On Pullum's 'Undivided...'

Several people have asked for my reactions to Geoffrey Pullum's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog in which he claims the US and UK are 'Undivided by a Common Language'. So apologies to the person to whom I promised a post on rent versus hire (next week!), I'm following fellow UK/US language blogger Ben Yagoda unto the breach.

For those who don't know, Pullum is currently Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He's a dual UK-US citizen, who was born and educated in the UK, but spent much of his working life in the US. He's also prominent beehive-stirrer-upper at Language Log as well as a regular blogger for Lingua Franca.  I [orig. Aus/NZE] have a lot of time for Pullum's ideas and his style, though I know some of my readers complain about what they perceive as pompousness or rudeness in his blogging. I see that as a humorous blog persona — not because I know the man (we've been in the same room; that's about it), but because my first rule of blogging is to read everything with the rosiest tint possible. That rule serves me well 99.5% of the time.

Pullum starts with:
It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.
That woman gets around, doesn't she? I meet her all the time and sometimes she's a man. This kind of behavio(u)r is rooted in cognitive biases. We have a bias toward(s) noticing things that are unusual: so if someone phrases something in a way that wouldn't be heard in your locale, you notice it. If they phrase it in a way that you'd also phrase it, then (as usual) you mine the phrasing for information, then delete the phrasing from your short-term memory. This means you won't later be able to recall how the typically-phrased information was phrased. So, linguistic differences stand out, and linguistic similarities don't stick with us. This means that if one American says real good (and you don't), you may not remember the 40,000 times before that you('ve) heard Americans say really good.

Because of the out-group homogeneity bias, we tend to recogni{s/z}e the variety within the groups we belong to, but not in the groups we don't belong to. So you're much more likely to hear an exasperated woman say "Men! they're all the same!" than to hear an exasperated man say "Men! We're all the same!" In the same way, Americans don't think of Americans as 'all the same', but they think of 'the English' as a more homogenous group, often based on stereotyping. (Don't get smug, English people; you do the same about Americans. Don't I know it.) There's also a bias in intercultural communication (whose name I've forgotten and can't find--help!), by which we tend to over(-)estimate the importance of culture when we deal with people from a culture different from our own; so if someone from another culture does something that strikes us as odd, we might conclude that is a cultural difference between us, rather than that this individual is a bit odd. Or, in the case of language, we tend not to assume that the not-from-our-dialect person just made a speech error or a typo.

So, yes, all of these things lead people to make wildly inaccurate claims like those of the woman in Edinburgh. And the general public eats those up. I talked with two British (one in US, one in UK) journalists last week about the use of the heretofore-British word queue in American English. Both wanted to believe that Americans didn't use queue to mean a line of people until Netflix came along and Britishi{s/z}ed them. I pointed them both to Ben Yagoda's post on the subject, showing a rise of queue in AmE since the 1950s. I believe I also pointed out that queue would not be used by the majority of Americans to talk about a line of people. (The evidence they had seemed to be a few anecdotal uses from elite sources.) Did they cite any of that? No. It's more fun to believe the Netflix story. (How Americans made the jump from virtual lines on Netflix to lines of people waiting and only that jump and not other possible semantic extensions goes unexplained. It's not a trivial matter, and it is an argument for believing that the Americans who use queue to mean 'line of people waiting' have heard British/Commonwealth people using it that way, not that Netflix made them do it.)

So far, so sympathetic to Pullum's point.

In the rest of the article, he dismisses most differences as being in pronunciation or in vocabulary. This is something that most non-syntacticians wouldn't dismiss. On the pronunciation front, fair enough: there's probably as much variation in pronunciation within either country as between them. It's why I don't write a lot about pronunciation on this blog.

On the vocabulary front, he claims the differences are 'mostly nouns'. Well, most of English vocabulary is nouns, so that's not a very interesting thing to say. As (mostly, but not exclusively) a syntactician, Pullum is apt to be dismissive of nouns--they're just names. Easily replaced one for the other, not much effect on the grammar. But certainly an effect on comprehensibility, I'd say.

But let's see what I've got as word-class labels on the 432 blog posts I've published here so far.  I don't use noun as a label because noun posts are easily categori{s/z}ed in more interesting semantic ways (food words, clothing words, etc.). But for the other content-word categories, I've got:
26 on adjectives
18 on adverbs
67 on verbs
That doesn't mean, of course, that I've noticed only 26 adjectival differences--many posts cover more than one difference and I certainly haven't written posts on everything I've noticed. It also doesn't mean that the other 321 posts are about nouns, since not all posts are about vocabulary-level differences. Please also keep in mind that my label(l)ing is not very scientific: there are labels I used later that might've applied as well to posts I'd written earlier; sometimes I forget to label; sometimes I judge that the post isn't cent(e)red enough on a verb difference that I mention for it to merit the verb label; etc.

