Sunday, August 15, 2010


Grover (now two-and-a-half) continues on merrily acquiring British English. Her first language, but not her mother('s) tongue.  I was caught off guard the other day when she sounded so exactly like her father, saying That's a pity, when told that it was too late to go to the park.  I'm also keenly aware of her Britishness whenever she urges me to follow her, for she never says C'mon without following it with then.

Sticking a then onto the end of a sentence is very much a spoken British English thing to do.  It is not the use of then about distant time (I had it then, but I haven't got it now) nor the use that's about logical consequences (If 1+3=4, then 3+1 must equal 4 too), which are universal uses of then--though BrE uses the latter twice as much as AmE does (see below). These might also occur at the end of a sentence, but they're not what I'm talking about.   Instead, let's look at some examples from the British National Corpus (BNC).
If you write to them and drop it in that's fine then .
Let's let's get straight what we are talking about then .
So that is it then .
It means something like 'in that case'.  But to use it in that way in AmE (to me at least) communicates an impatience or accusation. 

Come on then and Go on then are things one hears all the time in England, clearly talking about 'the now', rather than 'the then'.  Go on then is used for all sorts of things.  In this one, it means something like 'give it a try, I dare you':
- Yeah. I could scare you, Auntie June.
- Could ya.
- Yeah.
- Go on then
 But in this one it accepts an offer: 
- This tastes lovely! Want a taste?
- Go on then .
 In that case it means something like 'Oh, I know I shouldn't accept your offer, but yes, please'. 

In the spoken part of the BNC, question-final then occurs nearly as much as statement/request-final then (since I'm just searching by punctuation, I can't tell the difference between declarative and imperative sentences).  For example (from BNC):
What pub is that then ?
So What about this then ?
Now, I know some Americans will be reading this and saying "but I say things like that", and I don't doubt it.  It's not that Americans never put then at the end of a sentence--it's that they don't use it in all the same ways that BrE speakers do, and therefore they can misinterpret BrE intentions.  As I said above, when I hear a non-temporal then at the end of a question (or statement), it implies to my American ears an impatience or accusation--or mistrust.  But that's not what (in most cases like the above), a BrE speaker would hear.  And Americans wouldn't tend to use then in completely sympathetic sentences like the following (from the Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky):

- How was your weekend?
- Crap.
- Oh, no, why's that, then?

As for numbers, we can start with Algeo's British or American English (I've deleted his source citations for examples, since they're abbreviated to opacity).
In all positions, then as a linking adverb is nearly twice as frequent in British conversation as in American; on the other hand, so in the same use is half again as frequent in American conversation as in British. A distinctive British use of then is in terminal position: Who's a clever boy then? Well, there you are then.
For sentence-final (or "terminal") position, I've got the following figures of occurrences per 100 million words by searching BNC and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

   BrE   AmE
then .  5824   3173
then ?  4741   1196
go on then .   142         2
come on then .   105         3
As you can see, it's not that AmE doesn't put then at the end of a sentence or question, it's that it's done a lot more in BrE.  The commonest ground between BrE and AmE is the temporal use like She was happier then, See you then, and What did you do then ('next')?  When we search in a context where the temporal meaning is much less likely (in the last two rows), we see the BrE uses of then outnumbering the AmE ones by very large margins indeed.

What do you think then?

p.s.  I know some of you haven't got(ten) into Twitter, but that's where I'm hanging out between blog posts.  I've added a Twitter feed gadget to the left, where you can see my most recent tweets, which may include the Difference of the Day.


RWMG said...

But do your sources differentiate between 'See you, then' (which I think just means goodbye) and 'See you then, then' (which means we've made an appointment for a particular time)?

lynneguist said...

Nice example, and something I definitely hear, but no hits in the corpora. The amount of spoken language in them is not huge...

Anonymous said...

Here's my favorite clearly non-temporal then--
Now, then. (or: Now, now, then.)


Amy said...

I agree with you, Lynne, about "then" seeming impatient. If I heard someone say "Go on, then," it would seem as though they were saying something like "Just do it already" or "Get it over with."

-Amy, NYC

Harry Campbell said...

