How (Not) To Scandalize Your Readers
Here’s a new way to create strife between nations. How? By failing to understand that — although our readers might speak English — they interpret it in utterly different ways.
Get your language wrong and you risk losing potential buyers of your books.
How can you get your language right? And win future sales? Here’s how…
‘You like tomato and I like tomahto.’
We know what we mean when we write a story but how does our language sound to our readers, particularly those in other countries? Do they always get our meaning? No. They may speak or think in ‘English’ but which English are they using?
In these days when our ebook might be read in London or Toronto, Tallahassee or Canberra, courtesy of Kindle, we can’t be sure our readers always understand us. And we’re at risk of being misunderstood, or not understood at all, unless we’re aware of the different ways our readers might be interpreting our grammar and language.
Let’s start with punctuation.
Not much room for argument about that, is there?
Oh, yes there is! Should I have put the comma in that sentence after ‘Oh’ or ‘yes? Or both? Already, our opinions differ. ‘Correct punctuation’ often depends upon opinion but in every English-speaking country you’ll find great differences in what is deemed ‘correct’.
Here’s how a US author would punctuate a sentence: He said, “This is an example.” But a British author might write: He said ‘This is an example’. The latter would be acceptable to most UK publishers and newspapers.
How do I know? I used to be a newspaper editor.
Can you spot the three differences?
First, US usage typically requires that a comma be inserted before an open quote mark in dialogue. (He said, “This is an example.”) To be fair, British authors often do it too. But why? The comma is superfluous. A colon would be more logical but it’s used for this purpose only in newspapers and academic papers. You’ll rarely see it in fiction.
Leave out the comma before an open quote mark and few editors in Britain will care. However, a US editor might frown.
Look at the second difference. US usage favours (or favors?) a double quote mark for reported speech or dialogue. Some Brit authors do use the double quote mark but many don’t. Are the Brits lazy? After all, it takes two finger movements on the keypad — Shift plus press — to insert a double quote but only one to add a single quote.
No. They’re following precedent. The UK style bible, Fowler’s The King’s English, doesn’t even recognize the existence of double quote marks, except in nested quotations.
For example, here’s how a line of quoted speech that contains a nested quotation might be punctuated in Britain, according to Fowler: He said ‘The use of the “double quote” to indicate dialogue is an egregious fault, and typically American.’
Note that the dialogue line is enclosed in single quote marks and the nested phrase in double quote marks. Typically, an American author would do the opposite. The King’s English was last updated in 1931 but British authors still follow its precepts.
Third, an American author would put the full stop (period?) in front of the last close quote mark, in a sentence that contains both a quote and a dialogue tag (‘He said’). For example: He said, “This is an example.”
But few British newspapers would do that. A full stop ends a unit of meaning so it must go, logically, at the end and not be contained within the close quote mark, as in: He said, “This is an example”. That’s the correct British usage.
Even so, it would be correct, either in Britain or the US, to insert a full stop before the last quote mark if the line of dialogue is a self-contained sentence: “This is an example.”
Confused? It gets worse.
Single quote marks are preferred in the UK to isolate a term for illustration or emphasis where the term is not ‘reported speech’. You can see an example of a single quote mark in my last sentence: ‘reported speech’.
Why are single quotes preferred here? We could argue that they’re easier to read than a picket fence of double quotes, if we’re making several references. Would you rather read a line of ‘single quotes’ or “double quotes”? Especially if those “double quotes” go on “ad nauseam” until “the end of time”?
Yet The Chicago Manual of Style, the North American copy editor’s “bible”, insists that double quotes should be used to isolate a reference, as in this sentence.
Don’t worry. No publisher on either side of the pond is likely to reject a good story simply because it does not conform to the punctuation or style conventions of a given country or publishing house. They’ll just sigh and tidy up your story.
And, to be candid, many of the differences in punctuation between one country and another are petty. Only an English teacher would notice them, or care.
For example, should we write the abbreviation ‘e.g.’ as ‘e.g.,’ or even ‘eg’? (As I do, being lazy.) Do we use hyphens, en dashes or em dashes to insert a dialogue beat between fragments of dialogue? An en dash — is longer than a hyphen — but half the width of an em dash — .
