Speak English! Erm… Or At Least Speak AMERICAN! …Please?

No campari, amigo.

Authors who don’t speak English as a first language often struggle with its many peculiarities when they write.

So do we.

There are so many differences between relaxed, common American speech and relaxed common speech of the United Kingdom, or Australia, or Canada, that we can end up “fixing” things – to our way of speaking or reading – and have them be an error in the author’s home country.

Or just ruin the essence of the story.

Visualization of me reading a compelling Greek story if I were an overworked woman with a junk food habit.
Visualization of me reading a compelling Greek story if I were an overworked woman with a junk food habit.

I reviewed a book by a Greek author who was told by his publisher to fix all the various “issues” with his story so it would read more easily to the American eye. He had written a story about Americans on vacation in the Greek Isles who meet an old man in a café one day after going diving. They start chatting and become friends and end up in a bit of an unfortunate mystery-adventure.

He was told that American readers would stumble over the lack of “smoothness” in his writing, and that the story was good, but this would cost him sales in the American market. It’s a good point; the US audience is huge compared to that of Greece.

What did he do?

Go indie!
Go indie!

He quit the publisher and put the book out himself (gotta love that indie spirit!) but he asked me to read it and make corrections/suggestions – since English wasn’t his first language.

If you have ever talked to a foreigner who speaks English as a second language, you know they usually speak AMAZINGLY GOOD English – but rarely do THEY think so. They just arrange nouns and verbs a little differently, and tend to speak more formal. They use far less contractions. (You’re not gonna see a lot of LOL’s.)

That was the case with this book. It was a very good story but it had some of the sentence structure differences that a person who speaks English as a second language would say. This is what had him worried.

What was my analysis?

It was beautiful.

This is amazing!
This is amazing!

It read like I had sat down at the Greek cafe with the characters on a summer afternoon and been right there, eavesdropping on their conversation as they chatted with the old man. I hung n his every word as his story unfolded.

The lack of perfectly smooth English made it all the more able for me to mentally be transported into the setting of the Greek cafe where the story took place. It added so much flavor to the story, it would have ruined it to take it all out!

The book may have sold better with that stuff removed, but readers would been served a far less interesting dish than the one they bought.

That’s usually the case with interviews and guest blog posts. Non-Americans have so many great little sayings that we don’t necessarily know (but can usually understand from context clues) that it adds a lot of personality to their post. It makes the interaction much more enjoyable.

I see a large audience on the horizon.
I see a large audience on the horizon.

When it comes to book sales, though, I’d write it to whatever the largest audience speaks. My Greek friend’s book aside, that’s been true since before The Beatles invaded in the 1960’s. Authors and my readership are certainly a notch or two above the average reading level of the population in general, but the cute words in an interview become speed bumps in a story if it isn’t done just right. That’s my only caution.

Write your story the way you need to tell it, and include your personality or your story isn’t yours – but balance the spices in the soup with the palate of the diner.

Not everybody likes Greek food.


Your humble host.
Your humble host.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.

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International bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 17 titles published in over a dozen languages. From Romance in Poggibonsi to action and adventure in the sci-fi thriller The Navigators, to comedies like Night Of The Colonoscopy: A Horror Story (Sort Of) and the heartwarming and humorous anecdotes about parenting in the popular Savvy Stories series, his knack for surprising audiences and making you laugh or cry - or hang onto the edge of your seat - has been enjoyed by audiences around the world. And you are guaranteed to get a page turner every time. “That’s my style,” Dan says. “Grab you on page one and then send you on a roller coaster ride, regardless of the story or genre.” Readers agree, making his string of #1 bestsellers popular across the globe. He will make you chuckle or shed tears, sometimes on the same page. His novels always contain twists and turns, and his nonfiction will stay in your heart forever. Dan resides in the Tampa area with his wife and daughter. You can find him blogging away almost every day on www.DanAlatorre or watch his hilarious YouTube show every week Writers Off Task With Friends. Dan’s marketing book 25 eBook Marketing Tips You Wish You Knew has been a valuable tool for new authors (it’s free if you subscribe to his newsletter) and his dedication to helping other authors is evident in his helpful blog.

29 thoughts on “Speak English! Erm… Or At Least Speak AMERICAN! …Please?

      1. I won’t be writing about fannies any time soon, so rest assured, we’re all quite safe there!! Dang look what you made me do now. There is a nappy reference in Lightning Attraction though!

  1. The problem British writers have is American’s don’t spell correctly! A lot of authors are forced by publishers to change to American spellings because your market is so much bigger. I have to admit I’ve switched to American spelling apart from one more I refuse to use ‘mom’ its MUM!!! In my book I’ve gone for mother.

    1. WE can barely spell in American. (I can’t imagine what spell check must be like on a British computer.) But words like MUMMY are very different. That’s a Halloween thing to us, not a dear relative.

