Writing alien English

I've never had the need to write fiction set in the US - but if I ever do, it will be with trepidation, because handling alien English is a lot harder than it looks. I have written non-fiction for a US market, and even there it's easy to get tripped up.

It's not the obvious stuff - colour or color, and writing 'a purse' instead of 'a handbag' - it's the subtle cultural use of words and objects. I have been caught out, for instance, when describing action at a distance, saying it's a bit like a coconut shy. Luckily, my American editor picked out this non-translating term.

One of my favourite crime writers is Elizabeth George. Her Inspector Lynley books are very well written - but I can't help spotting cultural misfits. I'm yet to read one where something hasn't slipped through.

One that happens time and again is that she has people writing on yellow legal pads, unheard of in the UK.

What triggered all this was last night's episode of the US TV show Bones, set in London. This follows a long tradition of US shows coming to visit (anyone remember the Beverley Hillbillies coming to the UK?) and inevitably it was ripe with things to go wrong in the script.

But this is something I find puzzling. When an author gets it wrong, it needs an editor, or a friendly reader of the country it's set in to spot it - and it's easy to miss something if the writing's good and you are powering through. But on TV, an actor has to say the words - and I don't understand why the English actors in the Bones episode didn't point out the flaws.

There was a little bit of the 'prithy, gentle knight' effect - the English DI, for instance, was much too precise in her use of English. But the worst example was a student who twice said that a property developer was intending to build a 'condo' on a Bronze Age site. This word isn't part of the British English vocabulary. So either the actress didn't think, or the director ignored her pointing out that it was totally out of character. Either way, someone made the wrong call.


  1. The English DI also said gotten! I watched this last night - cringeworthy. I'll be glad when they're back on their home turf :-). Can you get a H reg mini as a hire car? Though it did provide the funniest line of the show I thought - "getting out of here is like being born" (or similar).


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