like-less predicates

Ben Zimmer, the man responsible for my blogging about shit, has sent me a number of BrE sentences over the past few months. Each of these did not contain the word like where an American like Ben might've expected it. And, really, that was the point of the scatological post that Ben inspired too. He'd noted that BrE speakers are more likely to say I feel shit whereas AmE speakers would have to say I feel like shit. My response then was to say that shit can act as an adjective in BrE--and that is true. After all, one can (if one is BrE-speaking) say something like What a shit film.

But it's also the case that one can say I feel [NOUN PHRASE] in BrE and mean 'I feel like [NOUN PHRASE]'. Ben's example came from The Telegraph, in a story about a man who was injured while using Twitter:
"I guess you could say I feel a right Twit," he said.
For the grammar geeks out there, I'll quote Algeo's British or American English on the topic, "A group of copular verbs (...) have predominantly adjectival complements in common-core English, but also have nominal subject complements in British more frequently than in American." In other words, in AmE or BrE, you could say I feel old (because my students told me yesterday that Brad Pitt is 'a sexy old man'). You could also say I feel like an unsexy geriatric case, because the like phrase in that case plays an adjectival role in the sentence. But in BrE, you can also forgo the like and just go straight to the nouny part of the description. [In the Twit example, we also have the BrE noun-intensifier right, but let's save that for a rainier day.)

Here are some examples showing more of this pattern:
sound: He sounded a complete mess. [Jeremy Clarke in The Independent]

Joey Barton has made me look a fool. [Oliver Holt on]

: I was trying to appear a total gentleman! [on]

Smell and taste are not found as regularly in the 'smell/taste like' sense, but a BrE expression one can find with them (and look and sound) is to [PERCEPTION VERB] a treat. So:
The honeysuckle shampoo is just gorgeous and she smells a treat. [customer feedback for a dog grooming salon]

Do you love cooking simple, no fuss meals that taste a treat? [ad(vert) on FilmBirmingham site]

Nokia E63 Handset Looks A Treat [digital lifestyles]
And if something looks or tastes or is a treat, then it can also (BrE) go down a treat--i.e. be received well.
BSC Seminars Go Down a Treat at Health and Safety 09 Show [British Safety Council]
If we were to to say any of these in AmE, we'd probably have to put a like in (and get rid of all the other Briticisms in the examples)--i.e. it looks like a treat, made me look like a fool, etc. The one that really confuses AmE speakers is (BrE) go down a bomb, which is not only ungrammatical for us without the like, but also means the opposite of what we'd think it means. If a performance bombs in AmE, it is horrid and no one likes it. But if it goes down a bomb in BrE, it's fantastic and gets a wildly positive reception. Ben sent me an example that had to do with Susan Boyle--the now-famous also-ran in the Britain's Got Talent television (BrE) programme/(AmE) show, and he's blogged about it here.

There are other things one could say about going down in BrE (you stop that sniggering right now!)...but we'l just leave that on the ever-increasing backlog of stuff to write about.

But if you want to know what really goes down a treat, check out this review of Better Half's work from today's Guardian! Then go and buy the entire SmartPass back catalog(ue), so that we can keep Grover in shoes!


  1. Now, of course, we have the bomb (or da bomb), which is American in origin but uses the positive or British sense of the word.

  2. The one AmE phrase that comes to mind is "act a fool".

  3. Isn't it much more commonly "act THE fool"? Over here in BrE we also have act the goat, and I know AusE has the rather wonderful "don't come the raw prawn with me" for "don't try to make a fool of me".

  4. 'Goes like a bomb' in BrE would of course mean 'goes really fast' (see also 'shit off a shovel...').

    I saw that review in the Grud, before I read this, and she certainly gave it the thumbs up. Well done that better half!

  5. Well, you can always just refer your readers to Savage Love if they snigger too much.

    I wouldn't mind a bit of education, though.

    wv: repsce - I don't know what it means, but it does look very British.