  2. I agree… Not everything needs to be Americanized, or at least it “shouldn’t” need to be. Those slight variances in “well-written” English, allow the reader to connect with the author and his/her story.

      1. Agree totally. One of my favourite authors is Karin Fossum. Of course I read the English translation, as I don’t speak Norwegian! But I find her books read so beautifully. Now I suppose translation is a whole different kettle of fish (how would *that* read in Norwegian?!) but I’m just saying that a dollop of “foreignness” (is that a word??) is often lovely!

  3. No way ever am I going to give up my birth right … to write in English. If it costs me eventual sales not dumbing down to a secondary form so be it. I’m old enough to know that no one really knows much … but do know that money isn’t everything and chasing it for the sake of it is futile. I’m with you Tess, I’m reading your books and loving the language!

    1. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m open to catering for the American market, but I write what I know. Doing it differently would be a real challenge. I have always been intrigued by the import/export of literature and television shows between UK and US, and never really understood it. US literature/tv is imported into the UK and we mostly accept it as is. I’ve never heard of anybody insisting on ‘fixing it’ to make is more appropriate to the British audience. Whereas, how often is literature/tv exported from UK to US, but must be adapted, or in some cases, completely revamped for the US market. Who says that has to happen? Is it us Brits thinking we won’t be accepted, or US consumers refusing to accept it? Any American friends willing to enlighten us?

      Tiny example, Harry Potter, set in England, Philosopher’s Stone had to be changed to Sorcerer’s Stone. Who made that decision? Was it a shortsighted editor/publisher, or would the US market really have rejected something so massive just because it was British?

      I actually like America and the American people. The only thing I don’t like is that I have only been to the US (NY) once, and I doubt I will ever get to go back. Get your violins out… (Oh is that a British saying?)

      1. If you took a person from Alabama and put them in New York… they might not be able to communicate with anybody.

        Harry Potter is a good example. They made changes for the market. They probably adapted some words. or accents. I wouldn’t know, I didn’t see the movie or read the book. He’s the little space robot guy, right? With the wookie?

  4. I respect authors that stick to their own style even if that style is their kind of English. I think it’s great to read from a Greek’s point of view rather than a commercialized altered book where the author will lose himself.

  5. What happened? This conversation, plus the one on my own blog, and now my husband is sitting here talking with my daughter about ‘soccer’… We don’t have soccer in the UK, we have FOOTBALL! Have you hypnotised my family?

  6. I love the fact that we are two nations separated by a common language! Over the years there have been some amazing and/or funny swapping of words or terms and then they morph in their new home. I would like to cite some examples, but naturally all the ones I can think of might be inappropriate for discussion. Of course being a writer of Fantasy means I can sneak around any cultural faux pas (I hope)

    1. Hey, feel free to list them here. They’ll only be inappropriate in one language.

      My friend from London was visiting with a friend from the US and they were touring the States. They spent the night and had a boatload of funny stories. When they were in the drug store, the PA came on to say that there was a sale on fanny packs. My UK friend fell over laughing. The US friend didn’t know why. Turns out, “fanny” is a term for vagina in the UK, so she had no idea what a vagina pack was, but thought it was pretty funny to discuss it over the PA.

      Se could barely tell the story, she was still laughing so hard.

      Make your list. We’ll use it as a guest blog post. “WORDS TO USE AT YOUR OWN RISK in US-UK writing” or something.

      1. It’s an entertaining trend in the UK to write gritty crime novels either taking place some 40-50 years ago, or have part of the story take place then.
        Thus it would be common for cigarettes to appear in the dialogue.
        A common British term for cigarette in those days would be ‘a fag’.
        Need I explain any further?
        (Actually a friend of mine when on a visit to the US in 1976 caused a hush to descend on a party when forgetting she was not in the UK exclaimed that she was ‘dying for a fag’)
        In the UK a perfectly respectable profession is a Solicitor (lawyer). UK authors hoping for a US audience might be advised to telegraph an explanation lest their serious and solid male hero be mistaken for a pimp.

        Working in the other direction US authors might wonder why ‘bugger’ as a term used about someone who is mildly annoying or a person operating a listening device might be viewed with raised eyebrows in some parts of the UK: Answer the term is used in legal and common parlance for the act of sodomy and also for someone who is very, very (let me strangle them) annoying.
        Hope this enlightens.

        Yes I’ve heard about the fanny packs from bemused folks who have visited the US and are still laughing. Also I recall the problems the all girl rock band of the 1970s Fanny had when they toured the UK

    1. Maybe they’d have sold more? Less? Who knows!

      It’s fun to get the real flavor from a great story, that’s for sure.

      In one of the James Bond movies with Sean Connery – (Goldfinger, I think) they replay them back to back around Christmas or New Year’s – he says I’ll see about organizing a car. He is going to rent a car, but it sounds like he’s my mom planning for a long trip with the kids: the snacks can go there, the books and games can go over here…

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