Sunday, 1 September 2013

OVERT TEXT AND OVER HERE: AMERICANISMS IN BRITISH BOOKS by VALERIE LAWS


'I SAID, NO PINK BITS, NO SWEARING, NO VIOLENCE, NO AMERICANISMS, NO LANGUAGE!'
Last month, I blogged about swearing. It was mostly funny, though I was making a serious point about customers/readers being ‘gatekeepers’ now in Ebookworld (good), and some of them using their reviews as weapons of moral warfare to make authors toe the line (not so good). If you’ve not read the post, pop over and check it out HERE.

Welcome back! Well this month I’m blogging about a related phenomenon. Readers pointing out and punishing author errors - or are they errors? I’ve a tootsie in both camps here, in the sense that I’m a right cleverclogs and tend to spot errors of fact, grammar, plot and procedure in other peoples’ books, although I write my own. I can’t help it. Because I do tend to notice errors, I try really really hard to avoid them in my books, especially my crime fiction. I do a lot of research and a lot of checking.
My new crime novel THE OPERATOR (BRUCE AND BENNETT CRIME THRILLER 2) has just launched, and right up to the wire I was checking with a lovely surgeon what medical staff, as opposed to ordinary bods, would call modern, non-latex surgical gloves, and making sure the correct terms were properly assigned yet clear to readers. (I didn’t tell him then that the book was about surgeons being murdered and mutilated to mimic the operations they perform...)

But there’s such a thing as being too clever for your own good, and I must plead guilty to that, hem hem. Getting it right can still be the very thing that pushes a reader’s buttons and gets them plucking back those Amazon stars like some kind of martial arts film in reverse. Some UK readers object to what they regard as ‘Americanisms.’ This is a problem for readers, and hence for writers, because willy nilly (deriv. 'will he, nill he', old English usage), many terms of US origin are over here, and here to stay. My first crime novel THE ROTTING SPOT contains a dramatic scene early on, where Erica Bruce finds a drunk Geordie lass about to give birth in a filthy alley by a night club with someone leaning over her...

'SORRY, MY WHISTLE'S CHARGING.'
Erica calls 911 on her mobile. This has been pointed out to me as a mistake several times, and one otherwise lovely, supportive reviewer deducted a star for it from an otherwise glowing review. I’m as English/Scots as anyone from near the  border can be, with reiver surnames on both sides, so I’d be unlikely to get my own emergency phone number wrong - I have, during my exciting life, called the cops, oops, I mean peelers, using 999. But in the book, I was too clever for my own good. I know that 911 does in fact work on UK mobiles, or so I’ve been assured by several sources. And Erica is a lot younger than me, and might well think of 911 first. Which is why UK mobiles have both emergency numbers, as UK youngsters hear ‘911’ more often on TV than 999.

 Another issue: using ‘CSI’ for, well, crime scene investigators in the UK instead of ‘SOCO’. I have checked, as I did before the book was published, and CSI is the correct term now, and has been for some years. It’s a better term, as some of the investigators may not be ‘officers’ - the doctor, the pathologist, various experts etc. I love the richness of UK and US English, and all the regional variations. I love hearing the American voices in my head when reading Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Anne Tyler, Robert B Parker. I don’t like it when modern US authors write cosies set in, say, Victorian England, and use modern US slang. But then they’re mostly writing for a US audience who might not realise. I just don't review them.

Misuse, or supposed misuse, of grammar generates ire in many readers. I wish I had a dollar, I mean pound, for every time I’ve seen someone laying into a writer, sometimes in vicious terms (especially in ‘comments’ below online newspaper articles), for saying eg ‘...the werewolf and me’ when according to them, it’s ‘...the werewolf and I’. Erm not always, not if it’s the object of the sentence. A little knowledge is a pain in the ass. I mean arse.