Is the delexified use of "anyway" to start a new topic or move the conversation on, also British? "Anyway, how was your weekend?" "Anyway, think about it and let me know."

Robert Lee said...

@RWMG - Exactly what people like me grew up hearing back in the 1960s and '70s. So there then. If you're in your 40s or 50s (like me!), that's just natural to the ear then.

@Amy - No, 'then' doesn't/shouldn't convey impatience, but a great deal depends on your intonation at the time of saying it.

Just my twopence worth.

Anonymous said...

Is there really that much of a difference between the 'about logical consequences', 'if/then' use of 'then', and the uses in your examples?

'In that case' _is_ talking about logical consequences isn't it?

And maybe there's sometimes an implied 'if'?
"[If we're going,] c'mon then!"

"[If you're going to scare me,] go on then."

I can't stretch it to all of your examples but most are replaceable with 'in that case', and if there's a case then you could presumably restate as an if/then.
Then again maybe it's just verbal filler.

Anonymous said...

I've always been told the BE usage of "then" more closely mirrored the usage of German "denn" (which actually means "because" and/or "than", as opposed to "dann" which means "then"...but "...denn?" is the one used in the same way as English "...then?") than AE, but reading this entry makes me doubt that, as "denn" does leave sentences quite marked. Like, "Was ist das?" is "What's that?", whereas "Was ist das denn?" is more like "What is that?", would "What's that, then?" convey that same distinction? Or would it only in AE, while making no difference on BE? Or would it add a completely different distinction in either one or the other... There seem to be a lot of options.

RWMG said...

@Robert Lee Outed as being in my 50s ;-) Don't younger folk use it any more then?

undyingking said...

I was also going to raise "Now then", which can be used in BrE just as a fairly empty temporizing measure ("OK, now then, what have we got here...") -- but alternatively as a reinforced version of "Now" to draw attention ("Now then. Let's get started.")

Is "Now then" used at all in AmE?

Harry Campbell said...

"Now then" is of course a greeting in Yorkshire and possibly elsewhere. "Now then, Mr Herriot!"

Anonymous said...

"Now then" as a greeting certainly common in Lincolnshire (UK); usually elided to a single word... "Naairn!"

Picky said...

By the way, in " now then, what have we here?" the stress is on the first word, whereas in the Yorkshire greeting the stress is on the second. Right, then.

And I agree with one of the anonymouses that there is still the remnant of a sense of logical or temporal progression behind all these BrE thens.

arnie said...

Another common greeting is "All right then?". Often "then" isn't at the end, as in "All right then, my love?".

Robbie said...

Maybe we need to think about the perceived difference in meaning between (e.g.) "What's that?" and "What's that, then?"

To my ear, interest comes into it. You can say "What's that?" out of mere politeness while you're bored and hardly listening. "What's that, then?" conveys a certain amount of surprise and definite interest. Adding "then" seems to indicate that the course of conversation has changed, or something new has been added.

"Come on, then"/"Go on, then" are really urging the person to do something. In some circumstances they might convey impatience ("Well, if you're coming, come ON, then!") Other times not, with a meaning like dozo in Japanese, offering or encouraging.

lynneguist said...

Ah, I meant to mention 'all right then'. I wasn't sure if 'now then' was AmE too (I get so confused these days--I've gone too far native). But a BNC/COCA comparison has it happening 10 times as often in BrE as in AmE.

On the logical consequences thing...yes, these two meanings of 'then' are in the same family, though treated as separate but closely related senses in many dictionaries. I took the 'in that case' meaning as the best I could do...inspired by the OED's definition. But it's far from adequate. I'd want to argue that this 'then' is a kind of discourse marker, but the definition of that technical term is much debated. Ooh, maybe that's a topic for a student dissertation.

Boris Zakharin said...

All this reminds me of the Hugh Grant's line in "Mickey Blue Eyes" (which I am paraphrasing from memory because, shockingly it's not in any memorable quotes collections):
"Do you mean "I can't kill you *then*" or "I can't *kill* you, then"? Never mind that it's clear from previous dialog and intonation that it's the former, would an American even have the latter as a possible interpretation? (I'm American and I only thought of this now, so perhaps the answer is yes, but anyway...)

mollymooly said...