Other word classes I've label(l)ed:
6 on auxiliary verbs
4 on conjunctions
4 on determiners
10 on numbers
22 on prepositions
6 on pronouns/proforms
Many of those cover what could be categori{s/z}ed as grammatical differences--depending on your definition of grammatical. So, for instance, can you write someone or do you have to write to them? Is it menopause or the menopause? Do you need an and when you say 2007 out loud?

Looking at grammatical labels, there are:
22 on grammar
20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them; most of these are also label(l)ed morphology, though]
The grammar-label(l)ed ones don't include every little difference in which preposition goes with which verb (do you protest something, or protest at it?), so if you count that as grammar (depends on your theoretical bent if you're a linguist, I'd say), then the '22' here is severely under-representative.

What Pullum is counting as grammatical differences seems to be strictly things that are allowed  in one dialect but not in the other. But another kind of difference is found in the tendencies in phrase structure that are more typical of one dialect than the other. For example, temporal adverbs are more likely to occur in the middle of a sentence in BrE. It's not that they can't in AmE, but it sounds more British to put your adverbs there. If you're a novelist trying to write believable dialogue for a character from another country, it's handy to know about these things, as your readers in that country will notice them right away if you get them wrong.

That's not even getting started on the idioms (43 label[l]ed posts), interjections (9), onomatopoeia (2), punctuation (7), or most importantly, I'd say, the pragmatic differences between the two. Is thank you used for the same purposes in the two countries? (Not always.) Do we foreground the same information in sentences? (Not always.) Are polite things in one country impolite in the other? (Oh yeah.)

So, 432 blog posts, most recording several differences, and a (rarely repetitive) Twitter Difference (or Untranslatable) of the Day for at least five days a week since 2009. I think there are a lot of differences.  And several people have made whole books out of the differences, most notably (and academically and grammatically) Algeo's British or American English? and the edited collection One Language, Two Grammars?

Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly.  But that doesn't make the differences that are there any less interesting to me. And the fact that there are so many biased perceptions about national differences makes me feel like this blog provides a public service in countering the myths. I hope you do too. I even hold out a little hope that Pullum might.
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Welcome to guest-blogger Tim Gorichanaz, whose ScratchTap blog explores aspects of written language. Thanks, Tim, for sharing some reflections on the BrE/AmE aspect!

When we consider the graphemicthat is, visualdifferences between BrE and AmE, we likely first think of the numerous spelling differences. Next, perhaps, the differences in punctuating quotations (single versus double [AmE] quotation marks / [BrE] inverted commas) may occur to us, and maybe we even notice that BrE doesnt put full stops after contractions such as Mr and Mrs (which, in AmE, are considered abbreviations and are treated with a following period). It seems that all these differences are the fruit of concerted reform efforts: In the United States Noah Webster shook up the world of spelling, and we have Henry Watson Fowler to thank for a more logical punctuation scheme in BrE.

Of course, such efforts account for a petty minority of the differences between BrE and AmE; this blog has chronicled countless differences that sprang up of their own accord, due only to the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean. Today Id like to point out another one of these: the exclamation (AmE) point / (BrE) mark. We may be past the ca. 2007 exclamation craze, but even in 2012 they were evidently still sufficiently heavily (over)used to merit an article in The Wire, and theres no indication that Americans love for exclamations has at all receded.

Anecdotally speaking, exclamation points/marks seem to be much more eagerly employed in American than in Britain. More than one ESL student has told me that their BrE teachers had remarked that Americans use exclamations far more than Brits.

To test this a bit more rigorously, I compared customer reviews for the 2013 book The Orphan Masters Son on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. In the first three pages of reviews, the Americans used 13 exclamation points, while the Brits used only 2 exclamation marks. A search on the Google Books likewise suggests a remarkable effect: A search for ! in the AmE corpus reports a density of 0.050% in the year 2000, while the BrE corpus returns 0.040% (though we can note a general decline in both dialects since the 1800s).

Of course, this brief investigation doesnt consider texts, emails and other types of written communication, so Ill defer to you, readers: Who do you think uses more exclamations?

Somehow I managed to make it through this entire post without a single gratuitous exclamatory, but thats about to change!
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)