Showing posts sorted by date for query canadian. Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query canadian. Sort by relevance Show all posts

off of, redux

I’ve written about off of on this blog before, in reaction to British complaints about it as a horrid Americanism. In my day job, I’m writing about it again from different angles, so I was thrilled to see that some researchers in Helsinki and Stockholm have undertaken much more wide-ranging and in-depth research about it than has ever been attempted: 
Vartiainen, Turo, and Mikko Höglund. 2020. How to make new use of existing resources: tracing the history of geographical variation of off of. American Speech 95: 408–40. 
Their paper, as the title hints at, is very much about getting around the problems of studying the history of and variation within the English language, given the impoverished nature of the data we have. There’s lots of English out there, but it’s not always easy to get a balanced view of it. For example, it’s not enough to know where a work was published, you need to know where its author was from. For another example, if all the evidence you have from Sussex is from farmers and all that you have from Yorkshire is from school teachers, then your regionality conclusions are going to be tarnished by other contrasts. Sometimes data sets give this info. More often you either have to go hunting for it and/or the information doesn't exist.

Vartiainen and Höglund have come to their conclusions by triangulating evidence from a number of corpora, each with their own limitations, but together rather convincing. At one chronological end, they’re using the Early English Books Online (EEBO, 1470s–1690s) corpus and, at the other end, a corpus that is updated daily in the present, News on the Web (from which they only use regional UK news sources). They’ve also included a range of sources for American English.  
Off of only really takes off in the 17th century. (I won’t go into why that’s so interesting because I have to save things for my book!) In the 19th century, prescriptivists start saying how horrible it is. British prescriptivists have been more damning of it (“vulgarly superfluous”, “a Cockneyism and incorrect”), but American style guides advise against it too (“much inferior to off without the preposition”). The authors suggest that prescriptive attitudes have colo(u)red linguistic description of the term, and there’s pretty clear evidence of this, I’d say, in a lot of the British writing about it, where off of is presented as something from America. Huddleston and Pullum’s (generally excellent) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language claims off of is only used in AmE. Vartiainen and Höglund show that this just isn’t true, and moreover it never was.  
Off of originates in England and has consistently been used there. What’s striking is how regional it’s stayed. Here are their maps of where it was most used before 1700 and in the 21st century. It is very much a southern thing.

This gives a big clue about the presence of off of in AmE: 
Importantly, much of the EEBO data predates the Great Puritan Migration to America that took place between 1620 and 1640 (…). Considering that many of the early colonies were founded by people from East Anglia (…), it is likely that they took this form with them. (p. 428) 
They go on to cite examples of off of in the Salem Witchcraft Trials: 
Since then, off of use declined in the US until the 1970s, when it started to go up—possibly as a result of a general tendency toward(s) colloquiali{s/z}ation in written English. It remains mostly a spoken form but has been on the increase in edited text like magazines and newspapers (though not in academic texts). 
…the older generations may have noticed the increased frequency of off of in public texts (a recency effect), while the younger generations may be sensitive to the form’s high frequency in American English when compared to the other varieties of English. (p. 428) 
While it’s certainly possible that the off of surge in AmE could affect current BrE, the evidence from the British data is that it has always been used there. If AmE is having an effect, perhaps it’s just providing a kind of linguistic mirror that makes the form feel less non-standard to those who are already hearing and/or using it in their regional Englishes. The authors conclude that: 
…when it comes to regional variation, we have seen that off of is frequently attested in so many parts of England that the whole idea of its being a “regional form” should be questioned. Indeed, based on the results of this study it would seem that in many cases the perceptions that British speakers have of their avoidance of off of [as a regional and/or American form] are due to highly entrenched prescriptive attitudes instead of their actual usage patterns, although we have no doubt that the form is rare enough in some regions, particularly in the West and Northwest of England, to genuinely affect acceptability judgments. (pp. 434–5) 
There remain problems in making direct comparisons of English from different times and places. For example, the AmE corpora include no casual conversation, but the BrE data do. The authors therefore have to be cautious in comparing rates of usage in the two countries, There is some indication that off of is far more widespread in AmE than in other Englishes. In the GloWBE corpus of web-based English (written, but often not as formal as published English), AmE has 26.2 off of per million words versus 21.5 in Canadian English and 8.7 in British. (That data set has not seen the same care as their main data sets, though. It may contain false hits,  probably contains duplications and can’t give a regional picture.) 
The paper includes research on the variants offen and offa. I won’t cover them here, but just mention them to say: oh it’s all so complex and transatlantic. 
In all, a fascinating read for someone who’s always thinking about function words and transatlantic linguistic comparisons. (That’s me!) I thank the authors for it and American Speech for publishing it. 

Related reading 
If you're interested in out of, it's covered at the original off of post
. You're welcome to leave comments there and keep that conversation going.

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 I have a note above my desk that says "Next blog post: roast(ed)". It's been there for three years, since Melissa L wrote to say:

Dear Lynne,

I teach English in Germany and enjoy your blog.

I am a native speaker of American English. Most of my teaching material uses British English. I spend a lot of time thinking about and paying attention to the differences between AmE and BrE (though maybe not as much as you).

Anyway, in an exercise about dishes on the holiday table, there was roast turkey and roast potatoes.

I would say roasted potatoes.

Roasted is an adjective made out of the participial form of a verb. We make such modifiers all the time—as we say in linguistics, it's a productive morphological process. You could have a written resignation letter, a fried dumpling, a worn path. So, roasted vegetables or roasted turkey don't need much explanation: we're just using the tools that English gives us.

