Monday, September 01, 2008

be/have nothing to do with

Reader Tim wrote recently to ask:
I noticed the phrase "are nothing to do with" in David Crystal's The Fight for English (p168) and it seemed peculiarly British to me. I would have used "have nothing to do with" instead. Google backs me up, saying its relative frequency is 10 times higher on UK websites than on the Internet in general:

"are nothing to do with"= 115,000 / "have nothing to do with" = 8,700,000 = 1:76

"are nothing to do with" site:.uk = 21,000/ "have nothing to do with" site:.uk = 156,000 = 1:7

Is it a well-recognized regionalism?
Now, I love queries that come with the homework already done. Farrrr superior to the ones with no greeting, no signature, no please and no thank you that demand that I explain why their spouse says such-and-such or why other people are idiots who say this-and-that. (I'd write "you know who you are", but such lack of self-consciousness in making demands of complete strangers is evidence of a lack of, well, self-consciousness.) And Tim did a good job of comparing the two phrases...except for one little problem. Can you spot it?

Before we get to the methodological issues, I'll answer his question. No, it's not a well-recogni{s/z}ed difference between BrE and AmE. Every source I've checked lists the two phrases as variations on each other, without noting anything about dialect, and sources on BrE/AmE differences (like Algeo's British or American English?--my usual [chiefly AmE] go-to book for verb variations like this) don't mention it either. But I share his intuition that are nothing to do with sounds "less American" than have nothing to do with. Note that here we're only talking about the use of these phrases when they're describing states and not when they're describing intentional behavio(u)r. So, if I want to proclaim that something has no impact on me, I could say (if I felt equally comfortable with either phrasing): It is nothing to do with me or It has nothing to do with me (or it's nothing to do with me, which hides whether it's a be or a have--but see this post for BrE/AmE differences in contractions). But if we're talking about shunning someone, it has to be have and not be: She'll have nothing to do with me since I insulted her pig.

Back to the methodology: Tim has made do with the limitations of the internet in studying US versus UK: comparing the UK to the whole world and assuming that anything peculiarly BrE will stand out in the .uk sites. It's hard to get around that, since few US URLs end in a reliable country code. What one can do instead is to search something like .edu versus .ac.uk or .gov versus .gov.uk, or search a couple of reasonably similar newspaper sites, but Tim's .uk versus 'the whole world' analysis is telling...except for one little problem.

The problem is comparing are and have. Both are the plural forms of their respective verbs, but have is also the base form. So, many of the have examples have their equivalent in be nothing to do with rather than are nothing to do with (as in it could be/have nothing to do with). So, let's try re-running the searches with the third-person singular forms is and has, which won't have this dual purpose (remembering that some of the has examples will have the 'shunning' meaning):


all sites .uk sites
is nothing to do with
1,440,000 85,900
has nothing to do with
13,400,000
333,000

ratio
1:9
1:4


So, the difference here is not as dramatic as Tim's figures would suggest, but what hasn't changed is that he's right in his intuition that be nothing to do with is more common on .uk sites than in the rest of the world. But much of the rest of the world is speaking Britishoid Englishes. To try to get out that influence, let's try it once more with .edu versus .ac.uk:


.edu sites .ac.uk sites
is nothing to do with
4340 1140
has nothing to do with
232,000
2030

ratio
1:53
1:2

Now there's a big difference! (Not quite as big as Tim's original difference, but big enough.) I suspect that the 'shun' meaning is less common on academic sites than on general sites, which include lots of places where people can be relatively free about declaring whom they are shunning--so I believe this might be a truer reflection of the relative Britishness of be nothing to do with.

So, well done, Tim! (Despite my methodological quibbles, which we in the educational establishment call a "teaching opportunity". At least that's what we call it when we want to show off a bit.)

25 comments:

mollymooly said...

You should also check for "got nothing to with". I leave this as an exercise for the class.

mollymooly said...

Or even "got nothing to do with". Ahem.

Tim Leonard said...

Much obliged, Lynne. It was a few of those "teaching moments" from the past that encouraged me to try the Google comparison at all. Now I can aspire to being more sophisticated about it next time. (I see your point about "have" having multiple uses, too, but I've a long way to go before I start thinking that much like a linguist.)

BRIT! said...

Searching "got nothing to do with" doesn't really address the issue at hand though. Think about it, you wouldn't say just the phrase "got nothing to do with [me]". You would say "That HAS got nothing to do with me" or "That's got nothing to do with..."

...which places us squarely back where Tim started but with an extra word thrown in the mix.


Oh, and my 2 cents: I use the "has/have" version myself in almost all situations (AZ, USA)

Cameron said...

BRIT!:
No, because "it's got" and "that's got" can only mean it has or that has, never it is or that is. "It is got" or "that is got" nothing to do with me would make no sense, so "it's got" would be a multiplication only of the "it has" side. So "it's got" and "it has" could be added together and opposed to "it is".

Fnarf said...

"It's got nothing to do with me" is how I'd say it.

Anonymous said...

