This American dilemma: do I have to avoid the Brits to stay a good translator?

by Kristin Fehlauer

I first noticed the initial signs in 2002. I had just moved to Europe from the United States and was a teaching assistant in Rostock, Germany. Assigned to an elementary school, I was tasked with helping kids aged 5 to 10 or so learn some English basics. Pretty typical conversational stuff:

“Hello. How are you?”

“What’s your name?”

“Have you got a brother?”

Wait, what?

“What colour is the woolly hat?”

I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch…

“It’s a fancy dress party.”

But they’re not wearing fancy dresses—

Kristin Fehlauer

All the words by themselves made sense, but were strung together in ways I had not seen or heard before. I protested. I have no problem with the children learning British English, I said, but why have an American assistant? I would never say these things naturally; it’s almost like learning a different language! And the pairing of my accent with British speech patterns just sounded ludicrous. However, I was overruled, and tried my best to get the children to speak in a way I hoped approximated what people might say in the UK.

Little did I know this would be the beginning of a long love/hate relationship with another form of English. Like many Americans, I love the way it sounds; it connotes education, culture, centuries of tradition. So charming, so quaint! And yet, the deeper I delve into its intricacies, the more I fear it is having an inescapable impact on my American English. It’s not always obvious, hence the “creeping” aspect. “Lime” is a reference to “limey,” slang for a British sailor or, by extension, a British person.

Disclaimer: I realize “British English” is a sweeping label that covers a hugely diverse group of accents and dialects. Here I will mostly be dealing with what I would probably call “the Queen’s English,” by which I mean the fairly standard variety Americans would tend to associate with the British upper class and aristocracy.

Another disclaimer: There are plenty more varieties of English out there! But my personal experiences as an American are with British English; I’ll be leaving Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa out of this particular story…

Pasta with basil and tomato sauce

Shocker: pronunciation in British and American can be different! Usually these differences don’t interfere with comprehension; they’re just amusing little curiosities, things to compare with new friends and laugh over. But every now and then, it gets slightly more serious. For example, I will never get used to the fact that Brits can rhyme “clerk” with “park,” “rain” with “again,” or even “port” with “ought.” This can result in some confusion in poetry and song lyrics!

Intonation is another key difference. British questions tend to sound more like a statements to me, as though they are merely seeking confirmation. It’s difficult to describe the rise and fall of someone’s pitch in text form, but I’ll give it a go:

If a British speaker asks, “Have you got a sister?”, their voice will go something like:

Whereas if an American asks, “Do you have a sister?”, their voice will start down and move continuously up:

Potayto, potahto

That Brits and Yanks have different words for things is pretty clear to anyone who’s stepped, however briefly, across the pond. Some of the classics are boot/trunk, flat/apartment, nappy/diaper. A couple less well-known examples may be coriander/cilantro and anticlockwise/counterclockwise. The Brits join with many of their neighbors on the Continent in calling it coriander (see Koriander, coriandre, coriandolo, кориандр, etc.), whereas Americans get “cilantro” by way of their neighbors to the south, who imported both the herb itself and their term for it from Spain.

Regarding counter- and anticlockwise, which one would you think is the British one? To be honest, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve gone with counterclockwise. To me, “counter” looks and sounds like an old Anglo-Saxon prefix, maybe because at first glance, I can’t trace it back to any other language root. It’s the perfect companion to clock and wise! “Anti,” on the other hand, strikes me as so markedly non-English that “anticlockwise” has to be a more recent formation. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Person A: OK, we have clockwise.

Person B: Excellent. But wait, what about things that go the other way?

A: You mean, things that are the opposite of clockwise?

B: Right.

A: Hmm, I don’t know… Well, you can slap “anti” onto just about anything and you get the opposite. Why don’t we just say “anticlockwise”?

B: Sounds good!

