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?

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Mara Katz

    Have you done this the other way around yet–a guide for Americans who want to be understood in the UK?

    • expatmum

      “Rules, Britannia; An Insiders’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom”.

  • Simon

    Your post made me think of the Burnistoun sketch about how Anerican voice operated elevator systems don’t work in Scotland

  • Brent Burns

    I am terribly curious to find out if the Brits don’t really say, “Hit me up” as the Americans do when asking someone to give that person a call. Would the Brits view “hit me up” differently?

    • http://tardistyle.blogspot.com/ TARDIStyle

      Not many Americans use that, really. I am 19 from Westchester, NY and usually only see that abbreviated as hmu online, and very rarely in actual speech.

      • Guest

        If someone said that to me, they’d get a strange look in return.”phone me” would be more appropriate (at least in this part of Scotland).

        • expatmum

          Or “ring” me.

          • Nessie

            Its 100% ring me

      • Don castiglione, jr

        Tardis, you are still young…just wait awhile and you will hear it. Easily, this term is a very well used American colloquialism…you even hear it on TV shows and movies as a term. You gotta get off the computers and travel across the country. I have, and I hear it all the freeking time from old and young alike

        • coute

          Really? I hear this when people ask for things, a shot, drugs, money, cigarette etc…but not for a phone call……

    • expatmum

      I would tentatively suggest that Brits might think they were in for a scam if they were to be “hit up”. At least that’s what I would have suspected.

    • colinmeister

      That reminds me of when I lived in Arkansas, and the way to tell someone to telephone was to ask them to “Gimme a Holler”.

      • OreoB

        Colinmeister, I live in Arkansas… really don’t hear “Gimme a Holler” much at all, but I quite understood what you meant… =o)

  • dw

    If you say that someone is “artistic”, it’s liable to be misheard.

    • http://tardistyle.blogspot.com/ TARDIStyle

      That is likely even in an “american” accent. I would say that I don’t really have an accent, being from Westchester County, New York, and there is often confusion between “artistic” and “autistic”.

      • Wut

        You have an accent; you have an American accent.

  • MV96

    As an American who used to travel to London frequently for work, it took me awhile to learn the British equivalents for our vegetables…eggplant vs. aubergine, zucchini vs. courgette, etc. I would see these things on a menu and be so confused! On the other hand, I can remember my British colleagues being fascinated by the American phrase, “I’m all set.” I never even realized I said it so much until they pointed it out to me. “Do you want more tea?” “Nope, I’m all set.” Then someone would giggle and go, “I’m all set…brilliant!”

  • JustMe

    Imagine my surprise when my English neighbor asked me if I wanted to go next door with him to “Knock up Jessica.”

    • http://tardistyle.blogspot.com/ TARDIStyle

      LOL.

  • WhoFan

    I spent 8 months working as a nanny for a British couple in Barcelona (where of course all three of us were the oddballs with our strangely accented Spanish), had another Brit as a flatmate there, and had an English penpal from the age of 6, so I have no problems understanding the accents and differences in phrasing, but I do know Americans who actually use the subtitles when they watch British films. Then again, even “Honey Boo Boo” requires subtitles for most Americans….

  • Midwestern American

    I laughed a little bit reading this when you used the phrase “long A.” In the States, “long A” usually means /aj/; but it became clear that you were using it as /ɔ/. Ok, maybe only funny if one has spent too much time in a linguistics classroom.

    • dw

      She meant the /ɑː/ of “father”, not the /ɔː/ of “daughter”.

    • Eliza

      Agreed. We learn in American schools that a long vowel sound ‘says its name’ such as the first letters in the names Avery and Edith. So when the author writes “If you pronounce words like “staff” and “bath” with the long A…” to an American reading that it means you pronounce them a stayff and bayth which is even more confusing!

  • Olivia

    Definitely oregano. “oh-reg-ah-no” vs “ori-gone-oh” I was watching some cooking show and I completely blanked on what the host was saying. It sounded like a completely different word and it didn’t register in my head. It wasn’t until I looked up the recipe online that I knew what the heck he was saying!

    Greetings from Portland, Oregon!

    • IotaM

      And speaking of ‘erbs (as they’re called in the US, whereas in the UK, they’re Herbs), what about the baysil/basil divide?

      • Bell

        Disney ruined baysil/basil for me. When I hear baysil, I think of the spice. When I hear Basil, I think of a man’s name.

