by Jill Amadio

As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. As a writer, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion.

The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour,  colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”.  Maybe it’s a matter of simplicity. Americans pare as many ells and u’s as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling.”

My books are published here first but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when they arrived in America where unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation. Americans spell words as they are spoken although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire.

It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters at conferences.

Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say a government, singular or plural?  I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.

Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the word “hung” as used here. People are not paintings.

Punctuation. I don’t worry about it although when I send in my column to the UK magazine I write for I make sure I place the comma and full stop after the quotes, not before.  What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.

While writing my first mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital.”  I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it’s fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary.  As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.

While writing the first in my crime series based in Newport Beach, California, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornishwoman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (what, again?), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) and re-affirm her “foreignness” by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as “Chief Superintendent,” and calls the Chief of Police, “ Constable.”  I am, however, very pleased that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.

When I mention a British pastime such as a pasty-throwing contest, blank stares are common. I talked about nighthawking the other day and no one had a clue as to its meaning. I’m giving the nasty habit to a character in my WIP although I know the explanation could be tedious unless you’re a nighthawker yourself. Both of these words are giving my Spellcheck nightmares.

Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my first mystery I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 65 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!

Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”

I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the East Coast. Then came a request for the manuscript. By the end of a week I had signed a contract for three books. MMP publishes only 12-14 books a year, but who could resist the name? Sadly, MMP went belly-up before I could finish my third mystery.

So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules, lay it on thick, and change the climate. Worked for me.

12 thoughts on ““YOU SAY POTATOE…””

  1. Totally enjoyed your post. Funny thing, I was just looking at a paper I had turned in to my English professor in college back in 1968, and she wrote, and I quote: “colour, honourable, flavour – all are British spellings no longer used in the U.S.” Well, I was going through a phase and liked that spelling. I got a B+ on the paper. As for “hanged,” I do say the bad guy was hanged and not hung like a curtain. But I do put the comma inside the quotation marks. It’s an American thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a word lover (spoiler alert – see my post next week) I thoroughly appreciated your post. Ah, the subtle and sometimes not too subtle difference between British and American English can be baffling. I actually prefer putting my punctuation outside of quotation marks – that period applies to the entire sentence, not just the quote. As I’ve set my books in Europe, I often use British terms over American, feeling they’d be closer to what the character would say or write. Thank goodness for online conversions from feet to meters!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Music to my ears, fellow West Country girl! I’m Somerset born – so I share the same sensibilities…. My pet peeve is “he DOVE into the water …” – or dove under the table…. “A dove is a bird” as one teacher explained. ‘Dived’ sounds much stronger. But then that’s why we’re writers – because we love words….. smart post, Jill!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How fun that you pointed out these differences, Jill, which I’m of course aware of. It must be particularly complicated to you and other writers who have to figure out which rendition to use of grammar and each word in whatever you’re writing. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Rosie, agreed, much like ‘shone’ and ‘shined.’ That hard ‘i’ gives the word more impact an strength especially in an audiobook.


    2. Thanks for your comment, Linda. For my column in the mystery magazine I always have to go through it for punctuation changes before sending.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I LOVE this post Jill! I know exactly what you mean. It’s a tricky thing with the spelling. Even though all my books are set in the West Country (and where in Cornwall are you from btw?) – my original publisher was American and insisted on many American spellings (although I won trousers vs. pants). You can imagine how amused I was when a British reader wrote and admonished me for “trying to be British when you clearly aren’t.”


  6. Bit of a cheek, that, about you not being British! Good to hear from you, Hannah. I know Jackie will be visiting you soon – I am pea green with envy. I a m from St. Ives, my father was on the Duchy of Cornwall water polo team and a pharmacist there. My mother ran a school of dance, ballet and tap, and put on pantomimes that had the locals falling off their chairs.


  7. I think the differences are fascinating and hope they endure. One of my published short stories is being reprinted in a British anthology, and I had to change my double quotes to single ones (I much prefer the single ones, as they don’t require the shift key), put a u in words like color, put the comma outside the quotes, and the like. It was fun.


  8. Sorry so late to the party! Loved your post, Jill! I watch so many British series, often based on a British writer’s book, and audio reads, I Love hearing the differences especially since American vocabulary and pronunciation has roots in so many places…and having lived in north, south, and west US areas, many differences in the states here.

    Again, loved your post, and so agree “So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules, lay it on thick, and change the climate”


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