Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts

double contractions

In the last post, I looked at of instead of have after modal verbs--as in should of gone and might of known--in contrast to the more standard spelling of the contraction 've: should've gone, might've known.  As we saw there, the of spelling was more prevalent in British online writing than American.

I promised then to look at what happens after negation. Here are the options (sticking with contracted have):
could not 've could not of
couldn't 've couldn't of
Again, I'm looking for these in the GloWBE corpus of English from the web. When I search for the of variants, I have to specifically search for a verb after the of in order to block out things like of course or of necessity, where the of isn't standing for have.

The full not versions in the first row of the table offer no surprises. Just as with the modals, there are more of spellings in the British than in the American (126 v 86).
The double-contracted versions in the bottom row get a bit more attention because I've been wanting to investigate the prevalence of double contractions, like n't've and 'd've. I use them quite a bit in writing and often get comments on them, so I've wondered if they're a more American thing. It's important here to remember that we're talking about writing, not speech. I'm not wondering if people say couldn't've--they do. I'm wondering whether they're (orig. AmE) ok with writing it.
First, the expected news: the of variants are more common in BrE, just as they were in the non-negated data. 85 American occurrences v 170 BrE.  Here's the top of the results table:

As you can see, some verbs show greater numbers with AmE, but this is to be expected because the numbers are small and because some of the verbs are used more in AmE than BrE--like figured, which is cut off the table. What's most important is the fact that the British total is twice as high as the American.

Is that just because BrE uses the present perfect (the reason for the have/'ve/of in these verb strings) more than AmE does? If that were so, we'd expect for the 've form to be more typical of British too, but that's not the case:

The tables in the previous post make this case more strongly, since here have the complication of whether people avoid writing double contractions. To test this a bit further, I've looked for another double contraction: 'd've, as in If I knew you were coming, I'd've baked a cake.

This table is a bit confusing because I searched for *'d 've. The 'd  is supposed to be separated from the word before in the corpus, but obviously that didn't happen all the time. So, the first line includes all the I'd'ves and and other things and the lower lines are other items that hadn't been input in the corpus in the right way and aren't included in the first line. It looks like the British part of the corpus suffers a bit more from bad coding of double-contractions. So, looking at the 'total' line at the bottom, there are more AmE double contractions, but not that many more: 67 versus 60.

Looking again at whether of is used instead of 've, it's still more British (59 total) than American (26 total) after 'd. Here's the top of the list:

So, it's not looking like British writers avoid double contractions all that much more than American writers--unless writing of instead of 've is part of an avoidance strategy. 

I found it interesting in the sheet music pictured above (and more than one version of it), it has been printed with a space before the 've. That's another solution--and perhaps that was more common in earlier days? The corpus would not distinguish between the space-ful version and space-less.

And on that note:

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might of, would of, could of, should of

A few years ago, The Telegraph ran an article about Americanisms on the BBC--or rather, an article about complaints about Americanisms on the BBC:
Nick Seaton, Campaign for Real Education, said: “It is not a surprise that a few expressions have crept in but the BBC should be setting an example for people and not indulging any slopping Americanised slang.”
(Tangent: I had to look up slopping, which doesn't seem to be used much as an adjective. Is he using the British slang 'dressing in an informal manner' or the American slang for 'gushing; speaking or writing effusively'? Or is slopping here being used as a euphemistic substitution for another word that ends in -ing?)

But (of course!) half of the 'Americanisms' in their closing list of 'Americanisms that have annoyed BBC listeners' weren't Americanisms. One (face up) was first (to the OED's knowledge) used by Daniel Defoe, the Englishman. Another (a big ask) is an Australianism. But one that really bothered me was this:
  • 'It might of been' instead of 'It might have been'
 Three reasons it bothered me:
  1. Shouldn't it might of been be corrected to it might've been rather than it might have been? That is, of is a misspelling of the similar-sounding 've here. Might've is perfectly good contraction in BrE as well as AmE. Is the complaint that people should say have because they shouldn't be contracting verbs on the BBC, or are they complaining about spelling 've wrong?
  2. We're talking about broadcast television and radio, which are spoken media. You can't see the spelling of what the presenters are saying. So how do they know the presenters said might of and not might've?  Of course, they could have seen it on the (orig. NAmE) closed-captioning/subtitles. But BBC subtitles usually make so little sense that I can't believe anyone would take them as an accurate record of what's been said. (Here's a Daily Mail collection of 'BBC subtitle blunders'.)
  3. I read of instead of 've a lot in my British students' essays. A lot. There's no reason to think they're getting it from American influence, because they'd have to read it and they probably don't get the chance to read a lot of misspel{ed/t} American English. The American books or news they read will have (we hope) been proofread. I suspect that errors like this aren't learn{ed/t}from exposure at all: they are re-invented by people who have misinterpreted what they've heard or who have a phonetic approach to spelling, sounding out the words in their minds as they write.
This particular Telegraph list is one of the things that I mock when I go around giving my How America Saved the English Language talk.  But so far, when I've talked about it, I've just said those three things about it. I have never looked up the numbers for who writes of and who writes 've after a modal verb. I think I've been afraid to, in case it just proved the Telegraph right that it's a very American thing.

