I put a spell on you…..

Botticelli writing detail

Differences in spelling in English as written in the United States and the UK are of academic interest for many but should be of vital interest to writers.

If you’re a US based author, you may have a significant number of readers in the UK. If you’re UK based, it’s highly likely that a majority of your readers are Stateside.

Why does this matter?

Well, the differences in spelling are substantial.

As this article shows, while most UK spellings derive from Samuel Johnson’s French influenced dictionary of 1787, most US spellings were formalised in Webster’s dictionary of 1828 where French influenced spellings were not favoured. Or is that favored? So it was colour for Johnson but color for Webster and theatre for Johnson but theater for Webster.

In this sense we are a single culture separated not by a common language but by two competing dictionaries.

There’s evidence that while many US readers are aware of the differences and know when they’re faced with UK spellings, a significant number are unaware of this and assume that what they are reading is misspelled and poorly edited. This is shown in reviews along the lines: Good story, shame about the spelling; this book could do with a good proofreader. On the other hand, UK readers tend to be a little more tolerant, at least at the level of understanding they are faced with a US English text. Perhaps the difference is accounted for by the fact that UK audiences have a longstanding experience of US comics, newspaper cartoons and other printed matter where they regularly see US English but the same isn’t true for the US where there has been much less experience of UK printed material of that kind.

There’s an answer to this dilemma, drawn from the fact that mainstream publishers have long recognised the need to produce different versions of each book for the US and UK markets.

But indie writers, working on small or nonexistent budgets, have much reduced resources compared with the mainstream. It’s possible to produce different US and UK spelling versions of the same title quite easily using Word. But of course, that’s only half the story. Beyond spelling there are cultural differences in the use of language that won’t be covered by this. So the UK boot of a car needs to be the trunk of an automobile in the US or the kerb of the pavement needs to be the curb of the sidewalk, and so on. A full rewrite of a book might deal with this but that will likely be beyond the ability of most indie authors even if they have sufficient knowledge, given the demands they are under to concentrate on new writing rather than amending what they’ve already done. The additional objection is that even if changes of this kind could be made, the natural character of the author’s use of English could be obscured. UK readers may like US expressions when employed by a US author, and vice versa. US readers may enjoy what they would see as English colloquialisms, as part of the character of the book. It comes down to a matter of fine judgment and expertise.

My advice is as follows. Why present, say, US readers of a UK authored book with spellings that seem wrong, especially when it’s a relatively simple matter to offer a spelling specific version they may find more enjoyable? And vice versa for UK readers of US authored books. Beyond that, and given that most indie writers don’t have the knowledge or resource to go much further, change just the most obvious examples of difference and allow the national character of using kerb rather than curb, for example, to shine through.

Working along these lines, a few weeks back, US English and UK versions of TAKE NO MORE, the first book of my James Blake thriller series, were published. It’s early days yet but the response is interesting….. I’ll say more in a further post.

Seb Kirby

Seb Kirby is the author of the James Blake Thriller series (TAKE NO MORE, REGRET NO MORE and FORGIVE NO MORE) and the Raymond Bridges sci fi thriller series (DOUBLE BIND). He says: "I've been an avid reader from an early age - my grandfather ran a mobile lending library in Birmingham and when it closed my parents inherited many of the books. From the first moment I was hooked. Now, as a full-time writer myself, it's my goal to add to the magic of the wonderful words and stories I discovered back then.

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1 Response

  1. This is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.

    Simple but very accurate information… Many thanks for sharing this one.

    A must read post!

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