Monday, October 26, 2009

write (to) someone

Frequent contributor Marc wrote to say that he:
received this comment about a draft letter I prepared:

"Can you please put in I AM WRITING TO YOU NOT I AM WRITING YOU..this is amercian and bad english."

Comment is from an England-born Australian.

I am willing to admit that this may be American English (and the letter is on behalf of an organization that is supposed to use "international" (i.e., British) English. But it's certainly not "bad English", is it? (And I do find it easier accepting criticism on my English that is spelled and capitalized properly... but that's another issue.)

If there is a difference between UK and US English on this, does it apply to other verbs, such as "send"?
Well, as long as people are being judg(e)mental about others' language here, I'll say that it's Rude English (RdE) to claim that someone else's dialect is 'bad English'. Let's see what Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition) has to say about write:
The transitive AmE use = 'to communicate with (a person) in writing' is shown in the following examples from short stories in the New Yorker. I had written my mother about all this (1987); Liza, my dear, I have never written you yet to thank you for going out to our house (1993). This construction was formerly standard in BrE ('frequent from c 1790' says the OED), but it is now in restricted use unless accompanied by a second (direct) object, as in I shall write you a letter as soon as I land in Borneo. In old-fashioned commercial correspondence the types We wrote you yesterday; Please write us at your convenience were often used, but nowadays to would normally be inserted before you and us.
Meanwhile, John Algeo's British or American English? says:
Ditransitive [i.e. with two objects--Lynneguist] use of write (I wrote them a letter) is common-core English. But some ditransitive verbs can also be used with either object alone: I told them a story. I told a story. I told them. In American English, write belongs to that category: I wrote a letter. I wrote them. In British English, however, if write has a single object, it is normally the ditransitive direct object, and when the ditransitive indirect object occurs instead, it is the object of a preposition: I wrote to them. Also in British, if the direct object function is filled by direct or indirect discourse, the same prohibition against the ditransitive indirect object exists: I wrote to them, "I'll come on Sunday," not ?I wrote them, "I'll come on Sunday." I wrote to them that I would come on Sunday, not ?I wrote them that I would come on Sunday.
So, to sum up:
  • I'm writing you a letter is standard AmE and standard BrE.
  • I'm writing you to ask a question is fine in AmE and used to be fine in BrE.
As for other verbs, Marc mentions send, but we can't use that with just the recipient of the sending in either dialect: *I sent you. (* means 'ungrammatical')
send: I sent a package to him. I sent him a package. I sent a package. *I sent him.
So, send is in the wrong class of verbs for comparison. Write in AmE is more like tell and the following verbs, in that it can both take two objects without any prepositions and it can have just the recipient of the communication as a single object (which may or may not occur with other non-object kinds of things, as indicated in the parentheses/brackets below).
tell: I told Di a secret. I told Di (about the fire).
ask: I asked Di a question. I asked Di (about the fire).
teach: I taught the students an equation. I taught the students (about fire safety).
All of those ditransitive and transitive versions are fine in BrE--so it is only write, as far as I know, that creates a problem. Having a look in Beth Levin's wonderful* English verb classes and their alternations (1993), I'm a little disappointed to find that she's not treated this class of verbs ('Verbs of transfer of a message') fully--but she does admit to this. Since the class also includes things like preach and quote and those don't fall into the same patterns as ask and teach and tell, there's yet some work to be done here.**

So, this is all to say that there are some patterns to be found in verbs of this type, but that not every verb follows them, so it's not surprising that this is an area where dialectal differences might crop up. But don't blame the Americans. We're not the ones who (orig. AmE) ditched a perfectly good transitive verb!

* No, I'm not being sarcastic. Linguists adoooore books like this.
** Hey, final-year students--why not you?!

63 comments:

Spanish Cow said...

As a Scot now living in the U.S., I've seen "bad English" incorrectly lobbed in the direction of my (American) wife a few times over the years - I think that we (of the British Isles) do tend to get a wee bit touchy about these things. Another manifestation of this is "oh, but that's an Americanism", which is usually accompanied by turned-up nose and appropriately disdainful tone. These people need a good "skite on the lug", to quote my old Mum.
Interesting that it appears to only be "write" that's problematic, though.
Anyway, Marc's critic should relax a bit. If the roles had been reversed, and the Australian had himself been rebuked for using classic phrases from down under ("crook" etc.), I suspect his reaction would have been quite different.

Dilsnik said...

It should once again be emphasized that the American english choice is the older way...perhaps we should just go ahead and call ourselves the official "Keepers of the English Language".

