optional commas

I was tweet-talking with Lane Greene this morning about whether Americans' love for/Britons' indifference to optional commas can be quantified. And so I did a little experiment. And so I'm going to tell you about it.

For this I'm comparing the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. (They're not 100% comparable, but they'll do.) In the BNC, there's on average 1 comma for every 20 words written. In COCA, it's 1:15. So, there are a lot more commas in the American corpus. (I tried this on the GloWBE corpus too, and got about 10% more commas in AmE than BrE–but it's harder to know in GloWBE that the writers are from the country that they're categori{s/z}ed in.)

That doesn't tell us that Americans like optional commas more, though. That could mean that Americans like the grammatical constructions that require commas more than Brits do. Or it could mean that Americans write longer lists than Brits do. To really know, we need to look in contexts where the comma might occur and see if it's there. I did this for one context last year and found that my American friends were about twice as likely to use a comma (versus not using one) in the phrase "Happy Birthday(,) Lynne", and my British friends patterned in the opposite way.

So here are a few more contexts.

After a short, sentence-initial adverbial: If you want to modify a sentence with 'when, where, why or how', you can use a prepositional phrase or an adverb. Usually, these wouldn't have commas around them, but, at the start of the sentence, they often do, to mark the particular prosodic (intonational) pattern that goes with such phrases and to help the reader know that the subject of the sentence has not turned up yet.

To look at this, I decided to try sentences that start with phrases like "In 1973..." So I searched the corpora for:
. In 19* (,) the
That is to say, a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period followed by in followed by anything starting with 19 (which ended up just being year-names), then a comma or no comma, then the word the. The the ensures that I'm not getting longer phrases at the start. So every hit is something like "In 1973(,) the band released their best album" and not things like "In 190 years of customer service at their Oxford Street branch (,) they'd never before killed a customer". That way, I've got a uniform set of short sentence-initial adverbials. (The longer ones are more apt to have commas in BrE; it's just the short adverbials I'm testing.)

And this is what you get:

comma            none         ratio
UK      495 1095    1:2
US       3445 1449   2:1

In other words, (more than) twice as many commas as not in AmE, and the opposite in BrE—just as we found in the birthday vocatives. (The US corpus is much larger than the UK one, so it works best to compare the ratios between countries.)

On to the next context:
You can visit the Oxford Comma on Twitter
Pic by @rcasinelli

The serial/Oxford comma: I was once one of those people who thought that having a firm stand on the Oxford comma was a good thing. I now think it's pretty silly. We don't need tribalism in punctuation any more than we need tribalism in the rest of life. But oh well. There's a lot of it if you hang out in the part of Twitter that I hang out in.

A quick definition for those outside the punctuation-culture wars: the serial, or Oxford, comma is a comma before the conjunction (usually and or or) in a list of three or more. So:
Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries, and world peace.
Non-Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries and world peace.

Serial comma is the older (1922), orig.-AmE name for the thing. The term Oxford comma (after the Oxford University Press) is newer (1951) and now the more popular term in the US. Why? Because, as Mary Norris, in her Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, puts it: Oxford “gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal”. And that's what the punctuation-culture wars are about.  FiveThirtyEight found that Americans who prefer the Oxford comma tend to pat themselves on the back about their grammar knowledge. John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun (quoted at last link) concludes that “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”

Anyhow, Americans do have a reputation among editors for liking that comma more than Brits do.  
Is the reputation well founded?

I looked in the aforementioned corpora for
butter , [noun] (,) and [noun]       
men , women (,) and children
Why butter? Because if I tried to search for "noun, noun(,) and noun", the computer couldn't cope. I needed to stick a particular noun in there to bring the amount of data down. The second phrase gives me more data to work with, but since it's a set phrase, I didn't want to use just it in case it garbled the results. (In the end, there are apparently fewer discussions of ingredients in the BNC than COCA, so the butter examples didn't do much for the numbers. But I have to leave it at that because I need to get back to work.)

 And I found:

Oxford comma      none          ratio    
UK      4+1124+124     1:10
US       109+310129+434    1:1.3

So, it is true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than Brits do. But it's not true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than not.

And if you grew up in the US at the same time as I did, thinking about lists containing butter might make you think of this Sesame Street gem, now stuck in my head for the rest of the day:

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It's the last morning of my (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation—off to the airport in less than two hours. But Will W just pre-wrote for me most of a blog post, so I'm going to take advantage and get another post up before I land back in work reality.

Here's what Will wrote:

Struggling to see the screen, holding my iPad at arm's length, I looked up 'long sighted' on Wikipedia, and it unexpectedly delivered me to 'far-sightedness'.


Further consults with Dr Google, ignoring variations in spelling or hyphenation, suggested a national tendency to interpret the phrases metaphorically or literally.
And then he put his findings into a table, with ?? in some boxes. I've taken the ??s out and filled in the terms and meanings he didn't know (and made a few other editing changes for my own happiness). I've also added the OED's date of first citation for each of them, so you can see how they relate to one another

British English American English
long-sighted • hyperopic (holds reading matter far away) [1737: not its first meaning] ——
far-sighted anticipates future events correctly [1641] • anticipates future events correctly
• hyperopic [1878]
short-sighted • lacking foresight [1622]
• myopic (has to hold reading matter close) [1641]
lacking foresight
near-sighted —— myopic [1686]
As it happens, it's the 2nd anniversary
of me getting these glasses

