by cash

A(n) historian I know has taken to calling me his favo(u)rite linguist. I have a suspicion I'm the only linguist he knows. Nevertheless, flattery gets you a blog post. And a flattering pseudonym.

So, Generous Historian, when he emailed me about Important University Business, included this:
P.S. A little piece of English-language usage that has struck me a couple of times lately and made me think "Lynne might be interested in that", is that people in shops and cafes now invariably say "are you paying by cash", whereas they would have said "are you paying cash" until recently. The ubiquity of card (and, soon, phone) payments is doubtless to blame, but I was interested by the addition of the pointless "by" because it seems characteristic of US-English (where you "beat on" someone, instead of beating them; "meet with", instead of simply meeting, etc.). Any thoughts?
This historian is English, as you might be able to tell. But he's married to an American so I'm not about to let him off lightly for this (AmE) rookie mistake (=beginner's error).

Note that I didn't say that flattery gets you a flattering blog post.

This is how I chided him:*
You notice more prepositions in AmE because they're new info where you weren't expecting it.  But BrE has an awful lot of prepositions where AmE doesn't--e.g. in expressions of time (on Tuesday), with certain verbs (protest at the decision), etc. I submit, as attachment, data to indicate that this is one not an Americanism. :)

The attachment was this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), showing who says pay by cash:
The darker the blue, the stronger the strength of the expression in the particular nation. Since the Irish sub-corpus is about 1/3 of the size of the US or UK (GB) ones, Ireland uses pay by cash not 3 more times than Britain, but three times more.

So, it looks like BrE is getting by cash from Ireland--where it probably arose on analogy with pay by card. (Or maybe BrE is inventing it separately--that can happen with analogies.) I was particularly taken with this example from the Irish data (from the Garda [police] website):
You can pay by cash, cheque, bank draft, or laser card.
Laser card? They have cards with lasers in Ireland? Let me in!!** 

Incidentally, pay cash, which GH says he would say, is the most strongly American of the alternatives (according to GloWBE). Pay with cash is the most neutral on the US-UK comparison, but has the strongest showing in Canada.

* I once got to see a letter of recommendation that had been written about me, which said "She writes devastating footnotes". This remains the best compliment I have ever received. Nevertheless, I fear my epitaph will be "She wrote chiding emails".

** Apparently laser card means 'debit card' in Ireland, based on the name of the first company to offer them. False alarm. Everyone back to normal, please. Don't mind me; I'm just weeping with disappointment.


  1. We Americans do sometimes use a preposition there, though, just not that one. We pay with cash.

  2. I think while you were commenting, I was updating the post with a bit more info about that. See the last paragraph before footnotes.

  3. I think I've heard "Pay in cash" in my part of the US, but I'm not at all sure about that when I really start to mull it over. It's more what popped into my head first.....

    Really what usually gets said though is "Is that cash or check?" or since all the box stores are pushing you to sign up for their credit cards now, "Will you be putting that on your _____ card today?"

  4. I can barely remember saying pay cash.

    I seem to remember it went with or by cheque. (In another age, there was also or on account.)

    Much if the time, I think I said in cash.

  5. 'Pay in cash' has a neutral (i.e. moderate, not strongly either) showing in AmE & BrE. But is very strong in Irish English again.

  6. I'm surprised you didn't mention that the extra preposition can sometimes subtly change the meaning. "Beating him" could mean hitting him or being better than him; "beating on him" only means hitting. Likewise, "I met with her yesterday" means we got together for prior-arranged discussion, whereas "I met her yesterday" could mean that, but would usually be taken to mean a first-time encounter.

  7. Interestingly, I don't think I would, in NYC, "meet with" somebody except in a more formal context - like visiting my prof during office hours to beg for extra credit on the grounds that my gerbil died and I couldn't bear to finish that all important assignment I missed.

    If I'm seeing a friend, I "meet up" with them. (And then my mother would say we visit with each other, but that sounds so post-war to me. Well, of course it does, my mother was born in 1949.)

  8. Chad, conuly

    See the meet with thread. There's also a visit with thread.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. When you mentioned prepositions that BrE speakers use but AmE speakers don't use, I was confused by the "on Tuesday" reference in the brackets. At first I wondered whether you were suggesting that Americans don't use "on" in that way.

