Allow me to lay out a story of two English languages, which will—I promise—culminate with a funny story about the phrase, “May I pinch your seat?”
My editor at TouchPoint Press for my last novel Horseshoes and Hand Grenades was the talented and delightful Kimberly Carlisle Coghlan. She recently re-shared this funny post on “Being a Southern Editor” in which she digs into Southern dialect and choice colorful phrases, while musing on the different languages or voices we all use in our daily lives.
Her article prompted me to dust off an old piece written by John Foster, a British public relations (PR) industry leader I had the pleasure to get to know while working at National Grid in London some years ago. John and I loved to toss around language variations between our two home countries, as well as how language played into our PR worlds. He interviewed me for an article in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ (CIPR) magazine Profile and I contributed a chapter to a PR guidebook he wrote. I believe it was Writing Skills for Public Relations but don’t quote me on that; it was 20 years ago and I’ve long since lost my copy after multiple moves!
Even then, before I became a fiction writer, words—and their variations–fascinated me, especially the ability for them to cause trouble when they mean something different to the listener than they do to the speaker!
Here’s an excerpt from John’s article, which may be useful if you’re writing an American character who practices PR in the U.K. 🙂 Because it’s written by a Brit for other Brits, I’ve notated a few things in brackets to make the meaning clear. Funny note: The title of his article is taken from the title of a cute little brochure we put together for New England Electric System employees in New England, when we were being acquired by National Grid in Ye Olde England.
The full title of that piece was, “May I Pinch Your Seat? An Incomplete Guide to Understanding British English for U.S. Employees of National Grid”.
May I Pinch Your Seat?
by John Foster
Originally published in Profile magazine in the U.K., May 26, 2002 issue
Do it their way? American English differs from British English in vocabulary, spelling and inflection, grammar and construction, and punctuation. Familiar terms here are unknown in the States – and vice versa. Some Americans advise that press releases, articles and other printwork going there should be in US style. Others say stick to your own kind. And there are occasions when both styles are needed. Which to use for websites with global audiences? Let’s look.
Releases and websites. I asked an American working here for the National Grid Group what she would do. Susan Stevens [that’s me in a former life], the company’s director of corporate affairs, said that because messages are different, separate versions are issued and language is not an issue. Where a single version goes out, they use UK English. For their website, both are used – American English for their US pages, British English for the UK. International websites should offer the user choice of language, but that can be costly. You can easily go wrong if you try to write the American way. Keep to our style for everything.
PR terminology. Where there’s a communications manager or director here, there’s a vice-president there. The title PRO is unknown in the US. There you go to a clipping service; a video morgue; the local editor.
Vocabulary and usage. Here lie the main variations. To emphasise [note the British spelling – that’s not a typo!] the main ones to US employees on merger, the National Grid simply printed a booklet, May I pinch your seat? A few examples of US v UK English: ground floor here is first floor there; drawing pin/thumbtack; kennel/doghouse; receptionist/desk clerk; skip/dumpster; Joe Bloggs/John Doe. Recipe for a meeting disaster: if you write to table something, it means to put it aside for later [whereas in the UK it means to discuss it now]. It’s turnover here, revenue there. [Turnover to Americans usually refers to staff changes. Our American team was shocked to hear layoffs called redundancies by our British colleagues; making a human being redundant sounded so cold to us. At the end of the day, I don’t think the term mattered to those on the receiving end…]
Spelling, punctuation. Americans prefer license/practise for both noun and verb, here verb only; they often use -ize endings where we would use -ise (an -ize user here has usually spent some time in North America); the nouns defense/offense/pretense take the ‘c’ here. Commas and full stops [periods] fall within quotation marks regardless of whether they are part of the quoted materials [in PR materials; not in all forms of writing]. They use parentheses not brackets. [We use both, as do Brits; he means what we call parentheses they call brackets.]
But what about that “pinch your seat” reference? Here’s how that became the title of our little booklet and, by extension, John’s article: To an American, “pinch” pretty much has one meaning and seat can refer to a chair or someone’s rear-end. So suggesting you’re going to pinch someone’s seat is non-sensical if you’re thinking of a chair, and downright rude and potentially painful in the other case.
But in British English, “pinch” is also slang for “steal”…imagine our surprise when a British colleague came into a conference room and asked a departing woman rising from her chair if he could pinch her seat. Ah, the joy of language!