Some things to note about these:
  • The more 'figurative' sense of looking into the future precedes the physiological sense in all cases where both exist.
  • All of these terms were invented in Britain. If you do hear long-sighted in AmE it will probably be figurative. But it just doesn't turn up much.
  • The 'hyperopic' sense of far-sighted might have originated in US, but OED does not provide much info about it, as the entry has not been fully updated since 1895. Their only citation for it is from the Encyclopædia Britannica, which at that point was published in Edinburgh. In 1895, the OED's coverage of Americanisms was not what it is today.
  • Will had listed the terms in the table without hyphens. I had to put the hyphens in, because I'm that kind of person. Oxford Dictionaries like the hyphens, Merriam-Webster writes them as one word, no hyphen, e.g. nearsighted.
  • Hyperopia seems to be the more common opposite for myopia today, but in the UK (less so in the US) you also find hypermetropia. The two words have been in competition since the mid-1800s.
If you have any of these conditions, you may need glasses. If you're American, you'll sometimes call them eyeglasses, and if you're British, you may sometimes call them specs (or less often/more old-fashionedly) spectacles. What you call the people from whom and places where you get glasses is a matter for a separate blog post—but at this point I really need to get dressed to go to the airport!

Will also asked about AmE seeing eye dog. In the UK, these are known as guide dogs for the blind. Guide dog is understandable in AmE as well.

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Will Fitzgerald has asked me more than once to cover British use of the adjective sorted. It has made an appearance on the blog before, as part of an Untranslatable October. But that short bit on it does not really give it its due. In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, the word sorted is found more than three times more frequently in British than in American English. It's definitely a word to know if you interact with British people.

The OED has three UK-particular meanings for it in their 2001 draft additions. I'm going to cheat share the fruits of their defining, with some fresh examples.

The first sense, and by far the most frequent one, is illustrated in a current British Transport Police campaign, with posters like that at the right.

 a. Chiefly Brit. slang. Of a state of affairs, etc.: fixed, settled, secure; arranged, prepared, dealt with. Chiefly used predicatively and (esp. in earlier use) frequently indistinguishable from the past participle of the passive verb (cf. sort v.1 16a(e)). Also as int., esp. used to express assent to a proposal, readiness to act, or to mark the satisfactory conclusion of a transaction.
This sense is perhaps influenced by a British Army slang use of the verb meaning ‘to attack fiercely, to shoot to pieces’
The implication of the "See it. Say it. Sorted." slogan is that if you report suspicious things you see, the police will take care of it. They will (BrE) get it sorted. In AmE and more usually (until recently) in BrE, you'd have to say that the police will get it sorted out. As the entry says, this probably comes from an older (1940s) Army usage, but this more modern sense seems to have got(ten) going in the 1980s. Here are a couple of recent examples from UK news websites, courtesy of the News on the Web corpus.
The EU’s 27 member states have insisted that talks cannot move onto trade and commerce until the three key issues of EU and British citizen residency rights, the UK’s so-called divorce bill and the border with Ireland are all sorted.  (Verdict)

Your entertainment for the rest of the year is sorted with our 2017 guide. (East Anglian Daily Times)
Another example, from the GloWBE corpus, is an interesting case of sorted before the noun it's modifying:
I would make it a nice outing with your son to a well sorted hifi shop where you actually have time to listen. (from a hifi discussion board)

The second meaning comes along in the early 90s (at the latest), and is used particularly of people.
 b. Brit. slang. Esp. of a person: self-assured, emotionally well-balanced; streetwise, ‘cool’.
This one may be a bit dated. I don't feel like I hear it as much as I used to. I'm certainly having trouble finding a clear example of it in the corpora. It's the kind of thing you might read in a (orig. AmE) personal ad. I'm not signing up for a singles site to research this for you, so here's a bit from the Yorkshire Post about the word:
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").
You can see that kind of usage in one of the OED examples. 
1993   T. Hawkins Pepper xiv. 268   Thank you so much for replying. You seem really sorted.
The third OED sense is one I'm not sure I would have counted as separate from the first:
 c. Brit. slang. Of a person: supplied with or under the influence of illicit drugs, particularly those associated with the U.K. club subculture.
You sorted? is the kind of thing you'd expect a drug dealer to say. Here's the OED's first example for it:
1991   Independent 23 Dec. 5/2   Are you sorted? It's good stuff, it'll keep you going all night.
So that's sorted sorted. The first sense is the one you're most likely to run into.

Apologies for no blog posts in August. I was very busy with getting the last changes to my book manuscript off to the publisher. Publication date is 10 April, but I'm going to wait to share moreinfo until both publishers (US and UK) are ready to take pre-orders. (It would not be good for my nice UK publisher if British folk were ordering from the US.)  I'm afraid that blogging will probably be sparse in the Autumn as I have my whole year's teaching load in one term. But one of the things I'm teaching is a new (BrE education jargon) module (=AmE course) called Language in the United States. Maybe that'll inspire some bloggy procrastination. Or maybe I'll get some guest posts from my students!
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").

Read more at: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/strictly-personal-behind-the-lines-with-a-history-of-lonely-hearts-1-2334630
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").

Read more at: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/strictly-personal-behind-the-lines-with-a-history-of-lonely-hearts-1-2334630
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thank you very/so much

Last week at Corpus Linguistics 2017, Rachele De Felice and I presented our research on thanking in US and UK corporate emails. We'll be writing that up for publication in the coming months. In the meantime, here's a tiny aspect of what we found, supplemented by some further thoughts.