Although I feel slightly disloyal in saying so, I can far more easily imagine this conversation happening stateside versus in merry olde Englande. So how did we wind up with counterclockwise and the Brits with anticlockwise? I have no idea; but a more important question is, why are we bothering with those words when we could be using the wonderfully fantastic “widdershins”??


That’s never a subtle grammar difference

The preceding two aspects of British vs. American English are fairly surface-level and obvious. Given that people are usually familiar with the regional variations in these languages, I think it’s easier for them to grasp the notion of alternative pronunciations or different labels for things. Yet the more I’ve been exposed to the two variants, the more I’ve become aware of deeper, more subtle differences.

One of the first I encountered as a translator was the British “in future.” Americans always use the article; you have to say “in the future,” regardless of context. Sadly, this misses out on a pleasing nuance: for the British, “in the future” refers to the period of time that has not yet occurred, whereas “in future” means “from now on” or “next time.” This is still hard for me to wrap my brain around – not good when the client is asking for British English! It’s a good thing I have British colleagues I can call on when I need a hand.

Another particularly British characteristic is one specific use of the word “never,” when they want to say “there’s no way that can be true.” You might be trying on an item of clothing that’s labeled in your size, but if it’s ridiculously tight or loose, you could say, “That’s never a size 9!” Americans use it in this sense – well, never!

How do you do “do”?

Finally, one of the most salient features of British English, and one where my own case of creeping lime has had the most impact, is verbs. The Brits seem to be much fonder of the verb “do,” especially when paired with a modal verb:

“Are you going to work on that project this evening?”

“I should do, but I’ll probably just watch the telly instead.”

An American would never insert “do” in that instance (and we don’t watch “the telly”, we watch TV!).

Another case happened to me recently when an American friend of mine asked if I’d read a blog post he’d written several weeks before. I wasn’t sure, so I answered, “I might have done.” He gave me an amused look and commented, “That’s very British!” And he was right; the more American response would probably have been “Maybe I did,” but I had to think about it first.

I think most native speakers of a language – any language – are hard pressed to describe the rules and principles they adhere to when using it. So I apologize if I’ve supplied more examples than abstract descriptions, but for me, it’s the easiest way to make my point.

The upshot

So what? you may ask. Fair enough – after all, it’s fun to learn new words and adopt new ways of speaking. I kind of like that I am developing my own unique blend of English. And if I didn’t make my living based on my facility with the US brand of English, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, I have to be able to deliver texts that sound as though they were written by an American, and with a Scotsman on the other side of my desk, an Englishman down the hall, and an Irish freelancer in close contact over Skype, I am virtually embedded in a microcosm of the British Isles.

Making matters worse is that most of the media I choose to consume is of British origin as well – including some of my favorite TV shows and my favorite podcast. All of this is causing interference with my mental ear; there are times when it’s hard to tell what “sounds right.” I try to offset the effect by purposely listening to American radio and reading American print media, and of course talking to family and friends helps. Still, as in the “might have done” example above, sometimes I find myself having to think a little bit about phrasing that should be completely intuitive.

It’s similar to the struggle many people have when they live abroad and are immersed in the local language. So do any expats out there have any tips for keeping your native language intact?

20 responses to “This American dilemma: do I have to avoid the Brits to stay a good translator?”

  1. Andrew Hills says:

    Interesting article and point of view but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
    English is different everywhere you go.
    Cross England from Liverpool to Newcastle for example and you will hear just as distinct differences as crossing the Atlantic.
    You just have to adapt a little, accept, embrace and enjoy the oddities. It doesn’t take much to understand given the context of the conversation.
    I was born in London and with a colleague from Preston we work happily together with American speakers from Boston, Texas and California. No communciation problems. We all enjoy the variety.

  2. Heidi Benson says:

    PS and as far as tips to deal with this dilemma. I love keeping a journal of useful words and phrases. (Widdershins by the by has made my day if not my entire year complete! Many thanks for that gem.)

