Pro-predicate “do”‘

Recently this exchange occurred on the American radio show/podcast “On the Media”:

KATHRYN VAN ARENDONK: …. when you go about separating art from artist, you can then run into all of these problems where you love work and you love an understanding of that artist that turns out to not actually be at all who they were in life.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Did I just hear you say “Louis C.K.”?

VAN ARENDONK:  I may have done.

And this from a recent New Yorker article: “Araten acknowledged that, relative to sales, the Hatfield factory employed fewer people than it had done in the past.”

The “may have done” and “had done” are examples of what ace Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy calls “pro-predicate ‘do'” (which I’ll abbreviate as PPD). As she explains in a blog post, in expressing the same thought, British people would say, “I ate all the chocolate, even though I shouldn’t have done,” where Americans would say, “I ate all the chocolate, even though I shouldn’t have.” In the examples at the top, the normal American constructions would be “I may have” and “… than it had in the past.” (Lynne doesn’t mention this, but I think an American alternative in the first case is to extend the sentence with another pronoun–that is, “I may have done it,” or “I may have done so.”)

In her post, Lynne has a full explanation of the relevant grammar, as well as a quote from a scholar who has found that the construction only became popular in Britain in the 1920s. (By the way, the “pro” in PPD stands for “pronoun”; as with pronouns, the “do” stands in for another word, in this case a verb.)

Since starting this blog six years ago, I’ve been on the lookout for American uses of PPD, with very little results, until now. Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed a handful examples, the “On the Media” and New Yorker ones being the most recent. Will Americans soon adopt PPV more broadly?

They may do.



The hot kitchen appliance in the U.S. right now is the Instant Pot, a programmable electric pressure cooker that can also be used as a slow cooker and does various other things as well. I’ve been in the market for one and in the store snapped this picture, which shows just some of its functions.


The function that caught my eye was “Porridge,” which is a word we don’t really say in the U.S. (other than in “The Three Bears” and other fairy tales). Having been served it in English B and Bs, I had the sense that in the U.K., “porridge” means what we call “oatmeal.” Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy confirmed this, basically. Over Twitter, she said that in Britain, “the default porridge is made of oats…. if you ask for porridge, you will get oatmeal. For others, you’d need to specify–‘buckwheat porridge’ or whatever.”

It turned out that Instant Pot’s “porridge” isn’t a pure NOOBs. Although the product is hugely popular in the United States, it originated in Canada, whose residents seem to use “porridge” much as the British do. Indeed, Lynne forwarded me an article from the Canadian grain journal Grainews (and it somehow warms my heart that there’s such  a thing as a Canadian grain journal) titled, “What’s more Canadian than a bowl of porridge?” The article seems to use “oatmeal,” “porridge,” and “oatmeal porridge” interchangeably.

Of course, Instant Pot could have changed “porridge” to “oatmeal” for its U.S. shipments. But keeping the original term adds an exotic flavor that–who knows?–could have contributed to the product’s immense success.

More on “stand”

Prompted by some comments to my post on “stand (for election)” to take a deeper look, I find some interesting nuances. To start, “stand” in the sense of put oneself forward for an office dates to at least 1551, according to the OED. For the first couple of centuries, it was always used in reference to a specific position (“Were he to stand for Consull”–Shakespeare, Coriolanus), especially, from the 1700s on, Parliament (“Dr. Thorne intended to stand for the county on the next vacancy”–Trollope). This Google Ngrams chart shows the frequency of that “stand for Parliament” in the Google Books database.

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Then the more general “stand for election” popped up, slowly. Google Books contains only two uses of that phrase prior to 1900–one in Connecticut in 1814, the other in South Africa in 1888. Things picked up in the 20th century, as this Google Ngrams chart shows.

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The graph is instructive in terms of this blog’s subject. It shows “stand for election” was used roughly equally in U.S. and British sources until about 1920, when it took off in the Britain and stood still here. And what replaced “stand” in the U.S.? Basically, “run” followed by the name of the office. This Google Ngrams chart shows only American sources.

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In other words, the phrasing in Rachel Maddow’s statement quoted in the original post–that FDR “stood for president”–had, until then, basically never been used in American English.

