catching up and catching breaks

Mwncïod on Twitter asked:
AmE/BrE diff? Watching US sit-com "Big Bang Theory" character says "catch/caught a break" vs BrE "get/got a break"?
Get a break is not so much BrE as general English. Break meaning 'a bit of good luck; a chance' is originally AmE and continues to be used there with get. The Corpus of Historical American English has its first instance of catch/caught a break in 1986, and it gained ground through the 1990s and 2000s. But it is still far outnumbered by get/got/gotten a break in AmE. Catch a break is an even more colloquial rendering of an already colloquial phrase, but it hasn't made as much of an impression in the UK yet.

Taking a break for a tangent: The Americanness of the 'good luck, chance' meaning of break is perhaps illustrated by the differences in their KitKat (AmE) candy bar/(BrE) chocolate bar slogans, both of which play on break, because one breaks off 'fingers' of a KitKat (is this just used in BrE? It makes sense in AmE, but I don't believe I've heard anyone say finger of a KitKat in AmE). In the UK (the ancestral and spiritual home of the KitKat) it's Have a break, have a KitKat. In AmE, there's a completely ear-worming jingle: Gimme a break/gimme a break/break me off a piece of that KitKat bar. The UK catch( )phrase plays on the 'pause in the working day' sense, the US one on an extension from the 'chance' sense meaning 'An allowance or indulgence; accommodating treatment' (American Heritage).  This has come into BrE, but it retains an American feel.  [paragraph added next morning, after getting jingle stuck in head in the shower]

Thinking about this reminded me of another catch difference across the dialects: the argument structure of catch up--that is, how a verb phrase containing catch up is structured.  If I started jogging down the road and you followed a minute later, you would soon catch up, because I am terrifically unfit. Catch up works fine as an intransitive (no noun after it) phrasal verb as in that last sentence. But if you wanted to tell the tale later, mentioning the unfit academic you bested, you'll need an object for that verb. BrE can give you one. AmE (at least the version I speak) can't. The Collins English Dictionary gives a perfect example in its entry for catch up, which I've underlined here:
2. when intr, often foll by with to reach or pass (someone or something), after following he soon caught him up
The grammatical information at the start confirms that one can say catch up with [someone] in BrE, and it has that in common with AmE. But my AmE ear cannot understand the transitive catch [someone] up as 'run (or do something) till you're at the same level as someone' because that meaning is just not transitive. AmE-me can understand transitive catch up only for the 'bring someone's information up-to-date' sense. So, if you tell me you ran after Bill and caught him up, my AmE self thinks you've run after him, stopped him, and filled him in on all the gossip he needs to know. Or maybe you shouted the information at him from five paces behind. All my AmE self knows is that you're talking about information, not about where you were physically, because only the information sense can be transitive in my native dialect. My AmE self has to be told off by my internal BrE editor sometimes in order for communication to succeed.

[paragraph added the next morning, after sleeping on it] The reason BrE speakers don't confuse the 'running' and 'information' senses is that the 'information' sense is AmE. Here's the American Heritage Dictionary definition, which also nicely illustrates the verb-object-up structure:
4. To bring (another) up to date; brief: Let me catch you up on all the gossip.

Speaking of catching up, I'm never going to be caught up (in the 'bring an activity to a state of currentness' sense, found in both dialects). You know, it was only today that I was struck by the reason why it's so much harder to blog now than it was in the beginning. It's because I'm a parent (who has a job in one of the worst careers for unpaid overtime). And apparently not a very bright parent, if it took four years to figure out the connection between having a child and blog productivity. I'd been blaming the job, but it's not the job that changed. It's hard work raising a child, particularly when one has to be trilingual to keep up.  (She tells me "I know three languages: Spanish, English and American".)


  1. Actually, parenthood inspired my blogging. Oh, not the first year, when I was an exhausted zombie, but now,mostly because all the stuff about her I swore I'd remember forever, I now know I won't.
    My grandmother (AmE) was always "catching up with" this person or that.

  2. The other reason I'm not blogging as often is that the posts have got longer and longer, and ramblier--perhaps because I have twice as much experience of BrE now and can make more connections. I tried to be brief here, but woke up with the need to add more! (See dark-red text in the post now.)

