Book week: One language, two grammars?

Book Week continues...

Free book 6: One language, two grammars? differences between British and American English

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A lot of the interesting work about British and American English these days is not coming from Britain or America, but from the home countries of other Germanic languages. This collection, edited by Günter Rohdenburg and Julia Schlüter is a case in point; German, Swiss, and Swedish universities are better represented in the table of contents than the US or UK. The 19 chapters cover a range of topics--many of which I've not got(ten) (a)round to posting about here, with a few exceptions (like this one). 

I won't try to go through all of the chapters here--you can read the table of contents at the publisher's (Cambridge University Press) site. The book tests the sociolinguistic aphorism that "accent divides, syntax unites" by taking a much closer look at the patterns of language use and grammatical change in these two major varieties of English and questioning whether there are more differences than first meet the eye. In summing up the findings, the editors note that generalizations about grammatical differences "remain confined to system-internal, intrinsic tendencies" (p. 5). The four generalizations they make are:
  • AmE has "greater tolerance and inclination" (p. 5) toward(s) the structures of colloquial speech, with California setting trends, while the east coast is more conservative. BrE is comparatively more formal (in writing--most of the work here is on written corpora. That they find these differences in writing is interesting because in general there's a pull toward similarity in writing, difference in spoken forms). 
  • AmE exhibits a pull towards(s) regularization of patterns in both morphology (e.g. how past tenses or plurals are made) but also in syntax--for example, using more comparatives (which can be applied to any adjective) where -er ones might be possible (in Britta Mondorf's chapter).
  • AmE tends more toward(s) explicitness. While the same things are grammatical in both varieties, AmE users often choose forms that put a lighter cognitive load on the hearer/reader or they add clarifying information, where BrE users tend to leave more implicit. (I have to say, I found the evidence for this a bit too mixed to be totally convinced by, but I often feel it true when reading British writing--things like leaving off that in relative clauses and lower use of commas seem to make the reading harder going, requiring more sentence restarts. But I can't know whether that's just me. A colleague and I once discussed doing an eye-tracking study on this, but then our eye-tracking contact moved away. Anyone want to eye-track with us?)
  • AmE "shows a more marked tendency to dispense with function words that are semantically redundant and grammatically omissible". This is kind of funny considering how many complaints I listen to about Americans having of in things like off of the sofa or how big of a catastrophe, not to mention the greater British tendency to leave off that in relative clauses (e.g. The sofa (that) I sat on). But the evidence here comes from lesser use of reflexive pronouns (e.g. acclimate/acclimati{s/z}e (oneself) to) and not using prepositions after certain verbs (e.g. protest), both of which are discussed in chapters by Rohdenburg.  
Another general theme of the book is discerning the evidence for colonial lag, the idea that language changes slower and older forms remain preserved in colonial-type offshoots of a language. There's not much evidence for that lag here--but it's also not the case that AmE is always the innovator.

This is a book for academics, really. If you're an editor wanting more insight on which prepositions to put with which verbs, you want Algeo's book in the same series.

This is another book that I've had for an embarrassingly long time (published 2009) before reviewing it. The main reason for this lag: my god, this book is heavy. They sent me the hardcover, and it is shockingly heavy for 461 pages. I tend to do book-review reading on plane or train journeys, and when there's a heavy book to do, I often photocopy a chapter at a time to take on the journeys, so I don't break my back. I couldn't stand to do that for this book because it saves its bibliography for the very end, rather than at each separately-authored chapter, and I hate reading chapters without bibliographies. The other little complaint that I have to Cambridge University Press (publisher of many fine books!) is the re-starting of section numbering in each chapter. Yes, this is really (BrE) anorak-ish/(orig. AmE) nerdy and minor, but if a book has lots of section 5s when I'm looking for section 5 of chapter 12, it would be so much easier if it were marked as section 12.5.

But never mind the physical flaws, it's a really interesting book!


