PVTL: Or, Why Brits “Sit” Their Exams

There was some interesting back-and-forth on a recent post that offered as a NOOB the verb sit for, meaning to take a test or examination. A couple of British speakers replied, in essence, Nonsense; we don’t sit for exams, we sit them, minus the for. With no little satisfaction, I reprinted several Oxford English Dictionary examples of sit for=take. But my correspondent correctly pointed out that the most recent was written in 1955. I hadn’t noticed it the first time around, but the OED also has an entry for sit=take (an exam). The oldest citation was from 1957.

On reflection, it occurred to me that something similar has occurred with some other verbs, such as ring up, queue up, and sort out. In all these cases, common British usage has dropped the second word; the current idioms are ring, queue and sort. But–and this is the interesting bit–Americans have picked up the older, two-word form. I call this Phrasal Verb Lag Time, or PVLT for short.

I understand why the Brits would shorten the form, but not why Americans would adopt the long one. Any ideas? I’d be especially interested if Lynne Murphy, over at her excellent blog Separated by a Common Language, has any thoughts.

27 responses to “PVTL: Or, Why Brits “Sit” Their Exams

  1. I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer to this, but I do have an experience to share. When I teach about ‘up’ as a verb particle that expresses ‘completeness’ (e.g. ‘drink something’ v ‘drink something up’), my UK students often tell me that the ‘up’ version sounds more American. There may be a dispreference among UK people for ‘up’ these days. I’d need to look into that more deeply when it’s not already past my bedtime.

    For ‘sort out’, I mostly hear the ‘out’-less version as an adjective, ‘sorted’: “Have you booked your holiday?” “It’s sorted”. Or “She seems really sorted” (=’together’). (Some discussion of this here: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1670303) (Though, checking Google, there are a lot of ‘I sorted my holiday’s.) This is a rather new turn of phrase.

    My experience of Americans doesn’t have them saying these things…but your evidence of them often comes from the northeastern urban corridor. And one might think that this is influenced by British immigrants in such place (where they seem to be well-employed in the media). So a hypothesis would be that Americans who use these forms use the older forms because they’re learning them from people who haven’t been living in the UK during more recent changes. I can tell you from my experience…it only takes a decade outside your native country to fall terribly behind in your ‘native dialect’.

    Hope that’s of some interest… And as long as I’m here, here’s my old post on sitting exams: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/09/exam-was-sat.html

  2. This process is still very much ongoing. All sorts of phrasal verbs can be shortened like this to sound more cool and groovy: “time for me to head off” -> “time for me to head”, “check it out” -> “check it”, etc. Yes, “ring up” and “queue up” are very slightly dated and probably less common now than “ring” and “queue”. But it would be an exaggeration to say that “sort” is “the current idiom” for “sort out”: it’s still fairly new and informal.

  3. It’s a very long time since I sat any exams in the UK but as I recall to sit an exam only applied to important exams. ( Eleven plus – there I am dating myself, O levels, A levels, University Finals. ie those exams whose results had major life changing consequences.)

    • Judith, I would agree with you – although I’m of the generation that sat GCSEs, AS Levels and A2 Levels! Also in relation to exams, I was recently intrigued to discover that Americans do not talk about ‘revision’ in the same way as Brits. When I told American friends that I was ‘revising’ (with the implicit British sense of ‘revising for exams’), some thought that I was revising in the sense of editing documents… I’ve been told the correct American term is ‘cramming’ so will use that from now on!

      • Judith Kozloff

        It is good to know that I am not totally dated in my use of English. The longer you are here the more confusing it becomes and my brain can freeze trying to work out which is American and which is British usage. And then there is the problem of not knowing what has migrated to the UK in your absence. i remember struggling for a UK replacement for ‘hassle’ some years ago, I can’t remember the substitute I used but I do remember the response “yes it is a hassle isn’t it?” …..
        But is cramming the same as revision? I think there are subtle differences.

      • Personally, I’ve always thought of ‘revising’ as the relatively calm, organized process that you carry out for a few weeks before sitting exams. ‘Cramming’, on the other hand, is what you do when you’re in a panic the night before or the morning of the exam! My American friends told me that ‘cramming’ refers to the whole process out here, regardless of time remaining to exam and associated panic levels. I should mention that I’m in California – I’ve no idea if usage differs elsewhere.

      • Judith Kozloff

        sorry wrong position, but only one open to me. “Blagging” – you are have probably started a whole new line of discussion. But your generation, not mine. Searching my old brain but I have come to the conclusion that in those dark ( and very sexist) days of mid 60’s ( still post war era, not swinging until later) that it was an unspoken and probably unrecognised concept. In retrospect we were so naive!

  4. PVTL: the two word reason is this: Masterpiece Theatre!

    • Yes my definitions of the difference would agree with yours. But cramming UK style got me my ill-deserved LSE degree many years ago! That, and an inate ability to bullshit although I can’t remember the English 60’s argot.

