Dialects of English

24 01 2012

It has been famously observed that the British and the Americans are two nations “divided by a common language”, a phrase variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and others. The point of the phrase is to highlight  the differences between the two major  dialects.or regional varieties of English, namely British English (BE) and American English (AE), which tourists in both countries have amply noted. Of course, the vast bulk of the two dialects are shared, meaning that the two peoples are mutually intelligible. Mostly. As an Australian on a road trip through Florida, with an accent the locals were prone to hear as British, I coped with the “problem” of mutual comprehension by speaking as loudly and clearly and “toothily” as I could. This seemed to do the trick, at the time.

Recently I was alerted to an article on this topic. It’s called: “The 20 Biggest Differences Between British and American English” and can be found at http://www.onlinecollegecourses.com/2012/01/23/the-20-biggest-differences-between-british-and-american-english/, which is a website for online college courses in USA.

Below I have copy-and-pasted the first 10 items highlighted in the article. If you hunger for more, follow the link.

  1. That whole “u” thing

    Reading “color” versus “colour” might clue one in to whether or not the literature in question hails from the United States or one of the Commonwealth nations. The latter favors the original “u” in words like the aforementioned and “neighbour” and “flavour” and the like.

  2. Oxford comma

    One of the most blood-boilingly controversial grammatical phenomena in the English language, the Oxford (or serial, or Harvard) comma — which separates listings of three or more (in “John, Paul, George, and Ringo,” for example, it nestles itself behind Harrison) — rarely pops up in British English. American English, save for journalistic works, loves it.

  3. Punctuation’s relation to quotation marks

    When it comes to quotes, Americans usually place their punctuation marks inside before moving on to the next sentence. The exact opposite holds true for British English speakers and writers, as they prefer leaving them on the outside.

  4. Verb forms for collective nouns

    Collective nouns understandably baffle English speakers on all sides of all ponds, but there’s really just one general rule to keep in mind. While in (or writing for) Commonwealth nations, collective nouns — which include nation names — pair up with plural verbs. In the United States, use a singular conjugation.

  5. Periods after titles

    American English majors swoon over Mr. Darcy. British English majors swoon over Mr Darcy. Non-English majors have taste.

  6. Placement of the day in dates

    See, British people write out their dates like this: “13 January 2012,” “13/01/12,” or “13.01.12.” While American people write out their dates like this: “January 13, 2012,” “01/13/12,” or “01.13.12.” WACKY!

  7. -ize vs -ise

    Words that typically end in –ize in the United States and Canada are frequently rendered with –ise in every other English-speaking nation. However, because language wouldn’t be language without numerous exceptions, sometimes the non-Canadian British English speakers rock that -ize as well.

  8. Quotation marks

    Single quotation marks are most common in British English nations, though their double counterpart has started creeping into daily use as of late. By contrast, Americans default to double quotations, using the singular ones to denote quotes within quotes.

  9. Pronunciation

    Obviously, different accents mean words take on completely different pronunciations depending on their speaker’s country of origin. Uh-loo-mu-num in American English is ahl-oo-men-ee-um elsewhere, most infamously.

  10. “And” between numerical units

    British English speaks or writes out numbers including an “and” in pretty much everything past 100, barring its multiples. “2012,” for example, would be written out as “two thousand and twelve,” while Americans expunge the “and” altogether and prefer “two thousand twelve” or “twenty-twelve.”


Dr Ruth’s Grammar Corner

28 05 2010

This is the place to come when you have a question about language (any aspect thereof) to which you’d like a considered response. I often receive emails from people agonizing over where to put a comma, or how to untangle their syntax, or whatever. Sometimes there’s a spat going on in the office and they appoint me mediator-cum-arbiter (big responsibility). In the past I’ve carried on these private conversations by email.  Now instead, I intend to have the conversation on my blog. This way I can share the love around. Here’s an authentic recent example. It took place by email, but I’ve reconstructed it here.

Hi Ruth. Am increasingly irked by Americans who use the term “off of”  as in “get off of that ….” Or “It’s time for politicians to move off of their long held views…..  Much to my horror, even Barack Obama (who writes beautifully) uses it in The Audacity of Hope. I am so horrified I felt obliged to discuss this with my local wordsmith.  Do you have any comments?  In disgust. (name withheld)

Dear Reader. Thanks for your query.  I see this as a matter of dialectal difference. In the US dialect, they simply have a double particle here. Like we do , for instance. with “put up with”  and countless others. Actually, what’s not to like? It’s a different dialect, that’s all.  Somewhere along the line you have had a neuronal synapse (or something)  between the  form and a quality of irksomeness (maybe it was coming out of the mouth of a rapper?) and that’s the source of the problem. Whatever way you look at it, however, your objections aren’t linguistically based. How can you get so disgusted by an extra little particle?

Dear Ruth.  I don’t agree that it’s a dialect. To me it’s silly grammar and I don’t equate it with double participles like “put up with”. After all you have to put up with something – you can’t just “put up” in that context.  But you can “fall off” something – you don’t have to “fall off of it”.  No it wasn’t coming out the mouth of a rapper – it’s in all the tv programs etc.  And anyway, I still don’t like it!

Dear Reader. The thing is, applying logic to things like “put up with”, as if they are inherently logical, is  problematic. I’m sure a speaker of American English could come up with an equally “logical” explanation for “fall off of”, a construction that would surely seem quite natural and normal to him/her. Certainly, language does have rules and regularities, but it’s generally an understanding we have as we look back over the language as we know it. It’s not a set of rules by which new items are constructed. Much more organic and unpredicatable. We don’t want it too predictable, do we? Latin is predictable, and look what happened there.