  3. All I can say is "Well, der!" (or "Duh!" in AmE). One is never caught up when one has small children.

    Don't know the gossip sense of the term - I expect I'd realise what it meant in context, but wouldn't use it in that sense myself.

    And if I don't run, I'll never be caught up at work!

  4. I (BrE speaker, late sixties) would never use catch up (with) to mean or imply 'overtake'.

    OK, I might say I caught him up/I caught up with him of an occasion when I actually did overtake. But I would have to say and passed him — unless something said or understood in the context made it clear.

    My COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs lists two uses: literal and metaphorical, differing slightly in grammar.

    1. The literal sense If you catch up with someone who is in front of you, you reach them by walking faster than they are walking has the marginal note

    This accords with pretty well with my preferences. I tend not to use catch up so much with faster motion than walking. I say catch up with for transitive use more often than I use simple catch up.

    For me there's pattern:

    • With an unstressed pronoun object, I'm more likely to say I caught her up and especially Go ahead, I'll catch you up
    • With a stressed pronoun, I can do without with, provided that there's clear contrasting intonation: Jane? You'll never catch her up!
    • If the sentence carries on, I'm more likely to use with. Thus: We caught up with him as he was stopping to tie his shoelace
    • With a noun phrase object, I Can omit with, but usually prefer to include it: We'll never catch Johnup is possible, but stylistically odd.
    • When the object is so long and 'heavy' that it can follow, I don't feel happy omitting with. Thus It may be impossible to catch up with the people in front who started out a half past.

    2. in metaphorical speech I of catch up with someone, you reach the same standard or level as they are. The grammar note suggests no choice.

    I think that's true for me. It does sound odd to say China will soon catch the West up.

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  6. I remember being totally mystified as a child (late 1960s/early 1970s) by the expression "never give a sucker an even break". The use of "break" meaning chance had not permeated to provincial England by that time.

  7. Whenever I hear the "I'll catch him up" formulation, all I can think of is springing a trap on someone (such that they are caught up in it). Even after years of being exposed to BrE, I still get the image of those nets in which people end up handing upside-down from a tree in the movies.

  8. A break is not only a pause in the working day. It is — or at least it was in my day — a pause in the school timetable.

    When referring to a particular break identifiable by speaker and hearer, we would never say the break, but rather break — following the syntactic model of English, Maths [AmEMath], etc. Instead of during the break we'd say at break.

    My impression, which may be wrong, is that this usage hasn't changed since I was a boy.

    A work-day break tends to be seen as a more individual event. Take a break. Take a KitKat is a matter of personal choice. Even when the timing is shared, we can say on my break.

  9. A work-day break tends to be seen as a more individual event.

    This may be more a matter of changed reality than shift of perception. We used to have tea breaks which involved everybody leaving their workplace simultaneously for a fixed time then returning together. The time and motion wallahs didn't like this.

  10. When I read catch a break, I wondered if it might have a surfing origin (catching a breaking wave - or would that be a bad thing? Shows how much this townie really knows).

    1. I've wondered the same thing. When surfing, you want to catch the wave just as it breaks, and ride the open face in front of the break. Most time spent surfing is waiting to catch that perfect break. Given the term appears to have originated during the height of the California surfer rock era, it seems like an extremely plausible origin to me.

  11. Autolycus

    When I read catch a break

    Where do you read it? I don't remember even hearing it — if I ever have, I didn't notice. It's certainly something I never say.

  12. Is "give me a break" itself AmE as well? I always thought of that jingle as referring to that set phrase which usually means "you've got to be kidding me" and not "give me something good for a change". Of course then there is no connection with the kit-kat being something good, but I always thought it's just meaningless wordplay.

  13. Speaking of overtaking, AmE does not have so much use for that word. Here cars pass other cars going the same direction. My impression is that in BrE passing on the road is something you do only to cars going in the opposite direction.

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  15. ø

    Speaking only for myself, I would use pass only for stationary cars. I would simply see cars going in the opposite direction — or meet them.

  16. Definitely agreeing with "cars pass other cars going the same direction" comment. The left most lane (remember we drive on the right) is even called "the passing lane", and slower moving vehicles generally stay in the right lane:

  17. Though I live and work in Edinburgh, I am very familiar with the [AME] "bring me up to speed / tell me what I need to know / dish the dirt" sense of "catch [me] up". It's perfectly common business-speak in my line of work (IT in the Finance Industry), though perhaps it is no coincidence that IT and Finance are both disciplines with strong transatlantic connections.

