both the two of us

Jeremy H wrote me the following:
I have noticed two usages which, in England, seem familiar only to journalists. One was in a headline in the Mail today: "This port ain't big enough for the both of us". I have never heard "the both" uttered in BrE. The other is "You and me both".
Starting with the both: I think of the AmE expression as 'this town ain't big enough for the two of us', and indeed two outnumbers both by about 17:4 in the context [adjective] enough for the ___ of [pronoun] in the Corpus of Contemporary AmE (COCA) (and there's exactly one of these things in British National Corpus [BNC], and it has two too).

The this town... line is usually associated with western films (a variation on it was said by a character named Duke in Bandits of the Badlands (1945)). But there are earlier occurrences (the oldest ones with two), and the earliest one I've found is in Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870)--not a western, unless you count Wiltshire as 'the West' (and apparently some people do consider it to be part of the West Country).  There, the eponymous character says: "Heytesbury isn't big enough for the two of us".  There's also a 1903 "Ostrokov is not big enough to hold the two of us, and that consequently, while I am vicar here, you shall never be rabbi." in the American magazine The Living Age (though the quoted text clearly not set in America, and I don't know who the author is).  So, today's stereotype-busting lesson: it's men of the cloth who deserve the reputation for saying such things, not cowboys or sheriffs.

Comparing just the both of [pronoun] (the both of us, the both of you, the both of them, plus some alternative forms of those pronouns) in the BNC and COCA is kind of interesting. That is, it had better be interesting because I just spent too much of my Friday night looking at it.  (In parentheses are the hits when the is excluded. They're less reliable, since they include contexts with possessive pronouns.)

Instances of the both of [pronoun] and (both of [pronoun]) per 10 million words
AmE (COCA)  10.8 (97)   5.6 (141)
BrE (BNC)   12  (21)   1.1(123)

Since the both of occurs more in speech than in writing, it looks as though it's considered to be somewhat informal in both dialects, but more so in BrE.  In BrE spoken, the the version is 57% of the total both of [pronoun] hits, versus AmE's 11%.  The other way to use both with a pronoun would be [pronoun] both.  There, we find 311 per 10m in BNC and 296 per 10m in COCA. This looks pretty similar.  (I did find some strange codings in COCA--though not enough to make the figures very different. But since when is coffee a personal pronoun?)

Meanwhile, the two of [pronoun] is about twice as frequent in COCA than in the BNC. I haven't done further analysis of this because I can't seem to weed out the possessive pronouns (none occurred in the both data), but I can look more specifically at particular instantiations of this construction: the two of us and the two of you, and compare it to the equivalent [pronoun] two constructions. (Though, it must be said, this method can't sort out things like I want to give you two puppies. But we'll just have to assume that this kind of "noise" is constant across the dialects. It might not be.)

Instances per 10 million words
dialectthe two
 of us
     we two +
       us two

   the two
    of you  

  you two

           8.9         37.3         81.6
BrE (BNC)     15.1           10.8         12.6    61.8

That COCA has 20% spoken data and BNC only 10% may go some way toward(s) explaining the differences, since you might need to specify the number of referents of a pronoun more often in a speech context. But I don't think that's the whole story--after all, the numbers have the two of you occurring about three times more often in AmE and just under half of the AmE instances are spoken.   So, the two of [pronoun], like the both of [pronoun], seems more common in AmE than BrE, and BrE doesn't seem to be making up for it by using many more [pronoun] two or [pronoun] both.  So, do Americans just specify numbers of pronoun referents more often than BrE speakers/writers do? Or have I left out another means of sticking a number "on" a pronoun? Probably we need a much more thorough analysis with more comparable corpora (the BNC is 20 years old) before we can tell.

