May. 7th, 2013

underthewillows: (Default)
This is a mini-rant about American versus British English usage as I've encountered it in the wilds of fanfiction, particularly that produced by non-Brits writing stories based on British television shows. Warning: all opinions my own personal ones, don’t take them as gospel, open to correction by the more knowledgeable (e.g. anyone who actually lives in London, or England, for that matter).

Now, this is going to apply to writing about British TV shows like “Sherlock”, and not American versus British usage in general. Yes, somebody gored my ox, and you lot have to suffer for it. This isn’t a rant about modern fanfic either, since a lot of older Brit telly has been written about and the same errors have been made. But when they’re still being made - that’s where the irritation factor scales up dramatically.

Talking about “Sherlock”, I’ve read one too many fanfics where:

A character is going to walk a couple of blocks to the precinct.

No, they’re not. Not on this side of the Atlantic. We don’t measure distance in “blocks” since street layout and urban planning doesn’t admit of that handy division, unlike the U.S.A. where - since you lot were building from scratch - urban architects decided a grid system would be rational.

And we don’t have precincts (unless there’s been a change in usage); it’s the police station. I’m not quite sure what the proper term is in regard to Sherlock strolling on down to New Scotland Yard, but that’s the point - I don’t know, so if I were going to write a story set there, I would look up the proper term.

John goes to make the tea, so he turns on the stove and puts the kettle on top of it.

Not unless you’re writing in the Victorian verse, he wouldn’t. And we don’t generally call them “stoves”, we call ‘em “cookers”.

Tea is important, damn it! And boiling a kettle of water on top of a gas, old-style electric ring or ceramic hob is too slow. That’s why we have fast-boiling electric kettles that plug in to the mains and boil between 1 and 2 litres of water quickly so we can get that all-important cuppa first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and in-between all day.

We’re bad at coffee making, though. If you do have coffee drinking or making going on in your story, it’s much more likely to be (if it’s not bought from a chain) a mug of instant coffee powder with the choice of milk and/or sugar. Only posher/poncier/foodie types would do the whole ‘making real coffee’ bit.

Speaking of doing the shopping…

So you have John going down to Tesco’s, which is all well and good, where he picks up a gallon of milk. Which is not so well and good. Milk is usually sold by the litre, though people may still talk about the old-fashioned measure of a pint of milk. To make it even more confusing, people may say “I’m just going down the shops for a pint of milk” and come back with a litre measure. Again, check the difference between American measures and English when talking about grocery shopping, plus the way groceries are bagged (still the tendency to use light-weight plastic bags, although here in Ireland we have a tax on these, which means most people have switched to using proper long-life grocery bags) and the way till operators work (we don’t tend to have “checkout baggers” as in the U.S., unless people are bagging groceries to raise money for charity, in which case they’ll be volunteers from the school, charity or whatever and collecting money as well).

Cops and guns.

Oh, boy, this is a minefield. In general, the police are not armed. Certain squads are, and detectives may be (again, I’m not clear on it, so Look. It. Up.) It’s possible that Lestrade et al. are tooled up, but shooting by the police is not as casual over here as it is in American-set shows. Reflect that in your fiction, and don’t have the police burst in the door all guns blazing.

Cops and cops. And other legal stuff.

We don’t have deputies over here because there isn’t the same division between sheriff’s department and state police. So don’t use that term (again, yes, read it in a fic). Also, remember that barristers and solicitors are not the same thing, one can plead in court while the other can't, and while attorney is a recognised term, it's not quite the same thing as in the U.S.A.; over here, it's more used in the context of the "Attorney General", who is a law officer of the crown and gives legal advice to the government. And petty offences (such as John's ASBO) will come up before a magistrate's court. So make sure you work out if that diamond geezer needs a dock brief before being had up before the beak, okay?

Speaking of slang…

This is a tough one. There’s always the Scylla of, on the one hand, having your characters speak like Americans (for example, we wouldn’t say “projects”, we’d say “council estates” or “tower blocks”) and the Charybdis of, on the other, using outdated slang (cheerio, toodle-pip, blighter, etc.)

And don’t get me started on Cockney/Mockney. Gratuitous dropping of the letter “h” does not make it authentic, and writing dialect is tricky. ‘E gimme a bash on the lug’ole, dinnae 'ee, aye aye guv'nor? Maybe he did, but unless your character is half-Cockney and half-Scots by way of Yorkshire, they won’t talk like that.

But I’m an American, writing for Americans! I naturally use the terms I’m familiar with!

Then write a story set in the “Elementary” verse, which is pre-Americanised for your convenience. Or listen to the lines in the actual television programme itself. If the characters don’t say it, then don’t write it.

Think of it like this - suppose you were reading a “Dexter” fanfic, where one of the characters says “Hey, turn on Radio 4, I want to know the Test match score!”

Would that convince you this was an American talking to other Americans about an American radio station broadcasting an American sport? No? Then don’t make John Watson a baseball fan, with a favourite team and an old-time player he admires (yes, I’ve read this. Some fudged explanations about he was introduced to baseball by the Yanks he met serving in Afghanistan. Yeah - no.) Canonically, Watson played rugby; modern-day John might equally well have played it at university, or follow a team (oh, and don't confuse rugby league with rugby union!) - at least the national side in tournaments such as the Six Nations cup - and may very well have a football team he supports (don't have a Brit character call it soccer unless you're specifically mentioning other games like rugby football, Australian rules football, Gaelic football and American football, where a distinction needs to be made between various games under the same term).

So basically - when in doubt, leave it out. Or look it up. And check, check, check what you’ve just put down - if you have Sherlock and John walking three blocks from the subway munching on hotdogs they bought from a vending cart while they discuss last night’s baseball game and the batting average of their favourite players as they head on over to the precinct where the beat cops are putting on their holsters, then maybe re-think what ‘verse you want to write in or watch another episode of the show to catch any little slip-ups you might be making.
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