I need not have feared! Not only was I right that I see it a lot in the UK, I was also right to feel that I probably see it more in the UK, because --you know what?-- the British spell (at least this bit of English) worse than Americans.

Here are the numbers from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. The numbers stand for how many times these variations occur within about 387 million words of text from the open internet.

non-standard of American British
might of 392 672
would of 926 1634
could of 458 821
should of 442 683
standard 've American British
might've 506  277
would've 4921 3121
could've 2379 1502
should've 1685 1140

I've put the higher number in each row in blue bold in my table in order to reflect how it shows up in GloWBE. The blue-bold indicates that those numbers showed up in the darkest blue in the GloWBE search results, like the GB column here:

(The Canadian numbers are distracting--they're not based on as much text as GB and US.)

The darker the blue on GloWBE, the more a phrase is associated with a particular country. So, it's not just that the of versions are found in BrE--it could be said (if we want to be a bit hyperbolic) that they are BrE, as opposed to AmE.

In both countries, the 've version is used more than the misspelling. Nevertheless, the American numbers were darkest blue for these spellings--indicating the correct spellings are more "American" in some way--though note that the British 've versions are just one shade of blue lighter--the difference is not as stark as in the previous table.

The moral of this story  

It looks like the BBC complainers and the Telegraph writer assumed MODAL+of was an Americanism because they disapprove of it. But remember, kids:

Not liking something is not enough to make it an Americanism.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

When I discovered these facts, I immediately tweeted the would of (etc.) table to the world, and one correspondent asked if the American way of misspelling would've isn't woulda. The answer is: no, not really. Americans might spell it that way if they're trying to mimic a particular accent or very casual speech (I coulda been a contenda!). It's like when people spell God as Gawd--not because they think that's how to spell an almighty name, but because they're trying to represent a certain pronunciation of it. No one accidentally writes theological texts with Gawd in them. But people do write would of in formal text 'accidentally'--because they don't know better, not because they're trying to represent someone's non-standard pronunciation. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, 75% of the instances of coulda occur in the Fiction sub-corpus; authors use it when they're writing dialog(ue) to make it sound authentic. 

But you do get coulda, shoulda and woulda in an AmE expression, which accounts for about 10% of the coulda data. I think of it as shoulda, coulda, woulda, but there does seem to be some disagreement about the order of the parts:

The phrase can be used to mean something like "I (or you, etc.) could have done it, should have done it, would have done it --but I didn't, so maybe I shouldn't worry about it too much now". (A distant relative of the BrE use of never mind.) Sometimes it's used to accuse someone of not putting in enough effort--all talk, no action. 

The English singer Beverley Knight had a UK top-ten single called Shoulda Woulda Coulda, which  may have had a hand in populari{s/z}ing the phrase in BrE (though it's still primarily used in the US).

Another shoulda that's coming up in the GloWBE data is If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it. And I can't hear that now without thinking of Stephen Merchant, so on this note, good night!

Postscript, 5 Feb 2016: @49suns pointed out that I haven't weeded out possible noise from things like She could of course play the harmonica. Good point. British people do write could of course (etc) more than Americans do because they use commas less. Americans would be more likely to write could, of course, play the harmonica--and with the commas it wouldn't be caught by the search software. As well as of course, there's of necessity and other things 'noising up' the data.

I'm not going to re-do all the tables because I've posted this now and many have commented on it.  But the good news (for this post) is that the conclusions about of is pretty much the same if we limit the search to modal + of + verb; it's still more frequently British--especially when preceding been, the case that was complained about in The Telegraph. Here's a sample.