Moving on to Jeremy's second item, [pronoun] and [pronoun] both is much more common in AmE (40 per million words) than BrE (0.26 pmw)--although AmE didn't invent it. The OED says:
Both may follow, instead of preceding (as in A. 1), the two words or phrases connected by and; now only in the case of two ns. (two pronouns, or n. and pronoun) subjects of the same plural verb, but formerly (and still dialectally) in all other cases. In this use both may often be replaced by too or also.
They include the example:
1561    T. Hoby tr. B. Castiglione Courtyer (1577) P vij,   It shalbe good for him and me both.
I wrote this whole entry before remembering to look at John Algeo's British or American English? I approached it with contradictory wishes: (1) If he discusses all this, I'll have wasted hours of my Friday night. I hope he hasn't discussed it. (2) My corpus evidence is pretty shaky. I hope he discusses it.  I got wish (1). Algeo does mention, however, that AmE prefers both of these [plural noun] whereas BrE prefers both those [plural noun]Oddly, though, this preference does not extend to both (of) those, where both varieties prefer the of version.

And before I go: 
Today (wait! it's not today anymore! help!) was my third Twitterversary. If you're not on Twitter, you probably have a rich and interesting life. But you're not on Twitter.  And oh how much I've gained from Twitter!  Forget LinkedIn--this is the way to network. While I have to be very careful about not following too many accounts or trying to read everything that's posted (I could easily make it my full-time job), I learn so so much through it every day. I was interviewed for a film about Twitter this week, and I kept coming back to a similar theme: Twitter helps me appreciate how complex the world is--from the macro level of international affairs to the micro level of people's daily triumphs and struggles. So, hurray for Twitter! And hurray for my followers there, who enrich my understanding of national varieties of English every day. If you'd like to meet me there, you can find me here.


  1. "This port ain't big enough for the both of us" as a UK newspaper headline is clearly based on the lyrics to the song "This town ain't big enough for the both of us" by the American band Sparks. The song reached number 2 in the UK charts in 1974.

  2. Seconding Almost American - 'ain't big enough for the both of us', in UK English, tends to be a conscious reference to either the Sparks song or Westerns.

  3. The thing about the American band Sparks is that they weren't big in America. I've only learned about them since moving to the UK!

  4. Thirding the Sparks comment. For a whole generation of Brits it's a really obvious reference

  5. (AmE) My recollection of the western talk is "This town ain't big enough for both of us" with OR without the article, usually preceding a shootout.

    And I have no idea about the Sparks song, still.

  6. marc1940@verizon.net17 September, 2011 14:16

    The real question for the both of us, and I think you settled that, is which dialect uses the construction more? Secondarily, is the construction on the rise in BrE as an example of one of the QES's hated "Americanisms?"):

  7. I'm not on Twitter because I find unappealing its division of humankind into either leaders or followers. Have I misunderstood?

  8. I had to give up on Twitter as it was taking up too much of my time and I couldn't keep up! I keep my account as it has its uses, but....

    One construction I (southern BrE) rather love is, I believe, from the Highlands of Scotland: "The both of the two of us".... which I have adopted, and thought of when I read the heading of your post.

  9. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say 'the both of'. It sounds unidiomatic and odd, the sort of error a non-English speaker might make if they were trying to sound more like a native speaker. I've also never heard 'the both of the two of us'.

    'The two of you' as an alternative to 'both of you' or 'you two' sounds normal to me. I'm English and it doesn't sound specifically American.

  10. Dru, 'the both of the two of us' was supposed to be an amusing (ahem) amalgam of the topics of the post, not something anyone says.

  11. (but if you want to hear someone say 'the both of', search the phrase on YouTube, and get songs with it in the title. I can't say they're good, and at least one of them is not for the prudish!)

  12. Nice example there of 'at least one' = 'one'.

  13. Well, I had to say 'at least one' because I didn't listen to all of them...the titles were enough for me.

  14. Who among the gods set the both of them twain to fight?

  15. It occurs to me that I've not replied to Max's comment/question re Twitter:

    There are followers in Twitterese, but not 'leaders'. You follow what people say, rather than follow them where they go. The differences from the Facebook 'friend' relationship is that people don't have to ask your permission to read what you post, and the relationship does not have to be mutual. So, some people end up with more followers than people they follow (I am an example of that). I think it's bad form to tweet but not follow anyone, but I do follow, but I make an exception to my "I won't follow such people" rule for @wwwordseditor (Michael Quinion), so that I can retweet links to his weekly website posts.

