Say What?: How Brits Can Avoid Verbal Confusion in America

If you're British in America, you're very familiar with the 'WTF?' face, as displayed here by Lea Michele from 'Glee.' (Photo: Fox)

If you’re British in America, you’re very familiar with the ‘WTF?’ face, as displayed here by Lea Michele from ‘Glee.’ (Photo: Fox)

Sometimes there’s verbal confusion between Brits and Americans, not so much because of vocabulary differences, but because of simple accent and usage varieties. We can be using the exact same words, but confusion arises because they’re spoken a little differently or occupy a different place in a sentence.

Recently, I was reading out a column of numbers to an American colleague, and every time I said “four,” she wrote down “zero,” leaving the calculation in severe jeopardy. It finally dawned on me that my pronunciation of “four” sounded like “oh” to her, which she in turn took to mean “zero,” “nil,” “nada,” and “zip.” To avoid further confusion, I ended up saying “four” in a very exaggerated American accent, much to her amusement. (This problem is hugely exacerbated when trying to communicate with voice-operated customer service robots over the phone, but that’s a whole nuther post.) Sadly, this is just one of many complications that can arise when you are possessed of a British accent in the States.

Nobody ever understands my surname “Hargis” when I say it, repeating it back to me with a mild Slavic lilt and a non-verbal question mark for good measure. It’s even worse when I spell it out, as the R in the middle comes out like no letter in the American alphabet. Again, I find myself pronouncing my name in an over-Americanized fashion while my kids fall about laughing behind me.  With each of my three children, we had to think very carefully about their names to ensure that when I pronounced them in the U.S. (and my husband in the U.K.) people knew exactly what to call them. A Brit friend here has a daughter called Harley, who is frequently addressed as “Holly” because of her mother’s pronunciation.

If you pronounce words like “staff” and “bath” with the long A, I’m afraid you’ll have to stop that immediately. The worst possible phrase you can say this way is surely “having the last laugh.” One long A might be OK with Americans, but consecutive strangeness is doomed. (Obviously there are some Americans who are totally used to hearing this, but the majority won’t be.) All such A’s in the U.S. are flat and northern English-sounding — except where you’d least expect it. Names like “Anna” and “Hannah” are sometimes pronounced more like we’d say — well, “faster” with a long A. The word “pasta,” too, is often given a much longer A that Brits are typically used to.

Another area where I have had hilarious interpretations over the years is with time.  When asked by dinner guests what time they should show up, I once gave the generously flexible answer “Six thirty  … seven.” Come the night, I found my guests hovering on the doorstep at 6.35 p.m. but not actually attempting to ring the doorbell. They laughingly explained that since I had been so specific as to their arrival time, they thought they’d better wait till that exact minute — 6.37 p.m. (While we’re on the subject, Americans don’t say “half six” as often as we do, so prepare for possible confusion there too. They say “half past six.”)

There are scores of similar examples, which commenters might like to add below. My advice to Brits — if you see a glazed or blank look on the faces of American friends or colleagues, go back over your last sentence. The cause might well be your strange pronunciation or word usage.

Which words, when pronounced with a British accent, cause the most confusion?