An interesting case at the bottom is should of known, which reverses the pattern. This is just because should [have] known--often in should [have] known better -- is a much more common phrase in AmE than in BrE. Searching should * known, we get:

Looking more closely at that group, I found that 6 of the 21 American should of knowns were from song lyrics (none of the UK ones were), and one was using it as an example in telling people that they shouldn't write should of

The online interface doesn't like me searching for modal+of+verb, so I've had to search for *ould+of+verb, leaving out might and in the post I also left out must.  But having re-searched those, I can tell you: still dark blue in British, not in American.

The other thing I haven't done, which someone (or someones) else has suggested is what happens after negation. That is a lot more complicated, since there are more variations to consider (since both the n't and the have can be contracted).  I'm really interested in that, so I'm going to write a separate post on it next week. Till then!

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theatre / theater

The most obvious difference in American and British theat{er/re} is the spelling, but on top of that there are a number of meaning differences. And then the meanings interfere with the spellings again. Much fun, but this is why I can't write short blog posts. Here we go...

the spelling

Theater is one of those American spellings that is attributed to Noah Webster.* But like most of successful American spelling reforms, it wasn't made up by an American. It was a long-standing spelling in England, and the predominant spelling at the time when the English colonies in America were first being settled. The OED says:

The earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre; from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater (so in Dictionaries from Cawdrey to Kersey), but theatre in Holland, Milton, Fuller, Dryden, Addison, Pope; Bailey 1721 has both, ‘Theatre, Theater’: and between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.
The word started as theatrum in Latin, and in French it lost its -um. The French pronunciation makes sense with the -re spelling, but the modern English pronunciation does not. However we pronounce that syllable, in whichever English accents we have, it is the same syllable that is spel{led/t} -er in words like butter or later. It's thus no wonder that English writers preferred the -er for some time (and Americans have preferred it for most times), since it is the more Englishy spelling, if by 'Englishy spelling' we mean (as I do) 'spelling that reflects English pronunciation'.

The fashion (for these things are fashion) of using the French spelling has won out in Britain for this and many other words of its ilk: centre, calibre, litre, lustre, sombre, etc. But the fashion is not consistent. Cloister, coriander, and disaster (among others)  have -re spellings in French from -rum spellings in Latin, but -er spellings in all standard contemporary Englishes. And then there's metre and kilometre but perimeter and thermometer, etc. Note, though, that despite their common Latin/Greek etymology (metrum), they have different vowels in the me syllable in BrE. American pronunciation of kilometer as 'kill LAH mitter' drives some Brits I know batty, as it obscures the relation between the met{er/re} and the kilomet{er/re}. They prefer 'KILL-o-meetah'. (I just tried to get Better Half to say it. He said 'kill LAH mitter' and explained 'I'm disarmingly transatlantic'.)

This particular difference has a lot in common with the -or/-our difference: variant spelling in early modern English, then American English settling on the more phonetic spelling, and British English settling on the more French spelling. I've more to say about that, but that's going in the book.

(By the way, I'm trying to get into the habit of listing BrE/AmE variants alphabetically. I may not always succeed, but it's why the ones in this post are listed in those particular orders. I'm also trying to alternate which goes first in British/American, US/UK, BrE/AmE, etc. )

the meanings

Let's be quick and put them in a table.
place where you... What Americans usually say What the British usually say
watch a play theater*  theatre
watch a film/movie (movie) theater* cinema

hear a (university) lecture
lecture hall, auditorium lecture theatre
have surgery operating room; OR (operating) theatre

There are of course other uses of theat{er/re} that extend from the 'drama place' use--e.g. political theat{er/re}. They are generally the same in both countries, but for spelling.

spelling again!

Photo by Kevin Dooley (Flickr)
While theater is the general American spelling, one does see theatre in the US in place or organi{s/z}ation names, like the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, Virginia. The same happens with centre in American place names (but never for the 'middle' meaning of center), such as Robinson Town Centre, a (AmE) outdoor mall, or power center/(BrE) retail park in Pittsburgh.  The namers of these places are taking advantage of the fact that you can spell names however you like, and using the British spelling to make the place sound ‘classy'. Needless to say, we don’t see the reverse in the UK.

I particularly like the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, which just mixes it all up. And movie theatres like the one above are to be congratulated for combining a British spelling and an American meaning. Crazy fun.