Our main question was about the relationship between please and thank* (that * is a wildcard, so thank* stands for thanks and thank you). Brits use please much more than Americans; Americans use thank* much more than Brits—both in our email research and in others' research on spoken language. So a big part of what we're looking at is whether thanks in American does some of the work that please does in Britain. (Short answer: it seems so. For my past posts on please, please see/comment-at this post and this one.) That's what our published paper will be about. But while we were in that data, we also looked at other aspects of thanking, including how it's intensified—e.g. thank you very much, thanks so much, etc.

Americans are often stereotyped as effusive and exaggerating—so we might hypothesi{s/z}e that Americans would intensify their thanks more. But our data sample (~1100 emails from each country containing thank* ) shows the opposite: 13% of British thank* are intensified versus 6% of the American ones. When we look within the intensified thanks, we see that different patterns are preferred:
  • In both country's data sets, the most frequent intensified form is many thanks, but this accounts for 56% of the British intensified thank* versus 31% of the American.
  • The second most common intensified form in BrE is thank* very much (29%) and in AmE it was thank* so much (25%). 
    In raw numbers: 42 very much intensifiers in BrE, versus 7 in AmE; 17 so much in AmE versus 3 in BrE.
  • The next biggest AmE intensification category is putting the THANK* in capital letters (18%), and going down the list there are various things like really big thanks and thanks a million in very small numbers.
  • ...which is to say that 85% of BrE intensified thank* are intensified in one of two ways. That's 124 examples, or more than 11% of all the thank* (intensified or not) in the sample.
  • ...whereas the top 2 AmE intensifications account for 56% percent of the intensified thank* data, and that amounts to less than 1% of all the thank* (intensified or not) in the sample. 
When I say I'm studying thankyouverymuch,
people inflict their Elvis impersonations on me.
So, Americans thank more, but Brits put more emphasis on their thanks, though they overwhelmingly do so with just a couple of set phrases. The other thing to notice is that Brits used longer thanking phrases (on average) than Americans do—both using more intensifiers and using thank you at greater rates. (40% of British thank* were thank you, versus only 18% of the American thank*. Americans mostly wrote thanks.)

Now, this is just about email correspondence (and because we're using emails from defunct corporations, they're more than 10 years old). There are a lot of other things going on with thanking in all kinds of other types of interactions. (I discuss British service-encounter thanking on this video.)

After giving our paper, I started to think more about why the numbers for thank you very much (and even thanks very much) were so low in the American data. Part of the reason is probably that thank you sounds too formal and standoff-ish in American business culture, where things tend to be a bit more informal and personal than in British business culture. That goes along with the strong American preference for thanks over thank you.

But another thing that might be going on is the potential for misinterpretation. There are lots of informal ways to emphasi{s/z}e thanks that weren't used in the emails. For instance thanks a lot was not used by the employees of the corporations (but there were a few examples of it from correspondents in India). The reason for its absence seemed to me to be clear: thanks a lot is often used sarcastically, and in email you don't want to take the risk that you will be read as sarcastic if you aren't being sarcastic. (Perceptions of sarcasm may differ here. I've had conversations with an English friend where she tells me thanks a bunch sounds the most sarcastic. For me, thanks a lot is worse. Feel free to discuss among(st) yourselves and we'll see if there's a national pattern.)

Thank you very much is sometimes used as a curt, self-congratulatory comment. In that usage, it's sometimes written as one word: thankyouverymuch. An Urban Dictionary contributor defines it as "a remark one says when one has strong evidential proof of something and wants to rub it in another's face". I know I use it and I've found it a couple of times in the comments of this very blog:
[John Cowan at the icing/frosting post] So what is the happy vs. merry story? AmE has merry, and clearly BrE used to have it too, or AmE wouldn't have inherited it, but AmE speakers are under the impression that BrE uses happy exclusively. And yet the Brits I've talked to deny this, and claim that they use merry personally, thankyouverymuch, even if commercial sources tend to use happy.
[Shelly at the count noun post] Personally, one math is more than enough for me, thankyouverymuch.
US/GloWBE examples of post-sentential thank you very much
UK/GloWBE examples of post-sentential thank you very much
This not-polite usage of thank you very much need not be written as one word, but when it is written that way, it generally has the not-actually-grateful meaning. And that does seem to be more American than British, with 41 American instances of thankyouverymuch versus 12 British in the GloWBE corpus. Written as four words, it can often be found between a comma and a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period. Searching that in GloWBE, I found more hits in American English (264:161), but both countries are using it mainly in the not-very-polite way when at the end of a sentence like this. (For examples, enlarge the tables to the left.)

Thank you so much is not used in that (AmE) snarky way. So, could it be that thank you very much now carries a bit of the stink of the not-polite usage in AmE minds and therefore doesn't sound as nice in AmE emails as thank you so much? Maybe a little. It's probably more the formality of the very that's put it out of favo(u)r. But I like wondering about, thankyouverymuch.

While I'm here: I haven't been pointing out other media gigs in blog posts so much, now that there's an 'events and media' tab on the blog. But do people actually check that regularly? Of course not. (You don't even see the tab in the usual phone interface.) So I'll just point out a few places I've been lately, in case they're of interest.

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"the" Americanization of English?

from the Guardian
Today the Guardian reported on a new study by Bruno Gonçalves, Lucía Loureiro-Porto, José J. Ramasco, and David Sánchez (you can get the pdf here) entitled The End of Empire: the Americanization of English. There are interesting things to find in this study, but I'm taken back to a panel that Sandra Jansen, Mario Saraceni and I presented on 'problems in predicting the linguistic future' last week in Newcastle. The focus of our talks was how the media present change in the English language and how linguists  sometimes contribute to skewed presentations of past, present and future—taking part in the very linguistic ideologies that academic linguists should be regarding with a critical eye. We're now working on making our panel contributions into an article, and I think it'll be a good one.

