Tag Archives: English

The Language of Protest

Divided by a common language – Part 3

I recently noticed another case of American English creeping into a British news report.  Somebody (I forget who) was protesting something (I forget what).  That’s American.  In British English, we would protest about something.  Occasionally, we protest against something and sometimes we protest to somebody.  (“There are potholes in my street; I’m going to protest to the local council.”)  That’s a useful example because it shows that protest is used in slightly different senses and therefore the preposition performs a useful function in distinguishing a general airing of a grievance from a directed criticism.  (Are American protests always (and only) public demonstrations of opposition?  If so, the preposition is redundant, but they can’t protest to City Hall, they can only complain.)

Similarly, American English uses write without the preposition:

“Why don’t you write me,
I’m out in the jungle
I’m hungry to hear you”

Paul Simon (on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album)

Again, British English preserves the distinction between writing to someone and writing about them.   American English also writes about its subjects, so instead of two different prepositions, the distinction is made by using the verb with and without the preposition.

Now we should consider paying a visit.  I have aunts in England and in Michigan.  I visit the English branch frequently, but if I could go to see their American sister, I would visit with her. To my English ears, that is a very strange construction.  Consider the phrase “when I visit Detroit, I visit with my aunt”.  In American English, that means that when I go to Detroit, I go to see my aunt.  In British English, it means that when I go to Detroit, I take my aunt along.  We could, for example visit the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I don’t think American English would visit with the museum, so the preposition with seems to be used to distinguish between visiting people and visiting places.  That isn’t wrong (it’s the way that form of English works), but, to me, it seems unnecessary since I can usually tell the difference.

Section of Diego M Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco, foyer of the Detriot Institute of Arts
(Click image to visit!)


For more on prepositions, see Free Chairs for Stage Directions

For more on the differences between British and American English see Where Do You Go Shopping? and Formal or Informal Dress?

A Rum Do

The English Language is Broken.  (Another part of a never-ending series.)

Consider the word “do”.  Amongst other things, this is used to mean a party, formal dinner, or other event.  (“We were invited to a posh do at the Dorchester.”)  Now assume that you have a busy social life and that you have been invited to a do on Thursday and another on Saturday night.  You now have two of them to write about.  How do you spell the plural of do?
You ought just to be able to stick an ess on the end of it, but for old-time computer buffs like me, dos looks like a “disc operating system” and is pronounced “doss”.
So how about treating it like potato, and adding an ee and an ess?  That turns it into does, which is either the third person form of the verb “to do” (as in “he does nothing”), or it’s multiple female rabbits (or deer).
Some people throw in an apostrophe, rendering those multiple events as “do’s”.  That goes against convention by inserting an apostrophe into a plural (which is only normal amongst greengrocers).  Furthermore, for utilitarians like me, that apostrophe has to stand for something: for the omission of specific letters, and the most likely candidate is a missing ee, so we’re back to “does”.

The basic problem here is the pronunciation.  We don’t say “do” with the oh sound that terminates potato, we say it with the oo of boo.  We have no problem with boos (although that makes us sound very unpopular), and, by sound, the plural of “do” should be “doos”.  (Incidentally, I once worked with a lady from the Isle of Wight who pronounced the third person form of the verb “to do” as “doos”.  She even managed to get the words “haves” and “doos” into a single sentence: “She haves the day off sick and then doos overtime.”)

This, I am convinced, is a case where there is no right answer (other than the impossible dream of respelling the whole of the English lexicon phonetically).

Boozy do.You can have a rum do and you can have a posh do.  You might even have rum at a posh do.

Medalling with English

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –  neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-

I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage.  There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available.  (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.)  Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.

Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”.  English is not a prescribed language.  We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage.  Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used.  Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.

Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb.  He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state).  All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators.  But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.

I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new.  Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided).  Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English.  One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.

This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication.  Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it?  That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning.  The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it.  But does the author know any better?  Ay, there’s the rub.  One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”.  This is becoming the dominant form.  It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”.  The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe.  (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?)  Try analysing “you had better”.  It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”.  Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge.  Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form.  To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility.  (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)

So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it.  (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)

Ceci n'est pas un verbe
Ceci n’est pas un verbe

Where do you go shopping?

Divided by a common language – Part 2

Dawn, from the Brighton Plot Bunnies writers’ group, took to Twitter to express her annoyance about the transition in British English that has led to “shops” becoming “stores”.  This would seem to be an American influence, since store tends to be the US preference for describing retail emporia, so I responded by blaming Kristina, who is an American member of Brighton Plot Bunnies.  The topic had actually come up in a discussion with Kristina a day or so previously when she mentioned that her sister-in-law’s car was “in the shop”.  In British English, a car would only be in a shop as the result of a serious collision with a plate glass window.