      • Haha, my BrE equivalent of ‘to bullshit’ would be ‘to blag’, as in to blag your way through a tutorial or through an exam. Was that used in 1960s BrE? This wiktionary entry suggests it was used in the 1960s although maybe in a slightly different way: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/blag

  5. American here.

    I don’t think I’d say any of those. I guess I’m not among those who have picked them up. Well, okay, “Sort out” I might.

    “ring up” would be call.

    “queue up” would be “line up”. And my theory on that one is we queue up because we line up.

    As for “sort out”, I would sort my socks, and sort out my life.

  6. @lynneguist:

    “When I teach about ‘up’ as a verb particle that expresses ‘completeness’ (e.g. ‘drink something’ v ‘drink something up’), my UK students often tell me that the ‘up’ version sounds more American.”

    That’s hilarious. As an ex-Brit now living in the US (15 years), the “up” versions sound terribly British to me! Perhaps they’re just old-fashioned?

  7. My observation is that Americans (myself included), “sort items”; for emphasis, I might “sort out” something. I’ve never said “I’ll ring you up,” but then I’ve never said “I’ll ring you.” As to “queue,” when used at all, it’s more likely to be in indirect discourse, as in a newspaper article where the reporter describes people as “queueing up” for something. I can’t speak to the use or non-use of “up” as a verb particle in BrE.

  8. This is a complicated area though, we can’t generalise much. Depending on your choice of example, some cases will indeed probably sound American, eg to wash *up* at the end of a messy activity. In BrE, the preposition doesn’t automatically sound dated to me. Bear in mind a reverse process is simultaneously in operation: people also add or change prepositions for no obvious reason. Originally we “printed” a document on the computer; now we’re quite likely to print it *off*, and chefs on the telly are always talking about frying *off* the onions. Thugs used to stab people, now they threaten to stab you *up*, while security people lock *down* a building rather that locking it or locking it up. Etc etc etc. I don’t see any evidence for a systematic BrE/AmE distinction here.

  9. But everyone knows it was the Americans who dropped the prepositions (and sometimes the object as in “dish” for “dish the dirt”). I have a little list: http://wordcount-richmonde.blogspot.com/2010/08/protest-pope.html

  10. “…the “up” versions sound terribly British to me!”
    “Wait up” and “listen up” are certainly American; we don’t use them in England.

    • I’m surprised by the “‘Listen up’ is not used in England” comment. Before I knew him, my English husband produced literacy materials in the UK under that title–and searching for it on .uk sites, I find it’s the name of a BBC-sponsored orchestra festival, a report on care-leavers, several educational projects, and 4.3 million other hits…

      • I in turn am very surprised by that, but that may be the difference between language as studied and everyday experience, which would be a lot more variable (I have no background in linguistics). I only know those terms as American imports.

  11. ““Wait up” and “listen up” are certainly American”?!!
    I suspect this translates as: I myself don’t use these expressions, therefore they must be foreign, and where do unwelcome linguistic imports come from? Why America!

  12. @LBS:

    I was mainly thinking of the examples already given at the time I commented: drink up, wash up, etc., which do still strike me as more British than American. “Listen up” does indeed sound more American to me, but as for “wait up”: wasn’t there a BBC situation comedy called “Don’t wait up” in the eighties?

    “we don’t use them in England” — well maybe you don’t but others certainly do🙂

  13. The one that drives me batty is “agree”. The Brits “agree” something, such as a contract, and the Americans “agree _on_” something.

  14. “Wait up” in England means “stay up late to wait for somebody”. When it means “slow down, let me catch up (!)” it is not native English, but rather the sort of expression we may catch off films. (Despite what somebody said, that does not mean I don’t like it.)
    All I can say about “listen up” is that I have never heard it used in ordinary conversation, during many conversations over many years.

  15. LBS: I’ve never heard “wait up” used to mean “slow down”, in the US or anywhere else.

    • “Wait up” used that way is also the kind of thing you encounter at summer camp, and in other places where American boys gather. It is usually heard in the form, “Hey, wait up, you guys!” I think the request is not that the people in front slow down (that would be “Slow down!”) but rather that they stop until the speaker can catch up. This kind of up-formation is a longstanding American way to amplify a verb: “eat up,” “wake up,” “finish up,” “wash up” (we use this to mean wash ourselves, rather than wash the dishes, as the British do; for that we say “do the dishes”), “hurry up,” etc. Two recent functional shifts in this form are “Cowboy up!” (the slogan a few years back of the Boston Red Sox) and “Man up!” (famously said to Harry Reid by his opponent in his last senate race).

      The British tend to make nouns out of the verb-up form, e.g. fry-up, cock-up, and the NOOBs run-up and lead-up.

  16. In my AmE, ‘cramming’ is last-minute. The AmE equivalent of ‘revising’ is ‘studying (for exams)’.

    • Interesting, I guess I would instinctively use ‘studying’ for the first time I learn something and ‘revising’ for going over it a second (or third or fourth!) time. Of course, in practice ‘revising’ sometimes ends up including an element of new material so ‘studying’ is a better catch-all term!

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