I think Irish English allows, and perhaps prefers, "so" as an alternative to the "then" in many of these British examples. I too am getting impatience/annoyance vibes from "then".

Ginger Yellow said...

In many of the distinctly British usages, terminal "then" is roughly equivalent to starting "so". Although of course you can and often do have starting "so" and terminal "then" in the same sentence. As wonderfully exemplified by a thread title on a message board I frequent bemoaning the overuse of the construction in thread titles: "So 'So... then', then".

mollymooly said...

@Ginger: the Irish usage I'm thinking of is final "so"; though initial "so" is of course possible. A catchphrase of my mother's is "so now so".

Ambulant said...

My own impression is that BrE idiom often functions through deliberate obliqueness and non-specificity, the goal of which is to establish fellow-feeling between speakers on the basis that they are able to reach a clear mutual understanding without having to resort to discussing something explicitly.

On this basis wonder if this particular BrE usage of 'then' is a way of explicitly expressing an established friendly context for an observation or suggestion, and making it as non-confrontational as possible. Effectively the speaker is referring obliquely to a previous event (or to a generic placeholder for a previous event) that establishes a shared context for the other things he or she is saying.

So 'come on!' moves from being a straight imperative to being a suggestion which implies prior assent, or even that one's interlocutor made the suggestion in the first place: 'Come on, then!'

Similarly, 'go on then' implies a compromise being made because of the closeness of a relationship: 'well, I wouldn't normally, but since it's you.' This is also often part of an ostentatious display of feigned politeness: 'well, although it is unforgivably rude to eat the last piece of chocolate cake, you and I are such good friends that for your sake I will sacrifice my own propriety.' Or perhaps 'well, although obviously I am normally abstemious and would never drink more than one pint, you and I are such good friends that it would be rude and churlish of me to refuse your hospitality.' The fact that the sense of these statements is also ironic, because of course both speakers know that chocolate cake and pints are foolish things to refuse, amplifies the implied sense of friendship because you are both also in on a joke.

Or perhaps I'm reading far too much into this!

lynneguist said...

@Ambulant: I think you've got it mostly right, but I'd pause at the word 'deliberate', which seems to imply 'thought out'. People act the way they do because they've been conditioned to do so, rather than because they've reasoned their way into it.

Ginger Yellow said...

Sorry mollymooly, I didn't mean to come across as directly addressing your point. It was just a coincidence of timing. The Irish terminal "so" is a distinct (if closely related) phenomenon.

Oliver May said...

There is a great example of this from Blackadder 4 : With Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I have included the Youtube link

Gen. Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: Now then, then now, now then, then, then, then now.
Gen. Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: Now then, what's all the fuss about?

Oliver in beautiful Quebec City

Anonymous said...

Does this relate in any way to the BrE westcountry idiom which ends a question relating to location with the word "to"?

For example, a conversation might run:
"I'm from Tavistock"
"Oh, where's that to?"

Early in my time at university I typed out an essay on a typewriter hidden away in a backroom of the college building and a Devonian fellow student completely baffled me by asking, "where did you do that to?"

Martin Ball said...

No-one's mentioned the almost obligatory 'then' at the end of service encounters in Britain when the checkout person states the amount to be paid:
"That'll be three pounds 47, then"

We also notice that we address our cat in terms such as "Who's a good moggy, then?"

lynneguist said...

@most recent anonymous: No, that's completely unrelated to this.

Anonymous said...

As the most recent anonymous (sorry), I wonder if the westcountry "to" is something you've covered already, or might cover in future? I see from a quick Google that it's also, apparently,common to Newfoundland English, but it confuses the meaning of a sentence beyond belief to anyone who isn't expecting it.

Martin Ball said...

@most anon (er, why not add your name?)
This is common in Cardiff and south Wales. Example: "where's your car parked to?" (You need to able to hear the famous Cardiff long-a [æː] to really appreciate this!)

lynneguist said...

I take requests for blog topics by email, and, for the sake of usability of the blog. My comments policy is here.

Andy JS said...

I used to have a teacher at school (here in the UK) who had a habit of adding "then" to the end of nearly every sentence which involved telling the pupils / students to do something. It was as if he was using the word as an extra encouragement to do whatever it was we were doing. It wasn't said in an impatient way most of the time, although the interesting thing is that it could be used in an impatient sense sometimes as well (like it would be normally in the US), which you could tell by the tone of voice used.

