I had l’esprit de l’escalier after writing the post below, which is about Geoffrey Pullum’s assertion that most of the differences between British English and American English are matters of pronunciation or “word choice,” rather than grammar. Specifically, three grammatical differences occurred to me:
- The (British) use of plural verbs with collective nouns, such as “Manchester United are having a poor season” or “Parliament are meeting.”
- The singular “they” is overwhelmingly used in speech and in online writing in both the U.K. and the U.S. (“If someone writes a book, they [as opposed to "he," "she," or "he or she"] should be prepared to do a lot of research.”) However, it is not widely accepted in U.S. academic writing, journalism, or publishing, while it is (it seems to me) in the U.K.
- American English uses had gotten (and had forgotten), while British English uses had got. The truth of the latter proposition was forcefully brought home to me a year or so ago when I was interviewed by an Irish radio presenter on the subject of NOOBs. Asked for an example, I mentioned that the New Yorker magazine uses got instead of the more otherwise prevalent gotten. There was a pause, as if for the host to make sure his ears had not deceived him. “GOTTEN??” he bellowed. “GOTTEN?? There is no such word as GOTTEN!” It took a full ninety seconds before I was able to convince him that I wasn’t having him on.
I should say that underlying Geoff’s argument is his contention that the differences, whatever the extent of them, do not constitute some sort of scandal or problem, or much misunderstanding or mystification, either. I would agree with him on both points, while noting that a few words, notably pants and pissed, can create comedy via their dual meanings.
I’ll conclude by noting that Lynne Murphy has jumped into the conversation at her brilliant “Separate by a Common Language Blog.” She says she has written 432 posts, almost all on the differences between British and American English, including “22 on grammar, 20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them].”
Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly. But that doesn’t make the differences that are there any less interesting to me.