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Writing English Part 1: Don’t write like a kook, dude

Writing English Part 1: Don’t write like a kook, dude

How to write American English

Copywriting is truly an international business; in the last year alone I’ve had clients from Denmark, Italy, the US, the UK, Singapore and of course good old Australia.

But, when writing for an international client, it’s important to establish up front which type of English they want to use, American English, Australian English or United Kingdom English (don’t get me started on ‘Singlish’).

You might think writing in each of these languages is as easy as choosing the correct spell checker, but in reality, even though we share a common language, the differences are a lot more complex than just swapping a z for an s.

So, for this three part blog series, I’ve asked two of my copywriting chums to share their thoughts on their own particular vernacular. Today’s post is from Mitch Devine who hails from the US of A. Over the next two weeks we’ll also hear from Belinda of Copywrite Matters fame (representing the Australian camp), and of course little old me to give you the low down on ‘The Queens English’).

Don’t write like a kook, dude – by Mitch Devine

England, Australia and the USA all speak the same language, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. You say localise, we say localize. But only Southern California says it without an accent. (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)

Here in the home of Disneyland and Hollywood, much of our so-called culture gets depicted and exported aroundlearn-copywriting-courses the world through music, movies and TV “reality” shows. So everyone probably feels like they know us. Maybe too well.

But hold on. If you get your ideas of Orange County, California, from television shows like The OC, Laguna Beach, and The Real Housewives of Orange County (disclosure: none of which I’ve ever seen—and I live here), you might assume we’re a bunch of spoiled, stuck-up, airheaded poseurs.

After a few episodes of 90210 or Baywatch, you might figure you have a pretty good handle on the lingo and the lifestyle. However, not everyone here speaks “dude,” although the term is still in use. But if you refer to Orange County as “The OC,” you’re probably not from around here.

Whether you’re in Southern California, the South of England or New South Wales, speaking and writing the language can be two very different experiences. If something is “sick” or “dope,” that could be a good thing, depending on the context. And if some guy has “mad steez,” you could be talking about his style or the Huntington Beach-based artist, MADSTEEZ. And there’s a big difference between a “shag” in England and a “Shag” in SoCal.

Even within the relatively small confines of Southern California there are subcultures within subcultures. There’s “The Valley” north of Los Angeles (celebrated in the Frank Zappa song “Valley Girl”), the barrios and gangs of East LA, the rappers and urban scene of South Central LA, Chinatown, Korea Town, Little Saigon in Orange County, the surf and skate scene, the college towns and so on. And that’s just covering Los Angeles and Orange County. Each has its own dialect.

It also helps to know some Spanish around SoCal to understand certain expressions and be able to pronounce the street names and cities correctly. (For instance, La Jolla is pronounced “la hoy-a.”)

Of course, people always speak one way, and write another. It all depends on your audience and what you’re trying to communicate. Keep in mind that writing requires greater precision because the non-verbal cues of conversation aren’t there.

So if you want to use the vernacular of your audience, it’s best to run it by a local writer. That way you can get your message across without looking like a Barney or a kook.

Who is Mitch Devine?

Mitch Devine is an Orange County, California-based marketing copywriter who’s not a model and not stuck-up at all. He helps brands say what they mean and motivate their audiences to respond. He blogs at Love Hate Advertising. Get the full scoop at http://about.me/mitchdevine.

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  • Denise Sonnenberg

    Such a good point. I would have never considered how important it is to decide who the market will be primarily before writing in “English”. So many little things are giveaways to the nationality of the writer if this isn’t managed properly.

    • Thanks for commenting, Denise. It’s so easy to take for granted or assume that English is the same wherever it’s spoken, when it actually has many different local dialects.

    • admin

      Thanks very much for your comment Denise and look out for the next to blogs on this subject.
      Best wishes,
      Kate

  • IngeniousTravel

    As much as television has taught our “SoCal” English to people abroad, it is important to reach out to them in their native language for marketing purposes. It speaks to them in a way that says you understand them.

    • Very true! Be sure to check out the next two posts in the series, which will discuss more of the nuances of localization (or “localisation”). 