    It's microblogging, as they say. Not too different from what we're doing here. I don't have to read your blog or your tweets for you to read and react to mine, and you don't have to blog or tweet in order to read & react to other people's blogs/tweets.

  16. I'm not convinced that dialect has much to do with it. Both of us is Standard English — the addition of the adds a little non-standard colouring, achieving (for me) the same stylistic effect as (only) the one.

    For most styles of speech — and for virtually all styles of writing — I would prefer PREPOSITION + the two of us.

    Perhaps there is a semantic nuance. Tentatively:

    1a for both of us with more emphasis on the equality/lack of distinction between YOU and ME

    1b for you and me alike with even more emphasis on the sameness

    2a for the two of us with more emphasis on the discrete unit comprising YOU and ME

    2b for the pair of us much the same, with possibly even more emphasis on the discrete unit

    Perhaps, then, for the both of us appeals because it combines the senses of 'alike' and 'discrete pair'. It's semantically attractive, but sufficiently removed from Standard English to make it feel iffy in all but the most informal speech.

  17. "The both of" reminds me of the German "alle beide" or "all both," for some reason, which is just another way of saying "both of you."

  18. "the both of us" sounds perfectly idiomatic to my American ear, if somewhat folksy.

    Example: Stay away from that mean-looking dog, it's bigger than the both of us!

  19. The Both has it's derivation in the Celtic languages. This is true whether on an English or Yankee newspaper.

    Of all the combinations, the one that strikes us on this side of the Atlantic as odd, foreign, even alien is that 'wrote me' you've got atop this post. There is a fee fie foe aspect to it, with the implication you've been upended and your scull is the nib.

  20. That's strange, Vince. IME people who write "atop" are the very ones who would not find "wrote me" alien.

    (I'm British. For me, "on top of" is more idiomatic than "atop".)

  21. Vince, then please click on the link at 'write me' for the post that discusses it. (Can we put that conversation there, please?)

  22. "...that 'wrote me' you've got atop this post."
    "Atop" is a National Geographic caption word. Surely nobody ever says it?

  23. I say it. When I do, people often say they like it.

  24. acronym |ˈakrəˌnim|
    a word formed from the initial letters of other words (e.g., radar, laser).
    ORIGIN 1940s: from Greek akron ‘end, tip’ + onuma ‘name,’ on the pattern of homonym.

    I would call it an acronym, but by this definition that makes it a noun - and a word. Generally I prefer them pronounceable in order to call them a word on their own, but then I don't usually have to specify.

  25. Zhoen--I don't know why this comment has shown up here, but I think you might have intended it for the WotY post. If so, would you like to repost it there?

    Linguists often make distinctions between 'true acronyms' that can be pronounced as words and alphabetisms. In fact, a colleague at our Christmas party was taking someone to task for not doing that! :)

  26. Just inquiring, can "you folks" be used in business writing by a small charming luxury countryside hotel instead of "you both" or "you" to convey a cordial comely tone addressing US clients, as in "We're looking forward to having you folks as our guests..." in lieu of the becoming, yet a tad bit shopworn "We look forward to having you as our guests...", or does it sound folksy, way too informal and thus inappropriate for such context, and hence should be best avoided in formal style and limited to casual speech and writing. Now, if it actually didn't fit, would "you people" be a better, or worse alternative? What does the expert say?

  27. 'You people' does not work. It's too often used in negative stereotyping. Ann Romney took a lot of flak for using it this past year. I'd say 'you folks' is a bit too folksy for any business correspondence, but there are people who are more folksy than me. (And I might not want to go to their hotels.)

  28. What would be then a becoming way to address a US couple in business writing and speech without being likely to sound way too loose? (nor too folksy actually...) Should one stick to invariably using 'you" in writing and "you" or "you both" orally or are there any alternatives that might do the trick just as well? What if using "you guys" with young couples? Still best to avoid or might sound OK as long as used with utmost caution and according to context? What follows are a couple online testimonials that I found googling "Difference between you guys/you folks/you people." Think some might be of interest.