  • http://shoutydad.blogspot.com Bill Fathers

    In an American-run cafe, I asked for a ‘white coffee’, and the woman looked blankly at me. ‘What’s a white coffee?’ she asked. I was so thrown by this, I could only repeat myself, so we stood there for some moments, me saying ‘I just want a white coffee’ and her saying ‘but what is that?’ until eventually she called over a French waiter to ‘translate’.

    • Eliza

      I’m an American in my 50′s and have never heard the term white coffee. White is it?

      • http://shoutydad.blogspot.com Bill Fathers

        Yes, it’s white. In other words, not black. I know, confusing, eh.

        • expatmum

          ie. coffee with milk.

          • http://shoutydad.blogspot.com Bill Fathers

            Surely it doesn’t need spelling out?

          • expatmum

            When you think about it, “white coffee” could refer to the coffee bean. Or anything really.

          • Cathy

            Could be taken to mean white chocolate.

          • littlebirdhouse92

            Yes, it does. The blonde roast example highlights why. Interpretation and perspective make for messy assumptions.

        • frozen01

          Once you know the answer it seems obvious, but honestly, as big of a coffee drinker as I am, that wasn’t my guess, either.

          The US has a lot more options for coffee than the UK, both in the various types and the ways it’s typically consumed. My first guess was that “white coffee” was what we call “blonde”, which is a lighter roast.

  • Nappyvalleygirl

    One of the most memorable ones for me is asking for a tall latte in Starbucks and being given two lattes. Now I have to pronounce “tall” with an exaggerated American accent…..

    • Gertrude

      Sadly, that’s due to the silly Starbuck size names. Tall, instead of small etc. Heaven forbid one would want a very little coffee, which would be a “short” at Starbucks. And, of course, “latte” means “milk” in Italian, and if you order “latte” in Naples, that is what you will get. I understand what you are saying, and no offense is intended. It is difficult enough to understand each other without companies like Starbucks inventing their own names. Also, you can order a “regular” coffee at Dunkin Donuts, and end up with milk and sugar already in it. As a black/plain coffee drinker, I have been confounded by this, even as an American. My English husband has it even worse. In the US and UK. But (besides the dumb coffee shop made-up rules) it’s kind of fun to see what you get.

      • therealguyfaux

        Forget “regular coffee”; tell ‘em what you want– “I’ll have a coffee, with milk and NO sugar.” (Or whatever your preference is.) Works for me. I always get it the way I’ve ordered it.

  • Just Another Day in Sydney

    I found my day going pear shaped caused a few odd looks, and was equally puzzled why my daughter’s friends hung round in ‘clicks’ until it dawned on me your click equals my clique. However in terms of coffee Australians have the market cornered in terms of visitor confusion – flat white or long black anyone?

  • Emilie Noel

    ok why did they do that with the dinner thing? I thought you were perfectly clear and people give time ranges like that all the time. oh sillyness

  • Paul- From Sheep to Alligators

    Short vowel sounds, but “generous ‘r’s” as Kenneth Williams always said. There is a definite south west of England influence. Probably because some of the earlier settlers were from the Plymouth area.

    My most recent confusion was last night, when I told a friend that my wife was revising for a college exam. I recognized the confused look and changed it to studying for an exam.

    • expatmum

      And don’t even think of saying she’s swotting! (Which my spell check just tried to change to Swatting.)

  • Eliza

    Bill, surely the term white coffee does need spelling out as we just don’t call it that in the US.

    In my lengthy coffee-drinking experience unless ordering a cafe au lait, cappuccino, or something similar that comes with steamed milk in it, coffee is always served black and you add your own cream.

  • Starle

    My children came home from their British school saying that they loved paster. What? took me weeks to figure out that they were eating pasta!

    • expatmum

      Ha ha ha ha. My (American) kids turn a lot of my words into American and they’re sometimes wrong. For example, they have a cousin called Luca. When he was first born, my kids started saying Lucer, thinking that that’s what the name really was and i was just pronouncing it with an English accent.

  • Rosemary Melcher

    I love this – I know what you’re talking about. After 40+ years in America, I still have the accent and have to repeat myself quite a bit!!
    Rosie Melcher

  • gocanux

    British pronunciations are frustratingly inconsistent! The mail comes by post (long O) but they put compahst on the garden. They sleep under a duvay (duvet) but eat a fill-it (fillet). They have a shedule for classes at skool. They pass ur-inn into a ur-ine-al (long I in the middle syllable). And don’t even get me started on their mangling of any word of Spanish or Italian origin!

    • Derek

      please be aware that the English invented English so wouldn’t their pronunciation be more likely to be correct?

