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Trivial question about British vs. American terminology


marbel
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I've started a novel set in contemporary England.  On about page 8 it's already annoying me and I need something cleared up before I go on.

 

The main character is an American studying at Oxford.  She is talking with an elderly English woman about her studies; the woman asks:

 

"You are a history major, then?"

 

It's the term "major" that's bothering me.  I thought that was an American term. Based on other books, I'd have expected it to be phrased as something like "you're reading history, then?"    But maybe that is archaic? 

 

Yeah, it's a small quibble but it's bugging me. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yes, it would be highly unusual for an elderly British woman to say.  She would normally say, 'Are you studying history?' or 'Are you doing history?' or (more old-fashioned), 'Are you reading history?'.  

 

Part of the difference is that English university students don't traditionally 'major' in one thing (ie concentrate on it).  Instead, they only study one thing or sometimes two things, so the 'majoring' term doesn't really apply.

 

Calvin is studying a joint degree at an English university, and those two subjects are all he studies: no required general courses at all.

 

Is the author American?

Edited by Laura Corin
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Thanks Laura.  

 

Yes, she is an American.  

 

I read a few reviews of the book that lead me to think there are other errors to come.   I'm now on page 25 and ready to abandon the book but I told a friend I'd read along with her.   Oh dear. 

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Maybe the older woman is being polite. Using the familiar terminology for the benefit of the younger / less worldly student.

 

If I was talking to an English child I would probably try to use English terms.  I don't actually know any English terms, really, but I'd try. I might offer him a biscuit, not a cookie.

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Maybe the older woman is being polite. Using the familiar terminology for the benefit of the younger / less worldly student.

 

If I was talking to an English child I would probably try to use English terms.  I don't actually know any English terms, really, but I'd try. I might offer him a biscuit, not a cookie.

 

The thing is, the term is really unfamiliar to older Brits.  So an elderly woman would be less likely to know to use it.

 

Now if she had worked in a UK university, then she would have come across enough American students to be familiar with the term and maybe use it as you describe.

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I have found that sometimes the publisher Americanizes English in books like these. Perhaps that is happening here?

That was my thought. Not only that, they also update older books with new references sometimes. I had a book when I was a kid, and I bought dd a newer copy of the same book and it was totally redone with new references. It was weird :p

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The book is Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner.   She is American. It does not seem to be an "American edition" of an English book.  I haven't noticed anything else that stood out so oddly to me, other than some overuse of adjectives and odd imagery (but that has nothing to do with my OP anyway).   

 

"... exterior walls of golden-hued stone that look as though they would taste like butterscotch if you licked them."

 

This was 2 pages after hollyhocks were described as "Easter-hued."

 

I haven't noticed "colour/color" or similar.  But that wouldn't necessarily stand out to me as I'm familiar with both and I would expect US/American spelling in this book.  

 

I think it's not going to be to my liking.   But I was curious about the "history major" bit.  

 

ETA: It was published in 2015, so most likely not updated.

 

 

 

Edited by marbel
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I'm reading the 'look inside'.  Not my style either.  Queries so far:

 

- borrowing cars is unusual in the UK, as the insurance is different 

- women in Britain don't shake hands much, particularly older women

- 'the States' would be less usual terminology.  My mother (same age as the character) says 'America'

- I'm not sure about 'first-off'.  I think my mother would say 'to start with'

- 'A car probably just hopped the side-walk.  Hit the gas instead of the brake'  What?

- 'Burglarized' should be 'burgled'

 

My mother was in the Blitz in Exeter and Bristol

Edited by Laura Corin
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I'm reading the 'look inside'.  Not my style either.  Queries so far:

 

- borrowing cars is unusual in the UK, as the insurance is different 

- women in Britain don't shake hands much, particularly older women

- 'the States' would be less usual terminology.  My mother (same age as the character) says 'America'

- I'm not sure about 'first-off'.  I think my mother would say 'to start with'

- 'A car probably just hopped the side-walk.  Hit the gas instead of the brake'  What?

