Britain for fanfic writers

So, you want to write a story set in Britain. Or one featuring a British character. Or just one where something very British is referenced.

Google's a great resource - but how do you know what you need to Google in the first place? Hopefully this will help you a bit (and also pay back all the kind Americans who have put me straight when I've been trying to do the reverse and write about American characters in the US. Thanks, folks. You know who you are.)

Language differences

We all speak English, but there the similarity stops. But I'm not even going to attempt to reinvent the wheel. Google "American British dictionary" and you'll find more than one dictionary which will tell you that an elevator in the US is a lift in the UK and so on. But there are many things which are more subtle, and you really can't translate directly. Just a few, which will immediately scream "this author is not British" may not care in your narrative, but you really do need to cut them out of dialogue which is supposed to be by British characters.

1) "Quite". I advise you to avoid this word completely, because what it means in the UK is almost completely dependent on context and I wouldn't know where to start defining a rule for it. Tell a British author their work is "quite good" and chances are they will be more than a little offended - you didn't just say it was very good, you said it was moderately okay but considerably less than good. Conversely, "quite excellent" means exactly what you think it does. Confused? Like I said, don't go there.

2) Swearing. To be honest, you're better off just using what you'd use for an American character rather than trying to make it British. We get so much US TV over here that it's just as likely to be used, and most Americans writing "British" profanity end up with a caricature who only seems to say "bloody wankers".

3) "Gotten". Do a search of your document at the end and remove all occurrences of this, rewriting phrases as necessary. It is not used in the UK. Ever.

4) Days of the week as a description of when something happened need 'on' before them. You probably write "Monday he went to school." British English would be "On Monday he went to school."


Many, many fanfic characters are school age or just barely older, and everyone went at some point...again, this is brief, but hopefully it will point you at what you need to research further.

We do not have high schools in the UK. Well, not in the sense you are thinking of. Some schools are called "X High School". But they take pupils from age 11-18. A really, really big school might have 1600 pupils, i.e. 250 or so in a single year. Most schools, even big ones, will have less than 1000.

We do not use the American words for years, i.e. sophomore, senior. Kids in the UK start school at five rather than six, so our years are numbered 1-13, and are called Year, not Grade.

Almost all schools in the UK have compulsory school uniform - 20 years ago it was unusual for a primary school, but that's changed. This will vary by the school - some have polo shirt and sweatshirt, some have formal shirt and tie even for little kids.

Some of the public and older private schools have their own words for all sorts of things. The terms at my son's school are called Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity. Names for the years at the school my brother used to teach at include Rems, Divs and Shells. If you want to use an old school with a long history, you really need to research it individually.

You don't pass or fail a year. Unless something truly bizarre happened (you spent the entire year in a coma) you move up to the next year no matter what.

We do have SATs, but they are not what you think - they are exams taken by eleven year olds. The exams you take at 18 are called A levels, and those you take at 16 are called GCSEs. Most people take 8-10 GCSEs and 3 A levels, and the marks you get for each are independent. If you take 10 GCSEs you will get 10 separate grades. GCSE choices are pretty much constrained - no school will let you not do the basic subjects like maths and English, you generally have to do a science, one of history or geography, something creative such as music or woodwork, and often a language. A levels are completely up to you, though most people who want to go on to university will take three related subjects.

We do not graduate from school. We don't use the word, have the ceremony, wear the gown, any of that. Graduation is something you do from university. We don't have proms or yearbooks (actually, I've heard of some schools doing both - but it's not a British tradition, they are borrowing it from the US). You leave school having taken your exams - and without knowing the results which come out on a Thursday late in August. It's legal, and fairly common for the less academic, to leave school at 16, but they are in the process of raising the age to 17.

Your teacher has no say whatsoever in your final grade. None. It's all based on your final exam results, which are run nationally and marked by complete strangers. If you never go to school, never hand in a piece of homework, never do any work in class, it will have no effect on your final grade whatsoever except in how it affects your ability to do the exams. (Slight caveat here: some exams will have a coursework element. It still won't be marked by your teacher, and you still won't get to redo it or raise your grade by doing extra.)

