drink/drunk driving and pot plants

James Henry wrote to say:
I had a hard time believing that an utterance such as 'He was cited for drink-driving,' wasn't a typo, or some other error. Apparently it is standard usage, and I'm left wondering if there are 'drink tanks' in the UK.
If there aren't (AmE) drunk tanks in the UK, I'd guess that it has at least as much to do with a tolerance for public drunkenness as with linguistic considerations (though they seem to be warming to the idea of American-style 'tanks' in Scotland). But (BrE) drink-driving does take a lot of getting used to for those accustomed to (AmE) drunk driving. Incidentally, the crime of drink/drunk driving is known in different ways in different parts of the US: either DWI 'Driving While Intoxicated' or DUI 'Driving Under the Influence'--though these days most people in most places know both terms.

Drink-driving and drunk driving are both compound nouns (never mind whether there's a space in it--it is a compound). While the first words of those are morphologically related (i.e. they're both derived from the word drink), they differ in grammatical category; that is, drunk is an adjective, based on the participial form of the verb drink, and drink (in this case) is the base form of the verb. How can I tell that drink in drink-driving is a verb, rather than a noun ['a drink']? Because its origins are in the phrase drink and drive--both verbs. In early days (the 1960s) it was sometimes called drink-and-driving.

This is far from being the only case in which BrE and AmE make compounds of the 'same' words in different grammatical guises. One that creates misunderstandings is AmE potted plant (participle + noun) versus BrE pot plant (noun+noun) for a plant that's been planted in a pot. In AmE, pot plant is understood to involve the slang noun pot (orig. AmE) meaning (AmE-preferred) marijuana/(BrE-preferred) cannabis. So, when British (or South African, etc.) speakers talk of tending their pot plants, AmE speakers can be expected to raise eyebrows.

Just within the topic of intoxicants, one can find more examples of morphological mismatch between the dialects. For instance a BrE headline (on what is probably an American wire story) reads (after I've corrected the punctuation and capitali{s/z}ation problems in it):
Britney Spears 'No Drink Or Drug' Problem
Now, if BS were to cop to (AmE slang, = 'to admit to') such a problem, she'd probably say that she has a (AmE) drinking problem (particple+noun), rather than a (BrE) drink problem (noun+noun). (The article itself uses the more dialect-neutral noun+noun alcohol problem.)
But drug problem in that headline is interesting too, as in BrE one often sees/hears drugs problem, which sounds strange in AmE. Here's another headline from another British source:
Britney Spears' Ex-Hubby: She Had 'Drugs Problem' With Me
The quotation marks/inverted commas in both of these headlines are amusing, since, being in the wrong dialect, they are clearly not quoted speech from Britney Spears, Kevin Federline or "their people". I'm collecting such dialectally incorrect quotations for a future post. It's not so surprising when they're in headlines, in which the notion of quotation is taken very loosely indeed, but they also occur in the main text in most newspapers. If you have other examples of quotations that are dialectally suspicious, please e-mail them to me.

And as long as I'm on bloggy business at the end here... Apologies for my recent (comparatively) low posting volume. If you're wondering why that is, see here. I'll be working (and blogging) more reasonable hours during my Easter break from teaching.

And THANK YOU for nominations to Metro's blog award. While I don't think that I have a serious chance of winning an award (not with the likes of Phileas Blog in the competition), they have noted your enthusiasm for this blog (and your ability to understand self-serving hints). Thanks very much--it means a lot to me! I'll nominate you for the Best British Blog Readers awards, whenever Metro gets around to having that competition.


  1. Re changing the dialect in quotations, I expect you've come across quoted text in which Americans mention 'mum', and not in the sense of keeping schtum. I've seen this in the tabs, I'm sure.

  2. Yep, most of my examples are mum at this point, so I've been waiting to get a more diverse set before posting an entry about it!

  3. Apropos the quotation of dialect, I'm wondering if it's distinct from quoting non-English speech, exemplified by this quote in the Guardian on the day of Madrid train bombings:

    José María Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, said the bombing was "mass murder" and ruled out future talks with Eta. "No negotiation is possible or desirable with these assassins," he said.

