Writing American

Below is an article I wrote for the Visual Thesaurus website’s Word Count column about how working for the New York Times taught me to think, write—and dream—the correct American way.

When I started writing for the New York Times in 2004 I’d been living in New York for over a dozen years. I knew, or thought I knew, most of the linguistic slips that could happen when a writer (or speaker) of British English attempted to translate himself into American English. Shaw’s aphorism that Britain and the United States were “two countries separated by a common language” rang in my ears. You wouldn’t catch me saying ‘trousers’ for ‘pants,’ and you certainly wouldn’t catch me saying ‘rubber’ for ‘eraser.’

But the language of one’s upbringing stays with one in a deep-rooted sense and isn’t always easy to switch on and off. My copy editor, a dry man with a copy-editor’s love of the linguistic or factual error—the more marginal the better—pointed out to me gently that in the United States it was ‘newsstand’ not ‘kiosk’; a ‘tiff’ was a type of computer file not a minor argument; and American cars did not have ‘wing mirrors’ but ‘side mirrors,’ unless they were especially adapted to fly. Twelve years of life in this country and still not to know that!

Some American words, though, I could not bring myself to use. I once tried in an article to describe a dapper, rather fussy man as wearing suspenders—it was his defining feature, the perfect little journalistic observation—but found I simply could not. Suspenders, to me, are and always will be those saucy things that hold up a woman’s lingerie—a ‘garter belt,’ to use the American term. One of the funny things about certain words one grows up with is that they absorb meaning so fully and profoundly they cannot simply be exchanged for another set of syllables. To endow this man with a whiff of female eroticism was something I could not do. Instead, I concentrated on his shirt.

But it was the innate linguistic formality of the Times I found hardest to adjust to. The subjects of all stories had to be strictly addressed as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ or some professional term such as ‘Dr.’ This was fine for lawyers, politicians and the like, but it seemed wrong—even journalistically misleading—when referring to surfers, or artists or the group of urban explorers I interviewed who would sneak into abandoned subway tunnels and abandoned buildings at night. The worst case came when I had to describe the bluesman Junior Mack as ‘Mr. Mack,’ which seemed unintentionally to lessen his dignity rather than enhance it, quite the opposite intent of the Times’ policy. It was strange that a city so vibrant should feel the need for a paper so formal. Perhaps, like the grid system, it was the only means of keeping its madness in check.

Punctuation also caused me problems, and no element of it more so than the humble comma. I knew that the Times, like most American periodicals, did not use the so-called serial or ‘Oxford’ comma, (named after its preference by the Oxford University Press in Britain)—it was ‘fish, chips and ketchup’ not ‘fish, chips, and ketchup’—but I had been unaware of its diabolically subtle use to infer the number of siblings an individual had. For the eagle-eyed reader of this site there is doubtless a clear difference between ‘His brother Burke,’ and ‘His brother, Burke,’ the difference being that the former indicates he has only one brother, while the latter indicates he has more than one, but it was news to me. The practical on-the-ground reporting consequence of this was that I always found myself asking my bemused subjects about their sibling status. One woman asked me wryly if I was looking for a Freudian angle, and I don’t think she believed me when I said it was something my editors needed to know.

About two years into my time writing for the Times I had a dream. I was walking down my old street in London, where I grew up. The dream had captured perfectly the grayness of the surroundings, even the diesel-laden gritty texture of its air, but there was an American element comically present too. In large neon letters around me American words spelled out my environment. ‘SIDEWALK’ said one at my feet, where the pavement was; ‘PAJAMAS’ read another, and I looked down to see I was indeed wearing pajamas with an a and not a y. ‘LIQUOR STORE’ announced a sign across the street, and even more encouraging a large red ‘VIGOR’ floated in the air, minus its British ‘U.’ None of these terms or spellings seemed odd to me; they were instead entirely natural, a seamless blend of word and object, sign and signified. Adjusted as I thought I was to the New World, it had taken the paper of record to really make me, on the deepest linguistic level at which we imagine the world, become a true American.












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