  6. This is an amusing one. I recall seeing the trailer for Basic Instinct II in a cinema hall where Ms Sharon Stone walks into a frame and says "I feel like a cigarette" and my first thought was "Don't wait, seek a lighter and light yourself at one end". Clearly I don't get the American usage. :-)

  7. I think that form is in BrE too, Shefaly.

    "Do you feel like going to the pictures tonight?"

    "No, I feel like a pint."

  8. Do tell? Is sniggering the BrE equivalent to the AmE snickering?

  9. "No, I feel like a pint."

    To tie this in to the humo(u)r comments to the previous post, my first thought (American) was:

    "Huh; you look more like a gallon to me." (Or "No, no, no; surely you're not more than a cup", if I were not in a vicious mood.)

    That both an American and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irelandian* would have similar responses might impeach the idea that disruptive comedy has a locational bias.

    * 8-)

  10. Snigger is a variant of snicker in both BrE and AmE dictionaries. To my knowledge, it's not particular to either dialect, and I find it more onomatopoetic than snicker.

  11. Am I right in thinking that "snigger" is the original form and that it has in the US, in the manner of titbit/tidbit, been altered because part of the word is seen as offensive?

  12. I'd agree with Cameron. The standard form in BrE is snigger. I don't think I've ever come across snicker used in Britain. I've only seen it in American contexts and assumed it had been changed because some might find part of the word offensive.

  13. Cameron, neither of those words were altered by Americans on the basis of 'offensiveness'. In both cases, the one that you're claiming to be the 'newer' 'American' one is at least as old, if not older than the other. The original form of 'ti{d/t}bit' is generally held to be 'tidbit' from 'tid' or 'tyd' (special, choice) plus 'bit' and goes back to the 1600s. 'Snicker' and 'snigger' both arise in around the turn of the 18th century, with 'snicker' attested earlier.

    FWIW, it never even occurred to me, an AmE speaker, that there were 'offensive' words in these...just that the BrE pronunciation 'titbit' is a tiny bit more difficult because it has voiceless and voiced consonants rubbing up against each other.

    But you've added more fuel to my 'Americans have saved (earlier) English' fire! Thanks! :)

  14. I think that 'I feel like a cigarette' in the UK is another way of saying 'I want/desire/fancy' a cigarette, in other words this [feel like] is a compound verb.

    Since few would say that they fancy a twerp, we now (UK) have a parallel usage of 'I felt a complete idiot' to describe our self-directed feelings, and 'I feel like a chocolate biscuit' to describe our desires.

    Not sure if this works for the verbs to sound like, look like, appear like, however.

  15. Of course someone of my generation could quite easily say (BrE) "I feel, like, a fool." As in "I feel, like, stupid." So still a like-less predicate, but with the additional use of, erm... well like.

  16. Thank you for answering, Lynne. And ah yes, how often that is the case, and very often for wonderful old words; although I do think "autumn" and especially "autumnal" are much lovelier words than "fall".

  17. PS Most of us pronounce "titbit" with a glottal stop in the middle.

  18. When I was younger (and I regret to say, not much younger), if someone said "I feel like a cigarette", or "I feel like a bar of chocolate", the normal response was, "Well, you don't look like one!" I don't know if that works in American English, but presume it does.

  19. Since the like-less construct is the enabler of humo{u}r like:
    "A wife lost her necklace down the back of her dress at a party and I had to delve down and fish it out for her. I felt a perfect ass" is this joke lost on our US friends? I'll admit that it only sort-of works in Australian English and really needs to be delivered with a plummy, fake English accent for best effect.

  20. Mmm...

    Isn't there an old UK usage of ass (perhaps meaning donkey) in the phrase "you silly ass"? The sort of thing that Kenneth More might have said when starring in a Battle of Britain film, perhaps? I suspect this phrase pre-dates the arse/ass distinction, and it was fairly polite, so I don't think it can have meant bottom.

  21. @ Coal Porter: You're right about silly ass (Ian Carmichael, perhaps).

    OK, then, we'll use the old Private Eye cartoon:

    Napoleon, left hand stuffed inside his coat, saying "I feel a right tit."

