Come, Come, Mr. Pullum

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:

  1. The (British) use of plural verbs with collective nouns, such as “Manchester United are having a poor season” or “Parliament are meeting.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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].”

She concludes:

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.

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22 responses to “Come, Come, Mr. Pullum

  1. On plural verbs with collective nouns, I’d say that it’s usually uncomfortable and unfixed in British English. In the case of your examples – “Manchester United are having a poor season” or “Parliament are meeting” – I don’t think I’d notice the first one but I wince when I hear the latter. Quite likely to shout “Parliament IS meeting!” at the television. Sloppy and picky both.

    • Agreed. In the case of Manchester United, the comment refers to not only the club but also the players, coaches etc. Conversely, Parliament is being treated as a single entity. It is clearly messy, but generally determined by context.

    • Referring to a football club in the plural is normal British practice and has been for decades. It is indicative that the club is not just the formal organisation, but its owners, directors, staff, players and (in terms of numbers) supporters. A person is a singular noun; a city is singular; a country is too. But a population (although it lacks a final “s”) clearly is not – even if the dictionary say so.

      (Why is my US-developed spell checker highlighting organisation with an “s”, but not practice [n] with a “c”??)

      Parliament is never referred to in the UK as a plural subject. Parliament “is”. Whereas the Government and the Opposition may be “is-ing” (if in unison) or “are-ing” if factionalism is apparent. The Government is united to… The Opposition are split for and against.

      There’s a level of nuance (a NOOF, à la français) that will escape most US readers.

      As for “They” rather than “He”; “She” or “It “- surely it makes common sense in terms of economy and the avoidance of legalistic pedantry to use “They”. The grammatical stickler will get accustomed to the apparent pluralism within a century or so. The example: “If someone writes a book, they [as opposed to "he," "she," or "he or she"] should be prepared to do a lot of research.” Why not go the whole hog and trot out “each and every one of them, severally and/or collectively”? No?

      Gotten is not only archaic, it is ugly in the extreme. When you wager on a horse race, have you betten? Caught a fish… netten? Rented out your house… letten? Made a rendez-vous… metten? Decomposed in your coffin… retten?

      And Hal: there is a truly unisex pronoun. It’s “they”.

      Pip, pip!

      • Referring to a football club in the plural is normal British practice and has been for decades

        In certain contexts. “Manchester United are playing badly”, but “Manchester United was founded in 1878″.

        (Why is my US-developed spell checker highlighting organisation with an “s”, but not practice [n] with a “c”??)

        Because, believe it or not, both noun and verb are spelled with a “c” in the US.

        Parliament is never referred to in the UK as a plural subject. Parliament “is”. Whereas the Government and the Opposition may be “is-ing” (if in unison) or “are-ing” if factionalism is apparent. The Government is united to… The Opposition are split for and against. There’s a level of nuance (a NOOF, à la français) that will escape most US readers.

        I’m not sure this is actually the relevant criterion (unison vs. factionalism). It it were, we would expect to see “Parliament are” rather than “Parliament is”, since Parliament is, almost by definition, composed of factions.

        In fact, Google News searches for “the government is” vs. “the goverment are (restricted to the UK) suggest that formality is what matters: “the government are” is more likely in quoted spontaneous speech, or other informal contexts; “the government is” in more formal settings. But perhaps formality is “a level of nuance” that has escaped you?

        Gotten is not only archaic, it is ugly in the extreme.

        But “forgotten” is both modern and beautiful, right?

      • “They” surely is unisex, but it’s not singular. Excuse me for not being more specific.

    • It is fixed in British English because we subconsciously apply an underlying nuanced meaning depending whether we are speaking in terms of an institution/collective noun… singular, or a number of people/things… plural.

      The club Manchester United is singular; its players are a number, plural.

      Try this. Manchester United (institution) is at the top of the league.

      Manchester United (players) are playing well. ‘Players’ does not have to be spoken because the plural form of the verb ‘are’ makes that clear.

      In fact Manchester United ‘is’ playing well is incorrect because it, being a thing, cannot play football, only people can.

      Ditto Parliament: Parliament (the institution) is sitting; (Members) of Parliament are debating.

  2. Very interesting to see this issue debated.
    On a side note, one thing I’m amazed at is that an Irish journalist should have said that “there is no such word as ‘gotten'”. While it is arguably not the preferred form, especially in writing, ‘gotten’ is certainly out there in Irish English : the (relatively small) ICE-Ireland has 7.7 occurrences of ‘gotten’ per million words, and the GLOWBE corpus has as many as 22.19 occurrences per million words emanating from Ireland., compared with 1.07 in the BNC and 14.39 in the GLOWBE for Great Britain (but well over 50 per million in both the COCA and the GLOWBE-US).