The question more is: what's going on with roast? Is roast beef a compound noun? It's a roast and it's beef. No, that also seems to be a past-participle of the verb, one that goes back to Middle English. These days, it seems only to be used as an adjective. People generally don't things like "I have roast a turkey" or "A turkey has been roast" these days.
So, we've ended up with two participial adjectives meaning 'having been cooked by roasting', and we have preferences for which foods we use each with. It's pretty much always roast beef in all Englishes. Roast turkey and roast chicken and roast lamb are preferred over roasted, but not as strongly as for beef. (I've kept the chart to three meats for viewability.) (Note that I've put the in the searches to make sure that the roast is not a verb.)

So it looks like roast is generally preferred over roasted with meats, but (except for beef), this looks stronger in BrE than AmE. So while roast is common with turkey and chicken in both, there are more roasteds in AmE than in BrE. (It looks like Canadian English really likes roasted turkey, but all of the examples come from a single source.)

What else can be "roast"? I asked the GloWBE corpus interface to give me the nouns after roast that differ most between US and UK. Remember: the tables below do not show the most common nouns after roast (that would be beef). They're for showing the ones that differ most. So green in the UK (right) side, means that those expressions are strongly British. The darker the green, the stronger the difference. Pink/red means NOT associated. The white ones in the table are very similar in the two.
(GloWBE doesn't seem to tag the adjective roast as an adjective, so I can only ask for the word roast, which means that some of the roasts in these numbers are the verb, as in They roast coffee for a living. Nevertheless, digging into the data shows that these roast+noun combinations mostly have roast as an adjective.)
Roast dinner stands out in the UK data. This is a meal (traditionally a Sunday roast) with some roast(ed) meat or vegetarian alternative, roast(ed) potatoes, lots of different vegetables, gravy and often a Yorkshire pudding. (I'm shocked to see that I didn't mention Yorkshire puddings in my pudding post. So there's a Wikipedia link if you need one.) A big part of the BrE roast dinner is the potatoes, which also show up strongly in the UK side of the table. I won't go further into the institution of roast dinners just because I want to get back to the adjective, but I will note that it's my husband's favo(u)rite meal despite his having been a vegetarian for 35 years. The vegetarian main might be a nut roast, but it also might be some kind of vegetable Wellington or a stuffed squash or (BrE) all sorts. The (orig. AmE) sides are at least as important as the "main" part of the meal, and roast(ed) potatoes are key. The person who takes the last roast potato is a stereotype of bad manners in these parts. People have very strong feelings about roasted potatoes. They are so well loved that they have a nickname: roasties. (Yorkshire puddings sometimes get the same treatment, so if someone says they want a roast dinner with Yorkies, they're probably not talking about eating or dining with terriers. Context matters.)
Back to roasted. Here's are the US/UK differences, where we can see the converse of the previous tables—more expressions that are strongly American.

Some of the highlighted expressions here are less about the form of roast(ed) and more about what things tend to be eaten in each place. I think it's fair to say that Americans like roasted garlic more and that Britons come across more roasted chestnuts. 
My main conclusions: BrE seems to prefer roast over roasted for any meats and for potatoes. AmE isn't 100% won over by roast for things other than roast beef. The two Englishes come together for vegetables and peanuts, for which roasted does well. 
Why are certain things roast rather than roasted in BrE? I wonder if it does have something to do with the roast dinner. Here's my thinking:
  • If we think of roast in Sunday roast as the roasted meat (after all, we do call roasted meat "a roast"), then 
  • The roast in roast dinner probably is too. A dinner that features a roast. (Both expressions go back to early 19th century, with Sunday roast first.)
  • But then people start thinking of roast there as an adjective, rather than a noun modifying a noun: a dinner with the quality 'roast' rather than a dinner of a roast.
  • The components of the roast dinner get the modifier roast rather than roasted, because roast now indicates that kind of dinner. 
  • Hence: roast potatoes.

To test this, I looked at carrots and parsnips, two typical roast dinner vegetables that are roasted. (Not all roast dinner (BrE) veg is roasted. For instance, there's often cabbage.) The parsnips seem to support my hypothesis. The carrots, not so much. (I did check these for stray verb-rather-than-adjective roast(ed)s. There were none.)

The moral of the story: send me an email request for a blog post, and I may eventually get to it! 

Some related links/points:
  • On the AmE sense of roast for a ceremonial (orig. AmE) ribbing
  • On skim(med) milk (which trends the opposite way)
  • Note that BrE calls mashed potato(es) mash, but BrE speakers generally don't use mash as an adjective mash potato(es), and it's not common for AmE speakers either (in the GloWBE data). There's a different morphological difference, as indicated by my parentheses here—so click through for that link.
  • You find the occasional corn beef in AmE, but that's faaaaar outweighed by the corned beefs. But remember that this refers to different things in AmE & BrE!
  • I had intended to write about ice(d) tea in this post too, but it turned out that the numbers didn't support the idea that AmE and BrE treat this differently. Iced tea is pretty standard in both, with some products marketed as ice tea.


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rambling, hiking and walking on footpaths and trails

We went for a walk with the neighbo(u)rs, and we saw this sign.

The sign reads "Permissive Footpath avoiding Golf Course", and all the adults in our group (2 English, 1 Spanish, 1 American) found the sign amusing. Jokes about what kinds of permissive activities we might find on the path (or that we might find the path doing) resulted, as well as a conversation about what the sign meant and whether it could have been phrased better.

