

Tin/bag/box of biscuits/cookies: Another one every writer should know. Biscuits are cookies in America, and if you want to put gravy on your biscuits in England, you're going to get some weird looks from the waitress. In the U.S., biscuits are fluffy scone-like things that are pretty tasteless unless you soak them in butter, honey, or gravy. Cookies in the U.S. most often come in bags or boxes, not tins; and when they do come in tins, the tins are called cans or tin boxes. Biscuits in England come in tins fairly often, unless they're Oreos. Oreos are always Oreos.

While/whilst: This is another screaming neon sign to the Americans, which a Brit may never pick up on. No one in the U.S. says "whilst." It's just barely a word here. "While" is the equivalent, and it's multi-useful: you can while away the time, do something while someone does something else, and meanwhile, I can just blither on and on. You get the idea.

Whine/whinge: Don't feel bad about this one; professional writers (on "Farscape") have made the same mistake. "Whinge" is not a word in the U.S., and for the Americans who went "hunh?" during the episode where Crichton used it, it's the same thing as "whine." It is *not* obscene. Brits whinge as well as Americans whine and vice versa.

Pissed/pissed off: English people who've had five too many pints get pissed, and they can still be in a good mood and not in search of a bathroom. Americans who get pissed (or pissed off) are five seconds from punching you in the face, and they haven't had a drop of beer. Brits, please remember that telling an American to piss off is the easiest way to get them pissed off; and Americans, remember that having a Brit tell you to go away in his native tongue isn't always supposed to be obscene. Many fights will be avoided if you remember these differences.

In/at (the) hospital: One of the subtler giveaways. Brits and Canadians say someone is "in hospital" like it's a state of being (which, let's face it, it often is), Americans say "at the hospital" or "in the hospital" like they expect to escape real soon. It's a small, but distinct difference and with as many characters getting hurt all over the fic landscape as there are, it's one to keep in mind.

Lift/elevator: In the U.S., a lift is what you put in your shoes if you're trying to fake some extra height. In England, I'm not sure that elevator is a word at all. Either way, they don't install lifts in New York or elevators in London. If you can't keep it straight? Make your characters take the stairs. More opportunities for them to fall down and end up in (the) hospital that way, anyway.

At/in university/college: Both sides of the pond will refer to their days as prisoners of higher education the same way if they're being specific: "When I was at Oxford/UCLA, I was in the fraternity there..." However, when they're being less specific, differences creep in. Brits and Aussies say "at university," Americans say "at college" or "in college." This probably has something to do with the fact that Great Britain has about 100 accredited universities, and the U.S. has 1,440 colleges and universities that can award higher degrees. (And that's not counting the 2000+ junior/community/technical colleges that can award two-year degrees.)

Brits have senior tutors who serve the same function as residential advisors or course counselors in the U.S., making sure you get all your credits in order, don't flunk out, or get addicted to drugs while you're there. Being 'sent down' from a British school is the same as 'flunking out' or being expelled in America, and usually for the same reasons.

The Brits associate the colleges with the specific departments of the university they went to; Americans have to differentiate between umpty-zillion University of Muckaluck and St. Whoever Colleges that they've never even been to, but which play football every weekend on TV. Therefore, Giles could have gone to Oxford University, Magdalen College--and they were actually the same place; whereas Daniel Jackson went to Northwestern University, and got degrees from the Department of Arts and Social Sciences--which may have been known as the College of Arts and Social Sciences on campus, if you were giving directions.

Clear as mud? Then do your research. They'll both thank you.

Is all this really necessary, you ask? Maybe not. Many a fine fic has been written and read without the above mistakes ruining it for the audience. However, it is an argument for tracking down someone from London or New York to do your beta-reading the first couple times you write in a new non-native-version-of-your-English, just so the much more obvious mistakes aren't made. The ones I've pointed out above are the persistent little ones that no amount of spell-checking in British English (or vice versa) will eradicate, but there are much more egregious errors waiting to be made. If any of the information I spewed out in the first paragraph is news to you, then you need to get a beta-reader who knows the lay of the land--and whether it's in kilometres or miles.

Chris Kamnikar got her first Agatha Christie mystery at twelve, her first Dorothy Sayers novel at fourteen, and reads Jane Austen and E.M. Forster for fun even though she grew up all over the U.S. of A. She admits she's never been to England or Australia, but she's taken pictures of Niagara Falls from the north side. Her addiction to MYSTERY! and BBCAmerica is reportedly under control with medication. Despite all this Brit fascination, she writes fic for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Stargate SG-1" and "Smallville" under the name Christina K on, with nary a "Dr. Who" story in sight. You can check out her personal home page at or write to her at she promises that if you do, she won't tell you how to spell "colour" correctly.

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