Dialect fail in books - your help?

Something I've been meaning to ask you: could you help me in finding material for a talk I'll be doing soon?

I'm giving a talk called Whose Language Is It Anyway? at the first Brighton Book Festival ("Bookstock") on 9 June (click the Whose... link for details). Since it's a book festival, I'd like talk about some books. So I'm looking for examples of dialogue, first-person narration or anything, really, in which the dialectal features of the character are not right.  Really what I want are examples of US authors getting UK dialects wrong or UK authors getting US dialects wrong...but things from other anglophone countries might be helpful too.

(What I don't need is film dialogue or film accents, thanks!)


So, has any bad dialect representation stuck in your head? It'd be really helpful if you could provide author and title info with the examples. And if you read anything relevant before the 9th (or after, even), I'd love to hear about it.

And, of course, there is the possibility that some examples may be intentional.  When a UK book is published in the US, for instance, some unfamiliar words might be changed for the US audience (as famously happened for Harry Potter--warning there are a lot of errors at the link. Part way through the list, they seem to have reversed 'US' and 'UK').  It must happen in the other in the other direction too--so if you'd like to point any of those out, I'd be grateful. (The one I can think of is that Melanie Gerth's children's book Ten Little Ladybugs is Ten Little Ladybirds in the UK--and from what I can tell on the internets, the book is originally American.  And that tells you all you need to know about why I need help finding books. I haven't had time to read a novel since maternity leave. I look forward to reading my next one in retirement.)

So, have you got/do you have any examples for me? I'd love your help... 

90 comments

  1. I don't have any specific examples from my own experience (I read a lot of historical fiction, so I tend to notice anachronisms like "knocked unconscious" showing up way too early); but one writer that I've heard BrE speakers complain about is Elizabeth George.

    There's a review on Amazon for her most recent book that says "Sometimes it shows that EG is an American, writing about life in England. In this novel, I was struck every time by her use of "tailback" for traffic congestion, or a traffic jam. It's a word derived from American football and is not in common use in England. It jarred." I've certainly never heard that use in AmE either, so I'm not sure if the reviewer (a New Zealander) was just wrong about the BrE usage, or if George invented it.

    Anyway, I just wanted to suggest that if you get some authors names you might find other examples among the reviews on Amazon, and the Search Inside feature is quite useful for mining exact quotes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. No it appears that "tailback" means one thing in American football and independently means quite another thing in BrE.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will get you the name of the correct novel, but one that might have some useful chunks is a novel from the 'Thrush Green' series by English author Mrs. Dora Saint, who writes under the pen name of 'Miss Read'. In one of her books, an American businessman who is distantly related to one of her characters shows up in the village to learn a bit about his late Godmother. This particular novel was written in the 90s or early 2000 I believe, and whenever I re-read it, the American's dialogue always rings a little false to me. At one time, he's offering to pay for some renovations to the village church, and when the vicar protests about the cost, he says he doesn't mean to be 'boastful' but 'my old Pa left me a heap of dollars.' That might have passed muster in the 1860s Wild West (although I doubt it) but I don't think it rings true at all for a modern American businessman. There are several other instances that sound to me like someone (not American) imagining what an American might say in a given situation. Does this sound like something useful to you?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan not that long ago and there was an American character early in the book, at first I was impressed the Buchan had the character correctly use the word "gotten" but then a little later he had him say "government are" instead of "government is".

    ReplyDelete
  5. I read a lot of kidlit and YA. Two recent examples that stand out are an American in the third Evil Genius book saying "you aren't meant to do that" and in Billionaire's Curse, a boy raised in America since he was six months old complaining on and about giving up his "holiday" to go to a relative's funeral.

    But here's one that sorta fits as well. Trouble Twisters, which isn't a great book, the kids go from one part of the US to another, and for some reason in both parts they refer to a slide as a "slippery dip". The narration does as well, and they only use the term "slide" once, presumably as a sop for those kids who have never heard the much more uncommon term. In this case I can only imagine it's a term common in one part of the country. (Sorta like how Minnesota-born Beverly Cleary had her Oregon kids playing "Duck Duck White Duck" instead of "Duck Duck Goose" in Ramona the Pest!)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I immediately thought of John Le Carré's American CIA agents in The Russia House. In his recording of this book, the accents are odd. But much may be explained away as conflating US accents, Boston with Southern, with the vaguely-southern of military trained men. Certainly many career military people really do have very odd speech patterns, mangling English uniquely. Look for Quinn and Sheriton in particular. I don't think it's wrong so much as a skewed sample or an accurate recording of an idiosyncratic individual, since Le Carré usually has a very fine tuned ear.