ABOVE: AN ASS, AND AN ARSE. CAN YOU TELL WHICH IS WHICH?
Nerdy, nitpicky, and nutso as I am, I dread being found out: what will eagle-eyed readers find in THE OPERATOR? What did I get wrong? I feel guiltier than any of my murderers just at the possibility. But even worse, what did I get right, that I might still be smacked upside the head (oh dear there I go again!) for? How can an author protect themselves from reader error?


'DID SOMEONE MISUSE AN APOSTROPHE?'
If I find something in a book that looks like a mistake, before telling facebook or the author about it, I get googling to find out for sure. I might learn something and often do. I’d love it if others would do the same before they release the kraken of their triumphant rage on the hapless writer. Language changes, our own UK English has borrowed terms from other languages for centuries, and always will. You see expressions like ‘shagging’ in US books these days. (Behave, Austin Powers!) Words, like ebooks, can fly to and fro at light speed, and huzzah/hurrah/hurray/yay for that!


THE OPERATOR (BRUCE AND BENNETT CRIME THRILLER 2) IS
ON KINDLE UK
KINDLE US
KINDLE IN & all Amazon platforms

THE ROTTING SPOT (A BRUCE AND BENNETT MYSTERY) IS
ON KINDLE UK
KINDLE US
KINDLE IN & all Amazon platforms (& in paperback)

MY AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE with links to my other books: UK  US

Follow me on Twitter: @ValerieLaws

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I don’t like it when modern US authors write cosies set in, say, Victorian England, and use modern US slang. But then they’re mostly writing for a US audience who might not realise."
We DO REALIZE (even if we use "z" instead of "s"). I am "with you," Valerie. We in the U.S. hate "modern US slang" as much as you do in inappropriate contexts. The incorrect use of subjective case pronouns in place of objective case pronouns will trigger three-star reviews and copious emails to the authors who request reviews containing same from me. Likewise, incorrect of the subjunctive drives us grammarians to distraction, unless of course it is used in the dialogue of a character who speaks in the vernacular.

Anonymous said...

Or rather nominative case pronouns in place of objective case pronouns..., e.g., "I" in place of "me."

JO said...

I can be laid back about it most of the time (and think Cameron is one of those in any language). But the word that makes my hackles rise in books by British writers is 'gotten'. It's fine from and American, as it's part of their language. But over here - we have so many lovely alternatives we don't need 'gotten'. (And yes, I'm a pedant!)

Susan Price said...

But my Scots fella says he's always used 'gotten', that it's usual in Scots speech. - I think it may be another case of America preserving an older usage. As with 'I guess', which is found in Chaucer.

Chris Longmuir said...

I'm now starting to wonder whether all this focus on grammar and author errors is getting in the way of the reading. The actual enjoyment of a book for its story. I'm afraid when I'm deep in a book, unless the error is of massive proportions, it tends to slip by me. Although, I do have a keen proofing eye, I don't let it get in the way of my enjoyment of a story. a far bigger sin in my view, is a bad story - if there is such a thing because what I might consider bad you might consider great.

Jan Needle said...

gotten comes straight from the english, is used in scotland i'm told, and is still used in lancashire occasionally, where it's often pronounced geeten (as in wor serrah's geeten a chap - our sarah's got herself a boyfriend). anyway, grammarian nitpickers are a pain in the ass or arse (or bum or butt). i've just been involved in an on line chatette with julia jones because people insist she spells focsle with one, two or three apostrophes, which is as ridiculous as spelling domino's pizzas with an apostrophe, on which they insist on (so as not to use a preposition to end a sentence with), or perpetrating the original printer's error of entitling moby dick moby-dick (or wang, or weener, or dong?) when there's no hyphen anywhere in the text and it's clearly silly. time we all allowed language to grow up.

julia, incidentally, has decided to replace foclse with forepeak. which is, i'm afraid julia, seriously arguable. fortunately, i can't be bottomed to argue...