  22. I heard 'you silly arse' when I was a child, long before I knew the latter meant 'bottom' - it was said in very cultured UK English tones and I thought it was the same as the (UK) Roman Catholic use of 'marse' where I might have said 'mass'.
    In more recent years, I couldn't figure out why Americans seemed to be referring to a woman's behind (rear end, bottom) as a donkey...

    And the joke about Napoleon implies that his jacket buttons up the wrong way (?)

  23. Of course, Shakespeare's Bottom was a silly ass.

  24. I've never heard anyone say 'Marse' and I was raised by Catholics.

    It sounds like something my ex-housemate would say. He's Canadian and desperately trying to sound like an English gent. Often comes out with things like 'Plarstic'.

    Ever so slightly off topic, sorry.

  25. As an American, I don't have any issue with understanding "I feel like a "noun". The "like" comparative is understood, like "you" is in many uses. "Like" is really a comparative, and makes it well understood that you are comparing something to something else.

    I feel "shit" is very odd to me. I picture someone handling a pile of shit. For me, the proper phrase is "I feel shitty." In this case, the word shitty is an adverb modifying "feel". In my upbringing, "I feel shit." is simply: subject, verb, direct object!

  26. Jim, no one should have a problem with 'I feel like a'--that's general English.

  27. @ solo - I think it's a generational thing; my parents' generation, now in their 80s, said "Marse" (mostly, not invariably), but I don't think mine did (I'm not Catholic, but have friends & family who are).

  28. I may be finding the point of some of this obscure... but in reply to the COMMENTS: it is perfectly okay in American to say BOTH "I feel like a complete idiot" AND "I feel like a hamburger", and the listener will re-interpret the verb/verb phrase (? the terms I learned at school are obselete) to that which makes sense. Having now lived over a quarter century with an Englishman, it seems to me that "I felt a complete idiot" clearly doesn't mean {rude interpretation about getting too close to known politician in a crowd - edited OUT} might hold up {hence editing}; whereas "I felt a hamburger" could only refer to a scenario featuring (say) bare feet and something unpleasant under the picnic table...?

  29. I'm finding it hard to even imagine an RP "marse" for "mass" -- the closest I can get is "moss," but I know that can't be right.

  30. The problem is that any sentence which begins 'I feel like' can, in British English, only end with 'Chicken Tonight'.

  31. Sorry, I know this is wildly off-topic (but Lynne did introduce the arse/ass idea) - to those who are sceptical about posh Catholic usage of 'marse' for 'mass', can I recommend Brideshead Revisited - certainly the BBC series from late 1970s; it may have been democratised in the recent movie version. That BBC series was so beautifuly done - all the clothes, actions and accents correct to the period of the book - that it is a historical document on many levels.

  32. Maybe some English writer did write "snicker" at the turn of the 18th century but when I saw Cabaret towards the end of the third quarter of the 20th and Sally Bowles sang "When she died the neighbours came to snicker" I was thrown; I thought she was saying that they came to "snick 'er" and couldn't work out if they wanted to steal something from her, cut her hair or what. Only later, and actually in Canada, did I encounter "snicker" meaning the same as "snigger".

  33. in I feel like a fool, or I feel a fool.
    I would have said I feel foolish.

  34. A couple more (old) jokes, relying on the ambiguities mentioned:

    Husband (after some exercise or other in self-improvement): "I feel like a new man!"

    Wife (aside, finding any improvement insufficient for her wants): "So do I!"


    "You're only as old as the person you feel".

    PS I've never heard "marse" for mass, but I'm pretty sure "plarstic" for plastic was standard "Queen's English" at one time.

  35. BrE. Not exactly the same, but this reminds me of earlier versions of Microsoft Word, where an annoying paperclip-with-a-face would appear, with a speech balloon saying “it looks like you’re writing a letter”. I wouldn’t be the first to scream AS IF. Mind you, I’ve read this blog for long enough to question the “it looks as if” usage as well.


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