    In short, no, I can't give you a good example for your purposes. Sorry.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The Terror by Dan Simmons is littered with AmE in the speech of British/Irish characters(/people, I suppose, as it's historical fiction). Sentences like "I swear to God that if you've gotten frostbitten again, I'll dock you a month's Discovery Service pay and write your mother to boot." are common, and the profanity they use feels distinctly AmE to me (I'm not sure I can say specifically why, although I think the frequent "God damn!"s have something to do with it), though the he does at least write "arse" instead of "ass".

    ReplyDelete
  8. I haven't got any examples (at least at the moment!) but I have to say that I actually purchased the Harry Potter books from the UK because I couldn't stand how they had changed things for the US versions! I was so happy when the proper Harry Potter books arrived (I do have both sets, US & UK, but will always prefer the originals).

    ReplyDelete
  9. In the Da Vinci Code, as though the book isn't bad enough, the character of Sir Leigh Teabing says things that sound like British by way of Scooby Doo: "Your honour, forgive an eccentric old knight his foolish prejudice for the British court system. I realize I should have called the French authorities, but I'm a snob and I do not trust those laissez-faire French to prosecute properly. This man almost murdered me. Yes, I made a rash decision forcing my manservant to help me bring him to England, but I was under great stress. Mea culpa. Mea culpa."

    ReplyDelete
  10. The gangsters in John Dickson Carr's "The Eight of Swords" speak in spectacularly bad American (even though Carr was born in Pennsylvania.

    ReplyDelete
  11. There's a blog post comment thread here concerning some of the US/Br Eng and cross-cultural mistakes in Connie Willis books (and some other suggestions). May be of help?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I recently re-read Nevil Shute's _The Trustee from the Toolroom_, which features several American characters and was frequently jarred by some of their unlikely dialogue. As Nevil Shute was such a good writer, it made these moments of disconnect even more incongruous. As a reader of books in the romance and mystery genre, my cup runneth over with examples of poor writing of UK English by US authors. I do find myself hard-pressed to come up with an example, as there are just so many. In the romance genre, as so many instances of US writers trying to write UK dialogue are in in the sub-genre of historical romance there is yet more room for hilarity. Two specific examples of otherwise good writers who tend to fail utterly when writing UK dialogue are Jude Devereaux and Johanna Lindsey. I am also currently reading a short story by Kathleen E. Woodwiss that features a character who was purportedly born into the aristocracy in England in or around 1810 but who is apparently named 'Raelynn'. Take from that what you will.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I forgot to mention in my previous comment that I find that these incongruencies are most disconcerting to me when they turn up in the work of writers who are otherwise very good. As such I would consider Elizabeth George to be a good example, and Dan Brown to be a poor one. Dan Brown can't write particularly good dialogue in *any* dialect, so if he writes bad BrE I don't really notice.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Lymme:
    This is off the top of my head, because the books aren't handy, but two English authors come to mind.

    In some of his later Bond books Ian Fleming's CIA character Felix Leitner or Leiter interactsa with Bond. Leitner's American idiom is off in a number of examples. Also, Jack Higgens has an Irish hero in some of his recent thrillers where he deals with Americans and the idiom is off again. Wish I could give chapter and verse, but I hope this helps.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I recall a lot of bad American dialogue in Brian Aldiss' writing. The book that I really recall having some awful examples (such as an American calling mount-to-mouth resuscitation "the kiss of life") is An Island Called Moreau, but I may just be remembering that particular novel (as opposed to his others) since it was so bad in other ways as well.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The authors of British cozy mysteries, notably Sayers and Christie (whom I love otherwise) have Americans who are, in the words of Isaac Asimov, invariably named Hiram and speak a variety of English unknown to humankind. Here's Mr. John P. Milligan, a big stiff in business from Chicago and suspect in Whose Body?, talking to Peter Wimsey's mother (the year is 1923):

    "Well, now," he said, "I guess it's as interesting for us business men to meet British aristocrats as it is for Britishers to meet American railway kings, Duchess. And I guess I'll make as many mistakes talking your kind of talk as you would make if you were tryin' to run a corner in wheat in Chicago. Fancy now, I called that fine lad of yours Lord Wimsey the other day, and he thought I'd mistaken him for his brother. That made me feel rather green."

    [...]

    "I was very much gratified by Lord Peter's suggestion," pursued Mr. Milligan, "for which I understand you are responsible, and I'll surely be very pleased to come any day you like, though I think you're flattering me too much."

    [...]

    "Well, Duchess, I guess that's where a lady with a real, beautiful, old-fashioned soul has the advantage of these modern young blatherskites—there aren't many men who wouldn't be nice—to her, and even then, if they aren't rock-bottom she can see through them."

    [...]

    "Oh, that's nothing," said Mr. Milligan, "we haven't any fine old crusted buildings like yours over on our side, so it's a privilege to be allowed to drop a little kerosene into the worm-holes when we hear of one in the old country suffering from senile decay. So when your lad told me about Duke's Denver I took the liberty to subscribe without waiting for the Bazaar."

    [...]

