Mixing U.S. and British English—native speakers, how do you react?
November 29, 2017 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm a fluent, but non-native, English speaker who liberally (and mostly unknowingly) mixes American and British English while writing and speaking. To what degree is this distracting or even difficult to understand for Americans and Brits?

The reason I'm asking is that I'm planning on creating some scripted YouTube videos in the future, in English. Being the meticulous sort, I'm wondering what sort of care I should put into trying to keep within the boundaries of just one of these variants of English.

As a non-native speaker regularly exposed to both varieties of English since early childhood, British and American words are almost completely interchangeable to me. Mixing them doesn't feel incongruent at all, apart from some of the most notably hyper-British britishisms and hyper-American americanisms. However, I recognize that this may feel badly off to anybody from the US or the UK, even though there's a lot of cross-pollination going on via the internet, movies and TV nowadays. I thought I should at least ask what it feels like.

I'm reasonably confident in my ability to sound either "vaguely British-like" or "vaguely American-like" at the drop of a hat (tinged with a light Nordic accent), so one approach would be to pick one variety and stick to it hard, going through all the scripts with a fine-tooth comb and the aid of some reference guide to eliminate words and expressions of the other variety.

That's a lot of extra work, though, so a more relaxed devil-may-care attitude would make things easier, but I don't want to sound horribly incongruous, either.

Bad English is the lingua franca, so maybe I'm overthinking this and you're all used to hearing your language thoroughly mangled. But still, I'd like to hear your subjective takes on what "hybrid" English feels like to you.
posted by jklaiho to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I enjoy the listening to the unique ways that people use English phrases and colloquialisms from all over. I have found it's a great way to learn about a person, their background, and their travels, as well as an opportunity to learn something about English. There is a slight risk it could sound affected, and some people do love to be smug and "correct" people when they feel insecure, which your unique style could engender in some folks -- personally I prefer to weed those jerks out by keepin' on keepin' on, but ymmv.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:52 AM on November 29, 2017 [15 favorites]

(I'm American.) When Americans who do not currently or have not extensively lived in the UK do it, I find it pretentious, but when non-native English speakers do it, I'm not sure I particularly notice. I have worked with a lot of European-born people in the US and I tended to find their mixtures of various dialects and phrases to be charming.
posted by lazuli at 6:57 AM on November 29, 2017 [15 favorites]

It could be confusing if mixing words with very different meanings (fanny, fag, pants spring to mind) so perhaps find a list of common US/U.K. misunderstandings and stick to one country's meanings for those words.
posted by KateViolet at 6:58 AM on November 29, 2017 [19 favorites]

As an American who has spent a lot of time in England, I found there were only a few words in one vernacular that were total head-scratchers in the other, that most of these were slang usages, and that the USA is a sufficiently large place that you really can't avoid the problem even if you stick to "American." I would avoid these words if possible, especially if, like "fanny" and "fag," they have potentially offensive meanings in one place or the other. For the ones that aren't avoidable, I would use both words, e.g., "I looked under the car's bonnet — that's hood to you yanks — and..."
posted by ubiquity at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

yeah, seconding KateViolet -- tires/tyres, color/colour etc those kind of things aren't a big deal - most people on both sides can easily understand.

Somewhere closer to the windscreen/windshield, boot/trunk line is where you'd start to get into trouble with different audiences not necessarily understanding you, and/or using slang or colloquialisms.
posted by k5.user at 7:05 AM on November 29, 2017

The important bit is the context of the videos and the audience, innit?

If your videos are instructional and your audience American English speakers, you’d want to eliminate any points of confusion in your presentation by cutting out the Britishisms.

If your videos are lighter, and especially if they’d benefit from some extra personality (reviews? travelogues? playthroughs?), then you should feel free to go with your everyday familiar voice.
posted by notyou at 7:09 AM on November 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Good point, notyou. I should clarify that the intended audience is global.
posted by jklaiho at 7:12 AM on November 29, 2017

As an Australian living in the US that uses British English & idioms deep in Mid Western American. I get blank looks. College educated or people that watch British TV shows then usually smile as they realize what I mean, most people find different word usages fun. Some people continue to look blank, but it's easy enough to give a friendly self depreciating laugh when they do & "translate into American" for them. I've barely met anyone that has been anything but nice about it, and it has actually led to some fun conversations & made me a few acquaintances I might not otherwise have. The one negative instance I've had of misunderstanding was a very rude greeter at Walmart kept almost violently insisting it was a Supermarket Cart not Supermarket trolley.