That's just a small joke, as we allow a bit more freedom with the language than our cross-pondian cousins.

P.S. Cross-Pondian is a perfectly cromulent word.

Harry Campbell said...

It's odd, isn’t it? “To write someone”, without “to”, sounds very American now, but we would never think of adding a “...to” with verbs like to (tele)phone or call or (in days gone by) telegraph or wire someone. In fact we have to remember to add à to such verbs when speaking French (téléphoner à).

vp said...

While we're on this theme, I'll add that the American versions of the gallon and pint, which are 20% smaller then their British counterparts, are also older. The US measures go back to those in use in the British Empire at the time of American independence, while the British "imperial" measures date from an Act of Parliament in 1824.

Solo said...

Well you're all being very mature and PC, but everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that saying 'I am writing you' just sounds wrong. As if you're some omnipotent being creating your correspondent's life. It's as illogical as the BrE 'I feel a fool' from a few weeks ago.

So there.

vp said...

@Solo:

You forgot your irony tag.

RWMG said...

Amercian? Used everywhere except Mercia? I wonder why Mercia is so different.

Nick said...

Marc needs to understand that it's not always prejudice that makes non-Americans critique them like that. It's genuinely difficult to distinguish the locutions that are acceptable in written American from mere colloquial English. I try to be sensitive marking/grading the homework of American undergrads but when I check, I usually find that they're writing down colloquial American, that "off of" and "different than" are no more acceptable in written American than in English. "Write" is one of the few that is acceptable in writing in America so Marc's editor can be forgiven for assuming that it was like "different than".

@Spanish Cow: That would never happen; the Australian would "cop it sweet" and accept the difference between slang and formal English. Formal English written by an educated Australian is indistinguishable from English written by a Briton.

Anne said...

More ditransitives, I think:

I'll draw you a picture.
I'll email you the results.
I'll serve you some ice cream.
I'll forward you the article.
I'll FAX you a copy.
I wish you all the best.
I hereby award you this RdE blue ribbon.

Anonymous said...

cry me a river over you

Anonymous said...

So Americans basically use 18th century English systems for measurement, syntax (gotten, etc), law (grand juries; juries for civil cases; profession of attorney), etc.

Only that fule Fowler messed things up.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Odd the difference - that I had never noticed before - that in BrE we happily say "I emailed him about this", but need to say "I wrote to him about this." (and I agree, to my British ears "I wrote him" sounds very American).

Re "I telephoned him about this", it is, I believe, not many years since this would have been considered a vulgar neologism, and one would have been expected to say "I rang him up about this". Which I still tend to, although that is mere habit - I have no objection to the use of "telephone" as a verb. Although I do find the American "call" used in this sense can, occasionally, be confusing.

Jo said...

I think part of the problem comes because we (the British) use the phrase 'bad English' to mean 'bad British English'. If we were criticising American English we would probably say bad or ungramatical American English.

Doug Sundseth said...

Nick: "...I usually find that they're writing down colloquial American, that "off of" and "different than" are no more acceptable in written American than in English."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), different from, than, to:

"... different than is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows than, but is more frequent in American...."

MWDEU, off of:

"Off of is an innocuous idiom ... that has been in use since the 16th century..."

"Ayres 1881 seems to have been the first commentator to question the phrase."

"If it is part of your idiom and you are not writing on an especially elevated plane, you have no reason to avoid off of."

Perhaps you should reevaluate your impression. (And pick up a copy of MWDEU.)

Spanish Cow said...

@Nick, take your general point. Have found that some Australians (educated and not so) do sometimes have a little difficulty distinguishing between formal lang. and slang, though.

Nick said...

@Doug: I was under the impression that different than was only acceptable when followed by a clause, never with a noun. I can't remember where I first read it but I get most of my advice on the American language from the Chicago Manual of Style, which says, "different (adj.): from (but when an independent clause follows different, the conjunction than is a defensible substitute for from what...)"

As for off of, my American colleagues seem to agree that it doesn't need to be "an especially elevated plane" to warrant correction. Worst of all, Mid-Western undergrads like to use it with verbs that take neither off nor of, e.g. "based off of" is not at all rare.

Amanda P. said...

I (AmE) think "wrote/write" should be followed by "to". Without the "to", it just sounds strange to me. My problem is writing "I am writing (to) you ..." at all. Of COURSE you are writing (to) someone about something. If you weren't, you wouldn't have a letter, or it wouldn't be from you.