You can tell from this that we're not seasoned country walkers, we're just lockdown people finding new ways to get some exercise. The term permissive footpath is a term of art in the British land-use bureaucracy, and such signs can be found on many paths. It differs from a public footpath in that the land is privately owned. The landowner is permitting people to walk on their path. This explanation of the term offers other expressions like permitted footpath and concessionary footpath, but these seem to be much less common, and we would not have been able to joke as much about them. (For those puzzled by our amusement: permissive usually means 'characteri{s/z}ed by great freedom of behavio(u)r', which can include 'sexually liberated'.)

So, permissive footpath is not something you'd see in AmE, but that's because there's a lot different about leisurely country walks in the two countries. And this is why this post has taken a couple of weeks to write...

walking verbs

Let's start by mentioning (it has come up on the blog before) that to hike is usually considered an Americanism, in the sense that it's widespread and "standard" in American English, but it's only ever been a dialect word in the UK. The OED cites an 1825 dictionary of west-of-England dialects as one of its earliest sources for it.

While it's been coming back to the UK, all of its senses were more common in AmE first, for example the noun use as in go for a hike and the more figurative use in hike up a price. Some of the figurative uses seem more common in BrE corpora now, though. You can see the change in this Google ngram for price hike, where the red line indicates the phrase in AmE books and the blue in BrE. It looks like the kind of pattern you'd see with parents and slang...they start using the word when the kids are already moving on to a new one, then carry on using it at a higher rate than those who made it up.

In BrE, those who hike as a regular pastime are often referred to as ramblers, but it's far more common to talk about walking than rambling. (Rambling and Rambler tend to be used in the names of walking clubs, such as the Essex Area Ramblers, who are responsible for the website that taught me about permissive paths.) Of course, English-speakers everywhere use the verb to walk. But for me (at least) what's different is that I have a town/country divide in my AmE: If I'm walking around town for leisure, I'm going for a walk. If I go out of town to walk (on less even terrain, taking more care with my footwear and supplies), I'm going hiking.  Or maybe it's better characteri{s/z}ed as: if I'm on a paved path/road or the beach, I'm on a walk, and if I'm on less even terrain (fields, woods, mountains, deserts), I'm on a hike.


In its broadest use, any way that's made for walking is a path or a footpath, but the word footpath is much more common in BrE than in AmE. A footpath can be urban or rural, but is usually distinguished from the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk by being narrower, unpaved, or not running parallel to the road. For instance, a marked "public footpath" in my mother-in-law's suburb is a paved path between houses that let people take a shortcut to the (BrE) railway station, but the "permissive footpath" above is a (AmE in this use) dirt path through a wooded area.

Click to enlarge

Path and pathway are a normal things to call places where people can walk in either country. The GloWBE corpus has a bit more path in AmE than BrE, but I'm not going to to through and find out how many of them refer to the PATH (Port Authority-Trans Hudson) trains in New York. Pathway is about the same in both.

For places to hike, trail is more common in AmE. This is again difficult to do a corpus chart for, because there are lots of other uses of trail (what a snail leaves, a trail of clues, etc.).  (It originally referred to things that trailed behind, like the train of a dress or coat.) But if we look at which words occur before trail in the two countries, we can see a real tendency for trails to be walking places. Many of these relate to names of famous places to hike, such as the Appalachian Trail

Click to enlarge

In AmE I'd use trail as a common noun to talk generally about hiking paths. I've just asked the English spouse whether he'd use trail to refer to some of the English ones we know, and he says "No, that's American. That's why we don't understand trail mix.  According to the OED, this sense of trail is:

A path or track worn by the passage of persons travelling in a wild or uninhabited region; a beaten track, a rude path. (Chiefly U.S. and Canadian; also New Zealand and Australian.)

The US has a National Trails System, established in 1968, which includes Scenic Trails and Historic Trails, all of which have Trail in their name. (See the link for the list.)  England and Wales now also have something called National Trails, but that was only founded in 2005, and does look like a case of UK government borrowing an American idea with its language. Most of the "long-distance footpaths" included in the National Trails are named Way: the Cotswold Way, the Pennine Way, the South Downs Way. Some are called Path, e.g. Thames Path, Hadrian's Wall Path. None are called trails.

Scotland has Scotland's Great Trails, formerly known as Long Distance Routes. The rebranding seems to have happened sometime in the past 10 years. Unlike England's National Trails, some are actually named trail, and those names seem to pre-date the national rebranding, raising the question of whether this sense of trail is longer-standing in Scotland.

It's not uncommon to find commonalities between Scotland or Ireland and the US—not necessarily because of more recent Scottish/Irish immigration to the US than English immigration. The similarities can be there if the meaning was formerly widespread in English English, but then went out of fashion in England. However, the OED only has examples of this sense of trail since 1807, which makes it more likely that it might have started in the US and been fed back to the UK. Hard to know without much more work than I can put into this!

Related posts

I've written some other posts that cover related concepts to these ones. If you have comments about those terms, please comment at those posts, where it will be much more useful to their readers.

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more birds and birdy things

As promised last time, here's more about birds. See the previous post for more about garden birds and some other bird-related things and for information about Cecil Brown's categories of BrE-AmE bird-name relationships. The last instal(l)ment was called garden birds, though there are some birds there that might be found prevalently elsewhere (I stuck parakeets in with garden birds, just to be able to say something about parakeets in gardens) and there might be some here that are found in your (BrE) garden or (AmE) backyard.

If you have already read the garden birds post, you might want to have another look at it as I have made late additions to it (marked as such) to cover "gardeny" birds that I'd missed in the first (AmE) go-round. And if I come across more that belong in the categories here, I'll add them.

(Immediately after I first posted this, Jim Martin pointed out more. I've not marked these as 'late additions' because they've come before most people have had a chance to read the post, but I have credited Jim.)