Public schools, private schools, state schools

A British state school is what in the US would be a public school - most kids go to one of these. But be aware that the majority of state schools in the UK have links to the Anglican church. All state schools in the UK are required to teach religious education (you are taught about religions, not to believe in a particular one) and while kids can be withdrawn from lessons, there are only a few religious groups that generally do so.

A British private school is the same as a US private school. They vary wildly - some are boarding schools, some specialise in music, some in sport, some in helping kids with dyslexia, some are academically selective, some are religious.

A British public school is one of a few specific very old, traditional, expensive private boarding schools - there are about ten of them, and they are (or were, I think a couple now take girls too) all boys schools. Most private schools in the UK are not public schools.

Sport - watching

For most team sports, the individual countries field their own teams. So there's an England football team, and a Scotland team, and a Wales team, and an England cricket team, no British one. It does vary by sport - sometimes it depends on the individual competition.

Football - there are about a hundred professional teams in the UK, and at least the same again semi-pro. It's on TV all the time - it would be rare for you not to be able to find a game to watch if you have pay-per-view. The big national knockout competition is the FA Cup, and any team can enter. Any team at all. There are about a million preliminary rounds, the lower ranked pro teams come in at the first round proper, and the higher divisions at the third round. Every year a couple of tiny amateur teams will make it through to the third round and sometimes they draw to play one of the huge teams (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal). Just occasionally, they win. British sports fans love an underdog. The traditional day for games to be played is Saturday. Every team in each division plays every other team twice - so that's about 40 games, plus all the knockout games for various trophies. At the end of each season the bottom teams in each division (note that our divisions are in order of rank, not geographical) are relegated, and the top teams from the division below are promoted to take their places.

American football - the national sport in the UK is what Americans call soccer. It is not called soccer over here, it is always called football. But the cliché jokes about confusion really don't work these days - we all know what Americans call football, there's even an NFL game played in London occasionally, and there's twelve hours of live NFL on the TV each week. The vast majority of British sports fans will be able to have a perfectly knowledgeable conversation about pass interference. But most of them will never, ever have played the game. There are a few adult amateur teams over here, that's all.

Baseball - not so much. Most sports fans will be able to name a few teams, and possibly a few players, and will have a vague understanding of the rules. It's not played over here at all, or shown on TV.

Basketball - most boys will have played it at some point, and there are leagues. But it's not shown on TV.

Cricket - not as big as it was once. It's still shown on TV but mostly only on pay-per-view channels. It has an image of being more for the upper classes, though that's not really true and hasn't been for the best part of a hundred years, it's played and watched by all kinds of people. Cricket teams are county-based (so "Yorkshire", "Surrey" etc.) and the top echelon (about 20 of them) are known as "first class counties". For historical reasons, Oxford and Cambridge (the universities) are first class counties, even though Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire aren't.

Rugby - there are two forms, union and league. Traditionally rugby league was played up north and the players were professional, and rugby union was played down south by amateurs. But both are pro now and there's a fair degree of crossover between the codes. The rules are different for the two.

It's worth noting here that school and university level sport has a zero fan base. Zero. No stadiums, no crowds. Even most parents don't go and watch school matches. An average crowd for an inter-school match would be the PE teacher who runs the team for each side, a couple of parents from the away side who volunteered to provide transport, and the substitutes. TV coverage? Um, no. Just about the one exception to this is the Boat Race - rowing eights, Oxford v Cambridge up the Thames in London. Huge crowds, at least partially because the Thames is a big enough river to have waves and if the weather's bad there's a reasonable chance at least one of the boats will sink.

British sports pay absolutely no attention to TV coverage at all. If a channel chooses to go to commercials, that's up to them - the game isn't going to stop for it.

Sport - playing

Every boy will have played football at some point, and so will many girls. Most state schools will have a boys football team in every age group and also play it during PE lessons in the winter. But many private schools won't play football - they will play rugby instead.

Girls mostly play hockey and netball. Some private girls schools will play lacrosse (it's just about never played by boys).

