Sunday, June 19, 2011

it's down/up to you

Fellow American-academic-in-UK @PurlHussy suggested a Twitter Difference of the Day for me, and I thought: why tweet when I could blog AND tweet? (Um/Erm, because I should be marking/grading essays? Hey, blogging it is!!)

The difference is in how we more informally say 'it is your (or her or his or my) responsibility'. It may seem strange, but BrE and AmE look like they're complete opposites on this one. In BrE, one can say It's down to you to mean 'it's your responsibility to do that', whereas AmE would say it's up to you.

One does see it's up to you in BrE to mean 'it's your responsibility', or more specifically (as in AmE) 'it's your choice'. It's common enough in BrE that the OED marks it as just 'originally' AmE. There are two examples of It's up to you in the British National Corpus (accessed through corpus.byu.edu), both with this 'choice' sense:
I've done it and er I mean it's up to you as to which date you choose. [spoken in a meeting]

"Well, it's up to you of course, Mr Dakin, but this is the third time I've had to stitch her teats and I'm afraid it's going to keep on happening." [from James Herriot's Vets might fly]
 But all the ones that are straight responsibility meanings are it's down to you in the BNC (10 hits):
But if they get arrested it's down to you. [conversation]

Unless you're a tenant, it's down to you to make sure gas appliances receive the regular expert servicing they need. [advert]

Between now and Sunday it's down to you to decide that you definitely want to go ahead [speech]
(Of course there may also be examples of it'll be down to you or whether you do it is down to you or it's down to her or it's down to Nigel, etc. Searching for a single set phrase made it easier to avoid senses of down to that have nothing to do with responsibility.)

Meanwhile, in AmE, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 398 hits for it's up to you and only one for it's down to you--and in that (fictional) context it might have just meant 'you're the only one left' (hard to tell--the responsibility meaning or the 'only you' meaning would both fit in the context).

So, up and down. Why are two opposite words used to mean the same thing? Because figurative language is slippery stuff, that's why. The OED tells us that up to [someone] is from the game of poker (traced to 1896), and is in general use from 1913. In the poker context it means basically 'it's your turn to make a decision and act on it'. So, it's sort of 'we've got(ten) up to you in the series of people who need to act in this game'. (One could have seen it going the other way, with one going 'down' the list of people whose turn it would be next. But poker is a game of escalation, so it doesn't seem surprising to me that the turn-taking metaphor goes upward.)

The BrE down to [someone] is only traced back to 1970 in the OED.  One can see how this might come about from the 'there's no one else left' reading of down to (as in we're down to one candle). It's down to you says that, for the purpose of its context, the people who could have responsibility for something are reduced to one: you.

From my non-native perspective, it seems to me that up to and down to have different connotations in BrE--up to being choice and down to being serious responsibility.  AmE doesn't make any such distinction and has up to for both.

It's down/up to you to tell us what you think.

28 comments:

-E- said...

hadn't noticed this. good info!

David Crosbie said...

Rightly or wrongly, I've generally taken (British) It's down to Fred to mean 'It's all because of Fred' — i.e. because of what he is or what he has done. I think of down as in 'written down' — not unlike put it down to experience.

To me, it's as if we all have accounts — as if life were a great big department store. Whatever we incur responsibility for, we have it put down on our account.

SC said...

Also some of your examples imply past / present tense too - "it's up to you" to choose for the future, but "it's down to you" if the consequnces of this action come out in this manner, or to fulfil the consequences of the contract that you have already signed...

Just a thought :)

Zhoen said...

Up to you seems like a game of tennis, or up to a higher level of authority. Up so far in the chain of command. Down to seemed to mean you are the last to vote, the deciding not by authority, but last in a democratic process. Last to choose, last to sway an otherwise even decision.

Up do you seemed always a matter of, well, you're the boss. Down to you seemed more like, it's a tie, and you are the last to break it. No idea why the US/Brit difference in general usage.

Roger Owen Green said...

I do know "it's down to you" in the AmE context as the last person available, but it's awkward. More commonly, it's used "it's down to the last three contestants" or whatnot.

Ø said...

Put it down to experience. Chalk it up to experience. I'm down with whatever you decide. It's up for grabs.

David Crosbie said...

When I say It's up to you I am ostensibly excluding any judgement or advice — although this may disguise an unspoken judgement.

If I say It's down to you, I'm just making an observation. I am not involved, so there is no question of advice or judgement.

David Crosbie said...

When I say It's up to you I am ostensibly excluding any judgement or advice.

This accords with the two Corpus examples. The first is an extension of I've done it. The second contrasts with I've had to stitch her teats and I'm afraid it's going to keep on happening. This is an example, I suggest, of hidden pronouncement. The farmer is pretending not to be telling the vet his job, but actually doing just that by implication.

None of the down to you examples that Lynne cites contain the word I.

PeterJ said...

When I first read this I thought you had it backwards, as my first exposure to 'down to you' as meaning 'it's your responsibility' came from a Joni Mitchell song on Court and Spark. But then, she's Canadian and perhaps that blurs the difference.