My accent has gotten me more difficulty being understood than the words I've actually been saying and I have a very neutral Aussie/British hybrid. People just aren't expecting it in say the drive thru at MacDonalds. . where I've been told to speak properly, so now I fake a bad southern drawl much to my husbands amusement, and have never had a problem since.
posted by wwax at 7:14 AM on November 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would not think twice about it with a nonnative speaker, and I correct grammar for a living. But there are people in the world who like to make themselves feel smart by jumping on what they perceive as language errors. You may encounter some of those people. Ignore them.
posted by FencingGal at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm an American and I work in a British-English-dominated office in Hong Kong, and in that office I work with both native and non-native speakers all the time, from dozens of countries. Some observations that may help you find a way through this:

1) With few exceptions, none of us can imitate each other's accents well at all. Don't worry about trying to do this.

2) We all understand everyone's vocabulary, unless something is hyper-regional, like a Yorkshire-exclusive word for a type of hill or something (stile was new for me less than a year ago).

3) Because I live and work in a place that consciously prefers British phrases, I find myself using UK vocabulary at home in the US, and it takes me a few days/weeks to switch from rubbish bin back to trash can or something. It's usually not a big deal - in that no one notices - but I notice and cringe internally. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

4) Consider specialist vocabulary you might use and whether it's regional, or rare, or both. A general American audience might not be familiar with the word stile I mentioned above, but perhaps some American hikers would be - and I bet almost all UK walkers would be, given how many field walls you'd need to cross on a long walk in Britain.
posted by mdonley at 7:19 AM on November 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm the US born and raised child of British parents, so I've always had a mix in my head.

For informal writing, I tend to favour British spelling, my accent sounds mostly mild-Bostonian these days (I sounded a lot more British up until sometime in college, and there are still specific words where it's more obvious).

I normally do US terminology for things, but I spent years working on a British-set writing project, so I can also comfortably code-switch when needed. Mostly, I work around the words where things might be especially confusing (fanny, boot, jumper, etc.) fairly naturally.

For professional writing, I run things through a US language spellcheck for consistency, and I often have to think hard about punctuation issues.

I've had grief from people in the past for "being affected", which I mostly treat as a "Well, good to know I don't need to spend time with you." I've had a lot more comments of "Oh, that's a fascinating background, tell me more."

In situations where I'm not sure how people will take it, and I know I'm going to want mixed language usage, I try to drop a sentence in about my background, and encourage people to ask me questions, plus making sure the key information is given clearly without the more potentially confusing parts.

I also have a healthy vocab in general, and I do a fair amount of writing/talking/etc. about stuff other people don't necessarily know a lot about, so there are lots of places people might not know a term or example or idiom, not just the stuff that's American/British divide.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:31 AM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since I grew up first in the UK, and then in continental Europe at American schools before I even learnt my supposedly native Danish, and then later as an adult studied in the US, my language is a mess. I've given up on trying to streamline it into anything. English is truly a global language, and no one owns it any more than anyone else.
But one thing I'd recommend is to steer clear of any sort of slang or swearing. We Scandinavians (and also the Dutch) often use colloquial language in situations where it is just not at all appropriate in other cultures. In my experience, it can scare people away.
posted by mumimor at 7:46 AM on November 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

The bright line of difference in vocabulary has been greatly shrinking anyway due to international popular culture. No one is going to be confused by a British/U.S. word used in context. Your accent will be fine! Don't try to change it. People are now used to mixings. And to tell the truth there are regions in the U.S. that sound kind of Irish and regions in the U.K. that sound almost southern U.S. -- there is not "one" U.S. or "one" U.K. sound at all. You'll be brilliant. See what I did there? It's fine :).
posted by velveeta underground at 8:12 AM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Despite this being Metafilter, I wouldn't overthink it.

I'm an American, but I've exposed myself to enough UK media that I think I recognize most of the differences. And with a few exceptions (words that have distinctly different meanings in the different dialects), it's just not enough to worry about.

Also, FWIW, I've got a friend who is a native English speaker, but has lived in a number of English-speaking countries, and her accents and word choices wobble between dialects even within one sentence. She doesn't try to control it. It's fine.
posted by adamrice at 8:14 AM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read a ton and watch lots of British TV/movies, so my exposure to non-American English idioms, words and phrases is way more than the norm. But I can see how things like "It all went pear-shaped" or "take a butcher's at this report" or "I'm knackered, gonna skive off" are not likely to be familiar and may cause confusion. OR, it could add welcome variety! I guess it depends on the way the global audiences learned their particular version of English.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2017

Yeah, don't worry about it at all. If I notice, I'll usually spend a moment wondering where the speaker grew up and/or learned English, but in many cases I really expect a mix to be the norm. (To greater or lesser degrees depending on individuals, this includes Europeans in general, people from Singapore or India, etc.) Your "light Nordic accent" would explain it right away.
posted by wintersweet at 8:48 AM on November 29, 2017

My take: I usually think it's super charming and a nod to the richness of the language. (Unless, yeah, someone who's lived in Chicago all her life is for some reason referring to the "rubbish bin." Then I kind of arch my eyebrow.)