In the summer, boys will play cricket, both boys and girls will do athletics (US: track and field).

Just about everyone does swimming at school at some point. It's rare (though not unknown) for someone to leave school unable to swim.

Some schools row - I think all the public schools do. It's unusual anywhere else.

There are no sports in the UK which have anything remotely like the US concept of "the draft". Boys who are skilled at football will play for a junior team at one of the pro clubs from age eight or so, and if they are good enough they will turn pro at sixteen. There's absolutely no history of footballers having a university education, or even any education after 16.

Many, probably most cricketers have been to university. Oxford and Cambridge traditionally produce a lot of cricketers, and the majority of England captains went to to one or the other.

If you are particularly good at sport at school, many schools will award school "colours", or "half colours" for lesser achievements. This is normally a tie to be worn in place of the standard uniform one. I'm not sure what schools which don't wear ties do.


No, not college. College is where you go at sixteen if you want to stay in education until you are eighteen but don't want to stay at school.

You apply to university in the autumn of your final year at school, and you apply for a specific course. Some courses are related to what A levels you chose - you can't do a maths degree without A level maths, you can't do a French degree without A level French. But you can do a business degree, or a sociology degree, with just about anything. You apply to a set number of universities through a central clearing agency called UCAS, not to the universities individually. Then you wait. Some universities will interview you, others may not. Then they may or may not "make you an offer". This means they tell you what A level grades you have to get in order to get in, either in terms of grades, or in terms of "UCAS points" if they're not that worried what subjects each grade is in (higher grades are worth more points and you just add them up). You won't know until you've actually got the grades until the following August when all A level results come out on the same day. American applicants will be given an offer almost certainly based on their SAT or SAT II results.

Just as anywhere else, some universities have a higher reputation, and are more difficult to get in, than others. There are plenty of places where your offer is almost certain to be AAA. There are others which may offer you anything down to EE (this is the lowest possible offer to go to university unless there are extenuating circumstances such as being a mature student, you generally need two A levels to "matriculate" or be eligible to do a degree.)

A standard university degree (normally a BA or BSc) is either three or four years depending on the university and the course. A Masters (MA or MSc) is normally a single year taught course, but is sometimes awarded for research on your way to a doctorate. A doctorate (PhD) is a research degree and normally takes three years.

A BA or BSc is normally "with honours" and this means it has a class associated with it. This can be a First, a 2:1 (said "two one"), a 2:2 ("two two"), or a Third. A Third is generally considered a bit of a disaster.

Medicine in the UK is an undergraduate degree - you apply for it from school just like any other. It's massively oversubscribed and very, very hard to get in.

We simply do not have the concept of a fraternity or sorority. They don't exist. The closest thing to it is the student union, but everyone's a member.


A common university for fanfic characters to have attended...this isn't a university at all, but a shorthand way of saying "one of Oxford or Cambridge". They're often spoken of in the same breath because they have a similar system (the collegiate system) and are jointly the two best universities in the country. Oxford people say Oxford's best, Cambridge people say Cambridge is best. In practice there's a friendly rivalry and understanding that they're pretty much equal.

Some common confusions:

Your character did not get into both Oxford and Cambridge and then choose. You are not allowed to apply to both.
Your character did not get a scholarship from the university because he/she was such an outstanding applicant. Scholarships are not given on application and haven't been for decades (except for organ scholarships), they are given on the basis of achievement once you get there. (There are some scholarships given to foreign students who would have no access to equivalent education in their own country, and no way to pay the fees. And there are some scholarships awarded by other institutions, such as the Rhodes scholarships.) In any case, academic scholarships basically give you kudos and the right to wear a fancier gown at formal events - they are worth a few hundred pounds a year, maybe a couple of months rent.
Your character did not get accepted on the basis of his/her sporting prowess. Actually that's true for any UK university - it's illegal to favour one candidate over another for any other reason than their relative suitabilities for the academic course they apply for, and there are no sports scholarships in the UK. See above comment about the fan base of university sport. If you want to play sport at any UK university, no matter how good you are, you will be paying them for the privilege, not vice versa.
Oxbridge is known for having a lot of private school students. These days, that means 50% of its British intake. The other 50% come from ordinary state schools. With all the foreign students as well, this means that a lot less than half of the undergraduates even have the potential to be rich upper-class snobs.
Your character (or his worst enemy) did not buy his way into Oxbridge. Even a hint of that, and the admissions tutor in question would be fired. It's happened. Oxbridge is right up there academically with Harvard and Yale - unless your character is the most intelligent at their school, or somewhere near the top of an extremely academically selective school, they won't get in.
Your character is not a transfer student. Oxbridge doesn't take transfer students. If they want an Oxbridge degree they'll have to go back and apply for entry into the first year of the course like everyone else, they will get no credit for what they've done already. They might be doing their junior year abroad (from the US) or on the ERASMUS scheme (from another European country), but they'll have to go back at the end of it.