That is a result of my 7th grade (not sure the equivalent - 12 years old at the time) English teacher who also refused to let us use "got" or any of its derivatives in an essay.

I am guilty of "based off of", although I will also say "based on". To me, "off of" is nowhere NEAR the worst Midwesternism. "My shirt needs washed" is an example of the worst Midwesternism for me. But that's a topic for another blog!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

"My shirt needs washed" is an Irishism, I think - my husband certainly says it, and, after 30 years of marriage, so do I! Before then, I'd have said "my shirt needs washing". Or worse, "wants washing"!

vp said...

@Amanda P.

After 12 years in the US, "off of" still sounds to me like fingernails scraping a blackboard, amplified through loudspeakers. Nothing else comes close. I can't explain my irrational hatred of this collocation, except perhaps by citing its redundance and its disruption of the rhythm that I expect. The knowledge that "off" and "of" were originally the same word probably doesn't help.

What's interesting is that I hear "off of" _more_ from people who have attended more prestigious universities. My guess is that it's more of an east coast thing (I'm in California). And I have heard it, though only rarely, from Britons as well.

Scott said...

I can't believe anyone would have a problem with "off of" or "My shirt needs washed", to me those are perfectly normal things to say and I'm surprised that they're not universally standard English.

Doug Sundseth said...

Chicago and AP are both pretty prescriptivist, often prohibiting turns of phrase that even the first Fowler would not blink at. AP was originally intended for use by newspaper reporters, so they are more concerned with avoiding letters to the editor about violated shibboleths than about the boundaries of edited American English. Chicago was intended for use by the University of Chicago's publishing division, and is useful for citation styles, but the general guidance is idiosyncratic (though popular as an in-house style).

MWDEU is the guide that I've seen most linguists regularly cite, and its advice is readable, well sourced, and concise. That said, I would trust its guidance far more for AmE than for BrE or any other dialect.

On the specific issues you raise:

different from, than, to: The difference you mention is addressed in passing in MWDEU, which does not seem to find any grammatical support for it. (And all uses of "different to" are mentioned as coming under similar approbation.)

off of: I don't see a specific example of "based off of", but "living off of" and "make ... off of" have multiple examples in edited prose. Both of those locutions seem parallel to me, but perhaps others will not find them so.

RWMG said...

We were very much discouraged from using 'off of' at school, though I still finding myself saying things like 'She got off of the bus'.

@Amanda P. If you find 'I am writing (to) you' a problematic example, how about 'When I wrote (to) you last week, ...'? I'm another one who finds the prepositionless version distinctively American.

Disdain for others' usage works both ways,BTW. I have heard stories of American professors who refused to accept Briticisms in their students' work. This was from a friend who was studying over there nearly 20 years ago, and unfortunately I've forgotten the specific usages that aroused the professors' ire.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

We're off-topic for Lynne's actual post, but "needs [past participle]" is an unremarkable form in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, as is "to redd up" meaning "to tidy" or "to clean."

The few British sources I've seen on both those forms trace them to Scotland and occasionally northern Ireland. And indeed, most of the 18th-century European settlers of the Ohio and Allegheny valley were from those areas, especially Ulster.

jc1742 said...

My main thought on the topic is "Didn't your junior-high English teachers teach you [about] indirect objects? Mine did." Or maybe some dumb prescriptivist has declared indirect objects ungrammatical? I do do sorta like the term "ditransitive", but I'm not sure it really applies here. The usage under discussion clearly is a case of omitting the "to" preposition, which is exactly what the indirect-object construct has done in English since before it was called English.

lynneguist said...

@RMWG: There's a difference between not allowing a form in a particular context and being rude about it (calling it 'bad English'), though. I make students (from wherever) here use British forms rather than the American ones they {learnt/ed} because they're at a British university and need to meet the standards set here. I don't tell them it's 'bad English', though.

@jc1742: 'ditransitive' is the technical term for what you're describing as 'indirect object-object'. Nothing funny about applying it to the double-object constructions here.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ Brian - to me "redd up" is very Northern Ireland - I'd not come across it until I met my husband and his family.

m-j-sullivan said...

Would American usage permit asking someone "Who are you writing?" where British usage would prefer "Who are you writing to?"?

lynneguist said...

@m-j-sullivan: Technically, AmE would permit it, but realistically, I think people generally insert the 'to'. Searching "who are you writing about the *" gets no relevant responses on Google. (Searching "who are you writing" alone brings up too much noise.)

Johnny E said...