As before, all images are from Wikipedia and are of adult male birds, unless otherwise noted.

birds of prey

buzzard and hawk

In the US, buzzard is another name for the turkey vulture (so-called because it looks a bit turkey-ish). In BrE it is for birds of the genus Buteo.
(BrE) buzzard

Turkey vulture/(AmE) buzzard

Americans call members of the Buteo family hawks, and so sometimes have to distinguish members of the Accipitrinae sub-family true hawks, though your average American (like me) probably wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between them.

sea birds

skua / jaeger

AmE uses jaeger (from the German for 'hunter) for the smaller species of skua and BrE doesn't.  (Via Jim Martin)

Pomerine jaeger/skua


Another one from Jim. I'm going to let Wikipedia do the work for this one:
Guillemot is the common name for several species of seabird in the Alcidae or auk family (part of the order Charadriiformes). In British use, the term comprises two genera: Uria and Cepphus. In North America the Uria species are called "murres" and only the Cepphus species are called "guillemots".

Guillemot comes from the French name Guillaume (as we saw last time, naming birds after men is not uncommon).  Murre came from the UK, originally. It might be imitative, and might be related to Welsh morra or Cornish murr.


Jim Martin points out that mew gull (onomatopoetic for their call) is more used in AmE for the species called common gull in BrE, though these particular gulls are not all that common in UK. Wikipedia points out that there are broader and narrower meanings of mew gull, but I'll let them tell you about it.

Gulls in the UK are serious birds. The herring gulls common on much of the coastline are the size of ducks or geese. They are not shy about stealing food right out of your hands, which (given their size and stealth) can be very disconcerting. My worst herring gull memory (i.e. best herring gull story) was when we were at a park with our then-toddler and saw a herring gull with a pigeon halfway down its throat. Spouse chased it with an umbrella till it dropped the pigeon—the pigeon was too big for it to fly off with.



Members of the genus Gavia are called loons in AmE and divers in BrE. The OED notes that loon is probably derived from loom, a Shetland dialect name for the bird, which probably came from Old Norse. Loon as a name for a type of person (orig. a worthless person, rogue) existed separately from the bird-name, though it's possible that the existence of the person-insult affected the transition from loom to loon. Loony has a different etymology still: shortened from lunatic. All of this was kind of surprising to me—I'm sure many people have folk etymologies that conflate bird loon and person loon and adjective loony. And now of course, loonie is also slang for a Canadian $1 coin, because it has the bird-loon on it and Canadians generally have more linguistically in common with the US than with the UK. (Sorry, Canadians, but it's true.) 

NAmE loon / BrE diver


(From Jim Martin). The common merganser is in BrE the goosander. Goosander has an obscure etymology. The first part is goose and the second part is probably from the Old Norse plural for 'duck'. (Merganser is the Latin name.)

Domesticated birds

cock, rooster, cockerel

Male chickens are traditionally called cock in BrE and rooster (which probably came from an English dialect) in AmE. In The Prodigal Tongue I write about the fact that cockerel is used more and more in BrE where cock used to be the right word. A cockerel was a young cock, but nowadays people feel less comfortable saying cock, so they fancy it up with an -erel. So if you want to know more about that, and more about taboo-avoidance in BrE and AmE more generally, I have a book to recommend!

Country(side) birds


If I'd been smarter/cleverer, I'd have label(l)ed the last post "passerine (perching) birds" and not "garden birds", as that would've made for a clearer division between one bird-type and all others. But I didn't, and so I'm putting larks here, because they're more likely to be found on farms or mountains than in gardens. Anyhow, there is only one lark in North America, and Americans call it the horned lark, but the same species in Europe is called the shore lark. That particular species doesn't seem to extend to the UK, where there are other larks with their own not-needed-in-the-US names.

AmE horned lark
elsewhere shore lark

observing birds

the hobby

Bird-watching is a term that seems more popular among people who don't do it as a hobby than people who do. The (more specialist—and often dismissive) BrE term for a bird-watcher who "collects" sightings of birds is twitcher (see comments for more info). Its use has spread beyond Britain, but is still heard a lot more in BrE, and it's more informal than "official". The OED's first example of it is from 1974, but they note a claim that it was coined in the 1950s and relates to the person twitching with excitement. The noun twitch thus came to be an expedition or gathering of bird-watchers. The intransitive verb twitch subsequently came to be used for serious bird-watching and a transitive version for spotting a rare bird. Here's an example of each (in that order) from the OED:
  • 1977   New Society 17 Nov. 341/2   Those now in their thirties have been twitching for maybe 20 years.
  • 2009   Birdwatch Winter 6/3   We can hope that in 20 years, birders won't feel compelled to charter flights to ‘twitch’ the lone, singing Canada Warbler.

Another term in the OED quotations is tick-hunter, which would mean you're searching for birds to 'tick' off your list, using the BrE sense of 'tick' (AmE 'checkmark'). These days, that sounds more like you're looking for small blood-sucking arachnids in the hope of preventing Lyme disease. There were no instances of it in the corpus I searched (see below).

In AmE, the specialist term has been birder, with bird becoming a related intransitive verb. OED's first citation for this is 1945. The word has spread beyond the US now.

In the GloWBE corpus, the clear winner for international word-of-choice is birder (the white here indicates it's not now especially AmE or BrE), and there are AmE/BrE differences in preferred hyphenation of bird(-)watcher, not necessarily in the order I might have predicted.