  3. #3: “…before I was able to convince him that I wasn’t having him on.” Is that what they say in Ireland? Here in the U.S., we say, “putting him on.”
    #2: I know many will strongly disagree, but in the absence of a true unisex pronoun, I, as one of apparently few, still like “s/he” for its economy.

  4. Both “gotten” and “got” are derived from old English, but the former has fallen out of use in British English. Although routinely spotted in colloquial use, “got” is often superfluous and normally avoided in formal writing.

  5. robin.benson123@talktalk.net

    Reading this latest Ben made me realize that I forgot to send you an item from the Daily Mail last week. Best… Robin http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581034/British-invasion-Americans-start-saying-Queue-thanks-Netflix-33-million-U-S-subscribers.html?offset=0&max=100#comment-50225411

  6. I share FM’s amazement that the Irish radio presenter was not familiar with “gotten”. Those of us who enjoy American TV shows should be very aware of it. I have even seen it written by English people who had probably picked it up from TV.

  7. Singular “they” is now found in UK legislation. Random example:

    “A renter is entitled to an additional bedroom if they satisfy any of the following conditions” [where "they" clearly refers to "a renter"]

    I don’t know whether there are any equivalent examples in US legislation.

  8. I’d like to add ‘rubber’, ‘knock up’ and ‘first floor’ to UK/US differences that cause real confusion.

  9. There may only be a ‘few’ words which could cause amusing or embarrassing confusions between the UK and US, but I wonder if it’s worth a post to collect these?

    I’m a Brit, so here are couple of examples:

    I remember listening to a comedy LP as a kid (Shelley Berman, since you ask) in which he asked his audience if “your fannies ever fall asleep”. As the UK meaning of fanny is close physiologically, but far away in terms of good taste, it astounded me that it could be asked on an early 1960s gramaphone record!

    Many years later I was in a San Francisco restaurant. I had a bit of a coughing fit and, when asked by the waiter if I was OK, I told him that I was fine and I had a cough from “smoking too many fags”. It was only after he stormed off and I was subsequently served by another person that I realised the meaning that he attributed to my (honestly) innocent statement.

    • I remember many years ago someone telling me that on their first visit to the US, he found women in bars asked him three question, his age, his star sign, and what turned him on. When he answered “suspenders” to that last question, he got some very odd looks.

      • This went over my head. What did he mean when he said that suspenders turned him on?

      • Ben, in the UK, suspenders are what US or Canadian readers would call a ‘garter belt’.

      • And the elasticated strips that go over the shoulders to hold up ones trousers are known as braces in the UK (hence belt and braces).

        Also there’s that line in the Monty Python lumberjack song about the lumberjack wearing “suspendies and a bra”.

        A couple of years ago I was going through a tube station and saw a poster advertising an erotica expo in London, illustrated with a photograph of a man and a woman both wearing less than the usual amount of clothes. The woman was in her underwear and wearing what I’d call suspenders and the man was shirtless but his trousers were held up by braces. Aha, I thought to myself, to an Englishman, she’s wearing suspenders and to an American, he’s wearing suspenders. Which I suspect is not the reaction the people who put up the poster were expecting.

  10. Re point (3/GOTTEN).

    I recall always being perplexed when watching Star Trek: The Next Generation by (Yorkshireman) Patrick Stewart by the use of the similar word “headed” (“Where are we headed, number one?”) rather than the British use which is “heading”.

    The British English use of “headed” is something you do to a football (sorry, Soccer ball) with your forehead (“he headed it into the net”).

    • It took me a long time to work out what Picard meant by “boo-ee” before realising it was the American pronunciation for “buoy” pronounced “boy” in the UK.

  11. “American English uses had gotten (and had forgotten), while British English uses had got.”

    I do not think this is so. Forgotten is certainly used in British English. I forgot, but I have or had forgotten is usual.

    I have or had forgot, is archaic.

    ‘I had got’ does not seem right, most British would not use the pluperfect and say simply, ‘I got’, but I certainly would say ‘I had gotten’ learned during my upbringing.

  12. Most AmE differences don’t seem so strange to the English as ‘gotten’. For some reason this word sounds to the English ear as if you were using the word ‘Achtung’ as part of an English sentence. Perhaps like the zeal of the convert, this is a form of grammar we are attentive NOT to use.

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