      • frozen01

        Actually, not necessarily. I was reading somewhat recently an article that was talking about how, when our two countries (UK and US) diverted, the languages basically evolved concurrently, with some commingling. With the changes over the years, however, American English stayed truer to the original language than British English.

        • anon

          as far as my research has gone I found that the american language was based on the american dictionary which was based on the english dictionary but letters that didnt look correct where simplified for americans, for example colour to color.

          • frozen01

            Well, we were talking about pronunciation, but I can work with this too.

            Spelling is a bit trickier. When the two nations split, common spelling wasn’t really a thing. Words were spelled differently even sometimes in the same region (a lack of public schools to teach a uniform way would do that). Add to this confusion that there were pushes on both sides of the Atlantic to have words spelled this way or that way, even after uniformity became common. With these roots and influences, I think it’s very difficult to say that one is an offshoot of the other. Going back to the original comment and the point of my response, it is more accurate to say that both have a common ancestor, and just because the language is called “English” does not mean modern England automatically is “more correct”, or closer to that ancestor, than modern America is. Apparently there is evidence to show that Britain has drifted more than America has.

            Dictionaries do have an influence on the language, but also typically reflect the language as it is used. Even if a modern BrE word, definition, or pronunciation was included in an AmE dictionary, that doesn’t mean it is actually used in the US with any sort of frequency. (By the way, there isn’t really such a thing as “the American dictionary” or “the English dictionary”. There is Oxford, Cambridge, Miriam-Webster, and a variety of others. The original American Webster dictionary predates the British Oxford dictionary, so I’m not sure what you mean by saying that the American dictionary is taken from the British one, except perhaps maybe the format from the one just before Oxford was published?)

  • gocanux

    “staff” and “bath” do NOT have a “long A” — a “long A” is the pronunciation of “way” or “rake” (which are not “why” or “rike”!) The “soft A” is the UK pronunciation of “staff” and “bath”. So why oh why do they insist on using the hard short A pronunciation for A in Spanish and Italian words, like “pasta” and “Santos” — the hard short A does not even exist in Spanish and Italian! (“Sann-toss”? NO! “Sahn-tose”!) Something to do with imperial supremacy I suppose, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to anyone who knows those languages!

    • littlebirdhouse92

      When in Rome…besides, there are so many regional accents that you will eventually find a native US English speaker who says it the way you like to hear it.

  • Deborah Lehman

    I find that my accent is loved by the folks I work with and socialize with. I actually have people paying me to sit and talk to them (especially at the hairdressers). Don’t drop your accent, they’ll figure it out soon enough:):)

  • pythonesk

    I’m dying to know why Brits sometimes use a long a sound and sometimes a short a. Is there only a certain amount allowed in a sentence or something? Are there rules for this? If so, what is the rule?

  • Sunny M. Glory

    I live in Seattle and have gotten into the habit of using zero instead of O when I give a phone # or address.. numbers and the alphabet or two different things..

  • charliegrove

    The time thing is funny. An American once asked me what time it was, I checked, and answered “half five”. We frowned, turned her head and asked “it’s long after 2.30…..”

    Travelling alone also led to a repeated strange thing in restaurants: every time I asked “can I have a table for one, please?” They smiled and confirmed “four?”. No, for ONE…

  • Anon

    well Im a northerner in america and pretty much everything I say has to be repeated to someone that doesn’t know me. Not a single American I’v ever met has ever heard of anywhere outside of London. They often ask where are you from in England and reply afterwards, is that by London? But I am mostly impressed if someone recognizes my none cockney, none queens English accent because on most occasions I’m Australian. That’s correct if your not a chimney sweep or a prince your deffinately Australian.

    • RedLorryYellowLorry

      I’ve lost my North London accent for the most part, although I’m told it comes out when I’m yelling at someone or something, but my parents still have theirs. Most people hear my mum and know she’s English, but for some reason my dad’s accent is harder for Americans to place. He’s been called everything from Australian to South African.

      What baffles me the most is when people ask me to do a “British” accent and they can’t seem to grasp the fact that Britain is even more diverse when it comes to accents and dialects than America is. And whoever I do put on an accent, they go, “Oh, I wish I had an accent!” It amazes me how many people fail to grasp the fact that to anyone not born and raised in the US, Americans do have an accent! It’s only logical!

  • RedBengalTiger

    I you said ‘six-thirty… seven’ or similar, most Americans hopefully will understand you. Heck, we say that over here!

  • Pingback: Brits in America: 5 Small Signs You're Going Native | Mind The Gap | BBC America