Everyone at Oxbridge goes to one of the colleges, and stays at that college for their time at the university. Often they also live in the college (at Oxford it's compulsory to live in college in your first year unless there are significant reasons why you can't, for instance being royalty and needing bodyguards!) Some colleges are huge, old and rich, others are smaller and/or poorer, and some are modern concrete horrors rather than dreaming spires. Which college you go to is entirely unrelated to what subject you do, though not all colleges offer all subjects. This is because while lectures are given by the university, tutorials (an hour once a week either on your own or with one other student with a tutor, where you discuss the problems / essay he set you last week and then he gives you some more for next week) are given by the college, and not all colleges have tutors in all subjects.

Nobody will notice if you don't show up to a single lecture ever. All hell will be let loose if you don't show up to tutorials.

Nobody shares rooms. Ever. At most you might share a living area with someone while having a small bedroom each.

Lots and lots of people try rowing - not all of them are good at it, but there are college boats for people at all levels. The one consistent factor is that the only time you can ever get everyone together is very early in the morning. Seven o'clock at the boathouse - not so bad in the summer, hideous beyond belief in January when it is still dark, there's ice at the edge of the river, and you have to row by the light of a single bike light tied on the front of the boat. The big inter-college competition in Oxford is called Eights week and is towards the end of Trinity term - there's a less important one at the end of Hilary called Torpids. Cambridge's are called Bumps races. I'm not going to try to explain the way it works - if you want to use it, you'll need to do some serious research because they are unlike any other regatta anywhere. The college with the boat at the front at the end of the four days of racing is "Head of the River" - serious kudos, and the traditional celebration involves burning a boat.

May balls are held in June.

In just about every sport the climax of the year is the match between Oxford and Cambridge - the "varsity match". Some sports are considered "full blue" sports, and the team members selected for the varsity match receive their full blue for competing. This entitles them to wear a full blue blazer, tie, sweater etc. Oxford's are navy blue, Cambridge's are pale baby blue. You'll often hear the teams referred to as "Dark Blues" and "Light Blues" for this reason. Other sports are "half blue" sports and team members get a half blue for competing. Oxford's half blue blazers are made from vertically striped material, stripes about an inch wide, alternate navy blue and silver. Cambridge's are cream with inch wide silky pale blue edging. I think Cambridge's look sillier, but it's a close run thing. Some sports award either a full or half blue dependent on individual achievement (so if you are an international in a normally half blue sport, you may get a discretionary full blue). Not every sport gets to award blues at all.

University uniform at Oxford is called "sub fusc" - it is basically black with a white shirt, and a gown and mortarboard. It's worn to all formal university occasions including exams. Some tutors may insist their students wear gowns to tutorials, and they are also worn to formal Hall (or dinner) at the start of which a Latin grace is always said. Often colleges will have two sittings of dinner a night, one formal and the other informal. There are no longer any colleges that only have formal Hall.