* This post originally said theater was in Webster's 1828 dictionary, but, as David Crosbie points out in the comments, it was not, though center and caliber and maneuver (vs. BrE manoeuvre) are there. (Sorry--I'd depended on and possibly overinterpreted someone else's work. You can consult the 1828 dictionary here.) The word does not occur at all in Webster's 'Blue-backed speller'.
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a 'foreign spelling' test for GloWBE corpus

In blogging, I rely a lot on the Global Web-Based English corpus, GloWBE, which has millions of words of internet data categori{z/s}ed by the country of the website. It's divided into excerpts from 'blogs' (which includes comments on blogs) and 'general', which includes all sorts of things, even some blogs.

It's an invaluable tool for judging whether a word or phrasing is used in a particular place. But national borders are very weak on the internet, and commenters comment on all kinds of things from all kinds of places. And there are even people like me who are blogging in the 'wrong' country for their dialect (and I have run into some of my own writing in the corpus!). So, how can we know how much of the data that's in the 'US' category is actually by Americans and so forth?

This is a problem that has struck me as I've tried to use GloWBE data to research politeness markers. (I'm giving a paper on please in GloWBE next week.) So, I came up with a little test for foreignness in UK and US--though it won't work for other countries, as you'll see.

The test is based on the -or/-our spelling distinction, and the question is: how much of the data for each of these two countries has the 'wrong' spelling for the country? This works because for the (AmE) thirty-some words that have this spelling variation (except glamo(u)r, which is a funny one that I'll blog about at some point):
  • the 'correctness' of each spelling is long established in each country -- unlike -ise/-ize which is a more recent deviation
  • there's little variation within the country -- unlike, say f(o)etus, where people of different professions might spell it differently, or theat{er/re}, where proper names of US establishments often use the UK spelling
  • they are generally high-frequency words and therefore 'easy' to spell -- unlike paraly{s/z}e or mollus{c/k}, etc.
Here is the result, showing how many of each spelling were found on 'US' and 'GB' (as it is named on GloWBE) data in the corpus:

GB our
GB or
US or
US our
'foreign' rate

In other words,  19% of the -o(u)r words I searched for in the GB corpus had the AmE -or spelling and 12% of the US -o(u)r words had -our spellings. A few of these may just be by people who can't spell or who are putting on airs by using another spelling system, but they're probably a very few. The percentages for the individual words range from 8.9% (tumo(u)r) to 20.9% (vigo(u)r) for the US data and 15.5% (humo(u)r) to 29.1% (odo(u)r) for the GB data. It's important to use a number of words because the data will be skewed if it's just a word that American use more than British people (or vice versa), regardless of spelling. We can see that happening a bit with odo(u)r.

(I'd originally included colo(u)r in the list, which made the total difference more stark: 24% to 14%. I took it out because I suspected that the use of color in HTML coding might be skewing the result.)

So this can lead us to the hypotheses:
About 12% of US blog data is not written by Americans.
About 19% of UK blog data is written by people using American English spelling.
We cannot say that about 12% of the US data were written by British people, or even that 81% of the British data were written by British people, since -our spellings are used in the rest of the anglophone world. Half of the vigours written on British sites might have been written by Australians or Canadians, for all we know. The -or is more a marker of Americanness than -our is a marker of Britishness. But we also can't say that the people spelling -or are Americans, we can only assume they are people whose education in English spelling used American English standards. So, half of the -or spellings might have been written by people in the Phillipines (where American spelling is used). It's unlikely that it's that many, but I've phrased the hypotheses to allow for these possibilities.

Why is the number of American spellings on British sites larger than the number of British spellings on American sites? Well, it might just be because there are nearly five times as many Americans on the internet than there are Brits. (The US has 86.9% internet penetration on a population of around 318 million, so that's over 276 million internet users. The UK has 89.8% penetration in a population of about 63 million, so that's nearly 57 million internet users. Source.) Of course, there are a lot more countries involved here (and I'm not going to go do all that adding-up at the moment), but that's a reasonable step toward(s) explaining the difference, and one that doesn't involve running around screaming 'the sky is falling on British English'!

So, what this means is that if we look for differences between American and British Englishes on GloWBE and see that a form that's used in Britain is used 10% as much in America, we can't conclude that the Britishism is gaining traction in the US, because there's a fair likelihood that the people who used the Britishism weren't American. If we see one with 40% use in the US, however, we can aver that it's well on its way to being established there.

Anyhow, I'm glad I decided to explain that all in a blog post, as it makes it clearer in my mind for explaining it in about 10 seconds as I fly by that slide in my presentation next week. If you see any flaws in my thinking or math(s), please let me know!

In other news (aka shameless self-promotion):
The Odditorium people have made a podcast of my Catalyst Club talk about little words (especially the). It's a bit odd without the visuals, but they do call themselves 'oddpodcast', after all.