It's perfectly clear that many originally-American words and spelling standards have spread elsewhere. It would be surprising if they hadn't, since the US has a large population that mostly (and mostly only) speaks English, as well as a very big and very international economy. For me, the problem comes
  • (a) when "Americanization" becomes the whole story (because life and language are more complex than that),
  • (b) when the story depends upon informational/logical fallacies, and
  • (c) when that story is pitched as a story of winners and losers (because language doesn't have to be a competition, and because that winner-loser narrative is often heavily dependent on the simplifications of (a)).
Though I've label(l)ed those points as a/b/c, part of the task I have in writing up the paper is that it's hard to pick apart and label those points—they're very interrelated and also they hide a lot of detail. Here was my first draft—a slide from my talk last week. It's called "panic tools" because I am considering how Americani{s/z}ation* news stories might sit within "moral panic" about language change in Britain—a panic that Deborah Cameron wrote about in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene.
Slide from Is the future American? (Murphy 2017)

Anyhow, I was heartened to see that the Guardian article is by a data scientist, Mona Chalabi, and therefore it did something that popular news articles rarely do when talking about linguistic research—it sounded a note of caution concerning the data sources for the research: Google books data and Twitter.

Both are problematic resources in terms of making sure the data is what you think it is (here's one of many Language Log posts about Google Books metadata). This is not a criticism of the paper—we linguists use what we can to find out about language. But then we give caveats about the data, as we should.

But that note of caution is about where they've looked. There's also what you look for. Neither the Guardian article nor the paper give many caveats about that. The Google Books data was used to see what's happening in the US and UK over time, and the Twitter data to see what English is like across the world, and they searched for a specific list of "American" and "British" spellings and vocabulary.

To give just some examples that deserved more caution (from the paper's appendix of the British and American vocabulary that the authors searched for).
  • AmE bell pepper is matched to "BrE" capsicum. But the usual term in British (as in AmE, really) is just pepper or a colo(u)r+pepper (green pepper, etc.) or sweet pepper. Capsicum is primarily Australian English.

Capsicum the GloWBE corpus
  • AmE drug store and drug stores are matched to BrE chemist's. Why just the singular possessive? Why no plural? Looking at the same data set as they used (Google Books), it's clear that it's more common to get things from the chemist than from the chemist's. And often (maybe even usually) in contexts in which Americans would say drug store rather than pharmacist—e.g. The boy from the chemist is here to see you. But then, that leads us to another problem: does chemist's really match with drug store, when it also means pharmacist's and pharmacy?
Click here to be taken to the interactive version

And then there are the problems of polysemy (many-meaninged-ness) and variation, for example (but there are many examples):
  • The polysemy problem: in comparing BrE draughts and AmE checkers, are we sure that they're all about games? Some of the draughts will be AmE drafts (for beers or breezes). Some of the checkers could be checking things. If the frequency of use of any of these meanings changes across time, then that can interfere with answering the question of what people call the game. Elastic band is given as the BrE for AmE rubber band, but in my AmE, elastic band can be a name for the covered kind you make ponytails with (and then in the US there are also regional terms for both the stationery kind and the hair kind).
  • The variation problem: BrE plasterboard is given as equivalent of AmE wallboard, which I can't say I've ever used. It's drywall or Sheetrock to me in AmE. BrE spring onions is compared with AmE green onions (which, since that's the title of a song, might provide a fair amount of data "noise"), but AmE scallions is not included. BrE mobile phones is searched for, but not mobilesbut it looks to me (using GloWBE corpus) that about 1/3 of mentions of such phones have the shorter term. In the US, calling the phone by the shortened name cell looks to be less common than the equivalent shortened British form. So if you compare mobile phones to (AmE) cell phones, you might be missing a lot of BrE. (Then there's the problem of the not-uncommon spelling cellphones, which they didn't search for either.)
  • The vocabulary–spelling problem: AmE license plate v BrE number plate. If BrE or another English borrows license plate, they may very well adapt the spelling to their standard, so why not look for licence plate? What does it mean if that's found? Is it an Americanism or not?
All of this is to say: comparing such things is hard to do well. If it's possible at all.

(If the authors read this and want to correct me on any points in the comments, please do. I may have misread something in my haste.) 

I'd also like to sound a note of discomfort and caution regarding talking about AmE and BrE  "around the world". This involves a leap of thinking that bothers me: that AmE and BrE are used outside the US and UK. To be fair, the authors mostly talk about BrE or AmE forms being used. But for us to claim national ownership of those forms is to take a particular nationalist-political stand on English, I think.

It's a common way to talk about English. People in, say, India or Korea might say "I/we speak British English" or "I/we speak American English". But what people generally mean is "I/we use the British (or American) spelling conventions."

If you're learning English as a foreign language (e.g. in Korea), you may well use learning materials that are from the US or the UK. (Your teacher may well be from somewhere else.) You may aim for a particular kind of accent (though a number of studies show that learners are often not very good at telling the difference between the accent they're aiming for and others). What you speak will be English, but it won't particularly be "American English" or "British English".  You may aim for a certain pronunciation convention, you may get certain vocabulary. But your English has not developed in Britain or America. It's developing right now where you are. It's absolutely related to British and American English. But it is neither of those. (Glenn Hadikin's your linguist if you want to know about Korean English.)

