Alternate spellings when writing for American characters in an English book


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Thread: Alternate spellings when writing for American characters in an English book

  1. #1

    Question Alternate spellings when writing for American characters in an English book

    All,

    As you probably know, there are words which are pronounced the same but spelled differently in England and America, e.g. Mom and Mum, gray and grey.

    I'm English. I'm wondering how I should write those words when I have American characters speaking.

    For example ...

    'My Mum's hair is grey,' said Obama.

    Or ...

    'My Mom's hair is gray,' said Obama.

    Or maybe only the proper noun should change ...

    'My Mom's hair is grey,' said Obama.

    Obviously, not a distinction that's going to cripple a novel if handled incorrectly, but I'd be interested to learn if there's an accepted approach.

    HC
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  2. #2
    My guess is a copy-editor would recommend a single style, but Cran or Aquilo would be much better placed to answer this.

    If I were writing this, I would definitely spell 'grey' the same way every time. The only exception would be if a character actually pronounced the word differently. I guess, if an American stressed the 'o' in their speech, I would spell it 'Mom'; if a British person stressed the 'u' in their speech, I would spell it 'Mum'.Or, perhaps, that should be: if I really wanted to stress a particular accent in dialogue, I would spell 'Mom/Mum' differently. However, I would probably just pick a single style, personally.

  3. #3
    WF Veteran Riis Marshall's Avatar
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    Hello Harper

    Good question. Maybe I'm rather well-placed to answer this as an American ex-pat who has lived in Britain for thirty years. I write my thrillers for a British readership so I naturally go for British spellings throughout my narrative. No problem.

    The question I think you're asking, though, is for dialogue and specifically how an American would speak. To make an American sound 'American' is not so much a matter of spelling as it is the idiom and specific words and phrases that an American would use. Generally I would use the American idiom unless it would be misunderstood by a British reader.

    So, for example, if a youngish American guy was trying to chat up a youngish British woman, in America he would ask: 'So where do you go to school?' to be met with a frosty reply: 'Oxford, and it's not a school!' So for my British reader, my American guy would ask: 'So, you're at uni?' although this is not the way an American would really ask the question (I hope this is making sense).

    Both Brits and Americans know about car parts: bonnets versus hoods, boots versus trunks, etc, but there are loads more. Brits have the paras, Americans have paratroopers, Brits hold up their trousers with braces, Americans hold up their pants with suspenders. Many of these are fairly subtle: for example, what a Brit would refer to either as small piece of waste ground or a building plot - according to its intended use, an American in most circumstances would refer to either as a vacant lot. The list goes on and on.

    I grew up in Western Pennsylvania in a Class C city with a population of about 35,000 people. Having no Bishop in residence, in Britain this would be a market town, while nearby Evans City with a population of maybe 3000 would be either a large village or a small market town.

    So in general, in dialogue I would use the American word unless the meaning would be unclear to a British reader in which case I would use the British word - or maybe something in-between if that makes any sense.

    I have created an Excel conversion chart for these sorts of things - differences in the words we use not spelling differences. To date it has 489 entries and I continue to add to it almost weekly. If you PM me I am pleased to send it to you if you think it would be helpful.

    All the best with your writing.

    Warmest regards
    Riis
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  4. #4
    Riis is right. It's mostly only if the phrase will be unfamiliar to an international reader would a chance be recommended from native dialogue. (Although, it's worth nothing that dialogue is a privileged form of speech, and if you're not familiar with just what that means, you ideally need to ).

    It's worth just noting... 'Mom' isn't solely American usage. In the West-Midlands, UK, for example, we've been using it since well before the great vowel shift, and it's thought that 'mom' usage migrated over to America from here. I always say and write 'mom', with 'mum/mummy' sounding very wrong on my ear, and probably earning you a 'soft lad' look if you utter 'mum'. Same will go for 'ass' and 'arse'. The latter is considered very vulgar here, so 'ass', certainly around the kids, is preferred, with 'arse' shifting into the more aggressive realms.

    It's the one issue that riles me in reviews. People try to stereotype you and your language use. But if my characters come from the West-Mids, or they've gone regional blending because they travel UK and they use 'mom', then they'll use 'mom'. It's not solely a sign that they are American.
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  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by HarperCole View Post
    All,

    As you probably know, there are words which are pronounced the same but spelled differently in England and America, e.g. Mom and Mum, gray and grey.

    I'm English. I'm wondering how I should write those words when I have American characters speaking.

    For example ...

    'My Mum's hair is grey,' said Obama.

    Or ...

    'My Mom's hair is gray,' said Obama.

    Or maybe only the proper noun should change ...

    'My Mom's hair is grey,' said Obama.

    Obviously, not a distinction that's going to cripple a novel if handled incorrectly, but I'd be interested to learn if there's an accepted approach.

    HC

    I prefer to convey the speaker's accent as much as possible, so I would use the American "mom" and "gray".

    So, "My mom's hair is gray." is what I would use, with the lowercase "m" in "mom".
    Last edited by Jack of all trades; February 29th, 2016 at 08:37 PM. Reason: putting in a missing quote

  6. #6
    Just to chime in quickly,

    Regional differences .

    'Mom' is most commonly used in America and other countries but, if you ask someone from the South they might tell you 'Ma' or 'Momma'. I tend to say 'Ma' in informal conversations.

    If you have an American audience, use common idioms. Honestly, I don't mind either spelling.
    Last edited by TheWonderingNovice; March 2nd, 2016 at 11:12 PM.
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  7. #7
    After learning multiple languages and their cultures throughout my secondary and post-secondary education, I can also agree that regional differences play an important role. I have read books with southern accents, and others with British accents. Make sure it compliments the characters. It also helps to understand the regional location of the setting before assuming the descriptive details. I find it fascinating that the regional differences carry a variety of slang with them as well.

  8. #8
    Question regarding capitalization.

    1) My mom has gray hair.

    Vs.

    2) My Mom has gray hair.

    I was taught that #1 is correct.

  9. #9
    "Mom" should be capitalised when it stands in for a name. So (1) is correct and (2) is incorrect. But this ...

    3) I noticed that Mom has gray hair.

    ... would be correct.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by HarperCole View Post
    "Mom" should be capitalised when it stands in for a name. So (1) is correct and (2) is incorrect. But this ...

    3) I noticed that Mom has gray hair.

    ... would be correct.

    Thanks. I frequently see #2 around here. I just wondered if rules had changed or something.

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