      • Localization in the US market is a major issue! A guy from Jersey ask me if I wanted to split a pie. I had no clue he meant pizza, so we ordered half pepperoni and half apple.

        The study of idiomatic language and local vernacular can be the difference between great copy and crap. Yeah, I said crap… I think that translates universally. 🙂

        Looking forward to the sequels!

        •  Hey Rick thanks so much for your comment!

        • Good example about the “pie,” Rick! I wouldn’t have understood him, either! And yes, unfortunately crap is universal! Appreciate you weighing in. 

    • admin

      A great point. As an English person, living in Australia with a love of crappy American reality TV, that ‘SoCal’ speak rings true for me, it’s a tough one. You’ve got to make sure you speak to your audience without patronising them.
      Thanks for your comment.

  • Chris Lewis

    Good recommendation about local writers.  Definitely can relate…from having International Business experience, I have quite often seen “lost in translation” moments even in English speaking countries.

    • admin

      I think lots of idioms get lost in translation and also dreaded words like ‘fanny’ etc (although I can’t see a reason to use that word in mainstream copy :-)!

    •  Thanks for commenting Chris.

    • I think I need to watch that movie again, now that you’ve reminded me of it. Thanks for stopping by, Chris!

  • Matt Shirley

    The Spanish city part is tough though because while La Jolla is pronounced the Spanish way, Los Angeles, El Segundo, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, etc are all Americanized. 

    • Very good point, Matt. There’s a lot of Spanglish in SoCal. 

  • When I was in Europe, I was advised there was only one “proper” English, and it wasn’t American! That always put a smile on my face.

    • Hey Dennis, yes I’ll be covering off that ‘attitude’ in my post in a few weeks. I’m afraid an awful lot of English people have a very imperialistic view about their ‘precious’ language.

    • Funny! I guess Americans generally aren’t known for being “proper,” especially among Europeans. Thanks, Dennis. 

  • I agree with running articles by a native speaker. That is a very, very good suggestion and I hope your readers will heed it!

    •  I totally agree Mindy. Even though I’ve now lived in Australia for over 10 years, I still sometimes ‘over compensate’ with my Australianisms. Very few people here really say ‘G’day!’

  • I’ve been living in UK for a couple of years and in the US of A for almost 8 years. Then I worked for a while in Brussels at European Commission where English (and not French) was teh lingua franca. So I can tell you there’s a lot of english languages with a lot of accent. If you just go around look at foreigners’english blog posts you’ll find a lot of variations which really go beyond changing an s with a z.

    • Thanks for your cosmopolitan perspective, Fabrizio!

  • Matches Malone

    Yeah, I speak valley, as I lived there for over 30 years, and now that I’ve been at the beach for over 18, I’m fluent in dude as well, dude. 

    • admin

      So come on, give us none US types and example of “Valley speak”…!

    • Gnarly! You must’ve lived in the Valley when “Valley Girl” was a hit. (By the way, I was privileged to interview Frank Zappa back in the ’80s.) Thanks for the totally bitchen’ comment!

      • Matches Malone

         Yes, lived there ’til I got married, and the same house in NoHo, which is now Valley Village, for over 30 years….

  • Greta

    I always run my writing by my kids (they’e in their twenties) too. I’ve come close to making  some deadly mistakes using words like “tweak” which means something entirely different to a younger audience. 

    • admin

      Hi Greta, thanks for commenting. Yep I think if you’re writing anything for a younger audience you have to get it read first by a ‘youth’. Otherwise you risk /embarrassing dad dancing at the school disco’ syndrom. Trying to be cool and failing miserably!!

    • Hi Greta, thanks for commenting. Yep I think if you’re writing anything
      for a younger audience you have to get it read first by a ‘youth’.
      Otherwise you risk /embarrassing dad dancing at the school disco’
      syndrom. Trying to be cool and failing miserably!!

    • Very good point, Greta. My own little focus group is in the teens now. I often consult them on music and “viral” video trends as well as the teen lingo du jour, not that you’d catch me using it out loud (they’re easily embarrassed). 

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