There's a lot of specific language:

Nobody at Oxbridge would ever say "the concert's on March 10th." They'd say "it's on Thursday of seventh week."
Many colleges have nicknames, often not guessable. For instance anyone with "House" plastered across his shirt goes to Christ Church, Oxford.
Wherever you live, you go "up" to Oxbridge.
Oxford students have exams at the end of their first year and final year - these are called Mods or Prelims (depending on subject) and Finals. Cambridge students do a Tripos, and generally have exams in all three years.
Terms are eight weeks long - except that you may well be required to be in residence the week before term starts to do college exams ('collections') and/or the week after to sit in silence while your tutor talks to the master or principal of your college about you (confusingly, also called collections). The week before term starts is called noughth week. The week before that is called minus first week. The week after it ends is called ninth week, and so on. I'm not entirely sure when the numbering switches to the next term. Terms are called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity.
Each of Oxford and Cambridge refers to the other one as "the other place". Oxford students call Cambridge students "Tabs" (from "Cantab" which is what you put after your degree to indicate that it's from Cambridge, i.e. "MA (Cantab)") but I'm unable to find an equivalent name that Cambridge students have for Oxford students.
An Oxford doctorate isn't a PhD; it's a D.Phil, and all Oxford undergraduate degrees are BA (Bachelor of Arts) regardless of subject. I have a BA in physics, for instance.

General geography

Britain is small and crowded. It's very, very unlikely that you'd be able to hide any large building at all - someone would notice construction going on. Almost nowhere is further than ten miles from a public, frequently used road, and even the remotest areas get frequent visits from walkers, climbers and birdwatchers. If Steve Fossett's plane had crashed in the UK, it would have been found within a couple of days. Anywhere other than the remotest areas of the Highlands it would have been found within a couple of hours. All land is owned by somebody.

Not all of Scotland is in the Highlands. The central part, where Edinburgh and Glasgow are, is flat and industrial. The south is hilly but not mountainous.

All roadsigns in Wales are dual language, Welsh and English. Scottish roadsigns are in English only.

With a very few exceptions, towns and cities in the UK are old. They have buildings located randomly where they were built several hundred years ago before there was even a town there. The roads are not straight, nor is there anything remotely approaching a grid system of streets. Junctions are at random locations and may have any number of roads coming into them, streets are not at right angles. We simply don't have the concept of blocks.

Leading on from that, our roads tend not to be very long. It would be unusual to have even a three digit house number. I've never seen a British address with a four digit house number.

We do have some long, completely straight roads running long distances from town to town. They are almost all Roman roads - i.e. they are 2,000 years old. They are completely unmistakable, both when you are driving on one and if you look on a map. Similarly, any town with a name ending in "chester" or "cester" or "caster" is an old Roman camp (from the Latin "castra").

Many town and county names (especially the "cester" ones) are pronounced nothing like they are spelt. If the pronunciation is significant for your story, ask a British person who knows that area. For instance, Towcester is pronounced "toaster". I never knew that until I moved nearby.

Northern Ireland is part of Britain. Southern Ireland, or Eire, is a different country altogether.


The legal driving age in the UK is seventeen, but you can ride a small (50cc, 30 mph top speed) motorcycle at sixteen.

There's no such thing as "driver's ed" in our schools. You learn to drive in your own time at your own expense. While you are learning you have a "provisional license" which means you can only drive supervised, you are called a "learner driver" and you car has to display "L plates" at all times front and back, which is a six inch white square with a big red L on it. Once you pass your test you have a "full license".

We drive on the left of the road. The driver's seat is therefore on the right hand side of the car.

Our fuel is very, VERY expensive - several times as expensive as fuel in the US. Cars tend to be smaller, and fuel efficiency is a big thing.

Cars in the UK are almost universally manual transmission ('stick shift'). Everyone learns on a manual - it would be almost impossible to find an instructor to teach you on an automatic, and considered odd to drive one. (But hire cars at airports will often be automatic, because we know that not everyone feels the same!) They are not remotely difficult to drive if that's what you are used to.

All cars have to display a "tax disc" in their windscreens at all times - you buy these once a year. In addition, all drivers have to be insured. Insurance for younger drivers is extremely expensive, and for younger drivers in powerful and/or expensive cars is basically unobtainable unless you are ridiculously wealthy.