    I clicked on the link, re-read that post and saw that you acknowledged that we do use "on" in that way, but that BrE must use it.

    Do you think the possibility of confusion makes it a weaker example than, say, "on next week"? (Surely I'm not the only one!)

    But perhaps that because, while I am familiar with my fellow AmE speakers omitting that "on", I've always found it somewhat jarring.

    – AiNJ

  11. ‘Pay in cash’ is among the usage examples, which I believe to be based on corpus data, of both the Cambridge Online Dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary.

  12. My feeling is that the change to "pay by cash" is linked to the growth in opportunities to pay by card, which often means that the retailer/service provider has to alter the equipment / program to accept the specific payment type. It just seems easier to say "are you paying by ... " for both rather than "are you paying with cash or by card?" Back in the 90s and early noughties it was more common to pay using actual real money than it is today - I rarely pay cash and my wife is always complaining that I never have any money on me! Paying by cheque/check is now as rare as buying vinyl records (a few devotees still do it) which illustrates how changing technologies will change our actions and in turn the words we use to describe them. The strength of "by cash" in Ireland has me stumped though - they were slightly behind the UK in adoption of debit cards.

  13. A quick search on the BYU-BNC may help shed some light on the question - it turns out that the British said "pay by cash" way back in the '90s.
    Here are the results:
    - 15 pay cash
    - 33 pay in cash (23 of which are passives)
    - 9 pay by cash (all in contexts including other forms of payment - card, cheque, shares, etc.)
    - 1 pay with cash ("he pays with cash instead of with plastic" - another contrast)

    Another interesting result: only five of these are in the spoken BNC - 4 "in" and 1 "by".

    So maybe the question now is: Is "pay by cash" still only used to contrast with other forms of payment, or is it used on its own?

  14. Strange neither you not GH mention "pay in cash" which is surely the traditional British form, and Irish too by the look of it. I can't seem to attach an image but the GloWBE figures are:
    US 42
    CA 15
    GB 27
    IE 25
    AU 11
    NZ 7

    (Pretty ignorant of them to call it GB instead of UK, incidentally, but hey.)

  15. Several posters seem to have access to interesting statistical resources. Would somebody like to check the chronology? (Assuming that this is readily do-able.)

    I have the impression — possibly a false one — that I seldom if at all said by cash until some time in the recent past, and that since then I've practically ceased to say anything else.

    A word-search of recent naturalistic plays, perhaps? Recent naturalist novels full of dialogue?

  16. For what it's worth, the 1990-ish British National Corpus has:

    5 pay by cash
    4 pay in cash
    1 pay over cash

    (And 1 'pay for cash' but that's really 'pay for cash on delivery', which is something else.)

  17. US native (26/NJ/Pittsburgh) here. "Pay cash" sounds strange to me. It sounds like "cash" is the entity receiving money in the transaction. "Would you like to pay cash?" "No, I'd like to pay you!" Interestingly, "I'd like to pay you cash." doesn't sound weird. It seems that the indirect/direct objects are switched for me. Also interestingly, "pay cash or credit" doesn't sound strange.

  18. David, I was about to make the same point.

    This thread led me to your ‘meet / meet with’ post from nearly a decade ago. I was thrilled that it justified the use of ‘meet with’, which (even as a BrE copy editor) I find usefully unambiguous. For me, meet can (ambiguously) imply ‘for the first time’, meet with simply ‘held a meeting with’.

    In countless comment threads and twitter kerfuffles over the years, I’ve yet to find any Brits backing me up on my unpopular stance. It's just too popular to rag on apparent Americanisms, it seems.

  19. adam

    It's just too popular to rag on apparent Americanisms, it seems.

    No, adam, it's a very real Americanism. We used to say it in BrE but then stopped almost completely. The OED lists

    2. intr. To go to see, come together with (a person) intentionally; to have a meeting with. Now chiefly N. Amer.

    The most recent BrE quote is

    1828 Scott Fair Maid of Perth An appointment to meet with the others of his company at the sign of the Griffin.

    Far from being unambiguous meet with can have this chiefly AmE meaning or it can mean 'encounter' in the senses

    1. intr. To come across, come upon by chance, find, encounter (a thing or person). Now rare with a personal or physical object.