    "Sure thing," said Mr. Milligan, with great promptness. "Lord Peter said you'd let me know for sure about the date, but we can always make time for a little bit of good work anyway. Of course I'm hoping to be able to avail myself of your kind invitation to stop, but if I'm rushed, I'll manage anyhow to pop over and speak my piece and pop back again."

    Yeesh.

    ReplyDelete
  17. And here is H.L. Mencken around the same time, reporting on a variety of other English authors, mostly now forgotten, in the second edition of The American Language:

    Every English author who attempts to render the speech of American characters makes a mess of it. H. G. Wells’ American in “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” is only matched by G. K. Chesterton’s in “Man Alive.” Even Kipling, who submitted the manuscript of “Captains Courageous” to American friends for criticism, yet managed to make an American in it say “He’s by way of being a fisherman now.”

    The late Frank M. Bicknell once amassed some amusing examples of this unanimous failing [footnote: "The Yankee in British Fiction", Outlook, Nov. 19, 1910]. Max Pemberton, in a short story dealing with an American girl’s visit to England, makes her say: “I’m right glad…. You’re as pale as spectres, I guess…. Fancy that, now! … You are my guest, I reckon, … and here you are, my word!” C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, in depicting a former American naval officer, makes him speak of saloon-corner men (corner-loafers?). E. W. Hornung, in one of his “Raffles” stories, introduces an American prize-fighter who goes to London and regales the populace with such things as these: “Blamed if our Bowery boys ain’t cock-angels to scum like this …. By the holy tinker! … Blight and blister him! … I guess I’ll punch his face into a jam pudding …. Say, sonny, I like you a lot, but I sha’n’t like you if you’re not a good boy.”

    The American use of way and away seems to have daunted many of the authors quoted by Mr. Bicknell; several of them agree on forms that are certainly never heard in the United States. Thus H. B. Marriott Watson makes an American character say: “You ought to have done business with me away in Chicago,” and Walter Frith makes another say: “He has gone way off to Holborn,” “I stroll a block or two way down the Strand,” “I’ll drive him way down home by easy stages,” and “He can pack his grip and be way off home.”

    ReplyDelete
  18. Recent, no, but if you read 19th century English fiction the American characters all talk as though they're from Arkansas.

    ReplyDelete
  19. June 9 drop-dead date, eh? OK, time enough for me to re-read Martha Grimes's 'Help the Poor Struggler' for glaring examples. (Not to disparage Grimes, for she's a deft painter of character in few brush-strokes). She's cunning too. One of her characters is Chief Superintendent Macalvie, who is conveniently a fan of American cop-speak. Thus she can excuse any lapse on this propensity.

    The problem here is that when Macalvie was a constable, he'd have been laughed off the beat long before being promoted to sergeant, much less ch.supt.

    Interesting that others have singled out Elizabeth George. When I first read her, I didn't know she was from the California coast. The first page was so full of distinct Briticisms I began to smell a rat. My first thought was "Why is this author trying so hard to sound British?" (Not to disparage EG, for her Lynley series measures up well against P.D.James at her best).

    Certainly both Grimes and George measure up well against Agatha Christie, inasmuch as Christie's characters are far more improbable, even though somehow 'authentic'.

    I'm dubious about Grimes's title "Help the Poor Struggler". It's the name of a pub. There are many strange pub names, but this one stretches belief. Just because there are many odd ones doesn't mean you can invent any name you want.

    But now I'm sounding trvial and churlish. So...back to the "Struggler".

    ~~~Peter M. (Easthampton, Mass.) (BrE transplanted to WMass via Florida.)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Elizabeth George does do it very well, but there are a few things that give her away - in one book, she refers to primary-school children as "Students"; in another, her characters talk of going to West Sussex; and in a third, the whole story is absolutely ruined for me by the main action taking place in the car park at the Lee Valley Ice Rink, which I happen to know quite well, and she has so obviously never been there - her story is actually impossible!

    Connie Willis does it badly; in one story, the protagonist was struggling to afford dental treatment for his 9-year-old daughter. A very little research would have told her that children in this country receive such treatment free on the National Health!

    And yes, most British writers' portrayals of Americans betray their prejudices. For really improbable ones, try Nancy Mitford's "Don't Tell Alfred"!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I have an example of an author carefully avoiding getting dialogue subtly wrong: Neil Gaiman wrote in a foreword to one of his novels, I think American Gods, that although he has lived in the US for a long time he wanted to express his gratitude to an American who had done him the kindness of editing his book specifically for Britishisms in the dialogue.

    I've often wondered why producers of stage shows don't seem to do that, as some actors with very good American accents often just don't know how some words sound and the effect comes crashing down when they get a word or two wrong.

