or How to write the Queen’s English
So, we’ve had (AMERICAN), Writing English Part 1: Don’t write like a kook, dudeWriting English Part 2: How to write Strine (AUSTRALIAN) and now Writing English Part 3: Writing English proper, like (UK ENGLISH) from me, Kate Toon.
You’ve heard the cries: “The English language is under attack!” What with these beastly Americans and all their silly misspellings and these dreadful Australians with their colourful abbreviations, English just isn’t what it was, but the truth is: it never was what it was.
Over the centuries, the original Celtic and Pict of old Britain has been coloured and seasoned by Latin, Anglo-Saxon and French amongst other languages. Thousands of words have been added over the years, and many others have disappeared from common usage. Try picking up a copy of Beowulf (written in what we now refer to as Old English) and you’ll see it looks and sounds like a foreign language to a modern English-speaker.
English is a hugely complex language and, at last count, contained over a million words (with 8,500 newbies appearing every year). So, when writing UK English, really anything goes, but the question is, what does your audience want to hear?
So, if you’re a non-native UK English writer, writing for a UK audience, here are my top tips to avoid sounding like a total wan*er:
- Avoid slang: There is nothing more painful in copywriting than the misuse of slang, especially if you’re trying to relate to a younger audience. Cockney rhyming slang? No! We don’t all talk like Russell Brand, thank God.
- Avoid writing with an overly posh tone: Yes, we know that whole faltering Hugh Grant thing seems terribly, dreadfully English, but that’s a movie (or film as we would say). If Hugh tried to order some chips talking that way, he’d be laughed out of the chip shop. These days only the Queen really speaks the Queen’s English.
- Avoid idioms: The idiom, ‘New York Minute’, means nothing to the average English person, and misuse of a classic English idiom will cause sniggers of derision from your reader. Play it safe and stick to plain English.
- Don’t show off: Like our Australian cousins, we Brits are not fans of bombast. Exaggeration and excessive exclamation marks bring us out in a rash. Humble, understated, clear and honest wins with us every time.
- Be modest: Yes, this is the same point as above, but just to reiterate: it’s better to start a sentence, with ‘we believe’, or ‘we think’, rather than by stating something as fact, or making a huge and bold statement. We’re a modest bunch (sometimes).
- Avoid dialect: Some people from London are completely incomprehensible to those from the North East of England and vice versa. And though dialectic phrases are becoming more recognised in UK English (perhaps because the BBC now has a policy of allowing regional accents for newsreaders and announcers), it’s plain silly to do an ‘Irvine Welsh’ (yes, he’s Scottish, but that’s part of the UK) and include any dialect in your writing unless you are 100% certain of what you’re doing!
- Check your vocab: Americans, your ‘car hood’ is our ‘car bonnet’, your ‘trunk’ our ‘boot’, your ‘truck’ our ‘lorry’. While your ‘rubber’ is a condom, ours erases pencil markings – and let’s not even go there with ‘fanny packs’. Use this useful tool to help you spot the clangers: British vs American English vocabulary tool.
- Be witty: If there’s one thing the Brits are known for, it’s their sense of humour (right?). If you can inject some wit and warmth into your copy, then fantastic, but again be wary; while the UK version of The Office was hilarious, the US version was a bit poo. Humour doesn’t always translate.
- Get your grammar sorted:Your spell check should not be the last line of defence (not ‘defense’). It’s important that you know some of the core differences, such as:
- The dreaded Z: I know this is obvious, but I can’t count the number of times I see an ‘-ize’ ending instead of an ‘-ise’ (recognise/recognize) or an ‘-or’ ending where it should be ‘-our’ (color/colour) or the all-too-common ‘advisor’ when our version is ‘adviser’.
- Know your past participles: We say ‘burnt’ (not ‘burned’), ‘dreamt’ (not ‘dreamed’) and that rotten food is ‘spoilt’ (not ‘spoiled’).
- Don’t mix up your prepositions: This one is annoying and fiddly, but we say ‘what are you doing at the weekend’, not on the weekend and we’d ask you to ‘write to me soon’ not ‘write me soon’.
To truly get to grips with writing in UK English, you could listen to the BBC World Service, watch East Enders, rent Four Weddings and a Funeral or read Shakespeare, but unfortunately, you’d probably be none the wiser.
The best idea is to find a friend who is from the UK and have them read it or, better still, find a UK English copywriter, like me!
Image taken from Freakingnews.com
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