- 'Burglarized' should be 'burgled'

 

My mother was in the Blitz in Exeter and Bristol

 

Ah...  those would not have stood out to me, of course.

 

Arrrghh, though.  How well-researched can the book be then?    Makes me wonder about bigger things.  

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This is exactly why I think it's a bad idea to write using a setting with which you are not extremely well-versed. Even regions within the US would stand out if the writer was simply trying to place a character there without having experienced the region.

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This is exactly why I think it's a bad idea to write using a setting with which you are not extremely well-versed. Even regions within the US would stand out if the writer was simply trying to place a character there without having experienced the region.

 

Yes.  Despite being married to an American, I wouldn't dare write an American character unless he was prepared to scrutinise what I had written.

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Another huge give-way as to the writer's nationality is spelling of words such as colour, neighbour. and centre.

This really isn't a giveaway in a published book as editors standardize spellings (and sometimes vocabulary and phrasing) for their intended audience. An American edition of Tolkien or Rowling will use American spellings, a British edition British spellings.

Edited by maize
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This is exactly why I think it's a bad idea to write using a setting with which you are not extremely well-versed. Even regions within the US would stand out if the writer was simply trying to place a character there without having experienced the region.

 

This, definitely.  Once I read a book and part of it happened "at the park near Lexington, Maryland."  The problem was the author clearly just looked at a map and made an assumption that was entirely incorrect.  At the time, I lived precisely where that part of the book happened.  There is no Lexington, MD and definitely no park.  It is Lexington Park, MD as in the name of the entire town is Lexington Park (it's right by Pax River Navy Base which figured into the book as well and is why she set what happened "in the park").

 

In the case of this book, it sounds like she just wrote a book for an American audience using American terminology, but set it in England.  It doesn't necessarily mean she got other stuff totally wrong, but it would make me wonder.

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I have found that sometimes the publisher Americanizes English in books like these. Perhaps that is happening here?

 

harry potter did that.  the one that sticks out is jumper to sweater.  in the US - jumper is a girls dress worn over a blouse/shirt.  I still have to remind myself at times.

 

This is exactly why I think it's a bad idea to write using a setting with which you are not extremely well-versed. Even regions within the US would stand out if the writer was simply trying to place a character there without having experienced the region.

 

this.

 

I've read things written by brits set in the US - usually it's the spelling/usage that gives it away, but sometimes ... . ___ "turned on the fire".  uh, what?

but I've also read stuff by US writers who obviously have never been where they're writing about.

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This is exactly why I think it's a bad idea to write using a setting with which you are not extremely well-versed. Even regions within the US would stand out if the writer was simply trying to place a character there without having experienced the region.

Absolutely!

 

And the butterscotch imagry? Ugh!

 

My personal favorite Americanism is 'high tea.' I see it in fund raising invitations, travel brochures, etc. -- "Please join us for high tea with Lady Thing."

Edited by Alessandra
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This really isn't a giveaway in a published book as editors standardize spellings (and sometimes vocabulary and phrasing) for their intended audience. An American edition of Tolkien or Rowling will use American spellings, a British edition British spellings.

 

not just spelling, but usage.

 

no trollys

no lorrys

no jumpers (unless it's a girl's dress)

no loungeroom

no carpark

no hire-car

etc.

 

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not just spelling, but usage.

 

no trollys

no lorrys

no jumpers (unless it's a girl's dress)

no loungeroom

no carpark

no hire-car

etc.

 

FWIW, I love reading a British novel by a British author with all the words; I love hearing about a "hen party" or people lacing up their "trainers" or whatever other thing. It's charming. And I love words, so...

 

 

ETA: typo. My proofing these days...

Edited by Quill
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This, definitely. Once I read a book and part of it happened "at the park near Lexington, Maryland." The problem was the author clearly just looked at a map and made an assumption that was entirely incorrect. At the time, I lived precisely where that part of the book happened. There is no Lexington, MD and definitely no park. It is Lexington Park, MD as in the name of the entire town is Lexington Park (it's right by Pax River Navy Base which figured into the book as well and is why she set what happened "in the park").

