Thursday, October 01, 2015

Here comes the 5th Untranslatable October!

On Twitter, I usually post a 'Difference of the Day' between British and American English every weekday. But for the past four Octobers, I've done something different: the Untranslatable of the Day. Each year I've wondered: can I really keep this up for (another) month? Are there that many concepts that are put into words or idioms in Britain or the U.S., but not the other country? Well, we've come up with more than 80 so far, and this year, I kept a file of UotD suggestions all through the year and can say with confidence that there are enough for a fifth go-round and possibly a sixth! 

The moment I start tweeting about 'untranslatables' I expect to receive tweets and emails complaining about the concept, particularly that 'nothing is untranslatable'. That's true in some senses, of course. What I mean by 'untranslatable' here is not that you can't express the same meaning in the other language/dialect, but that it hasn't been packaged as a lexical item--i.e. a word or an idiom. Comparing which concepts warrant actual expressions in a language can be interesting from a cultural perspective. They tell us things about working conditions, social relations, and other good stuff. Sometimes they make us think "yeah, I need a word for that!" and there the word is to borrow.
So, I repeat again the clarifications about Untranslatable October that I've given before:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), then I hope that you might celebrate that you've learned a new expression, rather than complain to me that it's not 'really' American or British. Please know that I'm not posting them without some research, and none of us has a complete vocabulary. That said, if you can improve on my definitions, challenge the 'untranslatability' or give other insight into the untranslatables, please let me know!
  • I'm grateful for suggestions of additional untranslatables (though they may not make UotD status until next year), but I won't repeat any expressions that have been used in previous Octobers. The lists for each October are accessible by clicking on the 'untranslatable' label in the right margin, the bottom of this post, or, conveniently, here: untranslatable.
    There are also search boxes at the top and in the right margin of this blog. (The one in the margin works much better.) So please have a quick search before making suggestions, in order to cut down on the time that I spend responding to suggestions. (This is all voluntary on my part, please remember!)
Untranslatables (like Differences of the Day) will appear at 3pm British time (10am US east coast) each weekday on Twitter till the 30th. If you don't use Twitter, you can see them in the Twitter feed to the right here, or wait for the summary at the end of the month. In any case, I hope you enjoy them! 

P.S. (6 October 2015): I forgot to mention another of the 'rules'.  I don't include names for objects, activities or institutions that don't exist in the other country. For instance, there is no American equivalent of the expression Eccles cake, but that's not because Americans hadn't thought to lexicali{z/s}e it, but because they've probably never seen such a thing. This can get a bit tricky to determine when it's not an object we're talking about or when the expression has also taken on figurative meanings--see last year's example three-line whip.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

playing (the) musical instruments

John Wells wrote to ask:
Have you discussed BrE playing the piano/violin vs. AmE playing piano/violin?
Not really, John, and it turns out that it's one of those things that's (all together now!) more complicated than you might think! 

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 689 play* the piano to 309 play* piano. (The * there used as a wildcard in corpus searches; so play* gets us play, playing, played, etc.) That's more than two arthrous (fancy word for having a the) cases for every anarthrous (fancy word for not having a the) one--in American English.

But those numbers need a bit more checking because any dialect would have playing piano music without a the. To get a better comparison, I looked at cases where piano is followed by an adverb (e.g. play [the] piano beautifully/well/loudly/tonight...) so that we can be sure that piano is a noun on its own and not a noun modifying another noun. Doing that, there are 53 arthrous cases and 23 anarthrous ones in COCA. So, pretty much like it was when I didn't take those sane, linguisticky precautions. The British National Corpus, in comparison, has 14 arthrous cases and 1 anarthrous. (But keep in mind that the data from BNC is 20 years older than that in COCA.)

The moral of that part of the story: it would not be right to say that  play piano is AmE for BrE play the piano. Instead, play piano is a lesser-used AmE variant of General English play the piano. The image here, from, illustrates both variants living happily together.

Personally, I could say either, but prefer it with the the.  A bit more rooting around in the Corpus of Historical American English shows a bit of anarthrous piano-playing throughout the 20th century, but it really gets going in the 1970s, when the proportions are like those in COCA.