    Most recent quotation

    It will deal also with numerous awful things to be met with in the United States.

    6. intr. To experience, undergo (a particular fortune or treatment); to receive (a particular reaction)

    Most recent quotation

    The coloured lights had still slashed into the black street the night her son had met with the accident.

    There are seven other senses of meet with but they are rare or obsolete.

  20. It's not that we British use fewer prepositions than Americans, or even that we use more - it's just that our two languages use them differently!

    I think I usually either proffer the cash, or else say "I'll use my card", rather than paying with, by or from anything.... but isn't it hard to know what one does say, when pressed!

  21. @Anonymous of 24 March, 2015 11:00:
    (Pretty ignorant of them to call it GB instead of UK, incidentally, but hey.)

    There's nothing ignorant about it. GB is the ISO 3166 code for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  22. Does any dialect, anywhere, normally say "on next week", by analogy with "on Tuesday"?

  23. As an English teacher I used to worry about what I now prefer to call multi-word verbs. In the past we used terms like phrasal verb, prepositional verb and even phrasal-prepositional verb. Sometimes we only used one of these terms if the multi-word verb had a idiomatic meaning — a meaning not obvious from the meanings of the component verbs.

    Most of the thingies (lexical items to be posh) in Lynne's posting are what we called prepositional verbs in their grammar, although there's nothing obviously idiomatic.

    They are:

    pay by
    beat on
    protest at
    meet with

    Am I overcomplicating things? Just ordinary sequences determined by the meanings of verbs and prepositions? No, there's a difference between these and the combinations blow:

    pay on
    protest on
    meet on

    when each is followed by Tuesday.

    Yes there is a difference between AmE Tuesday and BrE on Tuesday but it's a different difference — nothing to do with a preceding verb.

  24. So for me pay by is another transitive verb — coexisting with single-word pay in the lexicon of many of us, myself included.

    pay has, i suggest, three shades of meaning

    1. 'settle a demand or reckoning'
    a intransitive
    Can pay, won't pay.
    b. transitive OBJECT = reckoning
    pay the bill, pay the fine, pay the forfeit etc

    2. 'give something owed to or deserved by the recipient'
    a. transitive OBJECT = what is owed
    pay a price, pay a dollar/pound etc
    b. transitive OBJECT = what is deserved
    pay a compliment, pay your respects, pay homage etc

    3. 'give rise to payment'
    a. intransitiveSUBJECT = job
    It pays well, It pays poorly, It pays to advertise
    b. transitive OBJECT = payment
    It pays ten dollars an hour, It pays starvation wages, It pays a good salary, It pays the minimum wage

    Now pay cash is an oddity. Superficially it resembles pay a dollar/a pound (sense 2b) — except that it involves payment in full. I for one could never say *I paid cash but didn't settle the full account, although I could easily say I paid five pounds but I didn't settle the full amount.

    In days gone by, I used to say pay cash, but the word cash felt like an adverb.

    The only time I thought of the means of payment as a grammatical OBJECT was in pay peanuts (which could also be sense 3 This job pays peanuts). In sense 2a, there's the fossilised joke slogan If you pay monkey nuts, what you get is monkeys.

    My present mental lexicon contains the non-idiomatic prepositional verb:

    pay by
    'use as a means of settling the account'
    transitive OBJECT = means of payment
    pay by cheque, pay by card, pay by plastic, pay by barter, pay by sex, pay by cash.

  25. By the same token I think of multi-word verbs

    meet with
    beat on

    which I recognise, but are not in my lexicon.

    Conversely there is room in my lexicon for

    intransitive protest
    transitive protest at

    But the single word verb

    transitive protest

    is something alien that I understand but never use.

  26. Come to think of it, there is a single-word transitive verb protest in BrE. Largely obsolete (except in Scottish Law, according to the OED) it means 'assert strongly'. With an added sense of 'by way of contradiction' it survives in protest one's innocence.

    And I must recognise a fourth single-word transitive verb pay with OBJECT = recipient pay informers, pay the cashier etc.

    This concept allows for single-word verd pay
    ditransitive INDIRECT OBJECT = recipient DIRECT OBJECT = payment.