 

In the case of this book, it sounds like she just wrote a book for an American audience using American terminology, but set it in England. It doesn't necessarily mean she got other stuff totally wrong, but it would make me wonder.

 

Oooooh! That would really clunk for me, too!

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Maybe I'm younger than you or maybe it's different on the west coast but I'm thoroughly Canadian and would use this term.

 

 

I can't say I've ever used or heard in Canada the question "What are you majoring in?" It's usually, "What are you studying?" or "What faculty are you in?"  or "What are you taking?" or "What program are you in?" 

 

The answer might contain something more specific with major or minor, such as, "I'm doing Biology with a minor in Chemistry." 

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I think they change words when they think it will impact the audience - with HP probably because it is popular fiction for children.

 

I agree it is often a mistake to write in a language you haven't a good sense of, it is so easy to make a mistake.  Some people can manage it, and even do it well, but it ruins a book for me when it is too obvious.  It can be a problem on tv as well.

 

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FWIW, I love reading a British novel by a British author with all the words; I love hearing about a "hen party" or people lacing up their "trainers" or whatever other thing. It's charming. And I love words, so...

 

 

ETA: typo. My proofing these days...

 

I used to read many many british novels (dorothy sayers is quite delightful).  I don't have a problem with british terms for british characters - especially set in britian.  It is interesting to learn the terminology used in another English speaking country.

 

I object to a british author using british terms for an american character for a story set in the US.  If the writing is otherwise good, I will cringe and keep going.  but usually, if they are that clueless/careless to learn about American terms for their American characters - their writing isnt' very good.

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Absolutely!

 

And the butterscotch imagry? Ugh!

 

My personal favorite Americanism is 'high tea.' I see it in fund raising invitations, travel brochures, etc. -- "Please join us for high tea with Lady Thing."

 

Is it an Americanism?  It's used in parts of Britain, usually to mean tea-as-a-meal-not-just-cakes.  So some people have breakfast, lunch, (then maybe a snack called tea with biscuits/cakes) and supper/dinner.  Other people have breakfast, dinner and (high) tea, (followed by a snack called supper at bedtime).

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I can't say I've ever used or heard in Canada the question "What are you majoring in?" It's usually, "What are you studying?" or "What faculty are you in?"  or "What are you taking?" or "What program are you in?" 

 

The answer might contain something more specific with major or minor, such as, "I'm doing Biology with a minor in Chemistry." 

 

I think its still fairly common in Canada - but I wonder even in the US if people tend to talk that way in daily life?  Usually when people talk about a major, it's in a more academic setting or when talking about fairly specific course information, not in conversation at the dinner table that is meant to be general.

 

We do have a lot of differences in terminology around university education compared to the US, though.

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Is it an Americanism?  It's used in parts of Britain, usually to mean tea-as-a-meal-not-just-cakes.  So some people have breakfast, lunch, (then maybe a snack called tea with biscuits/cakes) and supper/dinner.  Other people have breakfast, dinner and (high) tea, (followed by a snack called supper at bedtime).

 

 

the *only* time I see/hear "high-tea" used in the states is when someone is tryiing to sound "highfalutin" about the shindig they're throwing.  I do see it in ads for the Empress Hotel in Victoria's inner  harbour in BC, Canada. - but they're Canadian, not American.

 

and what about elevensies . . . .

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I think its still fairly common in Canada - but I wonder even in the US if people tend to talk that way in daily life?  Usually when people talk about a major, it's in a more academic setting or when talking about fairly specific course information, not in conversation at the dinner table that is meant to be general.

 

We do have a lot of differences in terminology around university education compared to the US, though.

 

I live near the border, and some Canadians have different language patterns.  there's a lot of differences in terminology. 

and as a friend said, who has lived here since at least his first real job and all his kids were born here, "you Americans all look/sound alike".  ;p.

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I can't say I've ever used or heard in Canada the question "What are you majoring in?" It's usually, "What are you studying?" or "What faculty are you in?"  or "What are you taking?" or "What program are you in?" 