A post-script: I've just discovered that I've double-reviewed one of this week's books! Re-inventing my own wheels. No wonder my to-do list doesn't get any shorter...


  1. It is interesting when you go deeper and see from where different words /grammar have come from.The English language has picked up bits from so many places!

  2. Thank you, Lynne, for introducing me to the British anorak. I wondered how on earth a parka came to be synonymous with nerd, and Wikipedia came to the rescue:

    In 1984 the Observer newspaper used the term as an alternative term for the prototype group interested in detailed trivia, the trainspotters, as members of this group often wore unfashionable but warm coats called anoraks when standing for hours on station platforms or along railway tracks, noting down details of passing trains.

    The first use of the phrase to describe an obsessive fan has also been credited to the radio presenter Andy Archer, who used the term in the early 1970s for fans of offshore radio, who would charter boats to come out to sea to visit the radio ships.

    1. When I worked in radio, people who lurked around the front door hoping to meet a presenter were sometimes referred to as fanoraks. A nice twist, I thought

  3. David Marjanović09 June, 2016 21:24

    not to mention the greater British tendency to leave off that in relative clauses (e.g. The sofa (that) I sat on).

    I'm surprised by that. I know someone who seems to never use relative pronouns at all and is born & bred in Seattle.

  4. What about the strong preference in US English for a simple past tense in situations where UK English would insist on using 'have + past participle', as in the peculiar question for a UK speaker that sometimes appears on computer screens 'did you forget your password?' In UK English that has to be 'have you forgotten your password?'. 'Did you forget your password?' could only be a question about something that happened in the past, hoever recent, not about something that continues into the present.

  5. Dru, I always told students that it wasn't the fact of being recent or continuing into the present,but the fact of having present relevance.

    There's a thread with 60 replies on; The Present Perfect (click here), to which we both contributed.

    Yes, being recent or continuing up to the present quite often trigger Present Perfect — but as special cases of present relevance.

    Note that I said I always told students. The Past Simple is because I'm retired. When I was still a teacher, I would say I 've always told students — another special case of present relevance.

    As I see it, BrE grammar and AmE grammar are identical in their formation of Present Perfect and Past Simple. When speakers make a different choice between the two, it's not a mater of grammar but of pragmatic perception.

  6. There is a link to that in the post--though it just says "like this one".

    The book makes clear that this is a process that was sped up, but not started, in the US.

  7. David, I had not forgotten that. It's more that I was commenting agains because as it relates to the use of tenses, it strikes me as a more significant difference than some of the others.

    Differences in which prepositions one uses where are also quite interesting in my opinion. Thus BrEnglish has moved against 'write' taking two objects, especially when the person written to is named or described, whereas USEnglish seems to remain much more comfortable with a construction that seems to have been normal everywhere in the relatively recent past. Actually, that goes against the claim that USEnglish prefers greater explicitness. On the other hand using 'protest' without 'about', 'that' or some other extra word seems to have been an almost exclusively US development that sounds odd to UK ears - Lynne will undoubtedly tell me that historically I'm completely wrong there.

    I've never heard any construction along the lines of 'how big of a catastrophe'. Is that really normal anywhere? On the other hand, 'off of' is quite widespread in non-standard regional English, particularly the west. So also is 'outside of'. I don't think either is an import.

    A North-American usage I had not encountered until I encountered wikipaedia/wikipedia is 'named for' rather than the more usual here 'named after'.

  8. Dru: Wikipedia is a name. Intentionally misspelling it is rude. I frequently type 'encyclopaedia' when answering questions on Wikipedia.

  9. What IS up with BrE comma usage? As an American who learned pretty strict comma rules growing up (and studied literature through MA level), I find myself having to do a lot of sentence re-starting here in the UK, even when reading articles from highly-regarded publications such as The Guardian and LRB. I can't quite put my finger on the issue. Lack of commas? Too many commas? I think part of it may be lack of diversity in punctuation: I rarely see semicolons used in BrE publications; a travesty!
    I'd be interested to read your thoughts on this or to be directed to a post in which you may have written about it before.