  3. Heidi Benson says:

    Hi Kristin,
    Your blog crossed my path via FB this week so of course I read it, doubly amused that you wrote it months ago. Alas, it’s still in circulation!
    To add to your list, my own personal pet peeve is the liquid u, which comes up only in spoken comparisons, but to my ears is so grating, as in stupid (stoopid vs. steyoopid).
    Another point where I have found rare common ground with the Brits though is when a third country, say Germany, uses English in a municipal setting to accommodate tourists, and we get sentences like “please alight on the left side.” To my knowledge this phrase is not comfortable to ears on either side of the pond.
    You’ve inspired me to write a blog as well and maybe you can proofread my American English version lest I write it in the subjunctive or some such. Ta for now, HeidiB.

  4. Sara says:

    Hello Kristin,
    I can tell you my experience from a non-native speaker point of view. I lived in London for some time and when I would come back to Spain (for holidays or whatever) I would think (count, swear, even dream) in English most of the time. That emplied, obviously, that My family had to struggle to understand me quite often. Then I moved to Belgium and things got even worse, I was speaking 3 languages at the same time on a daily basis: French for daily life, English with my then boyfriend, and Spanish with family… Or at least that is what I pretended because most of the time I would be mixing them up! Even now (about 10 years later) there are certain things that I can perfectly name in English and I have to think twice before saying in Spanish: for example application form, that would be “formulario”, but I have to think for a couple of minutes each time I ask for one, if I don’t want to end up saying “aplicación” which is something completely different…

  5. Nina Gettler says:

    I enjoyed your article, Kristin. The funny thing is that there are now quite a number of British words that have become popular here in the US. People talk about flatmates and going to the loo. There is bespoke this and bespoke that. Seattle even has a bespoke shoemaker. Statements are spot on, and there are one-off payments. People have become keen on things, and guys chat girls up. Is it years of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey? Or do Americans like using British words because they think it makes them sound as posh as the Brits?

  6. Lyn says:

    Kristin, what a great article, thank you. As a Brit translator living in France for nearly 20 years, I saw the title of your article in a list and clicked on it, thinking I’d say, “The feelings’s mutual, cousin!”. Not a bit of it! One or two observations: the rising intonation is becoming more common in British English, and can turn a statement into a question (I must be getting old because this irritates me!); really liked in future/in the future; speaking of old-fashioned, I find American “gotten” very quaint – it’s an old form of the verb, my grandmother used to refer to a cake from a shop as a “boughten” one; a common difference between our use of language is the American “I have” v. the British “I’ve got” eg. “a headache”; I’d like to add myself to the “widdershins” fan club – a great word I didn’t learn until I was 40! I think that conference is a must! Thanks again.

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Thanks, Lyn! Yes, “upspeak” is certainly a problem, apparently on both sides of the Atlantic. And I often think British sounds quaint — it kills me that people use “fortnight” seriously! Will keep you posted on conference plans…

  7. ash says:

    While many Americans do end sentences with rising intonation, American voice coaches recommend ending sentences, including questions, with falling intonation. Listen to a great orator, like Obama, and you will find that they seldom end a sentence with rising intonation.

  8. Andrew says:

    I always love reading blogs like this. I’ve been teaching English (in Spain) half my life and I tell my learners that I’m still learning English too.
    Written forms have their own pitfalls. I find the # much more useful and less ambiguous than “No.” (number, e.g. number/#/No. 147) but a tick will always be a tick to me, never a check (sign).
    Websites like that default to North American day/date configuration when choosing “language: English” drive me mad – I have come so close to booking flights on the wrong dates! But European commas for decimals (and vice-versa), billions for trillions and refusal to understand vulgar fractions are equally infuriating, too.
    One final thought – seeing as the whole world is learning our (joint) language, why don’t the USA and UK return the favo(u)r and go fully metric ?

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Hola Andrew, thanks for your feedback! The annoyance of default language settings is a blog post in itself. And as much sense as metric makes, part of me still loves the quaint randomness of the imperial system 🙂 Keeps the mind sharp!

