Friday, July 31, 2009

on accident

Looking through my backlog of requests, I found this one from Neal Whitman, the Literal-Minded Linguist:
I've recently gotten a a few interesting comments on a post from a year ago [well, more than that by now--ed.]. In one of the comments to this post, I quote an ADS-list exchange between you and Ron Butters regarding a semantic distinction between 'on accident' and 'by accident'. What's interesting about the more recent comments, from two Australians and one UK resident, is that 'on accident' seems to be particular to US English. Do you hear 'on accident' from people where you live?

I've chosen this one to reply to because I can answer it in a word: 'no'. I'd call on accident a non-standard Americanism, and I refer you to Neal's discussion and the comments on it for much further rumination on the expression.

But really, I blog tonight in order to accidentally on purpose have the opportunity to thank the readers of this blog for your votes for the Lexiophiles Top Language Blogs 2009--and for all your support over the past few years. I'm absolutely (BrE) gobsmacked to find this blog at the number one spot in the 'Language professionals' category and 14th overall. Wow. I'm hono(u)red to be on the same list as the other nominees. Click on the links to see the full lists.


This blog would be nothin'/nuffink without its loyal readership--whom I've come to think of as a kind of extended family. The kind that are likely to tell you when you look fatter than the last time they saw you and that they liked your old haircut better and to say that they are planning to disown you for the way you voted in the last election (they won't), but who will also take an interest in what you're up to, help out when they can and stand up for you when you need an ally. I'm a couple of posts away from number 300, and was planning on saying something like that when I hit that milestone--but why wait? Thanks for sticking around, reading, commenting and sending me your ideas, observations and anecdotes.

Now, good night!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the States

I've had a couple of queries lately about the States as a nickname for the United States of America--with some implication that Americans in Britain learn to say this from the British. One query was (indirectly, through their [BrE] tutor/[AmE] professor) from an American student who has come over on a summer exchange program(me). The other was from Laura, who wrote:
I worked in London for a few months last year and was surprised to hear everyone referring to the U.S. as 'the States' or 'America', both names I rarely (if ever) use. Normally I just say 'the U.S.' or even the full(er) name of 'the United States'. I did a sort of poll on this in a Livejournal community I am a part of, here at Brits-Americans. On the whole, people agreed with me that Americans do not call our country 'the States' (a few more call it 'America' though) and if they do, it is generally only after visiting/living in Britain (or a country outside the U.S., even Canada).
Laura has noticed that this isn't just a British thing, but the student, probably with less travel(l)ing experience, considered it to be BrE--and we can investigate that idea. Others seem to think it's an exchange student thing. I found this claim in a review (warning: .pdf) of Stuff White People Like:
Incidentally, every American exchange student is required by the Geneva Convention to use the term, “The States,” preferably whilst rolling his or her eyes. I did it so effectively that I developed minor eyestrain.)
The obvious reason why Americans only start calling the country America or the States when they're abroad is that an American just doesn't have as much reason to call it anything when in the US--for instance, when someone asks an American where they're from when they're in the US, they'll answer Kansas or Cincinnati, not the US of A or any such thing.

But is it used more in the UK than elsewhere? It's a bit hard to tell, but let's start by looking at where on the web some names for the US are used. Apologies for my primitive skills with html tables, but what I've done is to search for America, the States, the US, the USA, and the United States on the web in two sentential contexts in and out of the UK. First, I searched "are you from x" with the proviso that it should not include any sites that had the phrase "Where are you from"--because otherwise you're flooded with examples like Where are you from? The US. This was important because my aim here was to find uses of these names for the US that were more likely to be written by non-Americans. For the Americans, I searched for "I'm from X". The table shows the total number for the "are you from" searches, followed by the results from just the UK, followed by the proportion of world uses of a term that come from the UK, followed by UK-based writers' preference for the term--and then it repeats that for the "I'm from" searches. So, we can see here that presumed non-Americans in the UK tend to call the country (in web-based writing, at least) the US or the USA. If it were a Briticism, we'd expect UK uses in the Are you from context to be a fairly big proportion of the world uses--but that doesn't seem to be the case. The confounding factor would be if it were British, but the British considered it degrading, in which case they might use it in other contexts, but not the Are you from one.