 

The answer might contain something more specific with major or minor, such as, "I'm doing Biology with a minor in Chemistry." 

 

Now that I think of it, I think that you're right. It's the minor part that got me initially.

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You're NOT going to catch all of these. You need a British editor. I've read more than one book by British authors where the characters and setting are American. Even if they've done research and can paint a picture of America, there's always some odd phrasing that gives them away. I'm sure we make the same mistakes.

 

Eta that I misread and thought you were writing the book! My point stands. People need editors of that nationality if they're doing this. It's ruins the flow of the story.

Edited by KungFuPanda
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I think its still fairly common in Canada - but I wonder even in the US if people tend to talk that way in daily life?  Usually when people talk about a major, it's in a more academic setting or when talking about fairly specific course information, not in conversation at the dinner table that is meant to be general.

 

We do have a lot of differences in terminology around university education compared to the US, though.

​If someone is a college student, the first question someone will ask is "what's your major?".  If you are getting ready to start school "What are you going to be majoring in?" and if they just graduated "what was your major?".

 

It's a very common discussion when college comes up, even if you graduated years and years and years ago.

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FWIW, I love reading a British novel by a British author with all the words; I love hearing about a "hen party" or people lacing up their "trainers" or whatever other thing. It's charming. And I love words, so...

 

 

ETA: typo. My proofing these days...

 

 

Yes, I do too. 

 

But now I'm thinking it's more complicated for a publisher. Think about translations.  I have a vague memory of a newer translation of Les Miserables getting panned because some of the English words were too "modern" for the time period of the book.  But the translator (or publisher, maybe?) defended it as being truer to the actual type of language used in the original, which was sort of slang.  I can't think of any examples.  

 

When a British novel is going to be published in the US, they don't have to translate it but I suppose it makes it more marketable if some of the unfamiliar (dare I say strange? :-) ) words are changed to Americanisms.    For myself, I'd prefer British novels not be "translated" because I can look up the odd word here and that that I can't figure out.  But I need those French (or any other language) novels translated... 

 

 

Re:  High tea - when I was in England long ago, I saw "high tea" advertised.  If I recall correctly, it was just a fancier/bigger meal than typical tea-time fare.  Maybe I have that wrong.  I do think Americans misuse it sometimes. 

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"... exterior walls of golden-hued stone that look as though they would taste like butterscotch if you licked them."[/size]

 

Oh good gosh, that is probably the most horrific thing I have read outside of a Stephen King novel

 

 

 

 

GACK!!! Seriously, Dudes also drink tea. Why not have a Men's High Tea and Hunting weekend? ;) And I'd prefer an RC Cola and sour cream and cheddar potato chips over weak tepid tea and crumbly cookies :(

 

Editing to add: apologies, format got weird when I tried to snip unnecessary parts of quotes

Edited by Rebel Yell
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​If someone is a college student, the first question someone will ask is "what's your major?".  If you are getting ready to start school "What are you going to be majoring in?" and if they just graduated "what was your major?".

 

It's a very common discussion when college comes up, even if you graduated years and years and years ago.

 

If a Canadian mentioned they were going to college, I'd assume a tech school (or possibly a bible college) and not university. There would be no "major" to even ask about, it would be a 1 - 2 year program with a certificate, not an undergraduate degree. 

Edited by wintermom
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Oh good gosh, that is probably the most horrific thing I have read outside of a Stephen King novel

 

 

 

 

GACK!!! Seriously, Dudes also drink tea. Why not have a Men's High Tea and Hunting weekend? ;) And I'd prefer an RC Cola and sour cream and cheddar potato chips over weak tepid tea and crumbly cookies :(

 

Editing to add: apologies, format got weird when I tried to snip unnecessary parts of quotes

It reminds me of this quote from "Three Cups of Tea":

 

"The storage space smelled like Africa." (pg. 34)

 

Bad metaphors can spoil a good story or make a bad one worse.