  9. Victoria Becker says:

    Very much enjoyed your article. I’m not a language geek, but I’m fascinated with words and their different connotations. Appreciated that tip on the difference between ‘in the future’ and ‘in future’ from the British perspective. And I’ve used ‘widdershins” ever since I learned the word and therefore request an invitation to said conference currently being planned, being a self-proclaimed expert in its contemporary usage.

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Hi Victoria, thanks! Glad you liked it. Can we book you as the keynote speaker for the conference?

  10. Sandra says:

    Great post! I moved to NYC from London last year and I am still trying to adapt to the daily linguistic challenges. I recently asked for Tipp–Ex and got some blank stares in return. I find the whole experience fascinating and it makes my job even more interesting.

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Hello Sandra, thank you! I’ve been learning about British and American differences for about 9 years, and am still discovering new words 🙂 What’s your job? I used to live in NYC myself — how do you like it?

  11. Britt Guro Sæther says:

    Thanks, Kristin! I simply love your reflections on American vs British English and just recently noticed your blog. Perfect for language geeks like me 😉 I mostly translate from English into Norwegian and of course need to be aware of the differences, but I’m not facing the challenges you describe since English is only a source languange in my case.
    ‘Widdershins’ is a brilliant word!

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Hi Britt, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I would be curious to learn more about Norwegian and Norwegian translation. Are there varieties of Norwegian with the same kind of problems as in British vs. American? Have you seen an English expression you didn’t recognize because your experience has been mostly with American or British?
      Try to use “widdershins” this week in a sentence 😉

  12. Chidubem Akinyede says:

    Great blog! Excellent, as a matter of fact! I must confess that I was slightly irritated when I first came across the title. Soliloquizing, I asked why on earth you would need to avoid the ‘Brits’ to stay a good translator? I am naturally inclined toward the ‘British English’. Well, your guess may be as mine; curiosity got the better of me and so I read the piece. Well written indeed! You have successfully made clear the ‘creeping in’ of the British English. You may not need to anxious though. You’ll live! The points or issues raised are real and incontestable. You however seem to getting your way around the challenges. If you suppose that the issues emanating from South Africa, Australia, et cetera, would be no go areas for now, what would you say about countries like Nigeria, with a mixed grill of British English of yore, heavy American influence, alongside the so many indigenous languages. It is a bundle of confusion I tell you. Be that as it may, I would suggest that in addition to listening to American ‘TV ‘ stations, keeping in touch with friends, did you mention listening the radio back there? You should visit ‘home’ from time to time as it would be convenient, of course, stay close to your literatures as much as possible and where applicable, watch well selected movies, if you can. Wishing all translators, with our myriad of challenges, all the best!

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Hi Chidubem, thanks so much for reading my post and sharing your thoughts! Also, thanks for the suggestion of radio, I often forget about that. There are certainly a lot of aspects to think about regarding language. Sounds like Nigeria has quite the linguistic potpourri! What languages do you translate into/out of?

  13. Paul Moriarty says:

    Nice blog. I lived in expat environments for years. I took me a long time to realise that an eggplant was nothing more than an aubergine. I’d imagined something altogether more fantastical.

    My Californian flatmate was also baffled when I told him I had a chickpea dish in a restaurant. It was a disappointment to him when he found out they were just garbanzos.

    Differences can be hard to identify. As an Irishman, it took me a long time to figure out that no one (neither my American or English friends) really knew what I meant when I said that someone had given out to me. For Irish people, to “give out” in this context means to scold.

    As for instating “widdershins” as universal, I think a transatlantic conference should be called immediately to make this happen.

    • Kristin Fehlauer says:

      Thanks, Moriarty! Chickpeas vs. garbanzo beans is also an East Coast/West Coast thing. It would be interesting to explore if people are more or less aware of regional differences on different sides of the Atlantic. I didn’t start to become aware that different parts of the US had different words for things until I was about 16.
      I look forward to the widdershins conference you just volunteered to organize! 😉

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