But hold your horses. If we look at other instruments, it gets more complicated.  (I'm rounding the numbers, unless they're <2 .="" comment-2--="">
  • Violin: In COCA, the is favo(u)red 3:1.  In BNC, 5:1.
  • Harp: In COCA, the 4:1. BNC 8:0.
  • Guitar: Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar. 
  • Bass: Looks like a reversal! COCA 2:1.  BNC: 1:5.
    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.
  • Trumpet: COCA1.4:1. BNC 5:2. 
  • Flute: COCA 4:1. BNC 8:1.
  • Drums: Play drums outnumbers play the drums in both dialects. Is it because it's plural? But what about...
  • Spoons: Tiny numbers, but more the in AmE and equal numbers of both in BrE.
I could go on looking for more instruments, but I won't. (Report your findings in the comments if you wish.) It looks like BrE eschews the more often for stereotypical rock instruments than for others -- guitar, bass, drums (Bowie's fault? American rock'n'roll's fault?). I don't see a clear pattern to the US preferences--but in general it's not completely unusual to have anarthrous ones. Bass is the interesting one for its anarthrousness in BrE.

Is it just with play, though? No. Going back to sticking with piano, COCA has half as many practic(e*) piano as practic(e*) the piano. BNC has four practis(e*) with the and one without.

On piano is also common in COCA (about 1/3 as many as on the piano). BNC has 20 on piano to 73 on the piano--very much the same. In this case, some of the on the pianos will have been about particular, physical pianos, as in I stubbed my toe on the piano. There's no possibility of I stubbed my toe on piano. But if a singer were giving credit to her band, she could say ...and Lynne Murphy on piano! or ...and Lynne Murphy on the piano!  (Not me, of course, I only had a year of lessons.) I'm waiting for one of you to go out and listen to dozens of concerts with British and American singers to tell me if they all say on drums! on bass! 

Finally, the why questions.

Why do we put a the before instruments? It's a funny thing. If I lie and say I play the piano, it's not a particular piano that I am playing. It's that I have the potential to play any piano. (Whereas if I say I've draped myself over the piano, it is a particular piano.) It's kind of like the bus in I ride the bus to work. In that case, it's not the particular physical bus we're talking about--that can vary. It's the whole package that goes with bus-riding. I ride a bus that travels along the route between my street/road and my workplace. There's a package that goes along with pianos too. I'm not just playing the instrument, I'm playing music on the instrument. The music that I know how to play on any "the piano" is kind of like the routes that I travel on any "the bus".

In spite of all that, there's no pressing semantic reason for the the. We don't play the cards or play the dominoes even though similarly, if I say I know how to play dominoes, I'm saying that I know the rules for playing on any instrument of that type (any set of dominoes). [Yes, dominoes are the instrument, not the game--though people who only know one domino game tend to call it 'dominoes'. I am particularly fond of Mexican Train.] So why do we usually have a the with musical instruments, but not with game equipment? (The answer: because that's what we learned to do.)

The arthrous version is unhelpfully ambiguous, so maybe that is a contributor to the rise of the anarthrous alternative. If I say I play the piano I could be trying to point out that I know how to play a piano (so invite me to play at your wedding), or it could be saying that I play a particular piano habitually (so don't get rid of it). I play piano doesn't seem to have that ambiguity, so could be seen as more communicatively efficient. The play + bare-noun construction is familiar, since we say things like I play tennis, I play jazz, I play goalie.

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Jane Setter recently asked me about noodles. Her take on them was that Americans can call spaghetti noodles and the British can't. My take, as ever, is: it's complicated.

Let's start with the British. In my experience (and, I think, Jane's) noodle in the UK is associated with Asian food. This is indeed what my English (and American, she would tell you) 7-year-old means when she says that her favo(u)rite food is noodles (various types and dishes but especially pad see ew and yaki soba. I've come to reali{z/s}e that on some days I eat nothing that I ate as a child).

Noodle is used for Asian types of noodles and noodle dishes in the US too. But I would suspect that the default understood ethnicity of noodle will vary by the speaker's age, location and ethnicity in the US.

Let's start with me, because that's easy (for me). If someone in my family asked me to go to Wegman's and buy some noodles, I would pick up a bag of these:
And once I got them home they would be used in a dish like this (but less fancy):
...most probably made with a can of Campbell's condensed cream-of-mushroom soup, like our household's other main noodle dish, that perennial Lenten horror, tuna noodle casserole (UK's drier version: tuna pasta bake).