Americans use “shop” for a place where work is carried out – a workshop – whilst the English use it to mean a place where you can buy goods.  In the USA, you buy things in a store.  It is conceivable that Americans would shop in a store but store things in a shop.  In both countries, the act of going out with the intention of purchasing goods is called shopping.

I suspect that shops came first.  Think of it this way: in the days of local production, the tailor’s workshop was where he made clothes and sold them to you.  The baker made bread and cakes in his shop.  For artisans, the workshop was also the retail outlet.

Marple Bridge Co-op
My local Co-op in 1978 (long past its heyday)

Now consider the grocer.  He doesn’t make any of his goods.  Instead, he stores them on his shelves ready for the customer to walk-in and buy.  The more you go towards a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ model, the more logical the name store becomes: a tailor’s shop, but a clothing store.  Indeed, though shop is the more common coin in England, store has been used for over a hundred years.  From the late nineteenth century, the Co-op group referred to its retail outlets as stores.  (In the common parlance of its Manchester heartland, my grandmother always referred to the Co-op as The Stores.)

Does that mean that shop is wrong for a grocer’s premises?  Certainly not.  Take a descriptivist view of language: if your peers use shop to describe a retail outlet, then that’s the meaning of shop in your culture, and personally, I’m with Dawn in wanting to hang on to that meaning; I would be uncomfortable saying “I’m going to the store”.

Storing-up trouble – the shopping glossary

This is another of my Californian glossaries…

Building Society [English], mutually owned financial institution, originally formed to support members building or buying houses by (in effect) borrowing money from savers. Now a more general financial institution.

Charity shop [E], a shop selling second-hand goods, usually in support of a charitable cause.

Credit Union [American], mutually owned not-for-profit financial institution (see the more general meaning of Building Society)

Corner shop [E], small retail outlet, usually family owned, usually selling a wide variety of goods to a small local market.

Garage [A, E], private room built to house a car, but actually containing a freezer, three bicycles, a spare bicycle wheel, a surfboard, a Workmate bench, a collection of broken power tools, several folding chairs, a half-built rocking horse, a set of exercise weights, two tents (each with a broken pole), an unstable pile of wood and a deflated basketball.

Garage [E], a car repair workshop.

Mom and Pop Store [A], (rarely, but more sonorously, Mom and Pop Shop) a family-owned small retail business see Corner Shop

Repair Shop see garage [E].

Savings & Loan (S&L) [A], see Building Society (very much aligned to the original purpose).

Shop [A], place where goods are made or repaired.

Shop [E], place where goods may be purchased (or at least looked at avariciously).

Shopping [A,E], visiting retailers for the purpose of acquiring goods.  Performed by English people in shops, but by Americans in stores.

Shopping cart [A], wire basket mounted on independent-minded wheels.  This is used to clear space in supermarkets by crushing the ankles of the shoppers ahead of you.

Shopping trolley [E], see shopping cart.

Store [A], see shop [E].

Store [E], stock room at the back of a shop, not accessible to customers.

Take-out [A] a meal, generally hot, eaten away from the premises where it was purchased.

Take-away [E] see take-out

Thrift shop [A], see charity shop

Workshop [E] see shop [A]

Formal or informal dress?

Divided by a common language – Part 1

Is this a vest or an undershirt?David SedarisIs this a vest or a waistcoat? was on the radio, reading some of his brilliant short essays.  These included a story in which an airport security operative asked him to remove his vest.  He’s American, and American audiences would not have batted an eyelid at this, but the event was in England, so some of his audience may have been a little puzzled: was he wearing just a vest?  If not, how many layers had he taken off before he was asked to remove that one?

The problem is that he was talking about a different garment from the one his audience was hearing.  What Sedaris called a vest is the garment on the right, which English people would generally refer to as a waistcoat.  The English vest on the left would, in the United States, be described as an undershirt.  American and English vests are worn on the same part of the body; the difference is merely the relative position with respect to skin and to other pieces of clothing.  We have the same problem with pants, because English people generally use this as an abbreviation of underpants.  Kindergarten children sometimes do physical exercise in vest and pants.  In England they are being informal, in the US they would be over-dressed.

Where did you get that hat?  The fashion glossary

When I lived in California, I compiled the following comparative glossary.  This should be treated with caution: language is fluid, so this is a tendency for preferences on either side of the Atlantic, rather than an exclusive rule. It also changes over time; I have no recollection of hearing “pinkie” used in England before 2000; I have heard it relatively frequently since then (and Partridge’s slang dictionary suggests that it is of nineteenth century Scottish origin).