Truck, van, lorry...almost all our terms for types of vehicle are different. Check with that dictionary.

We have 4 basic road types:
Unclassified. This is a little road that doesn't go anywhere, for instance in a housing estate. It would just have a street name.
B road. (e.g. "B1234") This is a small road which you would take at the start or end of your journey, for instance to a village. You wouldn't make a long journey on B roads unless you had a specific reason for avoiding big roads, you'd struggle to do more than 40 mph on them in general.
A road. (e.g. "A44") This can be anything from a reasonably large road between towns, possibly not that big in the Scottish Highlands, to a big fast dual carriageway.
Motorway. (e.g. "M6") This is the equivalent of a freeway in the US. Almost all have 3 lanes in each direction. With a single exception they are free to use (there's a short section of toll motorway around Birmingham).
In general motorways have lower numbers than A roads have lower numbers than B roads. It's not universal - we have the A1 and the M62, for starters. I recommend Google Maps, or the AA website ( if you want to find a route with plausible road numbers.

The national speed limit is 60 mph. It's 70 mph on dual carriageways and motorways, and normally 30 mph in built-up areas.

Distances are given in miles, and fuel consumption is measured in mpg. However, fuel is bought in litres.

All cars have a number plate front and back. You can buy particular plates, but you can't design your own - they have to have existed already. Ones which look like words or names are much in demand - for instance SUS 1E or J1 LLY. Modern ones are all in the form XXnn YYY. XX indicates where the car was first registered (for instance OU is Oxford). nn indicates the year of first registration, the first digit is either a 0 or a 5 (in 2010 it will be a 1 or a 6 and so on) depending on when in the year it was bought. The last three XXX are random letters to make it unique.

It's a legal requirement to wear a seatbelt, and illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless you have a hands-free car kit.

Drinking alcohol

It's legal to drink in public, and to buy alcohol, at 18.

It's legal to drink alcohol, in the privacy of your own home, at any age - it's up to your parents to determine what you can drink when. Certainly it's perfectly usual for kids to be given lemonade with a dash of wine in it at a meal where the adults are drinking wine, from a pretty early age. And for a teen to have a small glass of undiluted wine. (But parents allowing kids to get drunk would get them in legal trouble for child neglect, it's not a free for all and it would be considered unacceptable for a child to drink regularly or to excess).

The amount it's legal to drink and then drive is roughly one pint of beer, or one medium glass of wine. (Obviously depends on metabolism etc.)

Health care

The national system is called the NHS (National Health Service). It's basically free. You don't pay to go to a doctor, or to hospital. You do pay for prescription drugs, but it's a fixed charge (a few pounds) regardless of how expensive the drug is, and you pay nothing if you are poor or for drugs prescribed while you are in hospital.

Some people have health insurance. Most don't bother. It gets you treatment at a time of your choice instead of having to wait, and it can get you access to some drugs which the NHS has decided not to fund - mostly very expensive treatments which are considered to only occasionally work. I have health insurance through my job - and I've never, ever used it. They paid me money to use the NHS rather than go private when I had my kids in hospital, and that's it.

The basic level of healthcare is a GP, or general practitioner, and the whole family will normally see the same one. A child would only be under the care of a paediatrician if they had a serious ongoing medical condition. Similarly a pregnant woman would only see a gynaecologist or obstretician if she had problems, otherwise she'd be under the care of her GP.


Handguns are banned in the UK. Yup, banned. You cannot own one. You cannot get a license to own one. No exceptions. Our Olympic marksmen train and store their weapons in Switzerland. That doesn't mean that there aren't guns out there, of course, but only illegal ones. The police do not carry guns in the UK - there are a few special armed response units, and airport police are armed. One of the few things that will get you shot by the police is carrying a gun in public. People have been shot by police marksmen for claiming they were carrying a gun in public - in one rather sad case a few years back the guy was drunk and it was a table leg in a plastic bag.