    That said, British actors collectively perform vastly better American accents than American actors do British accents.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I suspect that the Sayers examples cited are deliberate (i.e. parodies of poor British representations of American speech): there is a lot of irony in the Wimsey books.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Bertie Wooster's Americanisms sometimes jar. They can be explained by the fact that he has spent time in New York and may be presumed to have picked up some of the local idiom, but one does get the impression that Wodehouse, having lived so long in the U.S., was losing touch with what was and was not British usage.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Dave Leavens22 May, 2011 12:02

    Lee Child's novels about Jack Reacher are loaded with improbable English. Lee Child is British (real name: Jim Grant), but his character, Jack Reacher is an American who, after being raised a military brat and then serving overseas in the military, doesn't really know America very well. So, Reacher might be in a car that pulls into the "kerb." He will say "tidy" rather than "neat"; "verge" rather than "shoulder"; and so on.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss has a character raised in the US despite his French father and British mother from somewhere around London--who persists in saying "me mum". ("I love me mom." "...I spent the whole holiday with me mum.")

    ReplyDelete
  26. I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing you had in mind, but it's a dialect fail of the worst kind. I was going to simply write it all out here, and on my own blog, I certainly would, but I thought I'd perhaps better just point in the general direction and let you do your own writing-up as you see fit:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_Then_There_Were_None

    ReplyDelete
  27. I wish I could help you out here but I'll I've got is a YouTube video of some British guy attempting to speak "Merican."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpJ3yzUPbL0&feature=related

    ReplyDelete
  28. I think that Wodehouse knew the difference between BrE slang and AmE slang and made good use of (some varieties of) both. Some of his AmE slang jars in the sense that it is dated and the modern reader cannot tell whether he got it quite right. And it's true that Bertie Wooster comes out with an Americanism from time to time; but I think that Bertie is the sort of person who would pick up transatlantic slang. Also, the writing may have been largely for an American audience, and that influences the slang choices in various, to my mind, legitimate ways.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I think we agree that much of Bertie Wooster's use of U.S. slang etc. works, and that much is intentional (and skillfully deployed); also that it is generally in character. (These categories overlap, tho' they may not be identical.)

    But my point is that there are instances where one has one's doubts ....

    You raise the question of dated American slang. Some of Wodehouse's British slang is certainly dated (as are other things). Even granted that he wasn't writing social history (his metier being, as he put it, musical comedy without the music), the post-War Jeeves books seem an uneasy compromise.

    ReplyDelete
  30. THANK YOU ALL! This is FANTASTIC!!

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  31. The Lionboy novels by “Zizou Corder” stumble over the American South’s “y’all” and other details.

    ReplyDelete
  32. the post-War Jeeves books seem an uneasy compromise.

    Yes, his later works are disappointing, and I think I might agree as to the reason, but would you care to elaborate, Sir Watkyn, I mean Watkin.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Someone upthread mentioned Martha Grimes - I have a feeling I read one book of hers, once, and found it totally unreadable because she got things so wrong, but I can't remember details. It may have been her who had her policemen call on "The Widow so-and-so"....

    ReplyDelete
  34. Re. Sayers, I agree that to some extent Sayers is playing with stereotypes here, but, and I appreciate that if Lynne only wants trans-atlanticisms this won't help, I think she definitely gets dialect wrong when she is portraying working-class characters from areas of the country she doesn't know, and writing their dialect phonetically. The Yorkshire of "Clouds of Witness" is particularly grim.

    There's a very entertaining analysis of a US author with a tin ear for local speech (among other things) here: http://yonmei.insanejournal.com/1008647.html?thread=863751 The critique is also unforgettable for the line "Are they Catholic werewolves or Protestant werewolves?".

    Nineveh_uk

    ReplyDelete
  35. Martha Grimes' name has often come up in this thread. I can't remember *which* of her books it was, but a nasty British industrialist appeared on the golf course arrayed in "knickers" and a "vest."

    Mind you, I suspect that this was sabotage by the copy editor.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Lionel Shriver's "The Post-Birthday World" has one character who is an English snooker player - her representation of the way he speaks sounds incredibly off to me, although I'm afraid I don't have book to hand so can't give concrete examples. Also, as a child I read the British editions of the American-originating Babysitters' Club books, which had small amounts of vocabulary changed to fit in with common British usage. ("Kristy and the Dirty Diapers" became "Kristy and the Nasty Nappies", for instance.) It confused me horribly - I knew Americans did speak differently, and seeing them saying "Mum" and so on made me feel I couldn't trust the books to give an accurate portrayal of their language, and I couldn't be sure whether anything was right or wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  37. (Also, Connie Willis is very good, and her books are set in the near future, but I still found it quite jarring to hear an English teenage boy referring to his "muffler".)

    ReplyDelete
  38. (Unless, of course, said boy was referring to his scarf!) I got VERY confused as a young adult reading Ruth Doan MacDougall's "The Cheerleader" in which a character tries to "beat off his muffler with a cold chisel", and could only assume his scarf had somehow frozen to the engine block!