‘This is an example’ — he chuckled and tweaked his beard — ‘of a dialogue beat that uses hyphens. That’s fine in the UK but it would be considered amateurish in the US where an en or em dash is required for that purpose.’
As long as you’re consistent in your usages, and they’re not blatantly wrong, a copy editor can correct them in Word with just one click.
However, speaking of words, vocabulary is another matter entirely.
You must get your language right or readers outside of your own country will quake with laughter or frown with dismay. If you seriously confuse your reader you’ll toss them out of the story, perhaps never to return.
We all know that Americans say ‘sidewalk’ where Brits say ‘pavement’, a US ‘rubber’ is a UK ‘condom’ whereas a UK ‘rubber’ is a US ‘eraser’ (be careful with that one), and in Britain we put our luggage in the ‘boot’ and our ‘trunk’ in the passenger seat. But every English-speaking nation has its own peculiar usages and they’re not always obvious.
In Australia, a ‘thong’ is a ‘sandal’ so when an Aussie swain invites his girlfriend to ‘take off your thong’ he’s not necessarily being romantic.
Of course, we must use the words that are right for our characters.
So we can’t have a Nebraska farmer speak like an English lord. If the farmer uses words that are unfamiliar outside of Nebraska, that’s fine, as long as their meaning is clear. But the words must be right.
So we can’t let Lord Pettifer, an Englishman, startle his house guests circa 1930 by saying: “I’ll go change my pants.” English readers will fall about laughing (although they may not ROFL). ‘Pants’ means ‘trousers’ in the US but ‘ladies underwear’ in the UK. Get it wrong, and you have a problem.
A problem? Or would it be an ‘issue’?
That’s another question. Americans never have ‘problems’, merely ‘issues’. (It’s not true, of course, but it often seems that way to the Brits.) In Britain we have a lot of problems but they’re never issues. Issues mean solely ‘topics of debate’. So a blocked toilet in America is no problem, it’s an issue. (Or rather, no issue.)
In Britain, it’s a right pain in the U-bend.
What’s the answer?
How can you avoid amusing — or disgusting — your readers in far off lands, inadvertently, with your language? If your narrator or characters come from a country unfamiliar to you, ask a native speaker of that language to check your work.
And prepare to hear them ROFL.
The same applies to terms that are familiar to you, and to readers in your own country, but may be unheard of elsewhere. Especially if you’re not aware of that fact.
I once startled a class of American journalism students by saying: “If you’re a guest in a British home, the worst thing you can do is to drop a kipper behind the Aga!” I waited for the laughter. None came. “What’s a kipper? What’s an Aga?” they asked.
(In Britain, a kipper is a smoked herring. An Aga is a solid iron stove, immovable.)
The joke was lost.
Again, if you plan to publish a book that may be read anywhere in the world ask someone outside of your country to check your language. You know what you mean when your character says: “Just broil that steak for three minutes.” But don’t be surprised if your reader cries: “You don’t boil a ribeye steak!”
A careless author might argue that the ‘correct’ use of punctuation and grammar is a secondary matter. The story’s the thing, isn’t it? Bizarre usages did no harm to James Joyce’s Ulysses, did they?
Well, yes, they did. A lot of harm. It was several decades before Ulysses became accepted as a literary classic. The first publishers who read it laughed. We can’t afford to have publishers laugh at us because our usages are bizarre or amateurish.
Get it right first time! And if you get it wrong? Well, just shrug your shoulders and call it Art. That’s what James Joyce did…
Do you ever get tired of the petty rules that editors impose on us? Have you ever wondered “what’s the point?” Does it really matter where we put a full stop (or a period) or anything else, provided our meaning is clear? What do you think?
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is founder of Writers’ Village. Like to be alerted to fun and useful posts like this in future? Join our free 14-part mini-course in successful fiction writing and you’ll never miss another post. Plus you’ll immediately receive two big ebooks without charge: 15 Wily Ways to Write Better Stories and How to Win Writing Contests for Profit. Gain them all at: http://www.writers-village.org/master-classes.php
Originally published at www.writers-village.org.