 

 

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If a Canadian mentioned they were going to college, I'd assume a tech school (or possibly a bible college) and not university. There would be no "major" to even ask about, it would be a 1 - 2 year program with a certificate, not an undergraduate degree. 

 

I agree.

 

We also never use the terms, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. I didn't even now how to spell sophomore until I just tried to spell it.

 

We also say, "He's in grade one" more often than, "He's in first grade."

 

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Another huge give-way as to the writer's nationality is spelling of words such as colour, neighbour. and centre. 

 

I noticed this in a Jack Reacher novel - the spelling kerb was used instead of the American curb. For those unfamiliar, Jack Reacher is an American ex-military guy. The author is English.

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If a Canadian mentioned they were going to college, I'd assume a tech school (or possibly a bible college) and not university. There would be no "major" to even ask about, it would be a 1 - 2 year program with a certificate, not an undergraduate degree. 

 

Yes.  Going to college in the UK would be a technical college or a sixth form (high school) college.  One talks of going to university even if there are colleges (smaller academic/residential entities) within that university.  A university also isn't a school, although some have schools within them (School of History, for example, which is then subdivided into Departments of Ancient History, Medieval History, Modern History, etc.)

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I agree.

 

We also never use the terms, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. I didn't even now how to spell sophomore until I just tried to spell it.

 

We also say, "He's in grade one" more often than, "He's in first grade."

 

 

Yes - in the England its first year, second year, third year; in Scotland it's often first year, second year then honours (junior and senior).

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It reminds me of this quote from "Three Cups of Tea":

 

"The storage space smelled like Africa." (pg. 34)

 

Bad metaphors can spoil a good story or make a bad one worse.

 

or it can be so bad - it's part of the humor of it.  re: cold comfort farm.  flora aspires to be a writer . . . and uses "the golden orb" to refer to the sun through the whole thing. it's awful - but becomes funny.

I admit - we do quote the movie on occasion.  especially "there's always been starkadders at cold comfort farm . . . . "

 

I agree.

 

We also never use the terms, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. I didn't even now how to spell sophomore until I just tried to spell it.

 

We also say, "He's in grade one" more often than, "He's in first grade."

 

 

for tv - I've noticed brits refer to each year of a tv program as "series 1", "series 2",. . and it can change year in which it is set from year to year (and not just historical dramas).

in the US - it's "season 1, season 2, . . "

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Yes.  Despite being married to an American, I wouldn't dare write an American character unless he was prepared to scrutinise what I had written.

 

I know that I've read a writer friend's short stories to look for "canadianisms" because she was looking to publish in the USA. Wasn't a big deal,a nd I was able to correct small differences for her. 

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If a Canadian mentioned they were going to college, I'd assume a tech school (or possibly a bible college) and not university. There would be no "major" to even ask about, it would be a 1 - 2 year program with a certificate, not an undergraduate degree. 

if an Australian mentioned they were going to college I would know they were at High School as most of the high schools are called Colleges here. Universities are called Universities and students who go there are called Uni students 

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I agree.

 

We also never use the terms, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. I didn't even now how to spell sophomore until I just tried to spell it.

 

We also say, "He's in grade one" more often than, "He's in first grade."

 

I do not know what any of these terms mean, they are not in usage here 

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I do not know what any of these terms mean, they are not in usage here 

 

They are "high school" - most U.S. high schools are four years

 

Freshman = 9th grade (ages 14/15)

Sophomore = 10th grade (ages 15/16)

Junior = 11th grade (ages 16/17)

Senior = 12th grade (ages 17/18)

 

Then the student graduates, and goes on to college university, job, etc.

 

eta - some school districts put the 9th grade students in the same school with the 7th & 8th grade students.  Most of the districts where I live put the 6th, 7th, 8th grade students together in one school; the high schools are four years.

 

6th/7th/8th is usually called "middle school"

 

But way back when I was in school:

 

up through grade 6 was called "elementary school" or "grade school"

7th/8th was "junior high"

9th through 12th was "high school"

Edited by TrixieB
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