I have to admit I was surprised to find “stand for election” as popular in the U.S. as Google Ngrams shows it to still be; certainly, I don’t recall ever coming across it. To try to get some insight, I searched the phrase in the New York Times archives, and got some interesting results. A lot of the hits come from articles about foreign (especially British) elections. The most recent American story came in February 2016 and was about the governing board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science: “Traditionally, nominees stand for election by the individual branches.” The next one, published a month earlier, was: “Lion Point Capital …has proposed two director candidates, whose names were not released, to stand for election at the company’s annual meeting.”

The next five examples, dating back to 2013, were along the same lines–all referred to people putting themselves forward to boards of trustees or directors. That makes sense because it doesn’t sound quite right to say someone is “running” for such a position.

Incidentally, the other example in the original post, besides Maddow’s, was from an article in the New York Times Magazine by Sasha Chapin. I noted that he’s Canadian and wondered whether “stand for election” is common in that country.

Chapin (@sashachapin) responded on Twitter:

“But here’s a twist: that line was inserted by my editor, an American. Cor blimey!”




“Stand for (election)”

Top NOOBs scout Nancy Friedman alerted me back in September to U.S. news host Rachel Maddow’s use of a certain Britishism:

… standing for re-election as president in 1972, Richard Nixon was due to make history. He was going to match FDR`s record for being on the national ticket for his party in five different elections. FDR had stood for vice president once. Of course, he stood for president four times…

The Britishism is “stand”–the exact Americans equivalent is “run.” I mentally filed away the example and planned to eventually write a post on it. I expected that I would find that it was a true one-off from the mouth of Maddow, who studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is quite fond of British expressions.

Well, it’s at least a two-off, as Nancy has detected another use, in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine: “… Jeff Flake, in a speech announcing he would not be standing for re-election…”

The author of the article, Sasha Chapin, is Canadian. Following a Twitter discussion, ace Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy kindly searched a corpus of Canadian English. She found three hits for “run for election” and six for “stand for election.”

Still, even if it was normal for Chapin, the usage got by the Times copy editors. Oh, I forgot, the Times has eliminated the position of copy editor.

Anyway, such is the press’s need for elegant variation, I expect to see “stand for election” pop up again.


Is “Feeling a …?” a thing?

A while back, I discussed Donald Trump tweeting that his political enemy Bob Corker “was made to sound a fool”–the Britishism being the omission of the word  “like” after “sound.”

Soon afterwards, my friend and neighbor Nanette Tobin alerted me to this sign in our town grocery store:


Nanette wondered if the first line were a similarly British elision–the meaning being “Feeling like having a treat?” (Obviously, the more common way of expressing this on the other side of the Atlantic would be “Fancy a treat?”) I tend to think that it sounded British to the signmakers, but it actually isn’t. What do you lot have to say?

British English “in rude health”

I started this blog in large part because its topic–British words and expressions becoming popular in America–runs counter to the far more popular narrative of Americanisms taking over British English. This supposed subjugation, which has been lamented for a couple of centuries, is the subject of a new book by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way It Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. In it he argues that so many Americanisms have taken hold in Britain — including “cookie” instead of the traditional “biscuit” — that within a century, quite possibly, American English will “absorb the British version completely.”

When he was researching the book, Engel decided to interview me, as the NOOBs phenomenon was obviously relevant to his thesis. In the book, he describes me as “an affable and hospitable man” but dismissed the blog as more or less inconsequential, with the subjects of many entries  either “passing fads” or “so well camouflaged that their ancestry is largely forgotten.” (The latter would seem proof of the influence of British English in the U.S., but never mind.)

“When comparing the indignities with those heaped on British English,” Engel writes of me, “he can sound a bit like a White House spokesman threatening nuclear retaliation for an outrageous and provocative attack launched by the armed forces of Rutland.” (Rutland being a county in England.)

No comment on that analogy. I’ll just move on to observe that the reality is rather more complicated than Engel’s jeremiad suggests. As “Johnson” (Lane Greene) observed in The Economist:

It is true that America is influencing British usage. “Smart” is increasingly describing the intelligent as much as the well dressed. (Never mind that “smart” first was used this way in Britain in 1571.) Many Britons prefer “movies” to “films”. And “fries” and “cookies” are now appearing alongside “chips” and “biscuits”. But are they always replacing them?

No: “smart” is savvy, whereas “clever” is swotty. “Fries” are thin and crispy, and “cookies” are American styles like chocolate-chip, notes Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at Sussex University writing her own book about the relationship between British and American English. “Movies” tend to come from Hollywood; “film” is still preferred for the latest gritty cinema from Europe. In other words, these Americanisms are not an impoverishment of British English. They are additions to it.