    I would think he said those things in Spanish, but that journalistic convention allows mis/translation to other languages. So if we think of US and UK English as separate languages, the convention would apply to those words too.

  4. Then we'd have to call this blog "separated by separate languages"!

  5. Here in the States, in addition to the two acronyms you quote, one will also find 'OUI' ('operating under the influence'), and the older term 'drinkING and driving' still shows up on occasion as well.

    Fantastic blog.

  6. Another one I've seen is Americans being attributed a use of 'as', where, in my experience, they would have actually said 'because', or some shortened version of it. Eg something along the lines of 'I really want to win the title this year, as I was so close to doing it last year.'

    I'm not even sure that Brits actually use 'as' this way in spoken English (or as often as they are quoted as doing so, at least). It may just be an affectation of the papers (for Brits and Americans, but sounding more clangy for the latter) - perhaps the papers clinging on to what they consider to be standard British English even though the language has changed (and become Americanised?) in such a way that 'because' and its variants is actually the norm.

  7. Welcome to the conversation Tertullian and Reuben.

    T, I saw others like OWI and OMVI (operating a motor vehicle impaired) as well while researching this on the web. Because the laws vary by state, the names often do too, but there's a lot more variation of the name within states than I think there was 20 years ago. I didn't mean to imply that people didn't say drinking and driving in the US--they certainly do--was just trying to explain where drink-driving came from.

    Reuben, I can't see the relation between your comment and the post, so I'm not going to answer it here. I try to keep the comments sections related to the main post (not that I have a lot of control over comments!) because the information will get lost here--comments aren't searchable in the same way that the blog is. For requests for new posts, please use the 'e-mail lynneguist' link on the main page. Thanks & best wishes!

  8. Must correct myself: the link says 'contact Lynneguist'.

  9. I want to chime in here as (see we do use it for "because") I don't think you have quite got (I'm a Brit....forgive me!)it right. I don't think "drink-driving" and "drunken driving" are quite the same thing. A person who has had slightly "over the limit" is not necessarily drunk...whereas he is considered to be "drink-driving" as (there it is again!) he has had too much.

  10. I can see what you mean, but because AmE doesn't have the contrast between drink driving and drunk(en) driving, drunk driving can be used to mean 'driving over the blood-alcohol ratio limit', whether or not you think that the person would be described as drunk in another context (like a party). For example, another blog gloats about Paris Hilton's arrest, saying "Apparntly [sic] the police caught her drunk driving, [sic the punctuation] even though she was barely over the limit, she was put in the LA jail!" Of course, expressions like DUI also serve to make the distinction between driving while drunk and driving with more than the allowable amount of alcohol in you.

  11. Lynne! Congrats! It's Sunday morning, and I am at this very moment listening on Wisconsin Public Radio to A Way With Words, where Grant Barrett is extolling your virtues.

    Of course that's not news to us!

    Keep up the good work.

  12. On the blog name, separate languages thing: I think Shaw's phrase could do with a bit of playful rework. There may be insight among the variations. But instead of merely swapping terms (English and American are two languages separated by a common country), maybe an antonym could be thrown in for useful effect: England and America are two countries joined by a separate language. Hmm?

  13. Thanks for the news, Janet! And thanks to Grant Barrett for the very nice mention. If anyone else would like to hear the program(me), it's available here.

    David, I'll leave the reworking of Shaw to you. Do it right, and maybe someone will name a blog after your quotation!

  14. I think the inverted commas may be to do with making a possibly actionable allegation. For instance, I would expect a story headlined BRITNEY "DRUNK" AT OSCARS to be followed be a story which said that someone had said she might be drunk. Similary, say, BLAIR AIDE "LIES" IN CASH FOR HONOURS PROBE.

    I will look out for a real example.

  15. In conjunction with this topic -- at least I HOPE you'll agree -- is the UK use of the term "drinks party" to mean what we Americans might call a "cocktail party"...or simply being "invited for drinks", perhaps. "Drinks party", as an expression, still sounds strange to my ears, even after 4+ years here.

