P. D. Viner is a British crime writer who has published two novels and
two long novellas. Recently, he completed a manuscript titled “The
Funeral Director,” which is set in western New York. Viner was born and
raised in South London; his prose, naturally, tends to have a British
accent. “I feel like I’ve got a very good handle of American idioms,” he
told me. Still, he wanted this book, and particularly its American
characters, to sound as American as possible. He felt that he couldn’t
be too careful.

He asked an American reader to vet his manuscript, hoping to eliminate
any slip-ups—the British “windscreen” for the American “windshield,”
that sort of thing. Ultimately, he decided that asking just one reader
was insufficient. He ended up relying on a dozen Americans, including
eight who read the entire book. One was a ghostwriter in Virginia; two
were high-school teachers; some were people he met through Facebook.
Each found at least one Britishism in the text that had not been
identified by someone else. Viner had written “hired car” instead of
“rental car,” “ring off” instead of “hang up.” (He didn’t pay his
vetters, but he plans to acknowledge them in the finished book, he
said.)

Viner’s precaution is extreme but understandable: it’s fairly common for
British writers to create ostensibly American characters who give
themselves away in dialogue. The writer need not even be British,
necessarily: Lionel Shriver is an American writer who has lived in the
U.K. for many years. Her most recent novel, “The Mandibles: A Family,
2029-2047
,” imagines a financial apocalypse set entirely in the United States, albeit in the future. All of the
major characters are American. And yet a father assures his son that a
set of silverware “could come in useful.” A woman signs off a telephone
conversation with her sister by deploying a British term of endearment:
“Bye, puppet.” A woman tells a child, “You’re a bit young to
send into the fields. I could be done for violating child labor laws.”
(The lingering Britishisms are especially curious because other aspects
of the text and dialogue are Americanized—even the novel’s British
edition uses “z” rather than “s” in words like “apologize” and
“publicized.”)

“My publishers think I have become some kind of linguistic moron,”
Shriver told me. “In truth, I am one of the better sources for what is
and is not British or American usage. However, I do sometimes become
uncertain.” Such uncertainty may be on the rise. “It’s becoming more
complicated,” the British author Nick Hornby told me in an e-mail, “what
with all the borrowing and the lending of phrases. ‘Do we say that here
now?’ Quite often, the answer is yes.”

Hornby and Shriver have both spent a good deal of time on both sides of
the Atlantic; other writers and editors who go back and forth between
the U.K. and the U.S. told me that increased cross-pollination creates
confusion. Several were quick to point out that the lines between
British and American English are hardly fixed. In Hornby’s novel
A Long Way Down,” from 2005, three Britons and an American encounter each other, on
New Year’s Eve, on the rooftop of a London tower, each having arrived
with suicidal intentions. The American character, JJ, initially reveals
his nationality by referring to a “cell phone” instead of a “mobile.” But
the use of “mobile” seems to have grown in the U.S. in the years since.
(And, of course, these days, many people are likely to call such devices
“phones.”)

The inverse situation—American-created British characters with
off-sounding diction—appears to be less prevalent, everyone agreed,
perhaps because many American writers are too unfamiliar with, or
intimidated by, British usage and slang to even try. (They may also have
less occasion to do so.) Shriver, in any case, has been criticized from
this direction as well: some British reviewers of her novel “The
Post-Birthday World
,” from 2007, attacked the Cockney slang of one of its
characters—a charge Shriver labels “ludicrous.”

Instances of American characters speaking British English may, on
occasion, be at least partly intentional. While an author may wish to
make an American character sound American, doing so can confuse or at
least distract British readers. (This is especially true for children’s
books, one author pointed out—what kind of ear for American idiom is the
average British seven-year-old likely to have?) Shriver’s books, for
instance, are published in the U.K. first, and generally sell better
there than in the U.S. It would be reasonable to think that her primary
audience is British.

And there are economic incentives for keeping British idioms in a book.
When an American publisher buys the rights to publish a British novel,
the cheapest and easiest tactic is to buy the book’s “films”: a digital
version of the printed page and its layout. The next level of expense
would be to commission a copy editor to “Americanize” a
manuscript—taking out the “u” in “colour,” switching some “s”s to “z”s.
But if an editor begins to change substantial portions of the book to
correct for diction, then the publisher may need to get the author’s
approval, and the book may need to be copy-edited again, and possibly
even laid out anew. This can quickly become both an expense and a chore.

Viner happens to be married to an American professor of linguistics,
Lynne Murphy, who teaches at the University of Sussex and writes a blog
called Separated by a Common Language. Next year, she will publish a
book, “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American
and British English
.” Novelists, Murphy told me, tend to put their
energy into crafting things that a character would say—it’s a less
intuitive exercise to try and weed out what a character wouldn’t say.
“It’s like trying to prove a negative,” she said.

What’s more, making an extra effort to perfect American dialogue may
have risks, Hornby suggested. “Paying American characters special
attention can backfire—you spend too much time shoehorning words like
‘sidewalk’ and ‘diaper’ into places where they don’t properly belong,
just to show you’re thinking about it,” he explained. “In my opinion,
less is more, just as it is when you’re writing, period. Readers don’t
want to be distracted, either by egregious errors or impeccable
research.”

Even so, Hornby says he wouldn’t dream of letting an American character
go unvetted. “I have American friends, and I have an American editor,”
he told me. Hornby is also a screenwriter. “American actors wouldn’t let
me get away with anything that didn’t sound right to them. I think I
have a lot of safety nets.”

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