  10. Tammela

    I think part of it may be lack of diversity in punctuation: I rarely see semicolons used in BrE publications; a travesty!

    As a BrE reader(,) I find this sentence difficult to read.

    The colon leads me to expect either some sort of resolution or the start of a list. The following string has no sense of resolution but looks as if it could be the first item in a list. Then the semicolon at the end makes me feel confident that the next string will be another item in the list. But it isn't. And that upsets me.

    It upsets me because the idea is so different in kind: an observation followed by a comment.

    It upsets me because the grammar is so different: a finite clause followed by a noun phrase.

    It upsets me because the rhetorical force is so different: straight declarative followed by exclamation.

    Another problem for me with the exclamation mark is that I expect it to signal exclamatory force to the whole sentence, not to just one element.

    My use of (,) means that I might put a comma there one day(,) but I might feel differently tomorrow. Like many BrE writers, I place more reliance on how I want a sentence to sound when read aloud than I do on set routines for set grammatical patterns.

  11. Tammela

    I think part of it may be lack of diversity in punctuation: I rarely see semicolons used in BrE publications; a travesty!

    I wrote a response to this last night, but I seem not have posted it. I did say that as a BrE reader I found the sentence 'hard to read'. I should have said 'disturbing to read'.

    My problem is that the punctuation raises expectations which are dashed. This is not wrong in itself — if that's the stylistic effect you were aiming at. However, I don't think you meant to have the shouty, almost rant-like effect that it had on me.

    A colon (for me) raises different expectations according to how many divisions are to follow.

    • If one division is seen to follows, I expect it to express some sort of resolution.
    • If two or more divisions separated by semicolons are to follow, I expect them to express some sort of list.

    Your sentence raised the latter expectation. So after the observation I rarely see semicolons used in BrE publications;, I expected to see another observation. I certainly didn't expect to see a comment on the observation — still less an exclamation.

    Another problem with the exclamation (for me) is that the exclamation mark belongs only to that isolated noun phrase, not to the whole sentence. Personally, I find that additionally disturbing.

    I find some support in David Crystal's suggestion in Making a Point that

    The trick, in using the semicolon is to maintain grammatical parallelism. The semicolon happily links two sentences, or two phrases, or even two words — but they are always two units of the same grammatical kind. It begins to feel uncomfortable when we try to make it link units at different levels...

    Country to your experience of semicolons, Crystal remarks that

    They're much more common in British English than American English.

    It might be that they're more common in the sort of AmE texts that you read, but not in AmE texts as a whole.

  12. David,
    Thank you for your detailed reply to my comment. My sentence that upsets you was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and I realise that it was not standard use of either colons or semicolons. I admit that swapping the colon and semicolon would have made the sentence more readable.

    One common mistake I see with semicolon usage (or lack thereof), both in BrE and AmE, is with 'however': I was taught that, when introducing a contrasting clause/idea in the middle of a sentence, 'however' must always follow a semicolon and be followed by a comma. For example, 'I understand your point; however, I disagree (because...)'. I too often see 'however' used in that context but between two commas, which is absolutely incorrect according to the majority of (all?) style guides. Anyway, I don't think we would disagree about that.

    I agree with your comment that 'My use of (,) means that I might put a comma there one day(,) but I might feel differently tomorrow. Like many BrE writers, I place more reliance on how I want a sentence to sound when read aloud than I do on set routines for set grammatical patterns.' That is how I approach commas, too, although I still find that BrE writers often use them differently from how I would. Perhaps that is connected to slight differences in intonation and sentence stress in BrE and AmE.

  13. Tammela

    I suspect the biggest difference between BrE and AmE writers is that Brits as a whole (obviously there are exceptions) have scant respect for style guides. Some people must buy them since they are still on sale, but I wonder how many people read them — let alone act on them. Even the hugely popular Eats Shoots and Leaves is marketed and consumed as entertainment.