(You don't get condensed soups in the UK, so you don't get condensed soup recipes.) [see comments for more on this]

Now, in my childhood, I would not have called those noodles pasta. I'm grown up now and I've come to tolerate much, so maybe I could bear to now. But to me, as a child, pasta was what you had in Italian food, noodles were what you had in the "less ethnic" dishes. But, of course, the other foods were ethnic too, and I suspect that my default understanding of the word noodle may be more common in the parts of the US that had more northern-European settlement. (I come from a rather Dutch part of New York state, and my parents from the more westerly more German part. The word noodle comes from German Nudel. My hometown also has a lot of Italian-Americans, so maybe that helped the pasta/noodle distinction become meaningful in my mind.)

Now, the OED defines noodle as:
A long stringlike piece of pasta or similar flour paste cooked in liquid and served either in a soup or as an accompaniment to another dish; (more generally in U.S.) any style of pasta. [...]
For me, that's not quite right. In my mind, a noodle is prototypically ribbon-like, rather than string-like. Once I started to get my head (a)round Italian pasta being noodles, I could admit that fettuccine and linguini were noodles, but spaghetti was a more borderline case. I'd not use noodle for macaroni or shells (which in the UK are harder to come by and are often called by the Italian name, conchiglioni).  (By the way, there's discussion of the BrE/AmE difference in the pronunciation of pasta back here.)

My childhood understanding of a pasta/noodle divide seems to be in tune with the National Pasta Association:
According to the standards published by the National Pasta Association, noodles must contain at least 5.5% egg solids by weight. Noodles can be added to soups and casseroles while pasta can be made a complete meal with addition of a few vegetables. Pasta is much lighter and, under Italian law, can only be made with durum wheat. []
Still, I am betting that (a) younger Americans (maybe especially in certain areas) are more likely to have 'Asian'  as the default ethnicity of 'noodle', and (b) ethnicity/region might make a difference for older people. Unfortunately, I can't find any dialect maps for noodle meanings--so what do you say/mean? Would any of you mean 'spaghetti' if you said "We're having noodles for dinner"? Please give an approximation of age and where you're from with your answer.

And then there is spaghetti noodle (the lead character in a series of Hyperbole-and-a-Half cartoons--which has macaroni noodle too). For me, this is a way of getting around the problem of spaghetti having become a mass noun when it was borrowed into English. Actually, I wrote about this in my textbook, so I might as well quote myself at length (with a little extra explanation in red). This is part of an explanation of Anna Wierzbicka's argument that the 'countable' or 'uncountable' grammatical status of a word is not arbitrary:

[...] cultures may differ in how they interact with, and thus conceptualize, the denotata [i.e. things that words refer to].  For example, although people rarely bother to count it, in Italian spaghetti is a plural count noun (1 spaghetto, 2 spaghetti).  In English spaghetti is treated as a mass noun. This is not just because English speakers do not know that spaghetti is a plural; we could very easily add our own plural marking to it to make it a count noun (two spaghettis), but we don’t.  It also is not because spaghetti is too small to be counted in English, since noodle, which denotes practically the same thing as spaghetti, is a count noun. Wierzbicka (in a lecture given in the early 1990s) has pointed out that English speakers have a very different relationship to spaghetti than Italians do. First, Italians are more connected to how spaghetti is made — historically it was made at home, where the individual strands would have to be handled. On the other hand, spaghetti generally entered English speakers’ consciousness as something that gets poured out of a box into boiling water — with no need to handle individual pieces.  Second, pasta is eaten differently in Italy and English-speaking countries. Spaghetti in English often refers to a whole dish, which is presented as a mass of pasta beneath an opaque tomato sauce.  In Italy, pasta is traditionally a first course or side dish, where it may be eaten with just a bit of oil and garlic.  In this case, the strands are more perceptible as individuals. Furthermore, some English speakers cut their spaghetti, destroying the integrity of the individual strings, whereas Italians instead wrap the strings around a fork or slurp them up without cutting them.
The way I understand spaghetti noodle is that it's an AmE way of making spaghetti countable. I'd say a piece of spaghetti or three strands of spaghetti. BrE seems to prefer counting spaghetti in strings.  In those cases, we're the counting with a noun that indicates a 'unit of', but spaghetti noodle (and macaroni noodle, if you're so inclined) does the job too, with noodle being a unit of spaghetti. Looking it up in Google Books, there are only spaghetti noodle(s) after the 1960s, and most of the hits are false--having a punctuation mark between spaghetti and noodle(s). This is the earliest instance I found, from 1964, where the emphasis is on the forming of the pasta:
After 1980, there are more examples in recipes. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (from the 2000s), there are only 8 instances, 5 of them singular as in "Sure enough, a long spaghetti noodle had entangled itself in my reddish-brown hair." 