I'm speaking at two conferences in the next two weeks, plus have a few public speaking engagements in the future. Follow the links for more info. If you're nearby, come say (orig. AmE in this form) hello!

23 July (with Rachele de Felice): The politics of please in British and American English. Corpus Linguistics conference, University of Lancaster.

31 July Separated by a Common Politeness Marker: please in British and American English. International Pragmatics Association Conference, Antwerp.  
17 Sept How America Saved the English Language.  The Bedford Culture Club (Horsham, W Sussex). 

Further ahead, titles yet to be confirmed:
27 Sept  Sunday Assembly Brighton.  
27 Nov (Thanksgiving dinner--a day late)  English-Speaking Union, Chichester.
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f(o)etus and f(o)etal —and a bit on sulfur/sulphur

If you're looking for discussion of other (o)e or (a)e words, please click here to see/comment at the more comprehensive post on the topic.

So, as we've seen in that aforementioned blog post, British and American spelling differ sometimes in the use of the ligature (connected letter) œ, or as it's more often written now, the digraph (two letters for one sound) oe. To give a quick summary of the story so far:
  • English took a lot of its œ words from Latin.
  • Latin got them from Greek. œ is Latin's way of representing the Greek .
  • American English (following Noah Webster and other spelling reformers) usually simplifies the Latin/Greek oe to e
But then there's foetus (or fœtus). This is a British spelling of the Latin word fetus. That is to say, the œ might look like it comes from a classical language, but it just doesn't. Sometime in the 16th century, someone (mistakenly, one might say) started spelling it with an œ, and it stuck.

This creates a dilemma for British spellers who know a bit about Latin. Spell it foetus and commit a little etymological crime. Spell it fetus and get accused of Americanization by people who don't know about the Latin—and maybe even by some who do know about it. And if there's one thing worse than committing Latin sins, it's being accused of spelling like an American.

But still, brave British doctors have fought to get rid of the o, mostly by writing letters to the editor of major medical journals. Here's one:

I shall resist to the  last ditch any movement for the general replacement of diphthongs* by single vowels – the American practice. But when, etymologically, the foreigner is correct and we are wrong, it would seem that by adhering obstinately to a false diphthong we are weakening our case for maintaining our justifiable diphthongs in the face of contrary “common usage” by far more than half the English-writing world. (Napier, L. Everard. 1 Nov. 1952. The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp. 885-6.)

The Lancet and the British Medical Journal now consider fetus and fetal the ‘correct’ spellings, and the Oxford Dictionaries entry for fetus remarks:
The spelling foetus has no etymological basis but is recorded from the 16th century and until recently was the standard British spelling in both technical and non-technical use. In technical usage fetus is now the standard spelling throughout the English-speaking world, but foetus is still found in British English outside technical contexts

At the foetus entry, it just says: "Variant spelling of fetus (chiefly in British non-technical use)."

How true is this, that it's the accepted technical spelling in the UK? In The Lancet and the BMJ, it's doctors writing for other doctors. What about the rest of the medical professions? What about when medical types communicate with patients?

My first stop was the NHS Choices website, where the readers are would-be patients. A search for foetus brings up 27 hits, but fetus has 7. But, going the other way, foetal has 66 hits and fetal 82. What's going on?

I contacted the website to ask if they had a policy on this and they were extremely helpful (as the NHS always has been for me ♥). They put me in contact with their Head of Editorial Production, who sent me both a link to their style guide (which has fetus as an Americanism to be avoided) and his own document entitled 'Fetality', which he wrote when the Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme (so spelled) asked if the rest of the website could switch to fetal/fetus. In his paper he gives several arguments for retaining foetus/foetal, even on pages where it will conflict with the FASP program(me)'s spelling, but I think this first one is key:
NHS Choices is a ‘British English’ service and, as stated in its Editorial Style Guide, is bound to:
·       Write plain English
·       Avoid medical jargon and technical terms as far as possible
On the basis of those two points, if it is accepted that foetus is the general spelling and fetus the technical-medical, NHS Choices should use foetus.
Bolton, Barry. 2014. Fetality. Internal document, NHS. Received with thanks from the author.)
Looking again at the o-less hits on the NHS Choices site, many of them seem to be in comments from site users—so the house style doesn't apply. Are they misspelling it, or do they know the 'technical' spelling? Why so many more fetals? Possibly because it's in the name of a lot of things, not just the FASP program(me), such as the 'Fetal Medicine Unit team at St George's Hospital', which is indeed how the hospital spells that unit's name.