Green = more particular to that country. Pink = less


People who research birds often mark wild ones with a little thing{ie/y}* around a bird's leg. The thing{ie/y} is called a band in AmE and a ring in BrE. The verb goes the same way. In AmE the birds are banded and in BrE the are ringed. If you do that to a bird, you are a (AmE) bird-bander or (BrE) bird-ringer. For more, see Wikipedia.

* Sidenote: The OED tells me that thingy is 'originally and chiefly Scottish'. Thing(ie)s may have changed since that entry was updated in 2008—as the word seems widespread now. There is a spelling difference, though, in that Americans are more likely to style it as thingie.


And, denizens of the internet, I want to end with an important semantic question: When is a bird a birbThe Audubon Society has been looking into it.
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dull and blunt

This item ran as a Twitter Difference of the Day back in September, and I've been meaning since then to explore it a bit more. My thanks to Colin Fine, who pointed out a Canadian tale of 'the customer isn't always right' story, in which the writer consistently used dull where (British) Colin would have used blunt. Since gradable adjectives are my favo(u)rite kind of word ever, I've been thinking about it on and off since.

'The most important tool' by Simeon Berg,
shared under a Creative Commons licen{s/c}e
I hadn't noticed that British folk talk about blunt knives and not dull knives because Americans can talk about blunt knives too. Hearing blunt knife hadn't bothered me (and I hadn't noticed the lack of dull knives), because I hadn't (BrE) twigged that it means something different in the UK than it means to my American mind. It's one of those differences that can easily hide.

In AmE, blunt is generally used to refer to things that aren't pointy (though they might have been). So, if I poke you with a stick, you would be better off if it were a blunt stick, rather than a sharp, pointy one. Using that meaning, an AmE blunt knife would be one without a sharp tip.

That 'not-pointy-sharp' meaning works in BrE too. In BrE, I could poke you with the sharp end of a pencil or its blunt end. (Stay away from me. I'm clearly in a poking mood.)

But BrE also allows for blunt to be the opposite of sharp when referring to an edge, not just an end. So, blunt knife in that case means that the knife is not good for cutting (whether it's good for poking people with is another matter).

AmE uses dull for the edge, and thus has lexicali{s/z}ed (i.e. put into words) the contrast between the 'edge' and 'end' ways that something can be not-sharp. The chart below shows the nouns that are statistically 'more American' (left, green) and 'more British' (right, green) in the GloWBE corpus. (These are not the nouns that are used most with dull, but the ones that are not used in the other country much. See the 'ratio' column for the strength of the noun's 'Americanness' or 'Britishness' in this context.)  (Dull Tool is scoring so high because 12 of the 18 hits are the title of a Fiona Apple song, which goes 'you're more likely to get hurt by a dull tool than a sharp one'.) The 'more BrE' uses of dull have to do with its 'boring' or 'not bright' senses, which exist in AmE too, but perhaps aren't used as much.

In both Englishes, sharp is the opposite of both dull and blunt in their literal 'cutting' senses. So if we talk about a sharp knife in either English (or a blunt knife in BrE), then it's ambiguous as to whether we're talking about the edge or the tip, but context often lets us know. If you're talking about cutting vegetables, the edge is more relevant; if you're talking about poking people, you're probably describing the tip. Where the context is not enough, you'll have to use more words to make it clear—e.g. The tip of that knife is really sharp. AmE doesn't have that ambiguity in the 'not-sharp' end of its vocabulary: the choice of dull or blunt disambiguates it.

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try and, try to; GMEU app

Our university's website provides helpful information for students about research and writing. It says things like this:
Another big mistake is to try and write an essay at the last minute.
I look at that and itch to edit it, just like early in my time in England, when my department head sent round a draft document for our comments, and I "helpfully" changed all the try and's to try to's. Imposing your American prescriptions on a learned British linguist is probably not the best idea, and it's one of those little embarrassments that comes back to haunt me in the middle of the sleepless night. I had had no idea that try and is not the no-no in BrE that it is in edited AmE.

I'm reminded of this for two reasons:
  1. Marisa Brook and Sali Tagliamonte have a paper in the August issue of American Speech that looks at try and and try to in British and Canadian English (and I've just learned a lot about the history of these collocations from it)
  2. I've been using this new English usage app and testing it on matters of US/UK disagreement. (Review below.) 

The weirdness  

Try and is weird. I say that as fact, not judg(e)ment. You can't "want and write an essay" or "attempt and write an essay". The try and variation seems to be a holdover from an earlier meaning of try, which meant 'test' or 'examine', still heard in the idiom to try one's patience. Though the  'test' meaning dropped out, the and construction hung on and transferred to the 'attempt' meaning of 'try'.

Though some people insist that try and means something different from try to, those claims don't stand up to systematic investigation. A 1983 study of British novels by Åge Lind (cited in Brook and Tagliamonte) could find no semantic difference, and a statistical study by Gries and Stefanowitsch concluded "where semantic differences have been proposed, they are very tenuous". The verbs be and do seem to resist try and and prefer try to.

There are some cases where try and doesn't mean the same thing as try to, where the second verb is a comment on the success (or lack of success) of the trying:
We try and fail to write our essays. ≠  We try to fail to write our essays.
But in most cases, they're equivalent:
Try and help the stranded dolphin.  = Try to help the stranded dolphin.
Try and make it up to them. = Try to make it up to them.

(If the rightmost example sounds odd, make sure you're pronouncing it naturally with the to reduced to 'tuh'. If the leftmost one just sounds bad to you, you may well be North American.)