Rifles, shotguns etc. can be owned, but only if you have a genuine reason. And you will be required to prove your reason, provide references and show that the gun will be stored safely. You cannot own a gun of any sort for self defence, let alone carry one. Shoot someone who is breaking into your house in the UK - even threaten them with a gun - and you will go to prison.

Semi-automatics? Machine guns? Pump action shotguns? Sawn off shotguns? Banned.

Basically the only way a private citizen in the UK can own a firearm or shotgun legally is for target shooting (you have to be a club member of a recognised club and you have to actively take part in the club), for vermin control (you'd have to be a farmer, or be able to prove that you did vermin control for one) or for hunting (again, you'd need to prove that that was what you used the weapon for and that you had all the necessary permissions from the landowner). It's a major performance getting a firearms certificate, and it takes ages.

TV, cinema etc.

Most people in the UK these days either have satellite or cable TV (i.e. lots of channels) or aren't interested in having it.

Everyone who has a TV has to have a TV license. The money for this funds the BBC, which is the national television station. It has two channels, BBC1 and BBC2, which do not have adverts (commercials). There are three other terrestrial (through an aerial) channels - ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. These are commercial channels and show adverts. The main satellite broadcaster is Sky.

A lot of the programmes on British TV are American. We're normally a few weeks behind the US on satellite channels, often a season or more behind on terrestrial channels. Just occasionally we are ahead (rarely by more than a day or so), because we don't have the concept of hiatus, sweeps etc. Once a series starts you get a new episode every week (barring an important international football match being shown instead, for instance). You'd never get a few new episodes, then a few reruns in the same time slot, then a few more new episodes.

We do not have adverts by political parties or politicians - they are illegal. We do not have adverts for prescription drugs - that's illegal too. As are adverts for cigarettes, cigars etc.

Presenters don't announce or advertise other programmes, ever. They'd cut to a pre-recorded trailer by someone else. (I can't get used to hearing the American football commentators announcing that evening's TV schedule!)

Cinema ratings are different, and are compulsory - i.e. a ten year old will simply not be allowed into a 12 rated movie. You can't take your toddler to an 18. Try for details.

What's considered a high rating is somewhat different in the UK. The TV censors have a real thing about blood - even a relatively harmless scene involving blood will not be shown before "the watershed" which is 9pm. But things like non-explicit sex, drug taking etc. are considered appropriate if dealt with in an appropriate manner. Kids shows have had drug addiction and teen pregnancy storylines before now.


The big family holiday is Christmas - Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both bank holidays (what we call public holidays) and so is New Year's Day. Many people take off the days in between - many workplaces are shut down in between. We have turkey at Christmas, not Thanksgiving. (Actually we don't have Thanksgiving at all. Or Independence Day.)

Easter has two bank holidays as well, on Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Our Mother's Day is not at the same time as the American or Australian ones.

One specifically British festival (though not a holiday) is Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. It's the 5th of November, and celebrates the catching of a band of traitors who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when the king was visiting. We have fireworks, and big bonfires on which traditionally an effigy of Guy Fawkes ("the guy") is burned. Kids used to take their "guy" round houses beforehand saying "penny for the guy" (sort of like trick or treating) but that really doesn't happen any more. I remember it from the 1970s.

More modern are the summer pop festivals. There are loads, the biggest and best known of which is Glastonbury. They are known for top bands, somewhat infamous for drugs, and invariably suffer from dreadful weather and end up as mudbaths.

Remembrance Day is November 11th. This is when we remember the dead from the two world wars and all subsequent conflicts. Traditionally there's two minutes silence at 11 am. For a couple of weeks beforehand, people go door to door selling "poppies" (they are made from card and plastic) and just about everyone wears one as a mark of respect. The money goes to the Royal British Legion, a charity which helps ex soldiers and their families. The nearest Sunday is called Remembrance Sunday and most places have a parade of the local military, ex military, and any even remotely connected organisations such as Scouts and Guides, and a special church service.


The head of state in the UK is the Queen.