It's an interesting mixture: the NHS website keeps the traditional British spelling in communication with patients in order to avoid technical language, but the hospitals and such seem quite happy to foist the technical spelling on patients in the names of units and program(me)s.

To investigate this a little further, I did a little survey in which I asked for UK medical personnel to tell me which spelling they would use in a work context: foetus or fetus, sulphur or sulfur and amoeba or ameba. F(o)etus was the only one that respondents disagreed about:

(The 'it depends' person gave that answer for every question and said they'd use the American spelling if they were writing to an American.)

I invited respondents to explain their preferences to me, but unfortunately only four did, and two of those used the space to tell me about words I hadn't asked about. The two relevant comments were:
I am an allied health professional who wouldn't use these words much in my work, but these were how I was taught to spell them at school. I've heard in the past that "foetus" is completely wrong, though I can't quite remember why and I write the word so infrequently that I wouldn't change my spelling of it anyway!
and apparently not knowing about the etymology of fetus:
Homogenisation of the English language to accommodate American English is a pernicious assault on the richness and diversity of English usage. It shouldn't be tolerated!
Unfortunately, I didn't ask for demographic information beyond country of abode, so I can't see whether the people who prefer fetus are in professions in which they need the word more often than the ones who prefer foetus.

But my impression is that fetus/fetal seems to be something of a medical shibboleth in the UK now. Doctors use the e spelling and it sets them apart as 'in the know', and maybe they don't mind that the rest of the country goes about putting the o in it. All the better to tell who the truly educated are. I'd love to hear from people 'in the know' in the comments. Have I got that wrong?

And before I leave, a note about the other false etymological form that readers of The Lancet (well, at least one) have tried to change. Here's another letter to the editor:
SIR,-Spelling is a curious blend of phonetics, etymology, tradition, and nonsense ; we should take care not to let the last preponderate. Dr. Napier (Nov. 1) is to be congratulated on his attack on the absurd o which it is customary now to insert into fetus. I would like to raise support for a similar attack on the ph with which we generally mis-spell sulfur and the other words derived from it. Sulfur comes from a Latin word. Undeniably some Latin authors used the ph form, but there is good reason to think that this was a blunder, and most of the European languages that use the Latin root have not followed the erroneous spelling. The spelling sulfur was common in Britain from the 14th to 18th centuries, and this presumably explains its present day use in the U.S.A. It is in no sense an American innovation.  (Pirie, N.W. 15 Nov. 1952.The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp.987-8.)

The argument for sulfur seems not to have been heard—sulphur still rules Britannia absolutely.

*It's a digraph, not a diphthong, but what do doctors know?

In other news...
Votes, please? I failed to be self-promotional enough to make it to the voting round for's Top Language Lovers blog competition this year. (I foolishly assumed being nominated was enough to get to the voting round.) But I did get to the finals for my Twitter feed, under my name (Lynne Murphy), rather than my Twitter handle (@lynneguist). But if you (BrE) fancy helping me out with a vote (or sabotaging me with a vote against!), please click here to go to the voting page.

Cheeky Nando's: Marking season is to blame for many things, including my failure to do a timely, topical post on the Buzzfeed 'Cheeky Nando's' phenomenon. But happily Ben Yagoda has done one at the Chronicle of Higher Education Lingua Franca blog, so now I probably don't have to!  (To discuss cheeky Nando's, I recommend leaving comments at his post.) What I have done a post on is the BrE use of 'a [fast-food type]' to refer to a fast-food meal (a Chinese, a Burger King and, of course, a Nando's).

Thanks for reading to the bottom—this is longer than the (BrE) first-year essays I assign!
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Typically, as we've discussed before, two-syllable words from French are stressed on their first syllable in BrE and on the second in AmE -- BALlet versus balLET, BAton versus baTON, etc. (Please see and comment on the linked post if that's the issue you're interested in.)

photo from:

This led me to wonder about shallot because it looks like a French borrowing (so many food words are), but the stress pattern is makes it look like it isn't:  BrE shalLOT versus AmE SHALlot or shalLOT. (You can hear them both in an American accent here.)  American dictionaries tend to list the second-syllable stress version first--apparently considering that as most "correct". But I've always said SHALlot and can't recall hearing an American say shalLOT. For example, here's video of an American editor at a cooking magazine saying it the way I say it. (American and British vowel qualities in the word differ in predictable ways: we are firmly divided by the 'lot' vowel--or vowels, taking into account the variety found. Here I'm just going to focus on the stress pattern.)