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm with Chris on this one as well. These are passing distractions and I would never delete stars for this kind of thing unless it was consistent and blatant and then I wouldn't review at all. (Probably wouldn't carry on reading either!) I had an editor, no less, taking me to task over the use of 'ghostly gear' in the historical section of The Curiosity Cabinet when a moment's Googling would have revealed just how old that word is to denote personal possessions. Regional variations are a whole other can of worms. Central belt Scots routinely use 'I have went' instead of 'gone' (as in 'I have went through it all') so often for it to be a grammatical feature rather than an error. My Yorkshire school friends used to use 'us' instead of 'our' as in 'us books' - I realised later on that it's not an error but a linguistic survival. Gotten is an older usage and there are lots of similar words surviving in US English that were over here first. Bill Bryson has a lot to say about all this, very entertainingly, although the grammar police point out that even he gets it wrong sometimes. I suspect this is simply a case of scholarly disagreement. I once wrote a play with some Scots Gaelic in it - which I do NOT speak, but two of the actors did. From different small islands. They had polite disagreements about which was the correct usage. Eventually, we had to go with a particular island. All of which would indicate that we should perhaps look to the beams in our own eyes before tackling other people's motes. Or words to that effect! If the story is good and unless the error is so glaring that it pulls me out of my 'willing suspension of disbelief' I can live with it.

Lydia Bennet said...

Anonymous, I wasn't meaning to imply that all US readers are unaware of misplaced US slang in historical UK-set books, thank you for your comments!
Chris, Catherine, I agree, I do notice errors but I ignore them if the story's carrying me along or is good. Some readers actually enjoy catching the author out I think, there's a triumph about it, 'gotcha!'
As for 'gotten' it is indeed English usage, now out of use here except in regional English, but retained in the US. It's no different to bit/bitten.
Jan, Julia, do keep focsle, I love the castle on the ship idea! I see no need for three apostrophes really, a lot of books use the full spellings of nautical terms so the reader has to be 'in the know' to pronounce them properly, which I don't like so much.

Lydia Bennet said...

Jan, Moby-dick, hahaha! Mind you this might not be so much prudery, as worry about the title being bounced back by spam filters and obscene language filters, apparently Scunthorpe's had a lot of problems that way...

Bill Kirton said...

I agree with Chris and Catherine but the problem is that I find it difficult (impossible) to switch off the editor bit of me, even when I'm really enjoying the thing I'm reading. I spot a 'flaw' and do an inward schoolteacherly frown accompanied by severe tutting while simultaneously telling myself to shut up and stop spoiling my fun. I may also reprimand that bit of me for being so active and alert when I'm reading the work of others and taking time-outs (which is a legitimate UK expression used on North Sea oil rigs and I live in Aberdeen, the oil capital of Europe, so there) when I need it to proof-read my own stuff.
You're clearly meticulous when it comes to choosing your words and configurations, Valerie, and I think that's important. They're our tools. A painter friend says it's fine to break the rules of line, colour, tone etc. but only if you've proved beforehand that you can draw.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thank you Bill for those kind words, and your friend makes an excellent point. I do feel the messenger is being shot sometimes here, ie, readers who don't like the fact that US terms have entered our language in the UK, sometimes seem to punish authors for it.

Jan Needle said...

just gotten back orf me boat after a day on the canals, and wish to remind lydia that moby dick used to feature quite a lot in men's urinals as a reportable disease (only in the most literate quarters, natch). it was often twinned with the government sex crime advice 'Muffin the Mule is no longer an indictable offence.'

talking of gaelic, one of my few sentences in irish was 'ta an gadhair og ar an mohair'. in donegal it means there is a puppy on the road, and in kerry there is a young goat on the road. time for a lie-down i think.

Die Booth said...

I think context is key. It really bothers me when American publishers want to change my UK English spelling, because I'm English. If I was to write or publish a story set in America (which I have done, both, in Re-Vamp) then I'd likewise expect American English. I have had one story rejected in the past though, because it was 'too English' (not sure why - there was no slang or anything in it!)I think if something works and is unobtrusive then anything goes (I will still cringe though whenever someone uses modern slang in historical fiction however!)