I'm adding this bit (between the lines) the day after the original post, because I forgot to say these things:

"German"-style noodle dishes are much less common in the UK than they are in the US (which is to say: I've never seen one!), but I also get the feeling that pasta felt 'foreign' more recently in the UK than in the US. Here are some thoughts related to that. 

  1. My English sister-in-law (in about 2003?) made a pasta dinner of some sort for her future (English) mother-in-law, who was in her early 70s. The woman had never had pasta before in her life (and was rather unimpressed). I cannot imagine meeting her American counterpart (i.e. 70s, non-immigrant, suburban) who had never eaten pasta. I tell this story to other English people and they say 'unusual, but certainly not unimaginable'. On a slightly related note, the perceived 'foreignness' of garlic bread seems to sustain Peter Kay's career.
  2. As discussed in the comments, many British people of middle age think of their childhood spaghetti as coming out of a (BrE) tin (and then often served on toast--I try not to judge. I try very hard.). But the other way that people ate spaghetti in the UK in the 70s (and continue to) was spag bol--i.e. spaghetti bolognese--i.e. spaghetti with meat sauce. (In my experience, you can barely see the spaghetti.) Americans in the 70s were probably not a lot less rigid in their spaghetti habits, but our thing was spaghetti with meatballs. But at least we didn't make an ugly name for it. (Oops. Judgy again.) 
  3. Americans, of course, had mass Italian immigration in the 19th century, and there are Italian restaurants there that were started in the 1800s that are still running now. The oldest Italian restaurant in the UK (the internet tells me) was founded in 1922 in Aberdeen--and it might be the first--this market-research history of Italian restaurants has nothing earlier. It might be interesting to know if the Scottish experience of pasta is different from the (southern-)English one, since there's been a good deal of Italian immigration to Scotland.
  4. Even before mass Italian immigration, pasta was not unknown in the US. Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of macaroni (which was treated then as a cover-term for pasta) and had macaroni-making equipment imported from Naples. The dandies of England may have too--the word macaroni was used to make fun of them (thus the macaroni line in Yankee Doodle).
Just in case you want to get even by judging me for failing to not-judge spaghetti on toast, know this: my family eats Kraft macaroni (AmE: and) cheese with (Dad's homemade) strawberry jam on top.  And I'm not going to apologi{z/s}e for that. It's great. (I've no idea how this started. Could there be any link to having a German grandma--sweet noodle dishes? Dan Jurafsky's The Language of Food says that macaroni was originally a sweet almond pasta--but I can't imagine that a 14th century Italian dish affected my family's eating habits.)

Now I'm going to try to leave this post alone and not add any more! 


I suppose I should say something about the other noodle. This is older than the food word and unrelated to it, coming from an old word noddle for 'the back of the head'. This has two meanings that have taken root in different ways in the UK and US:

The first meaning is 'a stupid or silly person'. I don't think I hear that in the US, but I do hear in the UK. (I know a couple of parents who affix noodle to the ends of their children's N-starting names, which seems kind of like calling a William Silly Billy.) 

The second meaning is 'head', as in use your noodle or got hit in the noodle. Cambridge Dictionary lists this meaning as 'US old-fashioned informal', but it has a history in the UK. The first use in the OED is from Tristram Shandy: "
What can have got into that precious noodle of thine?"

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

please find attached...

I've been to two conferences in the past two weeks, presenting studies on British and American use of the word please. It was a blog post here that inspired this new research direction: three years ago I posted about whether one says please when ordering in restaurants (click that link for lots of discussion!). If you read the comments at that post, you'll see Americans saying things like 
Please winds up feeling impolite with people that you don't have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.
and British commenters saying things like 
not saying please makes it sound like a lord giving an order to his butler
--that is, Americans saying please sounds bossy and Brits saying 'you have to say please, or else you'll sound bossy'. The conference papers will turn into one or two journal articles (eventually!). In the meantime, the two studies brought up so many little factoids about please that I could do at least a half a dozen blog posts on them. Let's start with one and see how I go.

This one comes from the work I'm doing with Rachele De Felice of the Survey of English Usage at University College London and that we presented at the Corpus Linguistics 2015 conference. We're looking at requests (1,350 of them in total) in two corpora of corporate emails, one from a British company that will remain anonymous, and the other from an American company you might have heard of. We found, as others have in other data, that twice as many British requests as American ones include please. What's more, in British English please is particularly often used in requests that do not involve much of an imposition--things like please don't hesitate to call if you need assistance, please note that tomorrow is a holiday or please accept our congratulations. They have the form of an imperative sentence (do this!), but the recipient is not actually asked to do much of anything; instead, they're offered something (help, information, congratulations).

