Writing for a British Audience

by Heather Baker Nov 16, 2016, 1 Comments

As someone who runs a business in the UK and has travelled extensively in the US, I can tell you from first-hand experience that there’s a world of difference between the way Americans and Britons do things.

And I’m not just talking about the fact that we drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (though, you know, obviously remember that if you decide to visit).

There’s the whole ‘s’ versus ‘z’ argument, the fact that we prefer spelling colour with a ‘u’ and grey with an ‘e’. And of course, let’s not forget about our penchant for the imperial system.

Grammar and measurements aside though, when it comes to marketing across the pond the differences are both vast and nuanced. We’re all speaking English, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same language.

Making yourself understood when writing for a UK audience requires some insider knowledge. We’re not talking secret handshakes or anything, but you need to know at least a little about the culture to avoid making a blatant faux pas.

Words don’t always mean the same thing

In the UK, pants refers to underwear, while in other parts of the world it means trousers. So telling a Brit that you like their pants will cause a few raised eyebrows. Be specific: jeans, chinos, etc.

Another fantastic example that illustrates just how worlds apart the US and the UK are, are our vastly different interpretations of the word quite. Take this amusing example from writing-skills.com:

Before an adjective, American quite means ‘very’, while British quite means ‘somewhat’. So, if the American tourist is quite tired, direct him to his bed. But if a Brit tells you a restaurant is quite good, you’d be wise to keep looking for somewhere better.

It can get tricky. A biscuit in the UK is a cookie in the US. Conversely, a biscuit in the US is a scone in the UK. The list goes on, but fortunately Bored Panda has put together an extensive infographic highlighting what things are called depending on where you are.

Understanding the culture

The British are a self-deprecating people and are naturally suspicious of boastfulness in others. You need not make out as if your product is complete garbage, but understatement is always preferable to overstatement.

Cultural specificity is important. Do Americans know who Robbie Williams is? Bruce Forsyth? Dara O’Briain? Probably not – so don’t assume Brits will automatically know who Howard Stern, Ryan Seacrest, Bill O’Reilly, Brad Paisley, or any other figure who doesn’t have a massive international following is.

If you’re going to indulge in sports metaphors, then stick to soccer, cricket or rugby. Nobody in the UK watches basketball, baseball or American football.

Cultural sensitivity is of equal import. If you call a Scotsman English, he will take umbrage (and may physically fight you). If you mistake Sunderland for Newcastle, or vice versa, a resident may well take offence: these two cities are geographically close, but have an intense football rivalry that is reflected in their identities.

Some points on punctuation

Brits are particular about where dialogue punctuation is placed as well. Essentially, if the punctuation mark (full stop, comma, etc.) refers to what’s being said inside the quotation marks then you place it inside.

However, if the punctuation mark forms part of the overall sentence and has nothing to do with the word or phrase in quotation marks, you place it outside. Here are two examples:

  • “It’s sweltering today,” said Jane.

  • The students had to read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, as it was one of their set works for the year.

If you’re ever in any doubt about what you’re writing, always refer back to George Orwell, who may well be the ideal of the English writer – a fair-minded, well-travelled, tea-drinking intellectual who always communicated with absolute simplicity and clarity.

His six rules for writing clear and tight prose have seen even the most adept of writers return to the page for another round of edits.

Regional peculiarities aside though, English and US English are essentially the same language. The fundamental principles of good writing (indeed, Orwell’s principles) apply no matter what audience you’re writing for.


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About the Author:

In addition to her role as founder and CEO of TopLine Comms, Heather Baker is also a content marketing aficionado, PR pundit and prescriptive grammarian. When she’s not wielding her red pen you’ll find her with her nose in a book or in the park with the company’s CFO.

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  • onesh1 says
    Excellent, except, you didn't explain that soccer isn't a term used in the UK (and most of the world, it's called FOOTBALL! Easy to remember, it's FIFA.
    Posted On Nov 25, 2016 | 01:07
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