    ReplyDelete
  39. a nasty British industrialist appeared on the golf course arrayed in "knickers" and a "vest."

    ...which immediately makes every British person of a certain age think sympathetically, "Oh dear, had he forgotten his PE kit?"

    ReplyDelete
  40. (Unless, of course, said boy was referring to his scarf!)

    He was, as it happens; I've just never heard a younger British person calling a scarf that. Perhaps it's just my dialect, though.

    ReplyDelete
  41. 'Help The Poor Struggler' may be an unusual name for a pub, but it is a real one. It was situated in Oldham, Lancashire and was run by the executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Ok I am leaving a pointless comment because I can't help but I wanted to add that it seems crazy that this happens at all. I worked as a reader for a literary agent for a while and as she took manuscripts from both UK and US authors, and as I lived in the UK for quite a while at that point I could always tell the difference--and I could tell when they 'went wrong' when trying to write about characters from the other country. Editors should employ readers to prevent this!

    ReplyDelete
  43. I hope it's okay for a stranger to comment with a Scottish instance - and yes, I am in fact Scottish.

    Kelley Armstrong has a couple of noticeable examples in the Women of the Otherworld novels. I think she's a Canadian author. In 'Industrial Magic' she has a Scottish deity called Esus, who speaks with a phonetic accent; it just doesn't work. The most jarring part is her use of 'thocht' as a spelling of 'though' - 'thocht' would be the Scottish pronunciation of 'thought'.

    Tangentially, I also find it hilarious when a US author describes a British gentleman as going out in public wearing pants and suspenders ...

    ReplyDelete
  44. A follow-up to @littlered2: In her newest book, "So Much for That," Lionel Shriver--an American who has lived in England and Northern Ireland for many years--puts some strangely BrE terms in the mouths of her AmE-speaking characters. Jan Freeman published a good post on this: http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/2011/04/fish-slice-blancmange-pong-how-bre-is.html

    ReplyDelete
  45. It was that post of Jan's that made me think to add some on dialect fail to my talk! :)

    Keep'em coming! They're great!

    ReplyDelete
  46. One that drives my crazy, both in books and on TV, is the use of the term "Californian Coast" instead of "California Coast."

    Insert other states in the place of California and other nouns (actress, governor, wine, etc) in the place of coast and you have something that sets my teeth on edge.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I remember reading a Robin Pilcher book with an American main character which had particularly jarring bad American English. My roommate and I both noticed and commented on it. And it must have been published just in the past few years, I don't think he's been writing long. I'd go back and read it for you but I'm on a long trip away from my bookshelves, sorry!

    ReplyDelete
  48. Almost any Dick Francis novel released in the US has had some work done to it to make it more understandable to the average American.

    Jill mentions Neil Gaiman, but I wonder if he had any control over the release of his co-written Good Omens, which is set in the UK, staring (predominantly) UK characters and seems at times to have had several words a page swapped out for legibility (I don't have my copy handy or I'd quote some).

    The other co-author of that book, Terry Pratchett, is notable for *not having his texts tampered with when they cross the pond - with the former exception of course.

    There are also the Mary Russel books by Laurie R. King (American writing Holmesian books set predominantly in the UK). Mostly she gets away with it as her main character is American by birth and early upbringing, so you'd expect the occasional fluff, but by her novel Justice Hall it seemed like everyone was of American birth - especially noticeable as she's writing about the British aristocracy, so the occasional Americanism was particularly jarring (again I don't have the book handy - curses).

    ReplyDelete
  49. I've been wondering about Laurie Graham, who is English, but many of whose books are written in 1st person American - "The importance of being Kennedy", "Gone with the Windsors" and so on. I (BrE) am obviously not in a position to know whether she has made any glaring mistakes, but they do ring pretty true to me.

    ReplyDelete
  50. American historical romance writers are usually the worst, they invariably have Lords and Ladies sitting down for breakfast in the servants quarters. One author even talked about finding a skunk in the English Countryside.

    However the worst American/English accent in films must go to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

    ReplyDelete
  51. U.S. techno-thriller author Tom Clancy's attempts at writing UK and Irish dialects and overall speech patterns are, for the most part, pathetic. The worst of it comes out in Patriot Games (his ham-fisted, Gary Stu-ltified take on the IRA in general and its paramilitary branches in particular), but it creeps into The Hunt for Red October (where the Royal Navy plays a not-insignificant role) and some of his lesser-known books.

    ReplyDelete
  52. "However the worst American/English accent in films must go to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins."

    I take it you never saw "Bram Stoker's Dracula" with Winona Ryder and (shudder) Keanu Reaves?

    ReplyDelete
  53. "Me mum" is a spelling thing rather than a dialect thing. I used to think Americans said "Mom" until I actually met some. Most of them seem to say something that I would spell as Mum or Mam or even Ma'am, but not Mom. To English English speakers (sorry!) the spelling "Mom" suggests the short-o vowel we'd use in words like "God" or "dog" which many - probably most - North American English speakers don't have at all.