Objective descriptivism aside, "write you" is one usage that really turns my stomach (along with the cruel abandonment of poor adverbs and past participles that never harmed anyone).

Matt said...

Lynn and m-j-aullivan

Of course, any self-respecting high school English (school subject and not the people) teacher would have corrected us to write "To whom are you writing?" (the bizarre tyranny of non-terminating prepositions)

Of course, for me (an American) the phrase "I already wrote you" is perfectly natural. The following phrases are also completely normal: I already e-mailed you, I already texted you, I already IM'd you, etc. Are those phrases ok in UK English? Is just "write" the only writing transitive verb that requires the 'to'?

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

Some of the chauvinism regarding the dislike of "I wrote you" is rather amusing. Please note that there are quite a few Briticisms such as: "in future", "to hospital", and "different to (yikes)" that we Americans find ... uh ... awkward (I refrain from saying bad). But let's face it, these differences are what makes this blog fun.

vp said...

@Matt:

Yes, except that in British English one would have to use the perfect tense: "I have already e-mailed you."

@Lynne: Have you written a post on this UK/US diference?

lynneguist said...

@vp: Not yet, but it is on the list.

Canadian said...

"write someone" seems perfectly normal to me, not necessarily colloquial or informal.

Johnny - I find it hurtful to read that a standard usage in my speech and writing "turns your stomach". Could you not just say that you dislike it or that you find it sounds better with the "to"?

Harry Campbell said...

It’s just as well JohnnyE’s delicate stomach isn’t similarly affected by “phone you”, “fax you”, “email you” and so on, or he’d never keep his breakfast down.

Sophie Sofasaurus said...

"Write someone" does sound odd to British ears, inconsistent though that is with phoning, faxing and e-mailing.

One thing that I find hard to listen to (sorry, but it's true) is "protest" where my British ears expect to hear "protest against". For example "When millions of Americans protested the Iraq war, the media...".

lynneguist said...

@Sophie Sofasaurus: That's really funny as my colleague just today raised the example of 'appeal', noting that it's becoming more common in BrE to 'appeal a red card' (football/soccer thing) rather than 'appeal against a red card'. In AmE, I'd 'appeal a decision (or a mark/grade, etc.)' or 'make an appeal against a decision', but don't think I'd usually appeal against something.

So, in that case, there's the question of whether my colleague's observation is an indication of language change in BrE under AmE influence or not. So much for a student to sink her/his teeth into. Any of you reading? Any of you want this project?

Cameron said...

I grew up with my father (ScE and pretty old fashioned in it) using "redd up", which I have always just assumed to be one of his old Scots phrases. But of course that does not discount it also being Northern Irish (or Ulster Scots as the phrase has it).

Andy JS said...

This slightly reminds me of the Americanism "Obama will visit Chicago Monday", whereas in British English it would have to be "Obama will visit Chicago on Monday".

"Off of" sounds very odd to British ears, as does "out of" meaning "from"; for example "a new group out of New York" meaning "a new group from New York".

Andy JS said...

Just thought of another one: "debate". In America you can say "I'm going to debate John"; in the UK you have to say "I'm going to debate with John".

Anonymous said...

I am going to meet John. I am going to meet with John. Latter sounds AmE to me. Is this an example in the other direction?

Something that does make me shudder, although I am getting more used to it, is the AmE practice of saying "nice to meet you" when on the telephone to someone.

Matt said...

While this is certainly straying off topic, 'meet' and 'meet with' mean different things to Americans. Meet typically means that you are either going to be introduced to someone or are going to intersect their path at some point. 'Meet with' means that you are going to get together and either talk, have a meeting, discuss something, etc. with someone.

townmouse said...

@Matt - and to stray even further off topic, that reminds me of the (Midwestern?) 'visit with', ie. to have a chat with someone. My American mother-in-law always tells me it's nice to have visited with me when we're talking on the phone, which took some getting used to (although she's right, it is nice).

It occurs to me that the 'to' in 'I wrote to you' feels necessary to my (BrE) ears whereas all the other verbs (phoned, emailed, etc.) don't because 'I wrote you' is ambiguous - it could mean 'I wrote "you"'. But since when has avoiding ambiguity in English ever been a factor?

Amanda P. said...

@RWMG - No, I would still put the "to" in the sentence. I think it's just the variations of "to write" that fall into that category, though. "I'll (text, email, phone, call, telephone, etc) you" doesn't require the "to", but "I'll write to you" does.