So why doesn't it follow the two-syllable French-borrowing pattern? Probably because it's not a two-syllable French word. The French eschalotte has lost its first vowel in its journey into contemporary English.

Eschalotte was borrowed into English with the e at the beginning (at least in writing), though it lost the one at the end. The OED has citations for eschalot(t) in English from 1707 into the 19th century. But was that first e ever pronounced? One of the OED's citations is from Johnson's dictionary:

1755   Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang.,   Eschalot. Pronounced shallot.
The citations for shal(l)ot go earlier than those for the more French-looking version--back to 1664, making it look even more like that first e has been ignored from the (AmE) get-go.

Nevertheless, English seems to have some kind of sense-memory that we shouldn't treat it like ballet or beret or other French two-syllable words, because it isn't one. Nevertheless I see it and my reptilian high-school brain wants me to say 'shalLO' because that -ot reminds me of things like escargot and Margot.

The OED gets a bit judg(e)mental about the spelling:
The spelling shallot, though inferior to shalot because it suggests a wrong pronunciation, is now the more common.
Now, if they want me to come down hard on the 'lot' (as I know they do), I don't really understand that comment. Perhaps they mean that people might say SHALL-ot because they see shall in it. Well, that is what Americans do, but I can't imagine that we'd pronounce it like the dictionaries (and the British) tell us to if it had only one 'l'. I see shalot and I want to say it like chalet with an o.

If you're an American who says shalLOT, let us know--and please tell us where you got it from (i.e. what part of the country you learn{ed/t} the word in, or whether you've been influenced by BrE).

Meanwhile, I'm taking comfort in the fact that eschalotte shares history with (mostly AmE) scallion, since when I want a shallot I usually have to take a few moments to remember that scallion isn't the word for it.

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When I started this blog, I wrote short little posts about things I noticed in British and American English. Few read them, and I usually managed to write three a week.  Since then, many more readers and commenters have appeared ([AmE] howdy! thank you!). As I imagine this larger audience responding to posts about X with "But what about Y?", I try to fit the Ys in.  Sometimes the Ys are other expressions that I could discuss; sometimes they are beliefs about language that may or may not have basis in reality. As a result, my posts have got(ten) much longer and less frequent. (The latter is also due to parenthood and more responsibility at work. But [BrE] hey-ho.) I now look back on old posts and think: I can do better! So I'm going to have [more BrE than AmE] another go at the pronunciation of herb, which I first dedicated six sentences to in the second month of this blog.

I've more sentences about it because I (BrE) go about/(AmE) go around discussing it in my talk: "How America Saved the English Language". It's one of a long list of differences for which the folklore is faulty, with people like comedian David Mitchell (below) assuming and repeating that Americans don't pronounce the 'h' in herb because we think we (or the word) are French. (The implication here is that the British are not under the illusion that they are French. Except of course that they eat aubergine rather than eggplant and increasingly use -ise instead of -ize and spell centre with the letters in a very French order. And so on. And so forth.)

Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb as well as tidbit/titbit. Had he just looked it up, he would have found the following information.

From the Middle Ages, the word in English was generally spelled (or spelt, if you prefer) erbe, from the Old French erbe—but sometimes it was spelled with an h, after the Latin herba. From the late 15th century the h was regularly included in the spelling in English, but it continued not to be pronounced for nearly 400 years. This was not a problem for English, of course. We often don't pronounce written h, for example in hour and honest and heir, and our ancestors didn't pronounce it in humo(u)r, hospital, or hotel. Change and confusion about these things leads to the oddity of some people insisting that some (but not other) words that start with a pronounced h should nevertheless be preceded by an, not a, as if the h weren't pronounced. (AmE) To each his/her own/(BrE) each to his/her own...

The h in herb finally started being pronounced in the 19th century in Britain. By this time, the US was independent and American English was following a separate path from its British cousin. Why did the English start pronouncing it then? Because that's when h-dropping was becoming a real marker of social class in England. If you wanted to be seen as literate (or at least not Cockney) you had to make sure that people knew you lived in a house, not an 'ouse. This 1855 cartoon from Punch (reproduced as a postcard for the British Library's Evolving English exhibition) illustrates:

The result seems to have been more self-consciousness about pronouncing h where it was in the spelling, and some h's got louder where they had not previously been heard. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir? I don't know.

