Speaking American

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing Dialogue

Erin Mitchell

In the early 1990s I was working at an ad agency in Canada House off Stephen’s Green. One evening, as we were all packing up to head home, I saw a colleague who lived close to me—and drove to and from work—heading for the door.

“Liam!” I shouted across the office in my harsh American accent. “Hold up! I need a ride!”

It was one of those frozen moments that lasted just seconds before the entire office erupted into raucous laughter. I stood there, perplexed, wondering what I’d missed that had everyone in hysterics, having no idea that I’d made the funny.

Thus illustrating that while we share a language, this Yank had more than a little to learn about the nuances of Irish vernacular.

I remember too, when a colleague and his wife came to visit us in Chicago and I was jolted when she told us about the very helpful colored boy they had met one evening. She didn’t mean it as an insult, not at all, but the shocked looks from those in earshot were testament to her use of a phrase that is downright insulting here. Likewise, my now brother-in-law once apologized for using “Yank.” Thing is, I wasn’t offended at all because over here, it’s not discourteous to call someone born and raised in the northern US a Yank.

All over the world, from Australia and New Zealand to Canada, we have made the English language our own. The US is no different, with different regions—and in some cases, specific states or areas within a state—having their own vocabulary.

Take fizzy drinks. Depending on where you’re from and where you are, you might use pop, soda, coke (even when ordering Sprite or Fanta) or some other term completely when ordering one.

As a reader, there is nothing more jarring than to be enjoying a story and be pulled from it by a word that just doesn’t fit. If you’re writing American characters and living outside the US, this can be especially problematic, even if you’ve spent time in your character’s home town. I live in Florida, for example, where the further south you go, the more northern the language becomes. The top of Florida, the Panhandle, belongs to the Deep South. By the time you get to Miami, you’re pretty much in a suburb of Manhattan. It’s quite confusing, really.

Across the US, there are differences in cadence and regional dialects, but there are some translations from Irish to American that are fairly universal, such as:

  • Vest: We wear vests (waistcoats) with three-piece suits. A t-shirt with no arms is a tank-top. Orwife-beater.
  • Car Park: We park our cars in garages. Our cars run on gas (not petrol). The engine is under the hood; we wear bonnets on our heads at Easter. And we look through the windshield (not windscreen) when driving.
  • Cooker: We heat up soup on the stove. We bake in the oven.
  • Tablet: We take pills most of the time, although this is one of those regional variants where tablet can also work depending on the specifics and context.
  • Corridor: We know what these are, but generally halls connect our rooms.
  • Row: We can have a fightargumentdisagreementsquabbletiff, brawl…but never a row. This one is especially jarring coming from an American character because it’s just never, ever used, save by the incredibly pretentious among us.
  • Jumper: Quickest way to make an American character sound crazy is to have her refer to asweater as a jumper, which we reserve for people hurling themselves off buildings.
  • Ring: We call people on the phone and visit them in person.
  • Queue: Again, most of us know what this is, but we stand either in line or on line, depending on where you’re from.
  • Lift: We take elevators between floors.
  • Yoke: We only find yolks in the middle of eggs. Things are just things.
  • Ride: We have no end of terms for, um, getting to know someone biblically, but this is not one of them. When asking someone to ferry you from point A to B, you’re asking for a ride, nothing more or less.

This is far from a comprehensive list—just some of the ones I’ve noticed over the years.

So how do you make sure your American character doesn’t bop your reader on the nose (so to speak) with a misused word? Of course if you can spend time here, you should. But the truth is that unless you have literally years to spare, picking up all the nuances will be tough because in addition to the geographic differences, there are language variants attributable to ethnic background, financial status, education, and a myriad of other influences. Watching American TV or movies will help somewhat, but the truth is the vast majority of characters on the screen speak either without inflection or like caricatures. And the interwebs are great for so many things, but I’m not convinced this is one of them.

Ultimately, you would do well to invest in an American editor/reader. The good news is that we have no shortage of wonderful ones! This can pay off dramatically, especially in this age of “everyone’s a reviewer.”

About the author

(c) Erin Mitchell July 2012

Erin Mitchell has been marketing things—from Motorola’s first flip phone to HB ice cream—on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than she cares to admit. Raised a reader, she has more recently married her passion for fantastic stories and uncanny ability to shout from the virtual rooftops to work with both new and established authors (and still some products/brands). You can find her online on Twitter at @erinfayeor at www.erin-faye.com.

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