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Lost in Translation

Or Some strange differences between US and UK English

Among the many things an editor will check as they prepare your manuscript for publication is that it uses a consistent form of English. If you are writing in British English, are you spelling colour, behaviour and yoghurt correctly? But it’s not just a matter of spelling. Sometimes words and phrases used by Americans mean something different to us Brits (and visa versa). And sometimes that can be a problem.

Biscuits and Gravy? Blech!

Here in the UK, we’re just beginning to understand biscuits and gravy. Ask us if we like it, and we’ll look puzzled or slightly ill. That’s because we think you mean this:

A pile of custard creams and bourbon biscuits covered in beef gravy.

As far as we’re concerned, a biscuit is a sweet or savoury, crunchy, possibly crumbly, baked object (if you’re American you’d call it a cookie or a cracker). Gravy is a brown, meaty sauce you pour over your Sunday lunch. They do not go together.

If pressed, a Brit would probably call biscuits and gravy a scone with a weird white sauce on top. If made to try it, there’s a good chance we’d like it. (British translation: biscuits and gravy is a rich scone-like thing in a white, sausage-meat sauce. It tastes yummy, even though it looks like an accident on a plate.)

Biscuits and gravy is only just making its way to Britain, but we’ve had years to get used to some other oddities, thanks to American TV and cinema. Most British people can happily translate ‘sidewalk’, ‘trunk’, ‘trash’, ‘diaper’ and numerous other Americanisms. We do reserve the right to a juvenile giggle whenever we come across ‘pants’ or ‘vest’ used in a way that looks strange to us (all those Americans in their underwear), but we’re used to all these alien nouns.

However, as I recently discovered, it’s an adverb that can cause real trouble.

That’s quite a surprise

I was browsing New Hart’s Rules (the most widely used style manual in British English), as nerdy editors do. For fun, I checked my partner’s understanding of British and American meanings of different words. He works for a company with major offices in the UK and the US, so he’s spent over 20 years communicating across the divide. To his credit, he knew most of the sticking points (chips, football, cookies etc).

Then we got to one of my favourites. ‘Quite’ is strange. American English has retained its original meaning. If an American says he’s ‘quite hungry’ he means he’s starving. But we Brits have turned it into an almost empty word that now means the opposite. If we say we’re ‘quite hungry’ we mean ‘I’m starting to get a tiny bit peckish. Maybe dinner in an hour or two?’

My partner found this puzzling, so I pulled out my copy of Fowler’s and read him the entry on ‘quite’ from that book. By the time I’ve reached:

‘quite = ‘very, really’. This is standard in AmE, which could be confusing for BrE speakers’,

he had gone very, very quiet.

He was remembering all the times he’d told an American colleague that he was ‘quite annoyed’ about something or that it was ‘quite urgent’. Given his managerial job in IT, he uses ‘quite urgent’ almost daily. He is being his normal, understated, British self, suggesting that something needs to be done by perhaps the end of the week. His American colleagues were hearing, ‘You should have done this yesterday!’

There followed a flurry of messages. I had managed to set multiple communication channels on fire. My bad.

None of his colleagues, on either side of the Atlantic, were aware of this little quirk of English. They had been speaking at cross-purposes for years. This included a British friend who had emigrated to the US over twenty years ago. He had been using ‘quite’ in the British sense for the entire time.

We have no idea how often someone in the US told one of the UK staff that something needed to be done ‘quite urgently’ (meaning ‘I want it as soon as possible’) and the British person heard ‘by the end of the week will be fine’.

To make things even more interesting, the company also has a big office in Poland. The staff there speak English at varying degrees of fluency. Some of the staff use ‘quite’ in the American sense, some use the British sense, and others don't know what it means so don't use it at all.

Quite a mess (ahem).

The moral of this story?

Be careful about how you use ‘quite’ in your writing. If possible, don’t use it at all. If you’re aiming at a worldwide audience (and why wouldn’t you?) try and find less ambiguous ways to say what you mean.

If you need any more reason to do without ‘quite’, Benjamin Dreyer lists it as one of the words to toss out of your writing at the beginning of Dreyer’s English. He makes a strong point of it. And he knows what he is writing about.


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