Bangs [more common in America], hair forming a straight fringe over the forehead.  (Why?)  It was quite a surprise for me to read (in a serious piece about American First Ladies) that Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for her bangs.

Diapers [American], garment for babies who have yet to develop bladder control.

Dungarees [more common in England], trousers, usually denim, supported by a bib front and shoulder straps.  Originally worn as a loose-fitting working garment, but now more frequent as a fashion statement.  (Usually a statement along the lines of “my waistline is too big for a belt and I need something to stop my trousers from accumulating around my ankles.”)

Intimate apparel [A], department description in stores which think that underwear is too vulgar for their corporate image, but don’t think their customers are educated enough to understand lingerie.

Jumper [E], woollen outer garment, covering the torso and (usually) arms, put on by pulling it over the wearer’s head.

Knickers [E], ladies’ underwear.  An abbreviated form of knickerbockers (both linguistically and materially).

Little finger [E], smallest finger, on which an English gentleman would not wear a pinkie ring.

Nappies [E], see diapers.

Overalls [A], see dungarees.

Overalls [E], an single outer garment covering legs, body and arms, worn to protect other layers of clothing from dirty work.

Pants [A], bifurcated garment, traditionally male, covering the lower abdomen and legs. Abbreviation of pantaloons.

Pants [E], underwear (generally male) worn beneath trousers.  Abbreviation of underpants.

Pinkie [A], the smallest finger.

Pinkie ring [A], a fashion accessory for the wearer’s pinkie.  For example, in the report of theft from a car (a major crime report, where I lived in Sunnyvale, California) “stolen articles included … a gentleman’s pinkie ring.”  No English gentleman would wear one.

Sweater [A], see jumper [E].

Tennis shoes [A], lightweight, soft-soled informal shoes, traditionally with canvas uppers, (though leather and plastic are now more common).  Worn mainly for purposes other than playing tennis.

Trainers [A], garment for very young children in the process of developing bladder control – one step on from diapers.  Abbreviation of training pants.

Trainers [E], see tennis shoesAbbreviation of training shoes (in the sense of athletic training).  Telling Americans that you need to go out to by a pair of trainers tends to draw funny looks.

Trousers [E], see pants [A].

Undershirt [A], undergarment for the upper torso, worn, appropriately, under a shirt.

Vest [A], sleeveless, front-buttoned garment, frequently the third part of a three-piece suit, worn over a shirt and underneath a jacket.

Vest [E], see undershirt.

Waistcoat [E], see vest [A].

Footnote: Does this matter?

This language of time and place matters to me as a publisher of plays because the language should match the setting.  We occasionally call-out writers for using a word or phrase that should not form part of the lexicon in the time or place in which the play is set.

ASDA vs the English Language

Life as a Literalist – Part 1 (since this will probably become a series)

An article in The Guardian about the Bad Grammar Award degenerated, as usual, into a below-the-line slanging match between descriptivists and prescriptivists.  Prescriptivists typically want grammar to have immutable rules, whilst for descriptivists, grammar is the way people use the language.  I would like to be in the descriptivist camp but because I have a very literal frame of mind, I also want clarity.  Language should be used to make distinctions.  This is illustrated by Dorothy L Sayers through her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise:

If you say “Our perry is made from fresh-plucked pears only,” then it’s got to be made from pears only, or the statement is actionable; if you just say it is made “from pears,” without the “only,” the betting is that it is probably made chiefly of pears; but if you say, “made with pears,” you generally mean that you use a peck of pears to a ton of turnips, and the law cannot touch you. Such are the niceties of our English tongue.”

Take, for example, the following simple piece of labelling from ASDA:La vie c'est une chose de la fois

There’s no comma after the “Farmhouse”, so the clear interpretation is that the mushrooms were harvested from the dark, dank cellars of rural settlements, and furthermore the pâté is made from (and by the Sayers definition, chiefly from), mushrooms and peppercorns.  That, however, is not what the labellers of ASDA mean. They intend that missing comma.  But then it becomes a categorisation error: “farmhouse” is intended to describe the style, implying a coarse pâté, rather than a smooth Brussels pâté.  It is not meant to say anything about the source or components of the product; the only time that pâté will see a farmhouse is when a customer takes it there.  By contrast the fungi and spices are ingredients.  What they are actually selling is farmhouse pâté with mushrooms and peppercorns.

Is this important?  Well, yes.  A pâté made from mushrooms and peppercorns could be expected, for example, to be suitable for vegetarians, whereas in this case the majority of ingredients are of porcine origin.