This brings us to one of the types of please-imperatives found in the email data: please find attached and its relatives please find enclosed and please find below. There were 20 of these in the British data and two in the American data — all of them with please. So, not only do we have far fewer American please find attached's, we don't have any please-less find attached's. Surely British corporate emailers don't attach documents 10 times more often as American ones do?

The mystery of the missing find attached's is solved when we consider that this is another case where the "command" isn't really much of a command at all. There's no need to boss around the other person to go about finding things, since the sentence is just communicating "I have attached a document for you". In fact, it would be just plain weird to put this into another request form like Could you please find the document attached? or I would be very grateful if you would find the document attached. This underscores that please find attached is not much of a request at all. It is instead a set phrase in imperative form that does a not-very-requesty job.

We found that American business people are actively discouraged from using this set phrase. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner has to say (highlighting added):

enclosed please find; please find enclosed; enclosed herewith; enclosed herein. 

These phrases—common in commercial and legal correspondence—are archaic deadwood for here are, enclosed is, I've enclosed, I am enclosing, or the like. 

Garner goes on to cite sources from the 19th century onward (all of them American) that agree that please find enclosed is a horrible business-ism that should be avoided. My small forays into (the possibly smaller genre of) British business writing advice has not turned up anything at all about this phrase. (Let me know if you know of any advice in either direction.)

Whatever you think of please find attached, it creates problems for our comparative speech-act research. If we look at British imperatives in our email data and say "84% have please, while only 43% of American imperatives do", it looks like maybe the Americans are bossier--ordering people around without saying please. But that might not be the best way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is: British emailers often only say please because they've put messages into command form that American emailers might put into a declarative sentence. The imperative could be seen as more imperious (or at least officious) than putting the same message into a declarative sentence.

And with that, I'll leave you with a British please sign that Peter Austin posted in the week of our presentation:

Postscript, 10 Sept 2015: I've just had a please crisis while writing an email to ask the person who runs our webpage. I needed to ask her to put up a different document than the one she'd put up for me earlier in the day. I wrote:
So...could the online version be updated to this? 
Since I'm in England, I thought 'Maybe I should add a please...' But look at what happens when I do:
 So...could the online version be updated to this please? 
The problem here is that my way of being polite was to make the request indirect. It's passive so doesn't say 'would you update it' and it has a pretty weak modal verb--not would or could but can. The impersonalisation makes the request easier to reject: No, it can't be done because... rather than I can't/won't do it...
It also makes the request less bossy, in that I'm not asking someone to do something, I'm asking about the possibility of something being done--giving her the (probably fictional) option of outsourcing it.

It doesn't work with please because please says 'here's a request', and I've phrased this as not-a-request, but as a question of possibility.

All this is just to again make the point that just because Americans say please less, it doesn't mean they're (we're!) doing less politeness work.  And sometimes Americans are more indirect than they're (we're!)  given credit for!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

a 'foreign spelling' test for GloWBE corpus

In blogging, I rely a lot on the Global Web-Based English corpus, GloWBE, which has millions of words of internet data categori{z/s}ed by the country of the website. It's divided into excerpts from 'blogs' (which includes comments on blogs) and 'general', which includes all sorts of things, even some blogs.

It's an invaluable tool for judging whether a word or phrasing is used in a particular place. But national borders are very weak on the internet, and commenters comment on all kinds of things from all kinds of places. And there are even people like me who are blogging in the 'wrong' country for their dialect (and I have run into some of my own writing in the corpus!). So, how can we know how much of the data that's in the 'US' category is actually by Americans and so forth?

This is a problem that has struck me as I've tried to use GloWBE data to research politeness markers. (I'm giving a paper on please in GloWBE next week.) So, I came up with a little test for foreignness in UK and US--though it won't work for other countries, as you'll see.

