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Should I Write in British or American English?

British and American EnglishIt’s not an easy decision: which version of English to use (and lose)? George Bernard Shaw famously referenced Britain and America as “divided by a common language.” The question is where to put the stress, on ‘common’ or ‘divided?’ Ultimately for consistency, a choice is needed.

This would be easy if readers contained their reading habits within national boundariesnot so today. I struggled with this decision while writing my first two novels, The Knight of New Orleans and The Murderess and the Hangman. To avoid any compromise, I actually produced two versions, one with British English and one with American. I now see this as impractical. What do do in the future?

I was born and brought up in England, but left for the US twelve years ago at the age of twenty-six, so I feel pretty healthily split between the two ‘languages,’ healthy enough to feel that my decision isn’t rejecting one side of the Atlantic. Yes, British chums, I’ve decided to write entirely in US English for The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes onward, namely for all my short stories. Plus for my novel American Con Artist.

The reason? First, I live in America, and second, most of my readers by consequence know me as based in America. That’s pretty much the top and bottom of it. Approximately half my stories are set in America, half in Britain, and I will always return to both countries in person and in my fiction. My first novel was set in New Orleans, but also took place in New York, London and Paris; my second novel was set mostly in London, but my third will be split between the US and the island of Ibiza. So arguably I retain a European-American balancing act in terms of location.  But I had to make a decision about the language, and while I’m not at all comfortable leaving British English behind in my fiction, it’s an exciting challenge to write in American English correctly.

At the same time, I cannot help but use British-isms as they get called here: the phrases, the lingo, the slang, and the sayings will always be with me. So this is the compromise: while I write technically in US English, I think and express the style of my writing in both British and American English. I just can’t help the British voice sneaking in, even while I focus on the American precision at the same time. While one loses the ancient idiosyncrasies of British Englisha strange kind of comfortone gains the precision and directness of American English.

My advice to writers is to make a choice, and write solely in that kind of English, and there are countless versions of English around the world. You will end up with the regional and local inflections of your writing voice, reflected in the voices of your characters. One rule that hasn’t changed is that characters and their backgrounds are more important than the pedantry of linguistic accuracy: there is no absolute 100% accurate version of English. It remains an evolving beast, a living animal at any point in time. So embrace the multiplicity of English! Try and unify your chosen ‘normalized’ version to within one national boundary, for the sake of consistency alone, but don’t expect your readers to see your style as anything but multiple. How else would you be an individual writer?

Happy deliberating over local, regional and national languages(s). The question never quite goes away!