Much Ado About Not Much?

Geoffrey Pullum–the distinguished grammarian and my fellow contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Lingua Franca” blog–has a post up there today asserting that the so-called differences between American English and British English are exaggerated. He writes:

… most trans-Atlantic differences either involve nothing more than pronunciation (most Americans pronounce the r of car and have the vowel of hat in words like glass, and the majority of British speakers don’t), or are merely differences in word choice, almost always choices among nouns (in Britain a truck is often called a lorry, though truck occurs as well).

He does acknowledge a couple of grammatical differences:

Americans like using the preterit rather than the perfect in clauses reporting past time with present relevance (I already did that), whereas British speakers clearly prefer the perfect (I’ve already done that). But speakers of both varieties can always understand both constructions. Closer to being absolute is the limitation to British English of the special use of the verb do in cases of omitted verb phrases, as in I don’t know if she understands French, but she may do. Americans would say she may, without that final do.

That’s admittedly not much, and he concludes, “the tiny differences between standard American and standard British English are trivial, barely even worth mentioning.”

Trivial, you say?  Well, I’ve got 800,000 page views (as of today) that say NOOBs are very much worth mentioning. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Will Pullum apologize? I’m not sure, but he should do.

10 thoughts on “Much Ado About Not Much?

  1. I don’t think he should apologise at al. In terms of the differences that exist between other languages, e.g the versions of Spanish spoken throughout the Americas vis-à-vis Spanish Spanish, or Swiss German against Hoch Deutsch (‘high’ German), the differences between British and American English really are trivial. They are interesting but very rarely cause communication breakdown.
    I love your blog though!

    1. “They are interesting but very rarely cause communication breakdown.”

      Not always true. I grew up with a US mid-atlantic-states accent/grammar/etc. I cannot necessarily understand what is said to me in rural highland Scotland.

  2. I’m on Ben’s side. This site has been an endless source of enlightenment and amusement as to the differences in the world’s Englishes. As an Aussie, my English is closer to Brit than American, and I’m constantly surprised to find that some expression or grammatical construction that I thought was bog standard global English is in fact mainly (or entirely) British or Commonwealth in use.

  3. He’s right if you want to look at big picture over detail. But maybe the details are the forerunner if bigger trends and change.
    There are bigger differences within the UK!! Where the differences within the English speaking world as a whole are significant I’d summarize as ‘speaking English isnt the same as thinking English’. Culture colors ones understanding of the language. That’s where I find the divides and misunderstandings.

  4. “The exaggerators paint a picture of two countries prevented from understanding each other by a host of baffling and apparently nonnegotiable linguistic differences. That’s not what I see.” says Professor Pullum. Well, that’s not what I see, either – does anyone see that, or is the professor just possibly exhibiting the exaggeration he deplores? There are things incomprehensible about Americans, but language isn’t one of them, and if it were there would be no purpose to this site. Of course the differences are tiny and marginal: that’s why we all get such enjoyment out of identifying them. The game of finding pleasure or pain in tiny cultural differences is a common enough one, at least in England, and on the whole fairly harmless.

  5. I suppose because I’m not an intellectual and can’t speak proper, I hadn’t noticed the grammatical differences very much, until pointed out that is! Some others have commented that variation within the UK may be as varied as that between parts of the US and UK. Moving from Scotland to Plymouth (UK) in 1979 I did notice the nurses would drop the words “to” and “the” when they would say “I’m going toilet”…I never thought of that as an Amercanism! I did become confused when renting a saloon car in Australia that the man at Hertz called it a Sedan but then used the word boot instead of trunk etc.
    So my observation would be more than the grammar, I found the different meanings of words more troublesome between the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. I am probably wrong but I would say those difference are much less now than during the 50s and 60s. Perhaps since travel between these regions is easier for us today? Additionally, it never took long to sort out a regional difference in either spelling meaning or grammar. Fortunately!
    Since retiring, I really enjoy this site. I hope no one is offended by my comments!

  6. A lot of the differences in the two dialects come down to preference. If you ask me to perform a task, I usually will say, “right away.” In England, it’s usually “straight away.” Both are correct and mutually comprehensible. However, if you have “bees in your bonnet” in the US, you’re probably crazy; in England, you’d better get your car fixed. It all makes for a lot of fun..

  7. It also occurred to me that my kids who went to school in Devon were never taught English grammar. It doesn’t seem to bother them. Eldest daughter has just got her PhD and the main concern during writing up was using UK or US spellings but not both. She had the greatest difficulty differentiating. So…the question I guess was “Should Pullum apologize?” ..I’m not sure he should……do!

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