    When Humphrey Littleton asked Duke Ellington how he'd managed to keep his musicians with him for so long, he replied Well Humphrey, I have this gimmick. I pay them money.

    I don't think pay by can be use this way — not in my speech, that is. I can't say *pay the plumber by cash or even *He was paid by cash

  27. @Dru, I used the "on next week" example because I thought it was used in Lynne's earlier post ( It wasn't. I should have typed something else entirely, such as the phrase that inspired the post: "on one week ago".

    – AiNJ

  28. Anonymous

    Look more closely at the thread. The phrase on one week ago is only possible because it follows the word change. It isn't an expression of time, but of comparison.

    an incorrect set of figures for the percentage change on one week ago

    means something entirely different from

    an incorrect set of figures for the percentage change one week ago

    The former means that the change happened after the figures were calculated last month. The latter means that the the change happened (or was discovered) last month.

    It's difficult to extend this 'by comparison with' meaning to phrases of future time. That makes on next week unlikely even after words such as change, advance or improvement.

    I suppose it's just about possible to say

    We expect that next weeks figures will show a only small improvement. After that we expect a surge in productivity, so that the results for July could be a 25% advance on next week.

  29. @David Crosbie, I understood that.

    Take a closer look at both of my comments. I was only questioning whether Lynne's example might cause confusion since while we do use "on Tuesday" as an expression of time, American English doesn't have the "on one week ago" construction under any circumstances.

    — AiNJ

  30. Rafael, Brazil26 March, 2015 19:18

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  31. Anonymous - can an American say 'my favourite TV programme was on a week ago but it was cancelled this week'? Or even 'it was off last night because of a big football match'? Each of these would be ok in BrE, and also likely to happen.

    And - I might say 'can I use cash?' Or ' can I pay cash' or in/with cash, equally, when asked if I want to pay with my credit card. Perhaps we phrase it to correspond with the question asked by the assistant. I remember when all credit cards seemed to be known as Barclay cards in the UK, by analogy with the Irish usage of Laser as a generic debit card.

  32. AiNJ

    OK, I see what you mean. But we don't have an on one week ago construction either.

    We have a change on / advance on / improvement on construction, which can be followed a wide range of time expressions — though next week is pushing it a bit.

    We also have an on Tuesdays construction for regular events. So it's weird but not entirely impossible to say

    On Wednesdays takings have seen an advance on on Tuesdays.

  33. Probably not connected, but "by cash" was a phrase used in double-entry book-keeping. I can't remember what it meant.

  34. @David Crosbie,

    I see what you mean about not having the "on one week ago" construction. Perhaps, then, the solution would be to omit any sort of example using "on".

    – AiNJ

  35. Biochemist wrote: can an American say 'my favourite TV programme was on a week ago but it was cancelled this week'?

    Yes, but I'd think it would be unlikely. For one thing, an American would be far more likely to write about their "favorite TV show" having been "canceled"

    Still, that's not the sort of thing when I said AmE doesn't have an "on one week ago construction". The "on" and the "one week ago" in your example are each part of separate constructions. See David Crosbie's response to that statement; he explained that it's not an available construction in BrE, either. I think his explanation shows what I meant.

    Or even 'it was off last night because of a big football match'?

    Again, possible but unlikely. I'd say you'd be more likely to see "it wasn't on last night because of a big football game". I think we use "it was off" slightly differently. At least, that's the case in the dialects of AmE I'm most familiar with.

    – AiNJ

  36. AiNJ

    Perhaps, then, the solution would be to omit any sort of example using "on".

    The solution to what problem?

    I have a feeling that this dialogue of the deaf is down to some starting point that was clear to you but not to Dru, Biochemist or me.

  37. @David Crosbie

    Lynne wrote: But BrE has an awful lot of prepositions where AmE doesn't--e.g. in expressions of time (on Tuesday)

    But AmE does have that preposition in that place. We do say things like, "I'll [do something] on Tuesday." And for this AmE speaker, omitting the "on" makes the phrase sound somehow wrong, although I hear it said that way often enough.

  38. There is a link to where I discuss 'on Tuesday'. I think the discussion of time phrases would be better archived there!