Johnson concluded that British English is “in rude health.”

I’ll add that when I was in London recently, I found that a common menu item was “skinny fries,” emphasizing the distinction from the fatter, still thriving “chips,” as in fish and.

A new academic study that crunched 30 million tweets and 15 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2010 found that, in the worldwide use of English, spelling and vocabulary are indeed trending toward American versions. However, the trend is most pronounced in countries where English isn’t the primary language, and, in all the world, is seen least in Britain.

The Guardian did a nice graphic illustrating these findings, and suggesting that Americanisms are just slightly more prevalent in Britain than Britishisms are in America. The green bar indicates spelling and the blue bar vocabulary. A score of -1 means thoroughly British, and +1 thoroughly American.

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That’s consistent with what I found in a book I just finished reading, Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett, published in London in 2016. Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University, in Wales, is a sort of poster boy for the survival of British English. On page 1 alone, he does these distinctively British things:

  • Spells the words “apologise” (American: “apologize”) and “behaviours” (“behavior”).
  • Refers to a little boy “dribbling” (the more common American word word is “drooling”).
  • Uses logical punctuation and single quotation marks (the American practice is double quotes) when he refers to ‘something people say’.

Page 1 is not an aberration. From beginning to end, the book is packed with Britishisms. Most apparent are the different spellings, including “sceptical” (U.S.: “skeptical”), “aeons” (“eons”), “”travelling” (“traveling”), “tyre,” “pyjamas,” “foetal” (“fetal”), “centre” (“center”) and “hippy” (“hippie,” as in the flower child of yore, not an adjective meaning wide around the middle. If you’re skeptical or sceptical on the British-American difference see this Google Ngram chart). Burnett probably somewhere wrote “programme,” but I didn’t catch it.

As far as vocabulary goes, in this 302-page book, I counted 44 distinctively British terms, including “dribbling.” Here are the others, in order, with American equivalents in parenthesis. For ease of reading, I’ve dispensed with quotation marks except where Burnett uses them. And the links are to Not One-Off Britishisms posts, indicating that term has had at least some penetration in the U.S.

Without any bother (without any trouble), petrol (gas), worrying (troubling), mum (mom), crisps (chips or potato chips), she used to live in the street next to us (on the street), well done (good job), “Not now, mate” (buddy), here’s the clever bit (smart part), massive (not exclusively British but used massively more often there than here), turning up drunk (showing up), at university (in college), row (argument), chap (guy), knock-on consequences (no real equivalent, hereafter abbreviated NRE), queue (line), maths (math), have a look (take a look), “you were crap” (NRE), boffin (NRE), sport (sports), daft (crazy), games consoles (game), trainers (sneakers), estate agent (real-estate agent), check your emails (email), goal-orientated (oriented), different to (from), a bit of fun (some fun), cut you up (cut you off, in the motoring sense), down to you (up to you), waiting staff (wait staff), I went to the shops (I went shopping), shop (store), forecourts (NRE), noughts and crosses (tic tac toe), heard it from some bloke down the pub (heard it from some guy at the bar), carry on (continue, go on), messes about (messes around), lift (elevator).

And how often does Burnett use American lingo? I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, since presumably I wouldn’t necessarily recognize an Americanism as such; it might just seem normal to me. So bear that in mind when I say I counted only four terms that appear to be Yank imports: “up for grabs,” “fans” (in a sports context — the more common British word is “supporters”), “smart” (Burnett alternates it with “clever”), and the cowboy-movie “pronto.” (There were a few others that initially struck me as Americanisms but turned out not to be: “hubbub” came from Ireland, as early as 1555: “a big ask,” meaning a large or important request, is an Australianism, according to the OED; and the dictionary’s first cite for “the middle man,” meaning an intermediary, is from Edmund Burke in 1797.)

I would guess there’d be about the same number of Britishisms in a comparable American book, most likely coming from a relatively short list of the most popular NOOBs: “bits,” “clever,” “go missing,” “one-off,” “kerfuffle,” and a few more.

And that’s the way the biscuit crumbles.


There is really no excuse for Quartz, an American-based publication, to use “university” rather than “college” in this headline. For one thing, “university” is three words letters longer.