    "...All of these are ways to indicate 2nd person plural. Since English decided to merge 2nd person singular (thou) and plural (you) a couple hundred years ago, 'you' has become almost universally singular and we're left with creative ways to indicate the plural.
    You guys - is one of the most standard and (US) region neutral ways we use in the US. I personally use this the most and live in the Mid-Atlantic. Common in the Midwest and West too. If learning ESL, I'd recommend this phrase as it's the more 'region-neutral'.
    You folks - more colloquial. Also tends to be used as a lightly more 'formal' version of 'y'all' in the Southeast. For example, my mother has a heavy southern accent and would say to my siblings and me 'y'all have fun now', but if she's talking to customers at her store, she'd typically say something like 'Thank you. You folks have a nice evening.'
    You people - Typically used for the purposes to set oneself apart from a group. Can be derogatory or imply anger ('You people need to listen!'). I'd avoid this if you're not a native English speaker to avoid confusion as to your tone.
    Y'all - Southern US. Contraction of 'You all'. Tends to be used in more familiar situations, as mentioned above. Not an exclusive thing, though. IMO using 'y'all' without the accompanying southern accent sounds odd.
    Y'inz - One of my favorites. This is the Western Pennsylvania equivalent to 'y'all'. I guess it's a contraction of 'you ones', but never in my life have I heard anyone say 'you ones'. Anyone who says 'y'inz' can instantly be pegged as being from the Pittsburgh area.
    You all - probably the 'proper' way to say it. Not used much in the US except for those trying to seem erudite."

    "'Hey you guys!' - very casual and friendly, heard most frequently among friends and acquaintances.
    'You folks may want to remain seated for the remainder of the flight' - used respectfully, oftentimes with seniors or to people in groups (eg. couples).
    'You people are getting on my nerves' - often used disparagingly or in such a manner as to segregate or single out a group of individuals."

    "'You guys' is probably okay in most places, but 'Y'all' is more common in the South. 'Y'inz' is used in Western Pennsylvania, probably in the West Virginia panhandle, and parts of Eastern Ohio."

  29. In writing, one would just use 'you'. It is the second-person plural form.

  30. Thanks for the info, Lynne. Incidentally, how do you call this practice of creating other second-person plural forms by adding a noun like "guys, folks, fellows, etc." to "you"? Is there a linguistic term for it or you just don't call it? Also, can it be used orally with more specific names like "colleagues,"partners" or even "Mr. & Mrs. X." as in "How are you Mr. & Mrs. X doing today?" or it's never used in such a way?

  31. Lynne, would you say that "you guys" sound OK - or at least Okish - to use in speech and hence is a better alternative than "you folks" when addressing US guests staying at a Relais & Châteaux property, par exemple; or neither of theses forms of address would work for such context, and thus one would definitely be better off staying away from using these phrases in a professional setting?

  32. It's very much regional and generational, so there's no general rule there.

  33. To answer the question before: no, you couldn't have 'you Mr & Mrs X'. I don't have a name for the bits after 'you'.

  34. Lynne, I just found a couple mistakes and adveb misplacements in various of my posts I'd like to correct for the sake of letter-perfectness. As I assume I cannot do this from my side, I presume you can possibly do it from yours, can't you? Also, out of concern for your old threads being continuously flooded with my comments - and as long as the link offering to contact you will just not work when I click it - would you mind providing me an email address where I can suggest you some more topics I'd like to have discussed? Thank you.

  35. There is a 'contact Lynneguist' link on this site--but please note that I only cover AmE/BrE differences and will not provide private tuition in English.

    I cannot change others' comments, except to delete them. Even if I could, that would not be a service that I would be willing to provide.

  36. "If you're not on Twitter, you probably have a rich and interesting life" oh yes indeed :)
    I'm not on Twitter I have a great lie but I have some time for reading your posts as well.

  37. Interesting...but my comment has more to do with the fact Heytesbury in Wiltshire was mentioned! Just down the road from me.

    Oh definitely the Westcountry as one word in my opinion.


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