The test is based on the -or/-our spelling distinction, and the question is: how much of the data for each of these two countries has the 'wrong' spelling for the country? This works because for the (AmE) thirty-some words that have this spelling variation (except glamo(u)r, which is a funny one that I'll blog about at some point):
  • the 'correctness' of each spelling is long established in each country -- unlike -ise/-ize which is a more recent deviation
  • there's little variation within the country -- unlike, say f(o)etus, where people of different professions might spell it differently, or theat{er/re}, where proper names of US establishments often use the UK spelling
  • they are generally high-frequency words and therefore 'easy' to spell -- unlike paraly{s/z}e or mollus{c/k}, etc.
Here is the result, showing how many of each spelling were found on 'US' and 'GB' (as it is named on GloWBE) data in the corpus:

GB our
GB or
US or
US our
'foreign' rate

In other words,  19% of the -o(u)r words I searched for in the GB corpus had the AmE -or spelling and 12% of the US -o(u)r words had -our spellings. A few of these may just be by people who can't spell or who are putting on airs by using another spelling system, but they're probably a very few. The percentages for the individual words range from 8.9% (tumo(u)r) to 20.9% (vigo(u)r) for the US data and 15.5% (humo(u)r) to 29.1% (odo(u)r) for the GB data. It's important to use a number of words because the data will be skewed if it's just a word that American use more than British people (or vice versa), regardless of spelling. We can see that happening a bit with odo(u)r.

(I'd originally included colo(u)r in the list, which made the total difference more stark: 24% to 14%. I took it out because I suspected that the use of color in HTML coding might be skewing the result.)

So this can lead us to the hypotheses:
About 12% of US blog data is not written by Americans.
About 19% of UK blog data is written by people using American English spelling.
We cannot say that about 12% of the US data were written by British people, or even that 81% of the British data were written by British people, since -our spellings are used in the rest of the anglophone world. Half of the vigours written on British sites might have been written by Australians or Canadians, for all we know. The -or is more a marker of Americanness than -our is a marker of Britishness. But we also can't say that the people spelling -or are Americans, we can only assume they are people whose education in English spelling used American English standards. So, half of the -or spellings might have been written by people in the Phillipines (where American spelling is used). It's unlikely that it's that many, but I've phrased the hypotheses to allow for these possibilities.

Why is the number of American spellings on British sites larger than the number of British spellings on American sites? Well, it might just be because there are nearly five times as many Americans on the internet than there are Brits. (The US has 86.9% internet penetration on a population of around 318 million, so that's over 276 million internet users. The UK has 89.8% penetration in a population of about 63 million, so that's nearly 57 million internet users. Source.) Of course, there are a lot more countries involved here (and I'm not going to go do all that adding-up at the moment), but that's a reasonable step toward(s) explaining the difference, and one that doesn't involve running around screaming 'the sky is falling on British English'!

So, what this means is that if we look for differences between American and British Englishes on GloWBE and see that a form that's used in Britain is used 10% as much in America, we can't conclude that the Britishism is gaining traction in the US, because there's a fair likelihood that the people who used the Britishism weren't American. If we see one with 40% use in the US, however, we can aver that it's well on its way to being established there.

Anyhow, I'm glad I decided to explain that all in a blog post, as it makes it clearer in my mind for explaining it in about 10 seconds as I fly by that slide in my presentation next week. If you see any flaws in my thinking or math(s), please let me know!

In other news (aka shameless self-promotion):
The Odditorium people have made a podcast of my Catalyst Club talk about little words (especially the). It's a bit odd without the visuals, but they do call themselves 'oddpodcast', after all.

I'm speaking at two conferences in the next two weeks, plus have a few public speaking engagements in the future. Follow the links for more info. If you're nearby, come say (orig. AmE in this form) hello!

23 July (with Rachele de Felice): The politics of please in British and American English. Corpus Linguistics conference, University of Lancaster.

31 July Separated by a Common Politeness Marker: please in British and American English. International Pragmatics Association Conference, Antwerp.  
17 Sept How America Saved the English Language.  The Bedford Culture Club (Horsham, W Sussex). 

Further ahead, titles yet to be confirmed:
27 Sept  Sunday Assembly Brighton.  
27 Nov (Thanksgiving dinner--a day late)  English-Speaking Union, Chichester.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

known them (to) and help them (to)

Yesterday, The Syntactician was asking me questions about semantic terminology in relation to particular uses of the verb know, as one does. And so, as one does, I looked for know in the indices of various books about verbs that I have, hoping to find a term that would suit her particular purposes. In doing so, I came across something that was completely new to me in F. R. Palmer's A linguistic study of the English verb (1965):

In case you can't read the photo, it says that you can 'help someone do something' or you can 'help someone to do something'.  So far, so familiar to me.

But then it goes on to say that know has the same pattern with  
(1)  Have you ever known them come on time?
(2)  Have you ever known them to come on time?