    ReplyDelete
  54. Yes, but there are people here in the US who say Mommy and there are others (not so many) who say Mummy. Our Mommy may sound more like Mahmy than like anything you would write as Mommy, but it ain't Mummy.

    ReplyDelete
  55. HarlequiNQB mentioned Dick Francis, which brings up my favorite "totally missed the mark" example, unfortunately not language related. In one book (can't remember which), the main character says he liked visiting Jackson Hole, Wyoming, because he could openly wear his gun without drawing attention because that was so common. I grew up in the area and have been visiting the town my entire life. I've never seen anyone openly carrying a gun around town. (Guns on racks in the back windows of pick-up trucks being a totally different issue.) He then drove north out of Jackson Hole and got to Palisades Lake, which is south of town. As so many have said, it would be a good idea to have someone locally knowledgeable check your novel prior to publication.

    ReplyDelete
  56. Another vote here for Martha Grimes as an American trying to write English-set stories and failing spectacularly. I bought a copy of "I Am The Only Running Footman" because I have fond memories of the pub. It's obvious she visited the pub herself -- the descriptions are detailed and personal -- but her understanding of English life in general is shaky.

    The only specific memory I can dredge up from that book is a character eating "teacake" with a fork.

    If I can find it and stand reading through it again, I'll look for more errors.

    ReplyDelete
  57. Ken Brown: Like Ø said, I use exactly the same vowel in "Mommy" as I use in "dog," "box," and so forth. But it's probably not a vowel you use, so you might well think I'd said "Mum."

    ReplyDelete
  58. Julie, it's more complicated than that. I use the same vowel in mom that I use in box, but I use a different one in dog!

    ReplyDelete
  59. Mum dialogue: This is great! I was more struck by "me" (in place of standard "my") than "mum". Though the character in question could have picked up some elements of his mother's dialect but not others, most of the descriptions of both his and his mothers' speech fits connotations and stereotypes of RP rather than, say, Cockney. I found it jarring. I could be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  60. The American authors (Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows)of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society tell us that they worked very hard to make the book sound British - it is an epistolary novel, of which the best-known is American (Daddy Long Legs), and of course it is set in 1946, so we expect the language to be different from now. Nevertheless, the publishers should have picked up the solecisms such as referring to the vicar as Reverend Bloggs (should be Mr Bloggs in speech, The Rev Bloggs when written), and characters in Guernsey with names such as Eli, Clovis and Dawsey .... as for serving peach juice - in 1946? are you kidding?! It is regarded as exotic even now in the UK, let alone after 5 years of Nazi occupation.
    Writing 'are you kidding?' reminds me that those words could easily have been used in the UK in 1946 (but not in the Channel Islands!) where there had been direct contact with American soldiers or with American movies.

    ReplyDelete
  61. solecisms such as referring to the vicar as Reverend Bloggs (should be Mr Bloggs in speech, The Rev Bloggs when written)

    This is a bit muddled. The latter is also a solecism.

    To quote Crockford's Clerical Directory, the following are acceptable ways of addressing Church of England clergy:

    a. The Reverend A B Smith
    b. Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith (unless it is known that some other style is preferred - the title Vicar or Rector is acceptable only if the person so addressed really is the incumbent of the parish where you live or worship)
    c. The Reverend A B Smith at the first mention, and Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith thereafter

    Notes

    The form 'Reverend Smith' or ‘The Reverend Smith’ should not be used in UK English. If the Christian name or initials are not known, the correct forms are:

    a. The Reverend -- Smith, or The Reverend Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith
    b. Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith
    c. The Reverend Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith at the first mention, and Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Smith thereafter

    Rev and Revd are acceptable abbreviations for Reverend in any of these contexts.

    ReplyDelete
  62. Hi Lynne,
    maybe not what you are looking for but a good anecdote concerning James Bond. The original title of the film Licence to Kill was Licence Revoked. Bond's CIA friend Felix is kidnapped and Bond goes rogue in order to free him. However the American distributors claimed that no American would understand the term Revoked and so gave the film with a title with precisely the opposite meaning.

    ReplyDelete
  63. Not in a book, but this shows an interesting peculiarity of AmE: http://twitpic.com/53fm8y

    ReplyDelete
  64. Ø, I know the difference you mean, but I can't pronounce it and I'm not sure which words fall into which class. I'd forgotten that "dog" falls into the other one for people who do make that distinction.

    Here in California, most people don't use that vowel, and I never learned it. On the other hand, my husband, just as Californian as I am, does maintain that distinction...and, unless I'm listening very carefully, both vowels sound the same to me.