My feeling as a British speaker is that 'up to you' implies the future, as in a decision that is yours to make, while 'down to you' has an air of responsibility for something that has already happened. The 'down' usage also has an air to me of responsibility for something that might be disreputable, but perhaps that's from watching too many London-based crime dramas. It certainly wasn't in common usage in Manchester while I was growing up.

Marc Leavitt said...

Lynne:
My 18-year-old son, when told to do something he doesn't want to do, routinely ripostes with "It's on you" as opposed to either "down to" or "up to" in the sense of assigning responsibility.

David Young said...

Your sense of the distinction in BrE ("up to" => choice; "down to" => responsibility) is exactly the same as mine. (I'm a native BrE speaker.)

Of course, as I think you note, it's easy for the two meanings to get blurred, as when making a choice is the same as taking responsibility for a decision.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Oddly enough, I thought "down to you" was an Americanism that we had adopted in the UK! That's because I am a child of the 1950s, and I grew up saying "Up to you" and never heard "down to you" until I was an adult (and you corroborate this by saying that it isn't found pre-1970). It still irritates me slightly as being "wrong", like when one uses "hopefully" as if it were the German "hoffentlich", but language changes and different isn't necessarily wrong!

RWMG said...

SE England speaker in my 50s here. I've always thought of 'down to you' as a sporting metaphor, referring to the person the xxx team is depending on to win the match for them. As others have said, for me 'up to you' means your choice, with overtones of a shrug and I really don't care.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

My early memories are of the late 1940's, but I think I'm broadly of your generation. Like you, I remember down to as a somewhat alien innovation, possibly American. But my response was a little different: I assumed that it was intended to mean something different from up to.

Perhaps straight away, perhaps gradually over the years, I formed a mental opposition between

UP up for grabs, unresolved, a matter of choice, specifically not governed by me, FUTURE

DOWN down to experience, resolved, a matter of record, unaffected by me, PAST

Ginger Yellow said...

Interestingly, in a poker context, my experience is that "it's on you" is much more common these days.

John Cowan said...

There also seems to be a difference in subcategorization: the object of BrE down to can be impersonal, whereas the object of AmE (and BrE?) up to cannot. Googling, I find sentences like Complexity in the music is down to Vangelis's influence and The precise magnitude of the difference that is down to human influence is still uncertain. I would find these impossible with up to, and would need to use due to or because of.

Might one say that the British tend to suppose that any change in their language is down to American influence?

mollymooly said...

My gut sense matches David Young's, but I think SC and John Cowan raise interesting points.

Maybe the variation in syntactic contexts is a function of the semantics. Another such that that strikes me: if someone is passing the buck, they are much more likely to say "It's not up to me" than "It's not down to me". But if they are denying responsibility for something that's already happened, it must be "down", not "up".

Ben T-S said...

My impression is that "up to you" is used differently in AmE depending on whether it indicates choice or serious responsibility. "It's up to you (full stop)" shows indifference on the part of the speaker. On the other hand, "It's up to you TO..." as in "It's up to you to make it happen" is used when talking about something gravely serious.

There is a third phrase in American English which has an even more specific meaning: "The ball's in your/her/his court." It suggests that not only is it up to the person in question to make something happen, but the speaker has absolved themselves of responsibility for it.

Fritinancy said...

This may explain why I never understood "It's down to me" in the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb."

Andy JS said...

Well I would usually say "it's up to you" and I live in central England. I don't think I've ever used "it's down to you". Maybe there are regional differences in the UK.

Andy JS said...

In fact, thinking about it, the phrase "it's down to you" does have a sort of London / Cockney feel to it. Indeed, when I type that phrase into Google the first thing that comes up is Lord Alan Sugar in the Daily Telegraph who is indeed from east London originally:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/yourbusiness/8240122/Success-Its-down-to-you-all-the-way-Lord-Sugar.html

Of course I accept that's not particularly good evidence because it is only one source.

Ken Brown said...

To me "its up to you" sounds like giving someone a choice - you can say "I'll leave it up to you to decide"

"Its down to you" is the opposite - you are telling them they can't get out of it whether they like it or not.

Stan said...

It's an interesting distinction, the more so because it's not clear-cut. This is partly because making a choice implies responsibility. Browsing an Irish forum for examples, I found one that illustrates this nicely: "it's down to you to choose which one suits you".

James said...

Reminds me of the get up / get down issue that deadlocked the National Funk Congress.

David Crosbie said...

Ken Brown

"Its down to you" is the opposite - you are telling them they can't get out of it whether they like it or not.

That's interesting, Ken. I would never myself say it of responsibility for future action, but it does sound plausible.

I'm assuming that you're also a British speaker, so It may well be a generational thing.

Alec said...

Maybe a topic for a separate post, but "down to" in the sense of "attributable to" seems to me to be exclusively BrE, and to be relatively recent - I'm pretty sure I never encountered it before I left the UK in the late 1970s. I'm thinking of sentences like "Global warming is down to the Sun, not humans" which is the very first google hit for "is down to".

A Lady in London said...

I just discovered your blog, and I love it. As an American expat living in the UK, I can relate to a lot of the differences!

Anonymous said...

I think of it as "it all comes down to you."