Why You Need To Know Where You Are Before You Can Tell Your Suspenders From Your Braces (And The Confusion It Causes If You Don’t!)

3 Nov

Many years ago, I was at an academic conference when I asked an American colleague to point out a rather eminent researcher I wanted to meet.  She told me he was the one wearing the bright red suspenders. I almost choked on my beer. Then I realised she wasn’t trying to be funny.  This was when I got my first inkling that suspenders meant something very different in US English than in British English.

When I started writing novels, I began to notice other differences too. For example, single and double quotation marks are used the opposite way round depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from. Similarly, there are words that just seem to have no equivalents between British English and US English, such as ‘Fancy’ (as in to like someone), ‘Dodgy’ and ‘Knock-on effect’ (which don’t really seem to have any easily definable translation). What makes it more confusing is that I’m Scottish, where we have words like ‘outwith’ (which means something along the lines of ‘Not part of’ but it’s more nuanced than that) which are no recognised in the rest of the UK, and even that I’m from Glasgow where the word ‘How’ is widely used instead of ‘Why’ (very logical since it’s a shortening of ‘How Come?’).

I think all this highlights what George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’. This seems to also apply to Scotland and England, and indeed, within Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, even though they are only about thirty miles apart.

By the way, in case you are wondering, suspenders in the US are what British people call braces (as in the things men use to hold up their trousers when they don’t use a belt).  In Britain, suspenders are what women would use to hold up their stockings. It then doesn’t help that in the US trousers are called pants, while in the UK pants are underwear.  When I was invited to a party in the US at one point and asked what to wear, I was told ‘Dress casual, just wear pant and suspenders’. As a  Brit (or indeed a Scot), boy, did I get the wrong idea of what type of party that was!

The serious question behind this posting is this. How much should you re-edit work beyond your native version of English to play to other markets? Brits seem to quite happy accept novels written in American English, but is the same true the other way round? Personally, to me it looks and feels wrong to write using US conventions, but will sticking to my (British and, indeed, Scottish) guns make my work less popular or more criticised if I try to sell it in the US market place?


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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3 Responses to “Why You Need To Know Where You Are Before You Can Tell Your Suspenders From Your Braces (And The Confusion It Causes If You Don’t!)”

  1. brynbenning 03/11/2012 at 14:08 #

    Hi Colin- I think it depends on the setting of your book. I remember reading a book by a British author that took place in Washington, DC. He used phrases like, “We’ll send a car to collect you.” which is not a common phrase here. (Most of us in the DC area would say, “We’ll send a car to pick you up.”) That sort of thing brought me out of the story. On the other hand, I had no trouble enjoying his books that were set in the UK because I understood that I was reading British lingo and it made the story that much more authentic for me.

    Where does your book take place?

    • cmdrysdale 03/11/2012 at 14:29 #

      Hi Bryn,

      Thanks for your your thoughts on this. My book is primarily set in the northern Bahamas (which just adds to the confusion since they mix British and American English, as well as their own variations) and the characters in it are a mix of Brits, Americans and Bahamians (although I’ve tried to avoid writing anything in a Bahamian accent – that’s just too difficult!).

      Your point that having US characters use British terms can bring you out of the story is interesting. Now from a British perspective, it’s hard to know when you are using everyday terms that are national variants since this is your usual language and you are sometimes unaware of the international variations. I was caught out by this already when I had one American kid say to another one, ‘You fancy her, don’t you?’, which a Bahamiam friend of mine pointed out, just wouldn’t happen. I’m hoping my editor will help pick these up, but then again, she is British too and I worry that between us we might still miss some.

      If only someone could invent an app to translate speach between British and American English…

      All the best,

      Colin

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. When The Same Words Mean Different Things To Different People | Colin M. Drysdale - 24/04/2014

    […] then there’s the whole pants and suspenders confusion again. In North America, this is normal male attire. In Britain, it most definitely isn’t, […]

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