In a place with longstanding English usage, like India, the language has been going in its own direction for some time. The fashions for UK or US spellings may change, and the language will take in new English words from the US and other places, but it also makes up its own, has its grammatical idiosyncrasies, etc. If you look at whether people in India use off-licence or liquor store (as this study did), then you're missing the fact that the Indian English liquor shop is more common than either the American or the British term. (And, interestingly, it looks like a mash-up between American liquor store and the British use of shop for retail places.) I don't know what the alcohol-selling laws in India are, but if they're not like Britain's then the British term off-licence would make no particular sense in India. Instead, Indian English has a nice descriptive phrase that works for India. But what a study like this will find is that there are a few more uses of liquor store in their Indian data than off-licence —who knows, maybe because they're talking to Americans on Twitter or because they're talking about American films in which people rob liquor stores. (Spare thought: are there UK films where people rob off-licences?) The study then completely misses the point that, for this particular word meaning, Indian English is Indianized, not Americanized.

The most interesting thing about the study (for me), but not one that gets a mention, is what happens to their data in the Internet age. After 1990, we see the gap narrowing. This does not come as a surprise to me—this is also the point at which Britain falls out of love with the -ize spelling and starts preferring the -ise one (having allowed them co-mingle for centuries). In the internet age, we also are seeing grammatical changes that set British and American on different paths (you're just going to have to wait some months for my book for those details).

From Gonçalves et al. 2017

This graph is based on Google Books data from the US and UK (or at least, that's what Google Books thinks). The yellow line is BrE vocabulary and the black line is BrE spelling (of the particular vocabulary and spellings they were looking for—which include no words with -ise/-ize). Those lines are fairly steady--though you can see that the two world wars did no favo(u)rs to British book publishing. You can also see dips in the American lines after WWII. The authors attribute this to European migration to the US after World War II.  I'd also wonder about American contact with Britain during the war.

But after 1990, those British lines are going up—the spelling one quite sharply. In the paper I gave last week, I talked about (what I've decided to call) contra-Americanization—British English changing or losing old forms because they look like they might be American. There seems to be a backlash to (perceived and real) Americanization.

I've  congratulated the Guardian author on the note of caution. I don't want to congratulate the headline writer, though. Nor the researchers' title for their paper.

The paper's title, setting the end of Empire against Americanization, implicitly feeds into that "it's a two-way competition" story.

The Guardian headline 'Do you want fries with that? Data shows Americanization of English is rising' includes an Americanism that wasn't part of the study. The implication that Americanization means de-Briticization (which falls out from the competition story) doesn't work for fries. British English now has fries, but it has very Britishly made it mean something different from what it means in America, since in Britain it contrasts with (rather than replaces) chips. But the bigger problem in the headline is that "is rising". Given what we've seen in the post-1990 graph line, is that true?

These kinds of things also raise the question: what is meant by Americanization? Apparently it means non-Americans having the words fries and cookies in their vocabulary. But if those words don't mean the same thing to them that they mean to Americans, what does Americanization mean here?

The moral of this story: talking about "the Americanization" of English makes a lot of assumptions—including that "Americanization" and "English" are each one thing. They ain't.

*I'm too tired to keep up the marking of the s/z contrast here, so I'm going with the z because it's Oxford spelling, good in Britain and America. Don't let any contra-Americanizer tell you otherwise!
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(to) each (to) their own

Today's post, I'm happy to say, is a guest post by Maddy Argy, an A-level student who's doing (BrE) work experience with me at the University of Sussex. I've asked her to find American-British differences that she could research and have introduced her to some of the tools we linguists use. I'm happy to introduce her first post! 

To Each His Own 1946
When reading a blog post written by an American English speaker, I noticed she used the phrase to each their own which didn't sound natural to me. Previously, having lived in Britain all my life, I have primarily used and heard only each to their own.

The phrase is used in both American and British English, however most likely originated from Latin.

In the Corpus of Global Web-Based Englishto each their own is heavily used in American English, with a total of 418 in all its forms. In British English however there is a total of only 105.

Meanwhile here it's clear that each to their own is more commonly used in British English with a much larger total of 365, and only 68 of this form in American English.

So why is there such a significant difference?

In the table above from the Corpus of Historical American English we're looking at 'each to their own', which is most heavily used by speakers of British English. At a stretch it could go back as far as the 1820s, but only seems to be in popular use around the 1860s.

When looking at the American English version, it comes into scarce usage around the 1880s, but seems to gain popularity around the 1940s. After looking into where the phrase was actually used, it was all down to the release of the (BrE) film/ (AmE) movie,  'To Each His Own' in 1946 which might be able to explain the later difference considering this is how the phrase was brought to attention in America early on. 

The older British English version seems to be in most popular use in the US until around the 1980s, at which point it becomes less used and the American English version becomes more common, so this would explain why to each sounded so foreign to me.


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Review: That's the way it crumbles, by M. Engel

Those who follow the blog may remember that in February I was on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth, where fellow guest Matthew Engel and I debated the effect of American English on British English. Engel had written many newspaper columns on the topic, but at that point his book, That’s the way it crumbles: the American conquest of English, was yet to appear. What struck me in that radio conversation was how little Engel appeared to have to say about a topic he’d just written a book about. While he had some examples, he mostly seemed to repeat his claim that American English is "taking over" British English while offering little more than the experience-based perceptions of an Englishman in his seventh decade. He does have much more to say in the book, but he hasn't changed my mind about the topic. (You're not surprised, right?) I'm writing this on my way back from giving a conference paper on the research gaps and logical problems in British arguments that "American English is taking over". While I didn't discuss Engel's book there (my focus was on work by linguists—and media representation of that work), I wouldn't have had to change my argument if I had discussed it.