Now, if I have ever seen sentences of type (1) in the wild, I must have assumed them to have typos, because if I want to know someone/thing + verb, I must have the the to-infinitive form of the verb. Yes to (2), no to (1). Absolutely, no question.

So, I turned to the (English) Syntactician, who said that yes, (1) is good in her BrE, "but old-fashioned". I then went onto Twitter to proclaim my ignorance/learning/disbelief, and many English people (many of whom are probably not terribly old-fashioned) replied to say "Yes, that's fine. I can say that."  No US people replied to say they could say it, and now that I look in Algeo's British or American English?, I see that he records this as a British form.

Palmer hasn't mentioned the big restriction on this, however. Algeo does, but I learned the restriction  the hard way: by tweeting "Can you really know someone do something?" The answer there is 'no'--British English speakers can only use the to-less version in the perfect aspect (the 'have/had verbed' forms). So:
  • General (BrE or AmE) perfect: I have known them to frequent dark alleys.
  • BrE-only perfect:   I have known them frequent dark alleys.
  • General English present:  I know them to frequent dark alleys.
  • Nobody's English present:  *I know them frequent dark alleys.
(Overly academic side point. Skip this unless can name at least two theories of grammar!
I'm wondering how you get a [say, Chomskyan] theory of grammar to account for a complementation structure that is particular to a certain aspect of a certain verb. Maybe all theories are now so lexical that it's  possible--though you'd have to treat known and know as different lexical items, I guess. Would be easier to account for in a Construction Grammar, but still seems like a very heavy--or at least fiddly--cognitive load for a language to bear. If you know about such things, let me know in the comments, please!)

I should also say a bit about that help (to). As I said above, both of these are fine in AmE and BrE:

(3)   I helped them escape.

(4)  I helped them to escape.
 ...but what's interesting for us is that AmE prefers (3) [in 75% of the cases in the Brown corpus] and BrE prefers (4) [73% of the cases in the LOB corpus] (both figures from Algeo, p. 228).

And that, my friends, is how you write a blog post of less than 1000 words. When was the last time you had known me do that?  :)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

talking about streets, roads, etc.

A while ago, I wrote about a difference in AmE and BrE use of street and road, in that in BrE it's more natural to cross the road and in AmE (certainly in a town or city) it's more common to cross the street. (I've also written about in/on the street, so see that post for more on that.) That's common-noun usage, but what about the proper names of vehicular paths?

There's no question that some ways of designating paths are more common in one country or the other. I've never seen a road named [Something] Trail or [Something] Boulevard in the UK (though see the comments for some counterexamples), and in the US there aren't as many Crescents or (BrE) Closes (pronounced with a /s/, not a /z/). But a problem for making generali{z/s}ations about such things is that the naming of streets or roads varies a lot on the local level in both countries, with different names based on regional differences, urban/rural differences, and terrain differences.

The other day Damien Hall (tweeting as @EvrydayLg) pointed out:
Struck since long B4 I lived there by US habit of omitting eg St, Rd in addresses. We don't.
He hypothesi{z/s}ed that it might be because street is more common in the US and therefore the default. But I don't think that's why. Instead, Americans are happy to say things like
go up Main and take the first right onto Union
...because in most cases that will be an unambiguous statement, since there will typically only be one thoroughfare called Main (Street) and one called Union (maybe Avenue) in a town. I often send packages to a friend who lives in Tennessee. I've never bothered to find out if she lives on Woodland Street or Woodland Lane because I only need to put '140 Woodland' (and the city, state and, if I'm nice, the zip code) on the package and it gets there. As you can see from this (AmE) yard sale sign, the practice of not saying street or road is common. (Where there is more than one with the same name, you'll hear the street/road/lane/whatever more regularly.)

(Side note on codes: Five-digit US zip codes only say which town or which part of a city the address is in, unlike six-or-seven-letter/number UK post codes, which generally indicate the town/part-of-city in the first half (letter-letter+1- or 2-digit number) and which street or part-of-street in the second half (number-letter-letter). Nine-digit US zip codes, called ZIP+4, are a more recent addition* that do indicate street, but which I don't actually use. I couldn't tell you what mine is at the US address I use. 
*It says how old I am that I consider something from 1983 a 'recent addition'. )

'Street'-less street names are so unambiguous that most Americans would immediately recogni{z/s}e that the film title State and Main refers to a corner in a town--mostly likely in the cent{er/re} of the town, since those are common street names in American towns and because we refer to (AmE) intersections or the corners at those intersections in that way. 