I guess I just have a BrE tendency on this one (meaning that for me "wrote to" is not AmE, it's just wrong... jk).

Regarding the "needs /past participle/" - it might also be that where I grew up, this was most commonly "needs washed", except it was pronouced "needs worsht" (rhymes with borscht). That's the fingernails on chalkboard phrase for me! :)

Amanda P. said...

Correction on my last comment - "wrote" WITHOUT "to" is wrong to my (AmE) ears.

lynneguist said...

I've been ignoring all the off-topicness (you know I don't like it!), but will note that I've already discussed meet (with).

Julie said...

As a native Californian, I find "I'll write you" a bit more formal than "I'll write to you." I would be more likely to use the former in a business letter, the latter in a note to a friend.

I would also be more likely to use "I'll write you" if that's not the whole sentence. "I'll write you tomorrow." "I'll write you a letter." "I'll write you about this matter."

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The odd thing is that in British English "I wrote you a letter" is perfectly correct! Whereas "I wrote you", without "a letter" or "a postcard" after it, is perfectly correct in American English, but sounds wrong to British ears!

Such a logical language, ours - not!

Picky said...

@Mrs Redboots: but the "you" switches between direct and indirect object, so the two sentences are not equal. (Which is not to say the BrE position on this is in any way more logical or "correct" than the AmE - it ain't, of course).

Sharon said...

this is amercian and bad english

I'm British, but I think that (a) mispelling American and (b) writing 'American' and 'English' without capitalization are rather worse crimes against English than 'I wrote you'...

vp said...

@Mrs Redboots:

Not that odd. Compare

(BrE) I'll post you a letter

with

*I'll post you

Solo said...

I can't see how 'based on' could possibly sound less accurate than 'based off of'!

What's wrong with "based on"?

Although that line of thought reminds me of a lengthy argument I had with a school friend when we were about fourteen- She had written "They could of done things differently" and I insisted it should read "could have" but was unable to convince her why that should be so.

vp said...

@Lynne:

The Grammarphobia blog has jumped on this question (minus the typos), with a post wonderfully titled "Hand me the wellies, Jeeves.

lynneguist said...

Hm, I'm supposed to be reviewing their book. Marc, did you send the question to both of us?

Pisteve said...

I have noticed that in these kind of discussions the differences between British and American English are generally assumed to have arisen only as a result of the geographical separation of speakers of the language, where one form retains an archaic or dialectal form and the other "evolves."
To what extent are the differences in American English the result instead of a large number of non-English speakers learning the language and then slightly altering things like use of prepositions to fit the patterns in their first language?
This post (and more particularly the one on "meet with" and "vsit with") reminded me of this idea. I think it occured to me when learning Polish (and some other Slavic lnaguages) which always requires "with" with the verb for meet. I believe it is the same in German.
Come to think of it, a lot of "typically American" usage (that isn't used in BrE) sounds rather like a mirror translation of forms in German and/or Slavic languages.
Has this idea not been discussed just because we are all so bad at foreign languages, or is that a naughty assumption?

I'm not suggesting that a couple (of) generations ago the new arrivals to America didn't quite learn English properly, just that American English may have been more influenced by other European languages than the more insular British English.

lynneguist said...

@Pisteve: Interesting thought, but note that the form that is now AmE was originally BrE, so there's little reason to suppose that the influence of non-native speakers is needed to explain the facts. Also, immigration to the US is very regionally-sensitive. While there are a lot of Polish immigrants in one city, another might have Vietnamese instead. So, I'd probably look for immigrant influences mostly where there's regional difference within the US. A good example of other-language influence is the effect of Yiddish in New York City--some of which has spread considerably beyond.

Harry Campbell said...

It's OK by me. What do I know from prepositions?

RWMG said...

@lynneguist But could the influence of immigrants' native languages have kept the usage alive in America when it was dying out in England?

lynneguist said...

@RMWG: again, I'd expect to see a more regional effect in that case.

John Cowan said...

Without doubt there are such regional effects: one might even say that American English is Hiberno-English as pronounced by Germans. In addition to New York Yiddish, there is North Central Scandinavian, where they say "ish" instead of "ick" when disgusted; there is Western Pennsylvania Scots-Irish, there are the Hoi Toiders of the Virginia shoreline, and so on.

But as the dominant effect in AmE, no.

empty said...

"Based off" (not necessarily followed by "of") was jarring to my ears when I first heard it from my teenage(d) son, but I now more or less accept it as a harmless bit of language change; I just give him a look when he says it and usually don't say a word.