Though there are other verbs that can be followed by and+verb, they don't act the same way as try and. For one thing, try and seems to stay in that 'base' form without suffixes. It's harder to find examples in the present or past tense (see tables below). 
? The student tries and writes an essay. 
? The student tried and wrote an essay.
  Compare the much more natural past tense of go and:
The student just went and wrote a whole essay.
So, try and is a bit on-its-own. Be sure to/be sure and is the only other thing that seems to have the same grammatical and semantic patterns.

The Britishness

Here's what Hommerberg and Tottie (2007) found for British Spoken and Written data and for American Spoken and Written.

In the forms that can't have suffixes (infinitive and imperative), BrE speakers say try and a lot more than try to. They write try and less, but in in the infinitive, it's still used about 1/3 of the time.

Brook and Tagliamonte found that BrE speakers under 45 use try and over try to at a rate of about 85%, regardless of education level. But for older Brits, there's a difference, with the more educated mostly using try to

AmE speakers sometimes say try and, but they say try to more. They hardly ever use try and (where it could be replaced by try to) in writing.
Brook and Tagliamonte find much the same difference for British English versus Canadian English.

The "non-standard"ness

Though the try and form goes back before American and British English split up, its greater use in Britain is the innovation here. The try and form only started to dominate in Britain in the late 19th century.

Brook and Tagliamonte note that it's "curious" that BrE prefers try and when it has "two ostensible disadvantages":
  1. it's less syntactically versatile, since it doesn't like suffixation,
  2. it's long been considered the "non-standard" form, repeatedly criticized in even British style guides. 

On the second point, Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage (1947) calls it "incorrect" and "an astonishingly frequent error". However, other British style guides are much more forgiving of it. While the third edition of Fowler's Modern Usage (1996) says that "Arguments continue to rage about the validity of try and", it notes that the original 1926 edition said that "try and is an idiom that should not be discountenanced" when it sounds natural. The Complete Plain Words (1986) lists it in a checklist of phrases to be used with care ("Try to is to be preferred in serious writing"), but it got no mention in  Ernest Gowers' original Plain Words (1948) or the recent revision of the work by Rebecca Gowers (2014). Oliver Kamm's rebelliously "non-pedantic" guide (2015) calls try and "Standard English".  Other British sources I've checked have nothing to say about it. Though it's only recently climbed the social ladder, British writers and "authorities" seem, on the whole, (BrE) not very fussed about it.

American guides do comment on try and. Ambrose Bierce (1909) called it "colloquial slovenliness of speech" and Jan Freeman (2009) calls it "one of the favorite topics of American peevologists". The dictionaries and stylebooks that are less excited about it at least pause to note that it is informal, colloquial, or a "casualism". The American Heritage Dictionary notes:
To be sure, the usage is associated with informal style and strikes an inappropriately conversational note in formal writing. In our 2005 survey, just 55 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the construction in the sentence Why don't you try and see if you can work the problem out for yourselves?
(I can't help but read that to be sure in an Irish accent, which means I've been around Englishpeople too long.)

One hypothesis is that try and came to be preferred in Britain due to horror aequi: the avoidance of repetition. So, instead of Try to get to know, you can drop a to and have Try and get to know. The colloquialism may have been more and more tolerated because the alternative was aesthetically unpleasing.

Try and is an example I'm discussing (in much less detail) in the book I'm writing because it seems to illustrate a tendency for British English to make judg(e)ments "by ear" where American English often likes to go "by the book". (Please feel free to debate this point or give me more examples in the comments!)

Garner's Modern English Usage

And so, on to the app.  The Garner's Modern English Usage (GMEU) app is the full content of the 4th edition of the book of the same name, with some extra app-y features. I've tested it on an Apple iPod, but I think it's available for other platforms too. On iTunes, it lists at US$24.99.

Full disclosure: Bryan Garner gave me a free copy of this app in its testing stage.  I've met Garner in person once, when I'm quite sure he decided I was a hopeless liberal. (The thing about liberals, though, is you can't really be one without lots of hope.) He's a good one to follow on Twitter.

Sad disclosure: I received the offer of the free app not too long after I ordered a hard copy of the 4th edition, which (AmE) set me back £32.99, and, at 1055 pages, takes up a pretty big chunk of valuable by-the-desk bookshelf (AmE) real estate. I bought that book AFTER FORGETTING that just weeks before, hoping to avoid the real-estate incursion, I'd bought the e-book edition for a (orig. AmE) hefty $34.99. So, although I got the app for free, I expect to get my money's worth!!

So far, the app works beautifully, and is so much easier to search than a physical book. Mainly, I've used it for searching for items with AmE/BrE differences. I also used it to argue back to a Reviewer 2 who was trying to (not and!) (orig. AmE) micromanage aspects of my usage that don't seem to have any prescriptions against them (their absence in GMEU was welcome). (Reviewer 2 did like our research, so almost all is forgiven.)

GMEU didn't have everything I looked up (see the post on lewd), but that's probably because those things are not known usage issues. I had just wondered if they might be. But where I looked up things that differed in BrE and AmE, the differences were always clearly stated. Here is a screenshot of try and:

Garner's book is so big because it's got lots of  real examples and useful numbers, as you can see in this example. Nice features of the app, besides easy searchability, include the ability to save entries as 'favorites', tricky quizzes (which tell me I qualify as a "true snoot"), and all the front matter of the book: prefaces, linguistic glossary, pronunciation guide, and Garner's essays about the language.

The search feature gives only hits for essay topics and entry headwords. That is probably all anyone else needs. I'd like to be able to search, for instance, for all instances of British and BrE to find what he covers. But I guess that's what I can use my ebook for...