(I'm sure I've mentioned before that Main Street is a likely street to have in a town as the main street. It is also metaphorically used to refer to 'the inhabitants of small US towns considered as having a narrow-minded or materialistic worldview' (AHD5). So, politicians might worry about 'what will fly on Main Street'. The High Street is the proverbial main street in a British town (it may or may not be named High Street) and is used metaphorically to refer to the commercial market--i.e. 'what will fly on the high street' is what the masses are likely to want to buy.)

British roads need the street or road (etc.) because little is unambiguous when it comes to British road names.

Take my former (more common in AmE) neighbo(u)rhood as an example:

There is a Buckingham Road, which meets Buckingham Place. Buckingham Street runs parallel to Buckingham Road, but doesn't meet Buckingham Place because halfway through it changes its name to Clifton Street. Off the map are Clifton Road, Clifton Hill, Clifton Street, Clifton Place and Clifton Terrace. But we don't need to leave this map to see that there's also a West Hill Street, West Hill Road and West Hill Place. I also feel bad for the people who live on the parallel Albert Road and Alfred Road who probably get each other's (AmE) mail/(BrE) post all the time.

Once I found an unconscious man on Buckingham Place.  Except I didn't know which Buckingham it was. The ambulance people were (BrE) well (orig. AmE) pissed off at me.

If that weren't bad enough, I now live on a road that shares its entire name with another road in the same city. When I tell taxis where to take me I have to say "X Street, off Y Road". We always tell plumbers and such which one to go to (we even give them our post code) and then when they don't show up, we text them to say "no, it's the other one".

A famous exception to the 'one pathway per name' rule in the US is New York City, which has both a 3rd Street and a 3rd Avenue. Except that it doesn't really have a '3rd Street', since you need to put East or West in front of it in order for the house number to be meaningful--so if someone says they live on East 5th, you know it's East 5th Street. In New York and the US more generally Avenue is often abbreviated in speech (as well as writing) to its first syllable (written as Ave. or Av.). 

And so onto the Easts and Wests. In the US, you can reasonably expect that East Main Street and West Main Street are the same thoroughfare, but that house numbering starts from the where they join (or divide, depending how you think of it). East Main Street will run to the east from that (AmE) intersection/(BrE) junction.

In some cities they put the compass-points after the name and that can mean something different. In Washington, DC, it indicates quadrant of the city that that part of the road is in. So, 7th Street NW and 7th Street SW are one long road that runs north/south, but the parts of it in different quadrants of the city. On the other side of the capitol building, the street numbering starts over, and so 7th Street SE and 7th Street NE run parallel to the other 7th Street NW/SW.

So, the other day, I had to find Brunswick Street East in Hove (UK). Somehow (¡Apple Maps!) I ended up on Brunswick Street West. I knew that Brunswick Street East would not be a continuation of West (after all, the road was running north-south), but I hoped it would be the next street eastward. It was not. At least it was eastward. (I hadn't been willing to trust even that.) But I did get to see Brunswick Place, Brunswick Square and Brunswick Terrace in my explorations.

Finding street names is its own challenge. In the US, street signs tend to be affixed to poles at the corners of roads. At some big intersections, they may hang over the road on the wires that hold the (AmE) stop lights/(BrE/AmE) traffic lights. In the UK, they tend to be on buildings or walls near the end of the road. This may require some searching since some are high and some are low. Here's one of my favo(u)rites from Brighton:

House-numbering, of course, is another nightmare. In the US, it's pretty predictable that even numbers will be on one side of the road and odd ones on the other. In the UK, it might be that way (though you've no guarantee that 92 will be across the street from 93--it might be many houses further down). Another UK way is to have consecutive numbering up one side of the road (1, 2, 3, 4,...) to wherever the road ends and then down the other side, so that, say, 52 and 53 may be across the road from one another, but 1 will be across the road from 104. Another way it might be is that the name of the road on one side is different from the name on the other side--so, for example, the people at 15 Vernon Terrace in Brighton live across from the people at 17 Montpelier Crescent. (And Vernon Terrace only lasts for one (AmE) block, after which its name changes and house numbers re-start twice before you get to the sea, which has pleasantly few thoroughfare names.)

I've talked about differences in house numbering on Numberphile, so (BrE) have a look at the video if you are (orig. AmE) nerdy enough want to hear more about house-numbering: