No, I don’t mean swearing, I mean spelling, and how much this affects your reading experience. And no, I’m not talking about accidental yet persistent typos that slip past all the editors and proofreaders and the author who has read a manuscript a dozen times. I’m talking about different forms of English in this world and how that affects spelling in books.
As an Australian author who grew up learning and using Australian English it was a bit of a shock to the system when I first got published to realise (realize) that I was expected to adopt US English instead of Australian or British English. It seemed strange to me that my Regency-era historicals, set in England, were expected to use US versions of words I thought should be spelled the British way, especially because these were English characters, in England. So words like favourite had to lose the “u” to become favorite, etc, etc.
I did it, because my publishers were US, and the bulk of their readership was US-based, and there have been times when some readers have complained about non-US spelling in books, and I didn’t want readers to crucify my book because of the way I spelled things.
But it leads to some interesting questions. I’ve now got a number of contemporary books set in Canada, and my understanding is that Canadian English sees a blend of US and British English, with either way permissible. So which is the right way to spell things? Authentically, as I might read on a website of a Canadian business? Or what some (US) readers might expect?
I have a number of Australian author friends, some of whom have put disclaimers in the front of their books about the book using Australian English, and pleading for readers to not ding them in reviews for using Aussie spelling. Some have even included glossaries with explanations for words that some readers might not be familiar with, like arvo (afternoon) or footy (depending on the state that could mean AFL / Australian Rules Football / Aussie Rules or it could be rugby league, or rugby union).
I studied linguistics as part of my degree at university, and the globalisation of language has long fascinated me. I’ve seen the creep of certain US phrases into general Australian usage, such as “swap out” instead of just plain “swap” (like, what’s the need for an “out”?) happen more and more, thanks to movies, TV, music and books. But it goes the other way too. Did you know “selfie” is an Australian word? (Not sure I’m counting that as a win :) Aussies use many abbreviated words – it’s just part of our culture.
Which leads me to my dilemma. If I want to set a book in Australia, knowing my readership is mostly American, do I use Australian English to give it a greater sense of authenticity? I’d want to, just like I’d want to keep the Aussie settings and characters, even though my agent told me I should change it to an American setting (with, you guessed it, an American character). But I don’t want readers to get upset because I’m using “bad” spelling, when really it’s just not spelled the way some think it should be.
Since I’ve started publishing I now write all my books with US spelling, and I’ve noticed how it’s influenced how I spell words on a day-to-day basis, from emails to shopping lists. I now use a blend of Aussie and US spelling in my reader newsletters, because I’m hoping to help “train” readers that Aussie English is a legitimate way of spelling so they don’t ding me in reviews for the one-day publication of my Aussie-based books.
In my most recent Regency we used more British spelled words because I finally had an editor who understood the irony of an English person in England using American-spelled words. And that’s another factor: all editors have their own version of what is “right” – so finding one that understands an author’s stylistic flavour (flavor) and voice is essential.
Please note: I am NOT bashing readers from the US. I LOVE my US readers. I’m simply pointing out something that many international authors have struggled with, which is why I need your help.
Because I still have many questions. What do you, as a reader, think about the use of spelling in a book? Do you even notice the spelling? If you do, how much does that play into your reading experience? Have you come across some interestingly spelled words – or interesting words – in books you’ve read? What do you think about disclaimers and glossaries? And for more international readers, like those in Germany, which version of English have you learned and does that affect what you expect to read?