So, pronouncing herb without the h is the Queen's English, if we're talking Elizabeth I, rather than Elizabeth II.

And in case you were wondering:  Americans pronounce the h in the name Herb, which has a different history from the plant herb.
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-og and -ogue

Rachel Ward aka @FwdTranslations just asked me via Twitter:

Trying to check usage of epilog(ue) and prolog(ue) in US spelling. Seen suggestion that "ue" forms still more widely used. True?
 And I felt the need to blog this immediately, since this is something that niggles me about British understanding of US spelling sometimes. I am often being told that Americans don't write catalogue, they write catalog. The same for dialogue/dialog. But, the thing is, I've always (or at least since I was a grown-up) used the -ue in all of them. Because the shorter forms are only American, from the British perspective, the shorter forms are "the American spelling". But from the American perspective, most wouldn't consider the longer forms to be "the British spelling" in the same way that we'd consider colour or centre as British spellings. They're just alternative spellings, listed in American dictionaries without any dialect marking. Noah Webster is generally credited/blamed for these kinds of 'shortenings' in AmE, but he used dialogue in at least the earliest edition of his Blue-Backed Speller. The move for this change seems to have come later, in the period when Melvil(le) Dewey (he of the Dewey Decimal System) was a leading spelling-reform advocate. In an article in Verbatim on The American Spelling Reform Movement, Richard Whelan writes:

During the 1890s, a few state legislatures passed bills calling for simplified spelling to be taught in public schools, and the prestigious American dictionaries began to acknowledge the call for reform, first by listing simplifications in appendices, and eventually transferring some to the main entries as acceptable alternatives.

The turning point came in February 1897, when the National Education Association (NEA) resolved that all of its official correspondence and publications would thenceforth use simplified spellings for twelve words: catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, program, tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, and thruout. This move brought the issue of spelling reform to wide public attention and forced even many conservatives to take seriously what they had previously dismissed as the folly of cranks

But note that the ue-less forms have pre-American precedent. For instance, the OED notes that from Middle English to the 16th century dialogue was mostly dialoge (as it was in the French of the time), and sometimes dialog. The spelling dialogue is really only seen after this, following a spelling change in French.

So, for fun, here's how some of these spellings fare in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and Noah Webster's namesake, the Merriam-Webster (online) Dictionary. The middle two columns give the raw numbers of how many of each spelling is found for the singular noun form of each of these words. The last column says which spelling is given first by Merriam-Webster.

-ogue-og M-W
catalog(ue)25594955           catalog
dialog(ue)12657               702*dialogue
monolog(ue)         1098 7 monologue
pedagog(ue)560** pedagogue
prolog(ue)890 3 prologue

So THE ONLY ONE that is more frequently used in the shorter form in AmE is catalog(ue), and even then, the longer form is well represented. In other words, the most commercial term is the most likely to use the shorter form. [And, afterthought: also the one that is closest to Dewey's heart, as a library term.] Despite the National Education Association's example, this spelling reform has not been wholly successful.

Some footnotes to the table:

*The case of dialogue is interesting because of dialog box, which is spelled/spelt without the -ue in computer jargon in both countries. This is like the case of program, which is longer (programme) in most senses in BrE, but which uses the shorter (AmE) form for the computer sense. (And color in html and so forth. One could say that America runs computing jargon, or one could say that programmers prefer shorter and consistent forms. Or one could say it's a bit of both.)  Anyhow, 375 (53%) of the 702 cases of dialog here are in the phrase dialog box and its variants (dialog boxes, dialog box-in). (There are also 18 cases of dialogue box[es].) So, this means that outside this two-word compound, dialogue outnumbers dialog in AmE by 38:1.

** There was one case of pedagogs in COCA.  There were 0 cases of demagog or demagogs. So, while M-W lists these as variants, they don't seem to have made deep inroads into the written language.

*** I meant to do analog(ue) too, and was reminded of it when commenters started asking for it, so here it is, several hours later.  This one is noteworthy because M-W says for the adjective that analogue is a 'chiefly British variant' of analog, rather than just listing it as an alternative spelling, but for the noun sense it has analogue as the preferred spelling for the noun--which is in contrast with the numbers from COCA [thanks to @empty in the comments for pointing out my error]. Like catalog and dialog box, its "technological" senses are more common. So we have a general pattern here of literary words keeping the -ue and more techie stuff dropping it.

My to-do list says that I'm (BrE) marking/(AmE) grading this morning. Please don't tell my to-do list that I was here.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)