HarlequiNQB said...

@Martin Ball: Itself often followed by Then if I recal. "So where's that to then?"

Things get even more strange in Swansea (my home town, though I live int he US now): "So where's that to then? Near like then is it? Lovely then." And so forth.

Ampersand said...

Is it just me, but isn't "Who's a clever boy, then" what you stereotypically say to pet birds to make them talk?

As Lynneguist way have noticed, down here in Sussex the dialect has a non-diminuitive use of the word "boy" to mean (at least) any man (I know a "boi" in Lewes who is in his 80's). However using "boy" to a human in any other context feels very dodgy respect-wise to me.

ros said...

I can't believe no one has yet mentioned Jimmy Saville, with his ridiculous and much-imitated catchphrase, 'Now then, now then, now then!'

Robbie said...

Ampersand: I was just thinking that. "Then" is a major component of baby (and pet) talk, especially when the talk is in question form.

Does he want din-dins, then? Did you go potty all by yourself, then? Who's a clever boy, then!

anna said...

Good examples, thanks for sharing

thewordguy said...

Before my moving to the US many years ago, I lived in Lancashire, where the phrase "now then" became "na'then" and was used basically as an interjection or simply to hold the conversational floor. In this sense, it follows the OED's gloss of meaning something along the lines of "that being the case" or "since that is so."

Kevin Morrison said...

The anonymous commenter who pointed out that in German denn adds emphasis made me realis(z)e that there's a similar effect with donc in French (which also more generally connotes 'therefore'). The person who asks 'Qu'est-ce que c'est, donc?' is perhaps slightly more puzzled that somebody who asks without!

As a native Brit (now American), I've never understood the dangling 'then' to suggest impatience - just a conversational emphasis as in French and German, or the informal encouragement suggested by other commenters.

Herbaltablet said...

Hi, I'm a newcomer to your blog – great articles.

This one in particular made me smile... it's funny how you don't always notice things like this until they're pointed out to you. (Similarly, I was never really aware of how "up and down" BrE intonation can be (even within a single sentence) until my (French) partner started gently mocking me for it.)

Glad someone mentioned Sir Jimmy Savile, by the way. How's about that, then, guys and gals!

Anonymous said...

Similar curiosity arrives with the usage of "now" at the end of a sentence in AmE as well as BrE. It is difficult to explain the difference between "don't eat that" and "don't eat that, now." I think the latter sounds a bit reassuring and more gentle and maybe even with an implied reasoning behind it. Eg. Don't eat that, now (since it is undercooked and could give you a belly ache). Of course it differs from the temporal usage: "don't eat that (right) now."

If this has already been addressed feel free to let me know.

Anonymous said...

Also I would say "now then" conveys the same meaning as:
-alright/okay (after a task is finished indicating the question to oneself "what next?")
-let's see
and in other languages:
-bueno (spanish)
-a ver (spanish)
-alors (french)
-eh bien (french)
-soo desune (japanese)

Steph Lewis said...

In German I think of 'oder' at the end of a sentence but that is almost inviting opinion.

In my BrE experience I agree with others that " come on then" is effectively a softened imperative & slightly impatient so very similar to AmE usage.

"go on then" is almost resigned, as in final, almost the same as saying "now then" before making a comment. I have a work colleague who pretty much starts all queries to me (i'm his senior in the firm) with "right!".

As already noted the Welsh love "then" as a general rule which does not seem limited by age so I wonder if it is very old usage or that the Welsh way worked it's may into mainstream BrE. My Welsh granny as well as my cousins will often say things like "Aw that's lovely then" or "that's tidy then" but the valleys people also do say "i'll be there now in a minute" so please don't be looking at this for grammar!!

As to Westcountry use of to at the end of a sentence this is rather deep Westcountry as here in Wiltshire you will hardly ever hear it as it is redundant. I work in Bristol & you often hear "where are you going to?" Rather than just "where are you going?"

Also the curious Bristol way of not finishing sentences as in "Where you to?" Or "where you at?" Makes me think of the AmE " can I come with?"