It's easy to suspect that the conquest in the book's subtitle was the work of his publisher's marketing
department, since Engel states in the preface "Let’s get two things straight right now: this crisis is not the Americans' fault; and this book is not anti-American." (Some of his best friends are American…) Instead, the "crisis", as Engel has it, is mostly the fault of the British, and their "current self-imposed verbal enslavement" (p. 3). Chapter by chapter, the book takes a chronological tour of Britain's alleged "long journey towards subservience" (p. 109). I've written about this slavery trope in an earlier blog post. It seems a peculiarly post-imperialist way of understanding global relationships—if you are no longer the master, you must be the slave.

If Engel is not anti-American (and we do have to ask: is he the best judge of that?), we can still conclude he’s somewhat anti-linguist. A few linguists are cited in the book (mostly for popular-audience works), listed in the references list under the 19th-century-feeling heading "Philology, etc.". In recalling the path to the book (more on this below), he complains that his work
reached the ears of the online lexicographical community, some of whom have not quite learned the niceties of civil disagreement and disputed my right to offer an opinion at all. One American said it was none of my business because I was not a 'qualified lexicographer'.
This is one quotation whose source Engel doesn't cite, and which I’ve been unable to find in the "online lexicographical community". (I don't know what they'd think a "qualified lexicographer" is. Lexicographers generally have experience rather than qualifications—see the last book I reviewed.)
As for whether linguists and Americans (or, indeed, American linguists) have been civil in their conversations, well, if you start with fighting words, you get fighting conversations. For Engel, there is a contest between American and British words, and it is "no longer a fair one" (p. 66). Americanisms aren’t just words, they're culprits, invaders, garbage. And if you say that about my words, it feels like you're saying it about me.

The lexicographers were loud not just because of Engel’s opinions, but because the "facts" in his newspaper columns often misjudged what was actually British or American English. He has learn{ed/t} his lesson on that point and so starts the book with a "note on the text" in which he admits that there will be "honest errors" of categori{s/z}ation and that he's willing to receive "politely worded suggestions for amendments" (p. viii). Since I suspect that Engel and I do not share a common view of what "polite wording" is (maybe I'm the "online lexicographical community" to which he refers), I won't burden him with my (few) (orig. AmE) nitpicks about word origin in the book.

The issue for debate here is not whether Engel is entitled to an opinion; rather it's whether people are entitled to go unchallenged when they express opinions that show only partial understanding of the issues at hand. Engel has the opinion that Britons should fight against American English. But this opinion is based on various claims or assumptions 
  • about what English is in the US and UK. For example, though he's not southern in origin, the English he talks about is very much the south-eastern standard—take, for instance, the claim that pants meaning 'trousers' is American and trousers is British—a common oversimplification, but an oversimplification all the same
  • about the nature of the "Britishness" that he wants to protect.
  • about how language changes, and how it is or is not changing in the UK and US. For example, what's the role of regional identity or social class [in bold because it's heavy] in how English changes in Britain?
  • about the relationship between language and culture. 
This last point is important. Engel's real enemy is not American words, but changes to British culture. Thatcherism, Blairism, loss of interest in the countryside, all are blamed on "Americani{s/z}ation". The extent of that can be debated, but Engel wants to situate the problem in words. The words came over, and they brought ideas with them, and as if in some Whorfian horror story, the ideas have eaten British brains. One problem with blaming the words is that in several chapters Engel has to stop after discussing word-culprits and admit "None of these can actually be counted as Americanisms" (p. 110)--they are relatively fresh Britishisms. But they feel American in tone or meaning to Engel, so they go on the slag heap.

Engel’s book provides lots of interesting cultural history, rich with entertaining facts, quotations and stories of the famous and not-so-famous. It’s also very well written, with a sly sense of humo[u]r. But the claim for “loss of the British language” (p. 235) feels, at best, like a case of selective attention leading to a grumpy nostalgia for olden times (or vice versa). At worst, it comes off as disingenuous. Engel  knows very well (as evidenced in the book) that British English has always been undergoing change and that exciting linguistic things are happening in Britain that have nothing to do with America. (He has a bit on Multicultural London English, which is not very American at all.) But he's got himself into an argumentative corner where he has to rely on hyperbole. "It would be totally impossible to write a coherent book in English without words imported from the United States" (p. 11). (Writers! The gauntlet has been thrown!) It also has irony. "I’m not prescriptive", he writes on page 13.

In the end, Engel proposes that Brits try to stop Americanisms with pressure groups, for instance emailing and Twitter-shaming the BBC whenever they hear life vest instead of life jacket. The thing that worries me is that when I analy{s/z}ed a list of complaints to the BBC about Americanisms, only half of them were Americanisms. But if you're going to base your linguistic crusades on nationalism, maybe you don't care about facts. Engel also proposes that "Ridicule can work wonders" (p. 238). Ah, so that's how "civil disagreement" works.

One gets the feeling in the book that Engel is not fully committed to the topic. That he’s got himself in a (BrE) one-way system and is having a hard time getting out. It’s not really the language he wants to complain about, it's modern life—and who doesn’t want to complain about that? In the acknowledg(e)ments, Engel recounts that the publisher had called to tell Engel he wanted his book. Engel replied "What book?". "I had already decided I did not want to write a book about Americanisms", Engel tells us (p 259). But he has written it.