    The one book I do respect on punctuation is David Crystal's Making a Point. Punctuation for BrE writers is very much a matter of taste and choice, and Crystal brings his usual acumen and diligence (and good humour) to analysing what lies behind the variance that these choices are made from.

    For example, he notes that separating punctuation marks address two tasks which are not always compatible: their original functions as guides to speakers reading aloud; and their modern function delineating and organising units of thought. People who actually think about punctuation (which most of us don't) Crystal sees as following one of two approaches: elocutional with the how-to-say-it function as central; and grammatical with the show-the-organisation function as central.

    It might well be that you and Lynne tend more to the grammatical approach, using commas (and other separators) to eliminate any possible ambiguity as to the organisational units intended. By contrast, many BrE writers are reluctant to break up information units defined by stress placement (not just sentence stress, I think) and intonation pattern.

    Both approaches address the reader's problem of processing complexity, but appeal to different processes: the visual analysis of the silent reader; and the auditory analysis of the auding reader listening' to his/her mind's ear.

    [Have you noticed how I've latched on to this colon + semicolon + and routine? I'll probably overuse it for a while, then drop it.]

    David Crystal proposes a third approach. This is a psycholinguistic approach that limits the number and length of sense units to be carried by immediate-recall memory. Thus, if the sense units separated by commas (or, indeed, by semicolons) are too long or too numerous, then the reader's memory will give out before the organisation can become clear.

    This is pure speculation, but could it be this?
    ... that AmE speakers with your reading style are less tolerant of long sense units in memory, while many BrE readers are less tolerant of numerous sense units in the memory devoted to a single sentence.

  14. Tammela

    'I understand your point, however, I disagree (because...)'

    I really don't think any BrE writer would offer any defence for that — unless they were the sort of writer who doesn't believe in any punctuation rules apart from framing a sentence with a capital letter and a full stop/question mark/exclamation mark.

    That punctuation amounts to a combination of

    (1) 'comma splice'
    (2) separated initial however.

    (1) On the whole, comma-splice appeals only to people who don't care about punctuation — or positively despise it. More thoughtful writers may use it to separate very short clauses e.g. I understand, I disagree. And it's the punctuation we apply to Caesar's dispatch. Presumably he wrote vent vidi vici with no punctuation at all. In English we've made it I came, i saw, I conquered.

    (2) Separated initial However, would call for no comment, but for the fact that Michael Gove when Education Secretary identified it as something he didn't like to see in memos. Despite some quite widespread public ridicule, Gove didn't clarify this. So it seems that he's serious and really does see this as a grammatical error.

    Mind you, I'm not altogether happy with your preferred

    'I understand your point; however, I disagree (because...)'

    The semicolon signals that the two halves of the sentence are semantically linked. Without context, the nature of that link is open to interpretation. — and, but or so?

    • If it's clear from the context that it's a but link, then the word however is an unnecessarily heavy reinforcement. I would prefer:

    'I understand your point; I disagree (because...)'

    • If the context is so unclear as to require a heavy however then (for me) the semicolon is too weak a separator. I would prefer:

    'I understand your point. However, I disagree (because...)'

  15. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. I like David Crosbie’s term “auding”. In primary school, once we had mastered the basics of reading, there were very few days when we didn’t have to read out loud. At first, this was to monitor our progress in reading. Later, it became an exercise in using punctuation to correctly use verbal pauses and stress patterns. Lack of punctuation, or it’s unexpected use, is what sends me back to the beginning of a sentence. Which brings me to “however”.

    I have no problem starting a sentence with “However, ...” However, many Brits (see what I did there?) have been taught that this is wrong. They therefore use however as a conjunction. The cat sat on the mat, however it never sat on the rug. This usage stops me dead every time, because I could not easily read the sentence out loud. I could say “The cat sat on the mat. However, it never sat on the rug”. I could even say “The cat sat on the mat. It never, however, sat on the rug”.


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