Or: It's nothing got to do with me, which sounds much more idiomatic to this Dublin English-speaker.

Cameron. said...

I'm with Fnarf.

mollymooly said...

I've heard "nothing got to do with" but had regarded it as just another ephemeral piece of ludic adolescent in-group slang. I do hope it hasn't taken root. I know I shouldn't care, but I just can't help myself.

biochemist said...

Hmm. I see that nobody wanted to have anything to do with this topic!

lynneguist said...

Yeah, I found it a little disheartening. Write about toilets or vegetable names and the comments abound. Write about something that hasn't already been discussed on dozens of other websites--something that seems to have been newly documented as a BrE/AmE distinction, and few seem to care!

I hope I'll get over it.

anne t. said...

Lynne, the drop in participation might have more to do with your warning us a few weeks ago that you would just post once a week.

And all I can say about this is, "interesting!" I wonder if the use of it in American academic institutions can be explained by the presence of British or, what did you call it, people who speak "Britishoid Englishes" there. (Did you coin that?)

Your teaching moment was stunning! How nice to see you delicately dissect and articulate the flaws! I had not seen them before you pointed them out! Very neat to see!

lynneguist said...

Thanks for the pep talk, anne t. But thanks to the wonders of sitemeter, I know that viewing of the blog has gone up this week in spite of my warning of reduced posting! It's only the comments that have gone down...

James said...

I tried to post this comment way back in the beginning, but I managed to lose it somehow. I didn't feel like typing it in again, but now that I see that people want more comments...

I (AmE) would never use "is nothing...", so I have a question for those who do use it. Would you ever use any of the following?

"is something to do with"
"is anything to do with"
"is to do with"

For me, the "has" versions of all of these are perfectly fine.

disgruntled said...

I didn't comment because just thinking about it made my brain hurt. One of the 'lost generation' of children that never got taught any grammar or parts of speech beyond 'doing words' and barely got taught any punctuation. I'm sure I'm not alone...

biochemist said...

'Oh, Sir Hugo!' cried Evangeline, the poor but honest laundry maid, 'am I nothing to you? Do you not appreciate my lovingly dashing away with the smoothing iron?'
'Alas, my dear' grumbled Sir Hugo, 'Mummy says I must have nothing to do with you because you are a mere maid - it's all to do with the British class system, you see..'
'Huh,' said Evangeline scornfully, 'I bet that snooty young Lady Lydia had something to do with it too. It's nothing to do with class, it's all about money, I'm sure. You may spurn my love, but she will never give you clean shirts!'

Anne T. said...

Thinking about this difference I was wondering if it had to do with the more rigid class system in England, where people are born into position whereas Americans might have the opportunity to get into or out of, to own or disown. I'm sure I'm not expressing this very well. I'm just curious what the effect is between the sense of being unrelated or having no relation to something.

lynneguist said...

I think you're thinking too hard, Anne!

biochemist said...

Well, I know my daft scenario mentioned the class system but that was merely part of the melodrama - I wanted to introduce the phrase 'am I nothing to you?' - probably frequent in trashy novels but not visible in a Google search (back to the teaching point!).
The other sentences were attempts to use the phrases suggested by James. Here's my theory - after a couple of weeks' mulling: One could replace 'something/anything to do with' with the word 'relationship' or 'connection', in which case the verb must be 'has' - and 'is' comes from the double use of it's for it is and it has.

biochemist said...

But I don't know why it should differ between UK and US.

Anne T. said...

Maybe so, Lynne!

There is also some difference in direction. "I am/have nothing to do with it" vs. "it is/has nothing to do with me." Nah, I guess both countries say both.

Maybe we (Americans) don't say "Am I nothing to you", but we might say "What am I, chopped liver (to you)?"

Don't mind me.

Anne T. said...

Oops, I must to bed. Dropped the all important "to do" from the phrase.

David said...

Interesting. I found http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/DO, which does indeed mention this distinction between American and British English!

David Crosbie said...

There's also have got on both sides of the Atlantic —at least when nothing is implied in a question.

What's love got to do with it?
What's that got to do with the price of fish?


Personally I (elderly British English speaker) make a distinction between:

A.
It's nothing to do with me
— a comment on me — my total lack of involvement
(often a denial of responsibility)
—I wouldn't use It has nothing to do with me in the same sense.

B.
1. She's happy, but her happiness has nothing to do with his defeat.
2. She's happy, but it has nothing to do with his defeat.
3. She's happy, but it's nothing to do with his defeat

— a denial that there is any causal connection — the two are independently motivated
Has is necessary in [1] for reasons of sound.
— [2] and [3] are equivalent — except that [2] is a little more formal.

I suppose I have a rule:

• FINAL NOUN PHRASE refers to ENTITY AFFECTING THE SUBJECT
(or rather not affecting it)
is, 's but NOT has

• FINAL NOUN PHRASE refers to ENTITY IN CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP
(or rather not in causal relationship)
has (more formal), is or 's

Albert Welch said...

I realize this is a language blog but isn't 53/2 > 76/7?