Thank you to Profile Books for providing a review copy of this book. In fact, they sent me two. If you'd like my spare copy, please write a comment on the Americanism you're most grateful for in British English in which you indicate a word/phrase of American origin that has been usefully (to your mind) been borrowed into British English.
I'll put those responses into a hat on 31 July and draw one.  If you win it, you can then tell me if you think this was a fair review! (Anonymous entries may have to be discounted if I can't find a way to contact you.)

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Barbados & the Caribbean

The scene behind the KFC near my Barbadian hotel
is rather unlike the scene behind the KFC near my Brighton home
As I mentioned in the last post, and as I have been wont to mention at any opportunity, I got to go to Barbados recently. It was my first time in the West Indies and it was fabulous—even if I did spend much of it in a windowless conference room.

In the weeks before I went there, I was wont to mention at any opportunity that I was going to Barbados soon. And this is when my (obviously jealous) English friends started pointing out (or was it mocking?) that I didn't say Barbados like they say Barbados. I (in my American way) say the last syllable as if it is the word dose. Theirs sounds like (BrE) doss  or the acronym for 'disk operating system': DOS. In saying it they use the 'rounded short o' vowel that Americans like me don't have.

I was gratified to learn, in the welcoming speeches at the conference, that Barbadians pronounce the last vowel in Barbados like I do, more like the Spanish number dos than like doss. I tweeted about this discovery, and one of my longtime blog correspondents emailed to note (as others had) that in olden times it was often Barbadoes in English, suggesting the "long", or more accurately "tense" o pronunciation that I use. She added "the modern spelling suggests the '-oss' ending".

To which I had to respond—well, the modern ending might suggest '-oss' for you, but not for me. Barbados is part of a partial pattern of difference between BrE and AmE. For my American English, I see the -os in kudos or pathos and I say it with the tense /o/. They rhyme with dose, not doss. But the standard pronunciation of these in Britain is with the -oss sound. And that kind of pronunciation has bled into Barbados. The name Barbados comes from either Portuguese or Spanish for 'bearded ones' (probably because of a tree with beard-like foliage). It's not related to the Greek-derived words pathos and kudos, but the spelling leads us to treat them similarly.

This varies in the US, though. Merriam-Webster gives the doss-type pronunciation first for kudos and pathos (though, of course, with the kind of short-o that Americans use, see link above). American Heritage's first choice for kudos rhymes with doze. But my kudos rhymes with dose. That pronunciation is in both dictionaries, but further down their lists. They both give the dose-type first for Barbados, though. (And they don't give a 'doss' type, but do give a schwa pronunciation more like "Barbaduss".) I suspect that the dose pronunciation for Barbados is preserved in the US because it looks like Spanish, and Americans are used to pronouncing the Spanish o in the tense/long way. (For more on AmE/BrE approaches to Spanish words, see this old post & its comments.)

Thanks to previous UK comment on/mockery of my pronunciation, I went to Barbados also nervous about saying Caribbean. Natural-me says caRIBbean. English people (and now me-when-I'm-speaking-to-English-people-and-wanting-to-avoid-mockery) say caribBEan.  I again heard "my" pronunciation during the opening speeches of the conference. Professor Jeannette Allsopp, co-namesake of the Richard and Jeannette Allsopp Centre for Caribbean Lexicography, put her stress on the -rib-. I thought: if she does it, I can do it too. Then I noticed other staff and students from the University of the West Indies (UWI) putting their stress on the -be-. This is what Oxford Dictionaries says on the matter:
There are two possible pronunciations of the word Caribbean. The first, more common in British English, puts the stress on the -be-, while the second, found in the US and the Caribbean itself, stresses the -rib-
The 'first' in this quotation is made especially weird by the fact that it's the rib-stressed pronunciation that is listed first in their entry for the word. Phonetician (and frequent travel[l]er to the Caribbean) John Wells tells me that indeed the rib-stressing pronunciation is traditionally the more common in the area. The fact that I heard a lot of younger UWI folk using the more BrE pronunciation is an interesting counterexample to the oft-heard claims that English is being Americanized all over the world. In this case, decades after Barbadian independence, a British pronunciation seems to be making inroads.

The competition between these pronounciations comes from the fact that Caribbean has two possible etymologies. It's either Carib(b)+ean or Caribbee+an. Both Carib and Caribbee are apparent anglici{s/z}ations of the Spanish Caribe (which is probably an adaptation of an Arawak word). Caribbee has pretty much died out now, but it and Carib are both found in the earliest days of European reporting on "the New World". 

So, I'm happy now to say Barbados and Caribbean in my natural way even with British friends who might mock me because (a) they're not wrong, and (b) I GOT TO GO TO BARBADOS AND THEY DIDN'T. 😎
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Review: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

I'm just back from a FABULOUS time at the Dictionary Society of North America conference. Fabulous not just because it was hosted by the University of the West Indies in Barbados (wheeeeee!), but because dictionary people are just the best people. No offen{c/s}e academic linguists, cognitive scientists, parents of 9-year-olds, Scrabblers, Murphys, and other folk I'm apt to hang out with, but lexicographers (orig. AmE) have the edge.

I have (for a couple of years, part-time) been an actual English-dictionary lexicographer, for the Encarta World English Dictionary. (Among my job titles were "Americanizer", "Compiler", and "Specialist Lexicographer: Languages and linguistics".) I loved it. (I also loved that the publisher, Bloomsbury, sent me some random book with each payche{ck/que}. I got my best soup [orig. AmE] cookbook that way.)

