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I asked this question on the English Language & Usage site but I thought it useful to ask here, too, since it is a writing issue.

I'm writing a book that's primarily set in America; my protagonist is half-American, half-British but speaks with a strong British accent and uses British dialects (e.g. she refers to sidewalks as pavements). Specifically, I'm stuck trying to figure out how I should be spelling -ise/-ize words.

I'm confident that I've got the differences in dialogue down, but as this story is also written in the third person/present tense, how should I be writing the narration? In British or American English?

The POV also often switches between my British character and her American partner, so should my narration style change to fit whoever is the primary character in that chapter?

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    As an English English speaker I was taught to use -ize. See Oxford spelling
    – mmmmmm
    Dec 23 '20 at 14:58
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    I would expect the editor at the publishers to insist that the narration be consistent throughout the book, and for it to follow the style of the location where it would be published and sold, namely Dialog on the other hand should be exactly how you think the speaker should sound, with whatever accent you like. Now if you're leaning post-modern, where the narration style is intended to carry info (which may be confusing to the reader) a hint to the reader might well be BrE spelling for the British character narrating, etc.
    – Mitch
    Dec 23 '20 at 15:10
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    It has been stated here many times that the labels 'BrE' and 'AmE' are gross oversimplifications. Although very few Americans would use 'pavement' for 'sidewalk' or 'bonnet' for 'hood' (and vice versa), choosing the -ise or the -ize style is far more of a personal style choice. A real problem arises when one is writing having chosen one style, and quotes verbatim something written in the other style. For example 'Hank said "Do you realize that a lot of Brits spell 'realize' 'realise'?" ' [rewritten for a largely British readership]. The overriding rule is Try to be consistent / stay sane. Dec 23 '20 at 15:48
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    If the story were set in Ethiopia, would you write the narration in Amharic or in English? Write in the language (or dialect) your audience understands, not the language the characters speak.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 23 '20 at 17:38
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    Surely it depends on where you are hoping to get the book published, not the nationality of the character! Dec 23 '20 at 17:43
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I'd recommend trying to switch narration style - it will give your book a better "immersion" in character's POV.

Your British (half-British, but Britain-raised, I assume?) character would view America through the prism of her British experience, it would only be natural for her to think to herself like: "There's about a litre of water in this jar". It's difficult to show British accent in a book - but the use of British spelling can be a perfect alternative for it.

In my opinion, differences between American and British English are not that strong to put off one or the other audience.

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  • The last sentence here is the real answer. Plenty of Americans have read 1984, The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings or any other famous work by a British author, but I have heard no reports of people having difficulty understanding any of these works. Write what you know.
    – EvilSnack
    Dec 25 '20 at 22:09
  • @EvilSnack while that is true, none of the works you name is set in the contemporary UK or makes use of current slang, etc. I havw heard of US peoplew having some problems understandign, say Colnb Dexter's mysteries (although I enjoy them without problems). Dec 26 '20 at 19:23
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Your character thinks and speaks in British English, go with that. Use the idioms the character knows and would use, otherwise it will seem hollow.

If you have a third person omniscient point of view, you could play with the different spellings to show an American character as opposed to your MC.

Do what is natural for your MC and relax into that. Let it flow and the reader will not be troubled by it. He may quite enjoy the glimpse into a similar nation divided, as Wilde said, by a common language.

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Who is your audience? If it is British people, use their dialect. If it is Americans, use theirs.

Of course, if you have a British point of view reporting American direct speech, make it US dialect. But that is dialogue, not narration or description.

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If you write the characters speaking their national dialects, then the question is what dialect the third person narration should be in.

The question would be really easy to answer for any author planning to have their book published in only one English-speaking country and to write a revised edition to publish in the other country if and when that happens. If they know the first edition will be published and sold only in one country they should write the third-person narration in the dialect of the country where it will be published sold and read.

But if you plan to publish your book in the UK and the USA simultaneously, I have no advice for the brand of English to be used in third-party narration.

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Following Strunk and White style would suggest avoiding dialects to the maximum extent possible, unless you have an exceptional ear. Even with an exceptional ear, however, an author will be most comfortable narrating in his native dialect, and that suggests that if the writer has any doubts about this, he should narrate in his own voice . An exception would be that the narrator is an important character in the story, and that the character's ethnicity contributes to the character. If an author must use an unfamiliar dialect to narrate with, it will be important to get feedback from a sharp-eyed editor to ferret out inconsistencies.

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I would say it depends on what style you're more comfortable with, which one comes more naturally to you - which I guess is probably British? And since your character uses British accent, I would say go for it - especially if your character uses words from British English rather than American.

However, the change in style that comes with the change in POVs seems like a nice touch to me.

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    I see you are new here...I invite you to take the Tour and visit the Help Page to see what kinds of questions are on-topic and answerable.
    – Cascabel
    Dec 23 '20 at 14:59
  • A common tip-off that an answer here is filled with opinion is the heavy use of I and me. As an example, I think that changing language to match the character is confusing rather than a nice touch, unless switching between first-person narratives (like House of Sand and Fog). So that opinion sits in this comment, not an answer.
    – Yosef Baskin
    Dec 23 '20 at 16:06
  • Thank you for clearing that up to me :)
    – Tereza
    Dec 25 '20 at 19:06
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Which variant (-ise/-ize) you should use is still, from the point of view of a British subject only, entirely a matter of personal decision (there is no choice for AmE, only "-ize). British users of the English language have been advised for quite a long time that the preferred spelling of "-ise" is "-ize". Dictionaries that are more than twenty years old such as The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford Dictionary provide only the z-spelling and an additional indication saying that "-ise" is also found (SOED) or that it is a British variant (BrE also -ize) (OALD). Nevertheless, it is not too rare to find on the present site people that have kept the s-spelling.

Whether you should favour British English or American is even more a matter of personal choice; however, there is the question of ensuring for your publication a particular readership, and this is a matter that will require some particular help, some particular information, and an initial study on your part to get at the facts. It is not a matter of linguistics and you have to see to that yourself. This site cannot help you.

I can add a little personal opinion: addressing yourself to both an American and a British readership by mixing both variants might be found unpleasant by both as this would make for much uncertainty in the mind of the reader.

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