The peppercorns have, however, added some welcome ambiguity; ASDA’s “Farmhouse & Mushroom Pâté” is definitely made principally from finely chopped and ground farmhouses.

The Problem of Bums on Seats

Seats awaiting bums
Seats awaiting bums.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that the reason that the language mutates so much is that we do not exercise enough of our vocabulary.  Firstly, if people don’t hear a word in use, they don’t know that it exists and therefore they feel the need to invent another one for the same purpose.  Thus are synonyms born.  Secondly, we learn words by hearing them spoken in context.  If a word is in infrequent use, then it is easy to make mistakes about the context and, by repeating them, to change the meaning.

There are particular problems with English.  It has a huge lexicon, with Anglo-Saxon roots supplemented by loan words ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is spoken in many different countries (as official language or lingua franca) and so it mutates at different rates, giving the same word different meanings in different places.  Take for example “presently” and “momentarily”.

I still speak an old-fashioned variety of British English in which “presently” does not mean “at present”.  To me, presently is used to indicate the near future; a future time with a direct connection to the present.  For use of it in this sense, go back to your childhood, and look at The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  (If necessary, borrow someone else’s childhood for the purpose.)  Similarly, I can distinguish between “in a moment” and “for a moment”.  For the former, I would use “soon” or, indeed, “presently”.  To me “momentarily” has the latter meaning: fleeting; for the shortest possible time.  (So I can distinguish between “I will join you presently,” and “I will join you momentarily.”)  When I made regular flights into San Francisco airport, I was plagued by visions of my worldly goods flashing before my eyes before being dumped into the bowels of the airport, never to be seen again.  The cause of this discomfort was the announcement “your luggage will be on the carousel momentarily”.

Another example that causes particular grief in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is the simple verb “to sit”.  Sit is an active verb.  It describes an act of doing, not a state of being.  “The teacher told the pupils to sit and they sat.”  That past tense describes the act of having bent the knees and engaged buttocks with chair.  It does not describe the end point.  It tells us that the pupils executed the instruction, but not what they were doing afterwards.  The reason this vexes me (and causes loud expostulations from Sue, the proof reader) is that we keep finding scene-setting directions that say things like “the king is sat on the throne”.  Read that again, bearing in mind that “to sit” is an active verb.  The only way that the direction “is sat” can be interpreted is that it is something being done to the king: as the curtain rises someone forces him onto his throne.

This is one of those occasions where we have lost a word.  We need a word that indicates that as the curtain rises, the king is already in position on his throne.  Having forgotten the word, we butcher the language by using the past tense of an active verb to indicate a passive present.  To rediscover this word, approach your favourite chair and put your buttocks thereupon.  Now wriggle a little to achieve an even distribution of your weight on the supporting furniture.  When you are comfortable, you will realise that you have seated yourself.  The king is seated.

Traditional Japanese or Great White?

Is this hyphenated?We are fond of poking fun at the German language and its fondness for compound nouns.  Nicholas Richards does this excellently in his sketch (in German with English commentary) Zum Speisen mit der Langewörtergesellschaft.  This might be rendered as ‘Dinner with the Society for Long Words’, but putting it in that way neglects the fact that English is also a Germanic language.  In English, it could also be written as ‘Dinner with the Long Words Society’; you can’t say that in a Latinate language.  (Try it in French or Spanish; ‘long’ becomes a qualifying adjective and the society is a society for something.)  No, the difference between English and German in this respect is that in German all the nouns get joined together.  We do that too, of course – think of ‘weekend’ or, more recently, ‘website’, but not as often, nor to the same length.

Compound nouns get joined together in English when they are in common usage when the single idea created by a compound noun becomes a single word.  Prior to that, there’s our friend the hyphen.  This really comes into its own when it is desirable to show which parts of the noun phrase are being joined to form the single idea.  For example, there is a world of difference between seventeen-year-old girls and seventeen year-old girls.  A hyphen makes the difference between the man eating shark and the man-eating shark.

Come again?

English is a wonderful language.  Consider the theme running through the following words:


They all have the same vowel sound.  (At least they do in British English.)  By itself, that sound is used for a sort of English noise.  I’m not sure that it’s really a word in its own right, but it has a recognised meaning – a general purpose question, expressing puzzlement and soliciting clarification.  (What?  You what?  Come again?)  At Lazy Bee Scripts, we see different renderings of this sound from different writers.  Amongst others, James Barry has used “ai” whilst Bob Heather has used “ay”.  We discourage these variants.  (Whilst the first one is unlikely to be mistaken for its other meaning – a three-toed sloth; look it up if you don’t believe me – actors can stumble over the second one, confusing it with “aye”).  Our house style for this sound invokes yet another spelling.  Eh?