But the job I REALLY wanted, the one that would have kept me out of academia, was a job with Merriam-Webster of Springfield, Massachusetts. Having finished my BA in Linguistics and Philosophy at a just-up-the-road university, I wrote to them in 1987 to ask if they might be hiring. They weren't. And so I had to go get two more degrees and (BrE-ish) move continents three times in order to follow my second-best option after lexicographer: becoming a lexicologist.

Kory Stamper was lucky. She came along a few years later when Merriam was hiring—and she got the job. And now she has written a wonderful, detailed,  funny book about life as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer: Word by Word: the secret life of dictionaries. The kind people at Pantheon sent me a review copy a few months ago, but I wasn't able to read the whole thing during term time/before my own book deadline had passed/before I had written my paper for the Dictionary Society.* So, I read it on the beach in Barbados. Maybe that can be something that makes Kory a tiny bit envious of me as a counter to my incredible envy of her job, since she wasn't at the conference this year. But getting to know her a bit from the book, I kind of suspect that Kory's not the lounging-in-the-hot-sun type.

Because I'm a bit late, you language-loving readers of mine may well have read other reviews of this book. They all said it was fantastic, right? Well, I'm not going to deviate from that line, because I honestly cannot. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in dictionaries and the people that make them. (And since I've already established that they're the best people, why wouldn't you be interested?)

Kory (I'm using her first name because we're Twitter-acquaintances) covers all aspects of being a lexicographer—from the mysterious coffee in orange foil to the threatening emails. But most importantly, and most richly, she covers what it is to define a word. How you capture the difference between a (orig. AmE) sex pot and a (orig. BrE?) sex kitten. How you define the (AmE) pantyhose/(BrE) tights sense of nude without sounding racist. And why it took one lexicographer nine months to revise the Oxford English Dictionary entry for run.

The lexicographer (and also the lexicologist's!) secret weapon is Sprachgefühl: an intuitive feeling for the nuances of language. This is something that comes more naturally to some than to others, but I think it can be grown in a person—to some extent, at least. Kory tells the story of her training in defining and shares the stories of other lexicographers who agree that experience counts in lexicography. She gives so many engaging examples of definitions-gone-wrong and definitions-gone-right that some of that experience will probably (orig. AmE) rub off on you.

I hope it does rub off, because I plan on assigning the chapter on defining (which cent{er/re}s on the example of surfboard) to my first-year students next year. Undoubtedly, there will be a few in need of a bit more Sprachgefühl.

The book gives insight into the history of dictionary publishing generally and American dictionary publishing (which is its own beast) particularly, the role dictionaries play in (American especially) society, and a sense of what it is like to be a working lexicographer (right down to the fear of [AmE] layoffs/[BrE] redundancies). It also makes you feel like you're in the presence of an extremely likeable person. So, I thank Kory for this book, and I encourage you to read it and buy it for the dictionary-lovers in your lives.

It seems to be published in North America only, but of course these days one can order anything anywhere. The ££ prices don't look bad. If you're more (or also) interested in the British lexicography scene, you might want to get your hands on another book, published a few months before Kory's: former OED editor John Simpson's The Word Detective. I've only read a few pages of it so far, but it seems very good too. Since I didn't get a review copy of that one (actual money was spent!), I will probably not (orig. AmE) get around to writing a formal review of it.

* If you're wondering what I talked about at the DSNA conference, it all got started with a blog post I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries a few years ago.  That was the start of me thinking about differences in the "dictionary cultures" of the UK and the US. My DSNA paper was about the differences in content and tone I found in historical advertising for Merriam-Webster and Oxford. When that becomes a published paper (or papers), I'll be sure to let you know. I cover aspects of it in chapter 8 of my book-to-be, which will be published next spring. You can be sure that I'll let you know about that (a. lot.) as the publication date nears. In the meantime, I want to thank the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant program(me) for allowing me to travel to dictionary archives in the past year, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funded the book project.
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in/with hindsight

Before our irregularly scheduled blogpost, a couple of announcements:
First, I'm on a (BrE) one-off Radio 4 program(me) tomorrow morning (10:30): Americanize! Why the Americanisation of English is a good thing, presented by Susie Dent. It should be available on iPlayer Radio after that.

    Top Language Lovers 2017
Second, this blog has been nominated for the annual bab.la Top Language Lovers award 2017. If you'd like to support it (or even if you wouldn't) you can click on the logo and vote:

 And now on to the show. What preposition goes before hindsight?

This was a recent Twitter Difference of the Day, and a conveniently simple thing to blog about during (BrE academic) marking season. I'd asked an American lexicographer to (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look at the chapter about (among other things) lexicography in my book manuscript. I had written with hindsight in my book manuscript and he queried whether I'd "gone native" with my preposition. Indeed, it seems I had. As you can see in the screenshot, the GloWBE corpus shows that AmE prefers in hindsight.

I'd say that BrE prefers in too, since with 929 hits, in is the 'winning' preposition before hindsight in BrE. But add of and with together, and they've got 952 hits. I'd say they probably should be added together because the of number actually stands for the longer with-ful phrase: with the benefit of hindsight.

Using hindsight in this kind of prepositional phrase meaning 'in retrospect', seems to be a mid-20th-century thing. No preposition here is the 'original', as far as I can tell, but the in is probably affected by the expression in retrospect. There's less hindsight used in this way in AmE, but AmE has more in retrospect (about 1.5x more).
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)