    ReplyDelete
  65. I believe it is in Sayers' novels, but ubiquitous. English writers wishing to signal American dialect tend to write "I reckon..."
    Strangely, I (an American born and bred) associate this usage with cowboy films; but had never, ever heard it in real life (despite my father BEING AN ACTUAL COWBOY) until I went to England and heard several people (including my Oxford educated husband-to-be) using it casually and colloquially. I found it very quaint. But it only ADDED to the mystery of why English writers I read use it as a sort of token marker for Amerispeak. ??

    ReplyDelete
  66. re: reckon

    The only time I have heard it from an American mouth is in Appalachia (specifically SW Virginia, where I went to school.)

    Of course there "I reckon" is more like "Ah reckin"

    ReplyDelete
  67. I'm an avid reader of a couple of English music magazines (Uncut and Mojo), and it always strikes me as bizarre when they interview American musicians and change their Americanisms to Britishisms in direct quotes (Mum for Mom, "was sat" for "was sitting," etc. ... Likewise, I remember reading an article in a British newspaper a few years ago in which they'd interviewed some folks in a heavily Latino part of Los Angeles about the arrival of a Fresh & Easy store (American version of Tesco's) and one of the people quoted referred to the "car park" across the street. I seriously doubt it!

    Why change Americanisms to Britishisms in direct quotes? It's not like English readers would be flummoxed over the words "Mom" or "parking lot"!

    ReplyDelete
  68. Catanea - I agree that 'reckon' is BrE rather than AmE - I have heard it many times in the UK in contexts such as 'we reckon we know what we're doing'; 'he reckons he is the greatest thing since sliced bread'; 'he reckons to be the local expert' - the US equivalent is surely 'I guess', which actually conveys far more certainty than a Brit would with the same words; 'I guess I know where I'm going' and so on. But perhaps the 'guess' usage is too difficult for UK readers to understand, and so is translated to 'reckon'?

    ReplyDelete
  69. 'Reckon' was one of the first things I blogged: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/06/reckon-and-figure.html

    ReplyDelete
  70. And when will we have the comparisons that include Canadian English? It is quite diverse even within the country itself.

    ReplyDelete
  71. Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn. It's set in nineteenth century Yorkshire. The author must have come across references to people in Yorkshire saying 'tha' and uses it frequently. Unfortunately she does not realise it means 'you' and frequently has the locals using it as a contraction of 'that'

    ReplyDelete
  72. I have mercifully forgotten both author and title, but it was surely an American who believed that a marquess was the wife of a marquis.

    A general note: I don't think you should expect the narrator of a story written by an American and set in the U.K. to use BrE, or vice versa. Some of the comments here seem to suggest that as a problem.

    ReplyDelete
  73. Robin McKinley's Pegasus (Side note: don't read it. It basically ends in the middle of a scene and the sequel isn't out until next year.) is a fantasy novel that doesn't take place in the US or the UK. The author is American but has been living in the UK for twenty years. The book has a random smattering of Britishisms that aren't cultural at all, just vocabulary, which really makes them stand out. The most difficult for me to parse was "round corners of rock," which I only figured out meant "around corners of rock" from the parallelism with the rest of the sentence: "Everywhere they went there were more groups of pegasi, who came as if from nowhere to see them - they always appeared from round corners of rock, or up steep paths or through trees, never flying overhead."

    ReplyDelete
  74. Is it too late to add the old joke about a Texan who returned to his ancestral village and made a generous donation to the fund for urgent repairs to the church roof? He was mortified to hear the vicar (Rev. A.J. Bloggs on first meeting) raise up prayers of 'thanks for this succour from abroad'....

    ReplyDelete
  75. I like your blog and just thought I'd add Night Train by Martin Amis. It's his attempt at a short American detective story and it's hilariously bad. The female protagonist Mike swings between sounding like a trucker and a matronly southern woman. It's most definitely not set in the South. The city is deliberately left unnamed but it has a Pacific Northwest feel.

    Informing someone of his daughter's death:
    "...But it seems your baby girl took her own life, Sir. Yes she did. Yes she did."

    When she asks her partner what information he's found he tells her no luck with the line, "Nothing but Schmaltz."

    Mike calls a metal chair "honky" and refers to Italians as "beaners." She also "hangs with [her] bunkies in the fourty-four" and asks her partner "when was the last time [he] took one for the state."

    And everyone swears like crazy no matter the situation or company and uses the word "ain't".

    Another is the book Abattoir Jack by Christopher Neilan. Set in Arizona and California, most of the dialogue is swear words and stereotypes. Lots of references to chili, tequila, cowboys, and "Gee-tars."
    While this book is just silly, you can tell Amis is a good writer when he isn't pretending to be something he's not.

    ReplyDelete
  76. This might seem unfair, but, in Enid Blyton's Five Have Plenty of Fun, published 1955, she has a young American girl saying "I came by motor-boat, and the sea was so bumpy that I was frightfully sick." In the next paragraph: "He fusses around me like a hen, dear old Pops. I shall hate being away from him." On the next page, "Oh, how lovely the sea looks this morning. And what's that little island out there? What a lovely place it looks....It's really wunnerful."
    Enough said.