    I suppose an alternative explanation for me being familiar with the [AME] sense of “catch up” is that I spend way too much time on watching the near-constant re-runs of the “The Big Bang Theory” on E4 (despite Dr Sheldon Cooper being way too close to the mark when you work in IT and have two autistic children!)

  18. >> Get a break is not so much BrE as general English. <<

    Not so much BrE (or even general English), I'd say, as outright non-English.

    I can't think of a single instance in which I'd say "get a break". Should I be getting out more?

  19. @Ø:

    Speaking of overtaking, AmE does not have so much use for that word. Here cars pass other cars going the same direction. My impression is that in BrE passing on the road is something you do only to cars going in the opposite direction.

    Regarding that trans-Atlantic distinction, I thoroughly agree.

    (Apologies if I've said this here before: it's a bit of a hobby-horse of mine)

    In BrE you pass something that is either fixed in position, or at least coming the other way; you overtake something already moving in the same direction as yourself.

    I remember, on my first visit to the United States, being mystified as to why, time and time again, the driver of the car in which I was travelling kept passing "DO NOT PASS" signs.

    It did eventually dawn on me that "do not pass" meant "no overtaking".

    Mind you, I did have to ASK before the meaning of "No turn from berm" became clear to me ...and it seems that that is a regionalism the meaning of which is not clear even to many Americans.

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  21. I've made some changes to the Passing lane entry cited by jb. Looking up the official road rules of Britain, Ireland and Australia, I discovered:

    • All of them use overtaking when one vehicle passes another going in the same direction and they then both continue in the same direction.

    • In Australia only, passing is used when two cars driving in opposite directions meet and then continue without changing direction.

    • In Britain, passing is used when a car in a segregated lane — for example a lane dedicated to cars turning left — passes a car in another segregated lane. The Highway Code warns drivers intending to carry straight on to be aware of the possibility of vehicles passing on either side.

    I have no documentation, but my feeling is that we also speak of cars passing when they arrive at a crossroads from different directions and then each turn right (the equivalent of turning left in America) across the paths of the other.

    For English outside North America, I think the simple rule is to use overtake of any motion (including walking) if the two movers are on the same trajectory. If they are on different trajectories, or if one is stationary, then use pass.

  22. Kevin: there are 88 'got a break's in the Corpus of American English. Not all of them in the 'chance' sense, but many are. E.g. on National Public Radio: 'McDonald's got a break yesterday when Judge Robert Sweet dismissed the...' There are over 3 million google hits for the phrase 'I just can't get a break'.

    The British Natl Corpus doesn't have so many for 'get' a break, but it's over 20 years old, so not very good for informal English, which changes fast. The fact that a native speaker was calling it the BrE version is a better indication in that case.

  23. My first instinct was to agree with Kevin that get a break doesn't exist. I think the reason is that it really doesn't exist as an idiom.

    get has one of its normal non-figurative meanings 'obtain' 'receive'.
    break has one of its recent but established meanings 'chance' — or alternatively 'pause'

    The meaning is simply the sum of the parts.
    • if you obtains a chance, you get a break
    • If your employer allows you a new pause in your working day, you get a break.
    Nothing idiomatic.

  24. I'm American, and I don't completely agree with what others have said. I agree that "pass" is usually equivalent to "overtake," but if I say that I live on a street that is just wide enough for two cars to pass (each other), I mean that there is just enough room for two cars going in opposite directions to get past each other, not that there is just enough room for one car to overtake another. I know it's not completely analogous to the other examples in that the subject is "two cars" rather than "one/a/the car," but I thought it was worth pointing out.

    Outside of driving contexts, there's greater flexibility in the meaning of the word. If I say that I passed someone on the sidewalk, I could have been going in either the same direction as or opposite direction from him or her.

  25. I can't think of a single instance in which I'd say "get a break". I wrote earlier. But to be honest -- now that David has pointed out that it's possible to take the words at no more than their face value -- of course I can think of lots!

    -- We have to be there from 8 till 1, although we do get a break, usually around 10.30.
    -- There's always new stuff to do: I never seem to get a break.
    etc. etc.