I'm kind of a language nerd, so I might find it more interesting than a lot of people. But I think it's cool. (Also: Your English is awesome. Wow.)
posted by veggieboy at 8:50 AM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Non-native speakers of English learn their English from a variety of sources, so we're really used to "hybrid" accents.

So, if you have a foreign accent, even if it's just a slight one, you'll just sound like you have a foreign accent. Only the most pedantic and annoying of people would go, "ugh, they used rubbish bin but they also used hood"--and those people probably wouldn't notice most of the incongruities, just their personal bugbears.

It's really not an issue until you start using words that have very different meanings, like "fanny". Even so, depending on your audience there will be some familiarity with Britishisms (and definitely with Americanisms), and I wouldn't worry about it in your position. I would really only care about avoiding things that have an offensive meaning (like "fag").
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:15 AM on November 29, 2017

I laughed when I read your question, because to me it reads as: "If I talk like a (English-Speaking) Canadian, will the internet understand me?".

To a certain extent the occasional bit of vocabulary confusion is unavoidable. My friend and I both grew up in the same city less than a mile apart, we're both English-first-language, we both have British heritage (his Father is from England, my ethnicity is Scottish/Welsh/Irish though my family has been in Canada for hundreds of years) and I still make him laugh sometimes by using some apparently quirky probably-originally-Scottish-in-origin turn of phrase that seems completely mundane to me because I grew up hearing it from my extended-family. My friend's speech is sprinkled with nautical terms and metaphors ("I like the cut of your jib!") because his Grandfather was a sailor. We both have things that we use multiple terms for, interchangeably, seemingly at random, and I'm pretty sure our exposure to British and American media is only enhancing this tendency. The large upholstered piece of furniture in our living rooms is a sofa/chesterfield/couch. He parks his car in a parking garage/car park (and if we lived elsewhere in Canada we'd probably have parkade in the mix too). Some things you'll never find an understandable-by-all descriptor for unless you physically describe what it is, like the strip-of-grass-between-the-sidewalk/pavement-and-the-road (I call it a boulevard).

As KateViolet said, watch out for words that have vastly different meanings in different dialects because, especially in combination, things can weird and/or offensive quickly (real world example: asking if you can "bum a fag").

I'd say, for the most part just speak as you normally would. If you find you're getting a lot of feedback/comments about a particular word or turn of phrase you can always add a translation or explanation to the notes section below the video(s) in question, and then for future videos use a different word/phrase or include an explanation in your script.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:46 AM on November 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

It depends on the demographic you are targeting. If you were a native English speaker there would be some value in using the authentic words of your homeland, but as you are not, you need to pick whatever will be most understandable to your main target audience.

I have a British accent but live in America. I hold firmly onto my vowel sounds and some slang ("buggered if I know" being a favorite) but if I am talking to the man at the garage who is fixing the front of my car I am going to say "hood" not "bonnet".
posted by w0mbat at 9:51 AM on November 29, 2017

Do whatever you want since we (UK, US, and other colonialist successor states) gave away rights to the language by conquering the world both militarily and cultural-hegemonically. Global Englishes are the "real" English now.
posted by XMLicious at 10:31 AM on November 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

You'll just sound Canadian. Carry on.
posted by zadcat at 5:24 PM on November 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't think many people will notice. I taught English in Spain, where they prefer British English, and I came back to America full of Britishisms. "Lift" and "rubber" (for eraser) took a LONG time to go away. The only people who noticed were people who had also lived in Europe, and they found it nostalgic.

My husband also has a few quasi-Britishisms, but I think his family was just more conservative in their speech patterns, as he is a severalth-generation American; also he reads too much. He always calls them trousers and prefers "quite" over "pretty" (ie, "that's quite good!" instead of "That's pretty good!"). I am basically the only person who notices.

Another vote for talk how you like!
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:19 PM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding XMLicious here. Please don't worry about this. There are plenty of people in ex British colonies who speak English as their first language and their Englishes aren't "American" or "British". English is a world language!
posted by dostoevskygirl at 5:28 PM on December 2, 2017

I’m a native French speaker and it’s exactly the same situation with various dialects of French as spoken in francophone African countries, Belgium, Switzerland or Quebec for example. Beyond the accent, it usually takes no more than a split second to realise that someone is using a word which is not common in your own dialect.

As has been amply demonstrated above, I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. Anyone who understands English will understand what you’re saying.
posted by Kwadeng at 1:05 AM on December 22, 2017

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