British English

Published December 2013

Global publication of eBooks has brought up an issue for English language authors, namely that English is not a global language, but a family of very similar languages or dialects. So should authors seek to release a translation of their American English novel into British English? The answer to that question is likely to be determined by the authors' target readership and the response of that readership to being asked to read different spellings and unusual grammatical constructions. In general, this is something that readers are used to tolerating, because they might buy a copy of a book while on holiday. For example, I have read an eBook version of The Amber Spyglass while in the US. It has US English spellings (e.g., "color"), despite the book being by Philip Pullman, who writes in British English. This eBook was originally downloaded by me from (now Nook) in the days when it had the rights to allow readers based in Britain to download this book. Where there are separate places that the book can be downloaded, then it makes sense to have it rendered into the appropriate version of English (e.g., Amazon stores in America and Britain). This is similar to having print versions that are distributed within those different jurisdictions, where a customer in London (England) would expect a bookshop to sell a British English version of a British author's novel.

This issue is much more complex for self publishers, because whether they publish directly to retailers (e.g., via Kindle Direct Publishing) or via a distributor (like Smashwords), they are supplying one text that will go to, for example, all Amazon stores or all Apple stores. Their only alternative is to upload a separate text that is a translation into an alternative version of English. It is likely that most authors will write in their own English dialect and users of other dialects will accept that. For example, if Philip Pullman had self published The Amber Spyglass, then he would probably have uploaded a British English version that would be downloaded globally, including in the United States. A novel being in a different English dialect is something that readers are used to, but there is also an issue for writers to face. Should the dialect reflect the location of story? This is an issue that I am facing with my work in progress novel, Seattle in Shorts.

The characters are almost exclusively American (even in the one scene set in London), although some where born outside the United States. Apart from an initial scene at London Heathrow Airport and the following scene on the flight to Seattle, everything takes place in Greater Seattle. So would readers expect American English to be used? I remain undecided which way to go. From the narrative viewpoint, I think that American English would be preferable, but from a stylistic viewpoint, I am aware that my fluency is in British English. I used American English terms where the dialogue requires it (e.g., standing in a line, not a queue, at the bar), but retained British spellings. There is a Greater Seattle precedent to this quandary that renders redundant much of what I have written above. Elizabeth George is a traditionally published New York Times best-selling author. She is best known for her crime series of novels set in England, which the BBC turned into the Inspector Lynley TV series. Despite those impeccably British credentials, she is an American, who was born in Ohio, grew up in California and spent the early part of her writing career in that state. She now lives in Whidbey Island, Greater Seattle, after (like me) temporarily living in Capitol Hill, Seattle. She has for years sought to enhance the authenticity of her writing by using British English spellings, although noted that in British editions some of the spellings were changed.

This insistence on British English continues right up to the latest addition to the series, Just One Evil Act. Readers buying the print or eBook edition in America will encounter British spellings, such as when Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers "laboured at her job." Nor is it just in terms of spellings, George has Lynley check his mobile (not his cell phone) and the chapter titles have headings using days before the month, whereas the more American "November 19," George uses the more British "19 November." Although the British usage is not perfect in that she has Lynley reflecting on whether a woman he once knew had "passed," rather than "passed on" or "passed away." So George, an American who has always lived in America, has written a British English novel about a British detective. Elizabeth George's example leads me to think that I should revise Seattle in Shorts (again) and revert to the American English that it was briefly translated into. That means overcoming my worries about my lack of fluency in this dialect, but I already require American beta readers to help with the dialogue and it would probably be useful to have the narration in the same dialect. I have another concern about a switch to American English, namely that my marketing efforts may be more focused on a British readership. They might be disappointed that this Belfast-born Londoner is writing in American English, but then Americans have pushed Elizabeth George into bestseller status, despite her use of British English.