    And CONGRATULATIONS on the well-deserved press on both sides of the Atlantic!


  16. "But drug problem in that headline is interesting too, as in BrE one often sees/hears drugs problem, which sounds strange in AmE. "

    Have you posted on the various plural differences in AmE/BrE? Math/maths, sport/sports, that sort of thing.

    "The quotation marks/inverted commas in both of these headlines are amusing, since, being in the wrong dialect, they are clearly not quoted speech from Britney Spears, Kevin Federline or "their people"."

    For American readers, there's a British journalistic convention, particularly among the tabloids, that in headlines quotation marks don't indicate direct speech. Instead they indicate that something equivalent to the quoted content has been said by somebody who isn't working for the newspaper. A very common headline template is "My drugs hell" - X reveals all.

    This convention works in two ways. As demonstrated above, it's a lazy way to tie attention-grabbing content to a celebrity or public figure. It suggests that the subject has spilled the beans, if only you look inside the paper.

    The second way it operates is as a distancing mechanism. I suspect (without much evidence) that the
    practice arose out of court reporting. You'll often see, even in the broadsheets, a headline like: Johnson "Murdered Wife". The quotation marks signal that the statement is an allegation that has been made in court, not the paper's journalistic opinion.

  17. "I would think he said those things in Spanish, but that journalistic convention allows mis/translation to other languages"

    Brit satire The Day Today sent this convention up brilliantly. Go to http://www.alan-partridge.co.uk/scripts/thedaytoday/daytod2.htm and search for Brussels.

  18. Back in the 1970s when I lived in Champaign, at the end of a semester a lot of students were moving out of their dormitories. Their parents were there helping them load their things into the car for the drive home. One day I saw some very respectable-looking parents carrying their offspring's pot plants out from dorm to car. American usage.

  19. GY, if you hit the 'morphology' tag at the bottom of this post, you'll be taken to related discussions. In one of those, sport/sports and such are discussed. Math/maths (which is a very different kettle of fish!) was discussed in the comments at some point--perhaps after that same post. There are so many requests for it that I may do it in its own proper post at some point. Thanks, by the way, for the info on headlines. Publishing in the UK is subject to particularly fiddly libel laws.

    Janet, you're right about drinks/cocktail party--good one! (Thanks for the congrats!)

  20. OWI is used commonly in the state of Iowa.

  21. "Publishing in the UK is subject to particularly fiddly libel laws. "

    Indeed. One of the relatively few instances of absolute privilege against a libel claim is court reporting, so long as the report is fair and accurate.

  22. Warning, pedantic statement follows:

    re drink vs drunk driving...

    Here in Victoria, Australia, the charge is drink-driving, because the legal blood alcohol limit is quite low (0.05%). Most healthy adults are far from drunk when they reach the limit. But they have been drinking more than is allowed if you are driving.

  23. I'm going to be pedantic (but in a linguistic way) right back atcha, Interface!

    Drink-driving isn't called drink-driving BECAUSE the limit is .05. In that case, it would have to be called drink-driving in many (if not most) of the United States. The matches between words and things (or, in this case, actions/events) is not a logical one. Language generally doesn't work like that. The two terms just evolved in different ways in different places.

    In that way, it can be just like evolution of species. The lizards on this side of the island may have different marking than the lizards on that side of the mountain. But that might just be because all the lizards on this side of the mountain had a great grandfather with particular markings (a random mutation) and not necessarily because such markings make the lizard more suited to being a lizard in a particular environment.

  24. One of the oldest and simplest jokes that still makes me laugh is: "Don't drink Drive - it's a washing detergent".

    Refer to the following URL for enlightenment:

    "Drink-driving" is the usual term here; I associate the term "drunken driving" with a certain episode of Yes Minister.

  25. I seem to remember learning in health class that DUI and DWI are not the same thing. I think the first is used for drugs, while the second for alcohol. Or maybe it was the level of drunkenness involved. I don't recall.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)