by Iola Goulton

In my last post, I introduced some of the differences between American (specifically, USA English) and British English. Today, I’m discussing vocabulary.

Getting the vocabulary right is important for two main reasons:

  • Vocabulary is a great shortcut to characterization. It’s an easy way to establish where a character is from, and what kind of education they’ve had. As such, authors should make sure non-American characters speak or think in an authentic voice, using the right vocabulary and slang. Anything else risks pulling the reader out of the story, especially if that reader is familiar with the character’s background from their own personal experience.
  • Using the wrong vocabulary can change the meaning and confuse the reader. For example, an American friend on Facebook was having friends over and wondering what to serve. Should she offer cider instead of wine for those friends who didn’t drink alcohol? Colour (color?) me confused: in my world, cider and wine have the same alcohol content. I was amused to find her “cider” is what I call apple juice, and my cider is her “hard cider.”

So what common words and phrases get mixed up?

US English – British English

bathroom – toilet, loo

college – university

high school – secondary school, high school, college

college – university

counter – bench (in kitchen)

fall – autumn

fanny – something you only talk about with your gynecologist

fanny pack – bum bag

federal holiday – bank holiday (England), public holiday, statutory holiday

football – American football

French fries – fries or chips

gas – petrol

grade school – primary school

half-bath – toilet

hard liquor – spirits

highway – motorway

hood – bonnet

lucked out – something bad happened

main street – high street

middle school – intermediate school

Ob/GYN – obstetrician or gynecologist (may not be the same person)

potato chips – chips or crisps

private school – public school (England)

public school – state school

purse – handbag

sidewalk – footpath

soccer – football

26 December – Boxing Day (which is a public holiday in many countries)

trunk – boot

vacation – holiday

wallet – purse

yard – garden (even if it’s just grass)

The specific terms you use will depend on the setting in terms of time and place, and where the characters are from. Most of us have grown up watching Hollywood movies and American TV shows, so we have learned what words mean in context. But the reverse doesn’t necessarily hold true. If your author is using authentic British English vocabulary, you may need to ensure the meaning is clear to American readers.

If you’re not sure about vocabulary, then work with a beta reader, critique partner, or editor who is familiar with your novel’s culture and setting.

My next post will discuss more straightforward topics: spelling and punctuation.

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based book reviewer and editor specializing in adult and young adult Christian fiction. She won the 2016 ACFW Genesis Award (Novella), and copyedited Then There Was You by Kara Isaac, which won a RITA Award from Romance Writers of America. Iola holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in marketing, and has a background in human resource consulting. When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband and cat.