  39. The fascinating thing I find is how mutable the preposition is — especially considering that the preposition is one of the most fundamental components of the language. I (an American) probably would never say “paid by cash”, but I’ll admit it’s not as jarring as something like the (BrE) “different to”.

    My real question is — what will the prepositions be in the future (cash, credit cards, and certainly checks becoming quite passé)? Three out of my five financial transactions today were with my (AmE) (cell) phone (BrE) mobile. Will the different dialects converge or diverge on the preposition? Will we say “paid by app”, “pay with apple pay”, “bitcoin to it” (yeah the last example sounds ridiculous)? Is there a difference in the preferred preposition between something that is novel and something that is institutionalized?

  40. AiNJ

    It would be a little convoluted for me to answer on the on on thread your point made here. (Sorry, Lynne!) But I don't need to, since Lynne has already answered you there:

    Some temporal ons are often pointed out to me. AmE speakers can do something Wednesday or on Wednesday but BrE speakers need the on.

  41. Matt

    especially considering that the preposition is one of the most fundamental components of the language

    Surely not. A preposition typically 'joins the dots' where some syntactic relationship is already weakly suggested by word order or (not so much in English) by 'case' forms.

    Pay cash makes sense to me, even though it's not what I usually say. Inserting in or with or by doesn't alter the sense, and any phrase has the potential to be effortlessly intelligible — once users have become familiar with it.

    Pay by will, I'm pretty sure, persist in my lexicon whatever new-fangled means are developed for settling a bill face-to-face in full.

    I don't and won't say pay by online. But I do and will (probably) use pay by with different mechanisms of online payment in full: BACS, CHAPS, EFT or whatever. Similarly I use pay by with mechanisms of scheduled payments: standing order, direct debit

    I see nothing to stop me saying pay by phone. (Though I probably won't be doing it.) If different apps are developed, I see nothing wrong with pay by [NAME OF APP].

  42. I'm mentally pretending shake my finger at you, David Crosbie. You broke Lynne's rule again – we all did, earlier, although I thought it was okay because my original point was to the wording in this post – just so you could provide me with a quote that I'd already acknowledged in my first comment!

    I am also sorry, Lynne. I really did think it wasn't rule-breaking since I was questioning the way the example was presented here.

    – AiNJ

  43. When one says of a television programme that it 'was on', that is is verbal phrase. The 'on' is not a preposition. It doesn't get turned into one by being followed by a word like 'Tuesday' which in BrEng is often preceded by 'on' used as a preposition.

    As evidence of that, it would be quite feasible for a person to say 'the programme/gram was on on Tuesday'.

  44. Dru

    it would be quite feasible for a person to say 'the programme/gram was on on Tuesday'

    I'm not sure it would be feasible to say anything else in my speech.

  45. Back on this thread there was another preposition vs no preposition clash. In this case it's AmE that has the extra word:

    BrE free vs AmE for free.

  46. I (US) find "pay by cash" to be ungrammatical, so I don't think I ever say it. "Pay by Card" sounds wrong to me as well, but because "Credit" is omitted there. I would say "Pay by Credit" if I'm feeling lazy.

    This has all been largely academic for me as paying cash has been exceedingly rare, but with the recent rise of different price of gasoline (petrol) depending on cash vs credit in my part of the world (New Jersey), I talk about this a lot more than before. Incidentally, this forced me to modify my usual "Regular, fill up please" to the attendant (self service is illegal in NJ) to "Regular, fill up please, cash" (or more rarely credit). I've always wondered whether I was putting "cash" in the right place in my requests.

    Incidentally, is your use of "on analogy" British? I would say "by analogy" there.

  47. Boris

    Lynne was challenged over on analogy not long ago on the bake off thread.

    It turns out to be a term used a lot in American Linguistics. The nearest BrE would appear to be on an analogy, though I must say I find that strange too.

    PS I'd rather that you called by pay by cash 'unidiomatic' rather than 'ungrammatical'.

  48. Pay by card/cash/credit etc is very common in Australia. I'd even say its the most common way to phrase it.

  49. Matt - I thought "different to" was AmE! I too find it jarring, but I had thought of it as one of those annoying Americanisms that are creeping into BrE as a result of films and TV.
    Dru - Surely if you say a TV programme "was on" it implies "was on TV"?


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AmE = American English
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