Over the course of his editions and his work more generally, Garner has included more and more about British English, but at its heart, GMEU is an American piece of work. Other Englishes don't really (BrE) get a look-in (fact, not criticism). I very much recommend the app for American writers, students, and editors, but also for British editors, who are often called upon to work on American writers' work or to make British work more transatlantically neutral.

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Last month Linguist Laura wrote a blog post congratulating the students who were graduating from her program(me). She discusses graduate, then moves on to alumni, excerpted below. I've highlighting the bit that was news to me.

When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know[n] that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, [...]

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.
I am not sure who the we is here. Laura's department? English speakers? It seems to me it's British English speakers, as in my experience Americans haven't adopted the plural as a singular.

First, Americans use the gendered singulars. I looked for an alumn* of in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) in order to get only singular instances:

(I checked the one that says alumni* and it's by a graduate of The Open University [UK] who uses the word maths, so I have mentally flipped it into the GB column.)

In AmE singular alumni amounts to about 9% of the total, but in BrE it's about 22% (and in Canadian English, it's 35%). Note the lack of alumna in BrE.

When Americans want to avoid the gendered Latin terms, we often hack off the Latin suffix. I am an alum of the University of Massachusetts. I am friends with many of my fellow alums.

The word looks odd and is hard to pronounce if you don't know that it's a clipped form. It is not a homophone with the astringent chemical alum. The chemical is A-lum, the graduate is a-LUM, following the stress pattern of the suffixed form. I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better. (There are 6 instances of alumn in GloWBE, 5 American and one that is classifed as GB, but when you look it's from an organi{s/z}ation in New York. None of these is in the phrase an alumn of, so they aren't included the numbers below.)

An alum of gets 10 hits in the US and 2 in GB (all legitimate; plus one Canadian hit, for those keeping track). If we add these to the numbers in the chart above, we get the following proportions:

a ___ of AmE BrE
gendered singular alumna/us 81% 75%
plural-form singular
8% 21%
clipped singular
11% 4%
total number 88 52

Now, if you worked at a college/university in the US, I am quite sure that you would hear alum much more than you'd hear singular alumni. I had a quick look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which showed twice as many an alum of as an alumni of (though the numbers were small--21 in total).

So, a few points of unseemly defensiveness after all this:
  • Americans are able to and do use the Latin gendered suffixes. I mention this because there seems to be some belief that the British know Latin better than Americans do.  One of the interviewees in Jones's book on English expats in the US says she felt "she got to win a lot of arguments" because Americans assume “I [have] this great level of culture [and speak] and read fluent Latin” though of course she didn't. Similarly, I've had it said to me that Americans make barbarous "false" Latin words because we aren't close enough to the language. An British commentator on early American accents wrote that "Americans do not, however, speak or pronounce English according to our standard; [...] probably from a want of any intimate knowledge of Greek or Latin." I can't see much evidence for thinking the contemporary British folk have some access to Latin that contemporary Americans don't. Latin comes and goes in both American and British schools. Yes, the fancy public (i.e. private) schools of Britain do tend to offer Latin, but so did my run-of-the-mill American high school. Very few schools anywhere require it (or even offer it) any more--though apparently it's popular with American home-schoolers.
  • If you see Latin plurals masquerading as singulars, it's not a case of "American political correctness" coming over and "ruining" the language. The British are very capable of being sensitive to gender discrimination and changing the language themselves.  
The other thing to notice is that Americans use these words more. In fact, Americans have a great head start on using them. This is not necessarily a bragging point. The reason Americans needed these words earlier is that American universities have long depended on their graduates' generosity.

That was not an issue for British universities, which until recently were funded mainly through government grants. While I've lived in the UK, I've seen tuition fees go from 0 to over £9000 per year. And it was only once the government stopped directly funding university teaching that universities needed to step up relations with their graduates in the hope of getting donations and bequests. That's when my university got an Alumni Relations Office, something any American university would have had decades earlier.

Americans, I would say, have a keener sense of alumnihood. They have stickers identifying their alma mater in the back windows of their cars. The phrase alma mater is about four times more common in AmE than BrE (in GloWBE). They go to homecoming. They follow their institution's sports teams for the rest of their lives. (The need to keep alumni involved is a big reason for American universities having so much sporty activity.) They might even know their college's/university's song. That's in general, of course. I can't say I do any of those things. But I know many more Americans than Britons who do. 
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infections and itises

So last time, I wrote about disease versus infection following the phrase sexually transmitted, and I started thinking (again) about how we talk about medical things--technical or non-technical? In the book I'm writing (for you!), I've touched on it a little with respect to bodily functions:

Sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, I’m amused and a bit astonished to find posters about what to do if there is blood in your pee or poo.* The equivalent American public-service advertisements say urine and stool. In the medical context, America avoids being crude by sounding more scientific, and Britain uses baby-talk.
* Make an appointment with your doctor immediately!
The discussion hits on things like BrE waterworks ('urinary tract') and back passage ('rectum') and  classes given to foreign nurses in the NHS on British slang--aka British euphemism. (It's a bit of the book that looks at the stereotype of Americans as euphemists, so yes, there's a lot of attention in the other direction.)

The "Americans use overly technical terminology" aka "Americans like jargon" stereotype that I contribute to in the quote above is one worth taking apart as well. I've been encouraged in that stereotype when I hear friends talk about their chest infections where I tend to have bronchitis. But then they're also talking about having cystitis (my poor, unhealthy friends), which I hadn't heard of before moving here. An infected cyst? Ew... No, it's a bladder infection. In AmE I'd call it a UTI (urinary tract infection). (The NHS website tells us that cystitis is a common type of UTI, so the terms are slightly different--but that's the case with bronchitis and chest infection too.)