    Although there's a general underlying idea here of being allowed to stop work for a short interval, I do see now that I was being blinded by trying to find an idiom of the same order as "get a grip" / "get a life"...! Thanks, David.

  26. Anonymous

    Outside of driving contexts, there's greater flexibility in the meaning of the word.

    I think the problem is that pass is just too flexible for many of us. All the meanings discussed so far are probably available in all English speaking regions — provided that they are clear from the context.

    In Britain and some other regions when it a question of going past something in order to get faster to the same destination, then we might use pass if that meaning was obvious. But usually it isn't, so we don't.

    In America, you've formalised that use to the point where it's the default meaning of passing -- just as in Australia they've formalised the 'in opposite directions' use.

  27. Mrs Redboots: "And if I don't run, I'll never be caught up at work!"

    No, that doesn't work for me (BrE, 50s) - to "be caught up at work" means unable to get away. To "catch up at work" means to complete all the tasks that need doing, which is what I assume Mrs R meant.

  28. What does "No turn from berm" mean please? I've tried googling it, and can't find it. There's apparently a word 'berm' which I've never met before which seems to mean some sort of a bank or possibly a baulk. But that doesn't appear to be the sort of thing you can or can't 'turn from'. It is meaningless to this Br-Eng speaker.

  29. As an AmE speaker, I can assure you that "No turn from berm" is definitely regional, and not from any U.S. region I've lived or driven in. One could probably do an entire article on the obscure phrasings emerging from the convoluted minds of the bureaucrats responsible for creating road safety signs. In the states of Oregon and Washington, for example, a sign to warn of a sharp drop-off at the margin of the pavement would read "Abrupt Edge", whereas in the state of California, they seem to favor "No Shoulder". And a truly bizarre wording we've discovered since moving to Washington state is a sign attempting to warn the the visibility ahead is limited due to a sharp rise or dip in the road reading "Impaired Sight Distance".

    But back to the original "berm turning" question, the only context I can provide is that in some places, there is often a slightly raised section separating lanes of opposite-direction traffic. Normally that would indicate an absolute barrier, i.e. thou shalt not cross, not for turns, not for nothin'! In at least one state, Illinois, it is generally permissable to actually drive over such a barrier in order to turn into a driveway across the oncoming lanes of traffic, or to join your direction of traffic from a side driveway (assuming your vehicle's shocks and suspension are up to such abuse). At least so I was assured by an Illinois friend who blithely bumped and rattle across just such a barrier to make a turn. If a barrier like that were called a "berm" in highway-bureaucrat-speak, then it would stand to reason that they would need to post such a sign in places where berm-crossing was not permitted.

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  32. As it was I who raised the "berm turning" question in the first place, I'd better explain what it finally turned out to mean. (First seen by me, by the way, outside Columbus airport in Ohio.)

    It seems that in Ohio "berm" is the local term for the shoulder of the road (what we call the "hard shoulder" in BrE). Now, at many traffic lights you are allowed to make a right turn "against the red". However, this doesn't mean you can sneak onto the shoulder (berm) to pass standing traffic and then make your turn. That is what the "No turn from berm" sign is reminding drivers.

    I did a quick google and found this:

    "(Ohio,) not only did you enchant me with your rolling hills, roadside cliffs and fall foliage, you made me laugh with your drive-thru ammo shops, your moonshine festival, your signs I didn't understand ("Caution: Pier Ahead" and "No Turn From Berm") and the random oil wells in otherwise normally landscaped front yards."

    Phew: I didn't just dream it, then. Still not too sure about "Caution: pier ahead", though...

  33. Parenting has inspired my Facebooking. That I keep up-to-date. It's the public and more academic stuff that is harder to keep up with!

  34. This is so weird. The first comment, by Roger Owen Green on 12 March, was repeated 14 days later, word for word, character for character, same line spacing, by Tiang Antrian, a name that links to an Indonesian manufacturer of stainless steel items. Is this a variation on the ploy of commercial entities posting random comments on blogs etc, or liking Instagram and Facebook posts, in the hope that people will click through the name and become customers? Copy the first comment and paste it under your own name. Looks like that's one piece of spam you not only missed, Lynne, but even replied to!


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