Then we have two Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords contains, yes, lords (and earls and baronets and so on). And bishops. But not all of them, not any more. Most of the hereditary peers (lords whose title passes down from father to son) were kicked out of the House of Lords a few years back, so the majority of the members of the House of Lords are now people who have been made lords for services to something or other. Sometimes they are retired senior politicians, or heads of business, or pioneering doctors. Their titles are not hereditary, i.e. their sons will not become lords when they die.

The House of Commons contains MPs (Members of Parliament) who have been elected. Each area (constituency) elects one MP based on who gets the most votes in that constituency. General elections must be called at least every five years, but within that, the party in government (i.e. the one with the most MPs) can call one any time they like. Voting in the UK is always on a Thursday.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the party which has the most MPs, and is himself an MP. His ministers are called the Cabinet, and have to be either MPs or members of the House of Lords. Normally they are MPs. It would be incredibly unusual for any of them not to be from his own party.

We have two main parties - Labour and Conservative. The Conservatives ("Tories") are fairly right-wing and Labour are fairly left-wing. "Socialism" simply isn't a dirty word over here - we've had a socialist government for over a decade, and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's best mate is, yup, a socialist.

In between them politics-wise, but a bit behind (they probably won't win a general election any time soon) are the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems). Other parties which usually have a couple of MPs are the Scottish National Party (specifically pro-Scotland), Plaid Cymru (same, but in Wales, it's pronounced "plyde come-ree"), and Sinn Fein (who would like Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland rather than the UK). The Green party often do well in local council elections where there's proportional representation (i.e. there will be 20 members of the council, and if you get 5% of the vote or more you will be one of them) but not in first-past-the-post elections, so they have no MPs. Just occasionally an independent MP will win, usually in a constituency where the local politicians have seriously teed everyone off. The last couple happened when the sitting MP was involved in a sleaze scandal and apparently thought he'd win anyway, and when the sitting MP refused to support the locals' attempts to keep their brand new hospital from being shut down just a couple of years after it opened. In both cases an independent candidate campaigning on that one issue won. UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) campaigns to keep Britain separate from Europe, and was formerly led by ex-chatshow host Robert Kilroy-Silk. They actually have an MP at the moment, but only because he joined them after being elected as a Tory. Another party which occasionally wins council seats but does not have any MPs is the British National Party (BNP). They are anti-immigration and generally considered racist.

We also have some "humorous" parties. One is the Natural Law Party, who plan to save the UK through yogic flying. Their party political broadcast of a few years back (all parties with over a certain number of candidates get a couple of five minute slots on TV before big elections) remains the most unintentionally funny piece of TV I have ever seen. And then there's the Monster Raving Loony party, led for many years by Screaming Lord Sutch. No, I'm not joking - that's his legal name. I don't think they have ever had a party political broadcast, though.

Religion and politics really don't mix in the UK. Tony Blair is unique in recent years in having been openly actively Christian. Making a speech implying that religion was a factor in his decision-making would almost certainly force a British Prime Minister's resignation.


Our emergency phone number is 999, not 911.

A standard British phone number is of the form: 0nnnn nnnnnn. The first 0 is always there - it means you are making a call within the country. The next four digits are the area code. The last six are your phone number. If you are calling somebody else within your area code, all you need is the last six digits. Landline numbers all start 01 or 02, and mobile numbers tend to start 07. I don't think we have an equivalent of the US's "555" for TV show phone numbers.

If your character wants to call the UK from abroad, they need to know the code you dial in that country to get an international line. Then they add 44, and then the phone number but omitting the initial 0. If they are in the UK and want to make an international phonecall, they dial 00 followed by the the country's international code (for the US this is just 1) and then the number.

A British postal address looks like this:

99 Something Street
City/big town

Obviously there are some variations - in villages not every house has a number or street name, it may just have a house name; and in big towns there may be no village name (but in cities you'd probably have an area name instead).

We don't have those mailboxes with little flags - almost all houses have a slit (a letterbox) in the front door covered by a swinging flap, and the postman pushes the letters through.


So, what did I miss? If you're British and think I missed something important that people get wrong, tell me. If you're not British, got something wrong, and someone pulled you up on it, tell me that too. All comments, suggestions for improvement etc. are very welcome.