So far, we're tied: Itises: BrE 1, AmE 1. Infections: BrE 1, AmE 1.

So I thought I'd have a look at which things Americans and Brits call infections and which they use Medical Greek -itis names for.

 The tables below are the statistically "most American" (left) and "Most British" (right) nouns that come before infection in the GloWBE corpus. (If you click on the table, it should get bigger.)
"Most American" and "Most British" words preceding infection
What you can notice there (if you can read the small print) is that the "more British" preceding nouns include things that can get infected (wounds, chests, throats), whereas the "more American" ones tend to be the microbes that do the infecting. In AmE, I think I'd say someone has an infected wound rather than that they have a wound infection. And one kind of wound infection you can have is a staph infection (in the US list), which is a very familiar term from my AmE childhood (we were constantly being told that gym mats were very dangerous). I don't know that I've ever heard staph infection in the UK.

In the BrE column you can also see urine infection, another BrE way of saying urinary tract infection. This one names neither the pathogen nor the organ, and always strikes me as a bit odd. Urine might have germs in it, but can urine itself be infected?

BrE has more throat infections because Americans are more likely to say they have strep throat. In my experience, scarlet fever is heard more in BrE these days (which is not to say you never hear it in AmE). When my child was diagnosed with it (in the UK), I really felt like I'd been taken back to Victorian times. She wasn't all that sick. But when I looked it up and found that it's the strep germ, I thought: maybe you hear scarlet fever more often in UK because AmE has strep infection.

Some of the numbers up there, though, are art{e/i}ifacts of the corpus. AmE has 56 instances of HSV infection but all of them come from a single website (, so we shouldn't take too much from that. American, like British, English would typically call that herpes. HBV infection is found on a greater range of sites, but they are mostly medical journals and such. Laypeople would generally say Hepatitis B.

But that does seem to sum up the difference between the AmE table and the BrE table: a lot of the AmE infection cases are use of medical jargon in a medical context--staph infection was the only one I knew as a layperson. Whereas in BrE the body-part+infection cases are terms that non-medical people would use when talking about their maladies.

If we look at the infections that American and British English have in common, we can see  that Americans do talk about infections too, sometimes with body parts, even.

But what about -itises? Is it mostly Americans using the fancy words? No, but there again maybe some effects here of one source being over-sampled in the corpus. Here I'm showing what came up as 'most American' (left) and 'most British' (right), with a bit of the 'neither one nor the other' showing in white. This is going to be very hard to read on a phone (sorry!), but I'll write up the highlights below.

I've given a comment in red if (a) the things are not diseases, but just coincidentally spelled with -itis, or (b) if it's a spelling issue. Though oesophagitis shows up in the British list, it's not because Americans don't use an -itis name for the problem, but because we spell it esophagitis. (Click here for my old post on oe/e spellings.) The British list is lengthened by a misspelling of arthritis and having two spellings for tonsil(l)itis.

After discounting those, the British list is still a lot longer than the American one, but I'm very much suspecting some bad corpus effects here. Tonsillitis, colitis, dermatitis, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, pancreatitis--I or members of my family have had all of these and that's just what they were called in the US. The numbers for these diseases are greater than expected in the British part of the corpus--but they're hardly absent in the American part. For example, note that there are 756 AmE occurrences of meningitis--which is here counting as "rather British", while only 16 AmE hits for phlebitis make it "very American". Some of these cases are going to seem "more British" or "more American" to the software just because the corpus happened to hit on some websites that talked about these things a lot. But I think what we can say from this exercise is that we have no particular evidence for British English avoiding -itis words, despite its greater use of body-part+infection.

Still there are a few itises worth mentioning for BrE/AmE interest. One is labyrinthitis, which I had an unfortunate encounter with this spring. When I described my symptoms (the room going upside-down and inside-out every time I turned my head left), lots of British friends said "Oh, that's labyrinthitis. I've had it. It's horrible!" But it was not a word that my American friends seemed to have at their fingertips--to them it was an inner-ear infection. (Why do Brits seem to get it more often, though?)

Conjunctivitis shows up on the British list, though it is a word that Americans use too. But Americans have another informal term for the problem: pink-eye. That will push the US conjunctivitis numbers down. (There are a few UK hits for pink-eye--with or without the hyphen, but a lot of US hits.)

In the white part of the table--where the numbers are similar for AmE and BrE -- are the two itises that are earlier in this post: cystitis, which I've experienced as more British, and bronchitis, which I've experienced as more American. Because the corpus is imperfect, I'm not going to totally discount my experience on these. But it would be interesting to hear if others (particularly transatlantic others who can compare) think I'm off my rocker...

I was surprised to see only one made-up disease in the list: boomeritis on the AmE side. (It was the name of a book--click on the word to learn more.) I would have bet that (AmE) senioritis would appear. (As it happens, there were only two US examples of it in the corpus--most are Canadian.) To quote Wikipedia:

Senioritis is a colloquial term mainly used in the United States and Canada to describe the decreased motivation toward studies displayed by students who are nearing the end of their high school, college, and graduate school careers.
For a minute there, I was worried that I expected senioritis to be there because I am OLD and UNCOOL. But I'm happy to report that in both the Corpus of Historical American English and in Google Books, the rate of senioritis use has only gone up in the decades since I was a high-school/college senior. Not happy for the teachers who have to teach these seniors, but happy that my vocabulary is not a complete dinosaur--yet.

If you're interested in other disease names, do have a look at the medicine/disease tag--thanks to (a) having a small child and (b) being a complete hypochondriac, quite a few have come up over the years--but there are still many more to cover in future.

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