    ReplyDelete
  77. I read Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt novel a few years ago, and was jarred by not only the rather modern tone of much of the dialogue, but its Americanness. Cornwell has obviously been in the US for a long time!

    Interestingly, although I found that Claire Randall Fraser in Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series also sounded like a modern American instead of a period Englishwoman, I managed to ignore this pretty easily -- I suppose because Claire's specific origins were not crucial to the main part of the story.

    ReplyDelete
  78. Oh what a terrific topic for a talk! It’s one I’d dearly love to attend.
    British EFL (English as a foreign language) textbooks sometimes contain American characters whose dialogue follows British speech patterns. I know this because as a British EFL author, I have been guilty of it writing some of the dialogues myself. American actors would often point it out in the studio when we came to make audio recordings, but I fear a lot more slipped through. I have to agree with an earlier commenter that we really need readers to catch stuff like this.
    When I had the chance to work in the US for 6 months, I leapt at it, thinking it would help me write American dialogue. Six months became 12 years and I’m still here. I’m better at spotting it, but I’d still only rate myself as intermediate. In case it's of interest. here are some notes about translating one of my ‘British’ books into ‘American’ a while back: http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=128

    ReplyDelete
  79. I see that your talk has passed, but this is a great thread that could be useful for many in the future, and I've got two good ones to contribute:

    First, a novel I recently read called Room, by an Irish-Canadian named Emma Donoghue. The narrator is meant to be an American woman (for some reason), yet the dialogue between her and her son is riddled with Britishisms, the most common of which is the use of "bits" where an American would say something like "a little," "parts," or "little pieces."

    Another one that drove me crazy is a recent movie called The Oxford Murders, in which Elijah Wood plays an American studying at Oxford. He uses the phrases "get on well," "bloody hell," "rucksack," and a few others.

    One last thing: while I've got my pedantic streak all revved up, biochemist seems to be saying that the best known epistolary novel is "Daddy Long Legs."
    I'd actually never heard of this novel before, and while it's hard to gauge exactly how well-known a particular piece of work is, I'm fairly confident that Goethe's "Thew Sorrows of Young Werther," Laclos' "Dangerous Liasons," and above all, Bram Stoker's "Dracula," all classics, are far more famous novels in this style.

    ReplyDelete
  80. I'm surprised by 'going to West Sussex' being a problem, unless Elizabeth George is writing in a particular period. For example, my boyfriend is going there this weekend. Have I missed something?

    ReplyDelete
  81. In my experience (and I'm Sussex-bred), one doesn't specify West or East Sussex - I would say "My parents live in Sussex"; "East" or "West" is only for envelopes (and not even that, nowadays).

    And I might say something like, "Oh, they don't live very near Lynneguist, as they are in West Sussex and she's in East Sussex", but by and large I'd just say "Sussex".

    ReplyDelete
  82. Thanks for getting back - said boyfriend is also (West) Sussex-bred, but I will ask which he is more likely to use.

    ReplyDelete
  83. Getting away from the list of 50 for a moment, maybe it's just me or my part of the country (NE US), but I've never heard nor used "vox pops". Should this be "mostly BrE" or something? I looked it up, and it's what I would call a "man on the street interview".

    ReplyDelete
  84. @jb: you seem to have put this on the wrong post--but you're right, and I'll make the change in the Anti-Americanismism post. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  85. It's been a very long time since I read John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, but at age 20 or so I was frequently annoyed by his American characters saying "I'll wager" and the like. As I recall, the only halfway convincing American character in the book was a stage Irishman.

    Rodger Cunningham

    ReplyDelete
  86. The wealthy American lumberman in Nevil Shute's Trustee From the Toolroom.

    ReplyDelete
  87. The lumber magnate character's name is Sol Hirzhorn.

    ReplyDelete
  88. I find it interesting that Jeanne though Clair Randell Fraser in Diana Gaboldon's Outlander sounded american, because in her later books where Claire's daughter Brianna (raised in Boston) sounds very British to me. But I just write it off to here being raised by British parents. Now the Lady who reads the books on Audio, I think does a wonderful job for all of the accents except for the American accents. It mostly sounds like she doesn't even try, except for a few words which makes me think she is trying but just can not do it. Brianna therefore not only does not sound American, she does not sound Bostonian, but completely British.

    ReplyDelete
  89. This is a very belated comment, but:
    HarlequiNQB said...
    "[Good Omens]... Terry Pratchett, is notable for *not having his texts tampered with when they cross the pond - with the former exception of course."
    Actually, Pratchett has to fight the editors all the time. Compare the UK and US editions of "The Truth" sometime. There are dozens of small and not so small changes.

    ReplyDelete

Follow by email

View by topic

Twitter

Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)