Are you from UKUK/
World
UK
%
I'm from UKUK/
World
UK %
America1270181%13%32,2009223%14%
the States313124%9%23,20013306%20%
the US709598%44%63,50028905%43%
the USA17,500402%30%30,0006872%10%
the United States127064%4%23,2008424%13%

Before looking at the American side of the table, let's consider whether it is degrading. Ben Zimmer has kindly pointed out to me this claim by 'Areff' on alt.usage.english:
[in response to someone's usage of the States] First off, you get Oy!ed for using that expression 'the States'. This is a deprecated usage outside of military and diplomatic contexts. Odd thing is, the British think Americans commonly use 'the States' (they don't), and the Americans think the British commonly use 'the States' (they do, but only because they mistakenly think that's what Americans commonly do).
A lot of people on that discussion board took issue with this claim. I've certainly never found 'the States' to be deprecating (which is all I can imagine he meant by 'deprecated'), and would think that non-diplomatic contexts would be less sensitive to such connotations in any case. But at any rate, our evidence here is that Americans in the UK use the term at a much higher rate than the British do--since it's only the 4th most common on the British side of the table, but the second most common way for Americans to refer to their home country. So I have a hard time buying that Americans in the UK are learning it from the British.

Now on to the American side of the table, we see that on UK websites Americans use 'the States' one-fifth of the time when asked where they're from, but this accounts only for 6% of the world total of people saying they're 'from the States'. But that 6% is bigger than the percentages for any of the other expressions, so perhaps it is a bit more likely in the UK.

For interest, I also checked some other anglophonic countries' sites. The numbers were very small in some cases, but I'll present here the rankings of the terms in Australian, Canadian and South African sites. The figure on the left is the ranking of the 'Are you from' result and the figure on the right is the 'I'm from' version.
Australia
you/I
Canada
you/I
South Africa
you/I
UK
you/I
America=1/31/12/13/3
the States=4/54/2=4/54/2
the US3/43/33/21/1
the USA=1/12/41/32/5
the United States=4/25/5=4/45/4


If Americans do say the States more often in the UK than elsewhere, one of my hypotheses is that it has something to do with language. When I lived in South Africa, I was conscious of referring to the US as America when I was speaking to someone whose native language was not English. One knows that America can be understood by speakers of most languages, but you need more of a grip on English to understand that the States is used as a proper noun. So, it's easier to use it with the (native) BrE speakers than with people who are speaking English as a second language. I also liked saying the States because the US comes out as 'theeyuwess', which sounds pretty mushy coming out of my mouth, and so I found myself having to repeat myself when I said it in South Africa. (The USA just sounds too [AmE] yee-haw jingoistic somehow.)

But why not in Australia? An English friend has wondered whether in the UK the States has an echo of the Colonies. Maaaayybeeeee. I'm preferring a more pragmatic solution. Larry Horn has a principle I like called 'Familiarity breeds CNTNT'--that is, familiarity breeds reduced content; the more familiar something is, the more economical you can be in referring to it. Maybe the States is more common in Canada and the UK because people there have more interaction with Americans and America than Australians and South Africans have.

But in conclusion, from this not-very-scientific investigation, it looks like the people who are most likely to say the States are Americans talking to Canadians or the British. Do we learn it from the British? Do we learn it from each other? Is it an echo of the Colonies? Hard to tell...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

midterm

Just a (orig. AmE) quickie from my lunch break:

Yesterday, during another lunch break (maybe I have lunch too often), I met a student who's at Sussex for the annual International Summer School--which as far as I can tell has just American students, but I may be wrong about that. At any rate, there are a lot of Californian science students wandering around at the moment. She's working with my friend Maverick, who introduced me as "Lynne, whose blog I was telling you about". At the end of the conversation, the student--let's call her Santa Barbara, after her home university--told me she'd be (orig. AmE) checking out the blog soon. So in order to welcome her, I'm going to point out the little communication hiccup I observed in her interactions with BrE speakers yesterday. If you're reading, Santa Barbara, say 'hello'!

SB is doing a psychology study under Maverick's supervision, but she was having trouble recruiting other students from the summer school to take part. Looking for possible explanations, she said to Maverick--"Well, it's midterm." It looked to me like Maverick was not getting the relevance of this, but happily SB carried on to say "A lot of the students are Physics students, and they have a big exam today." I watched the same thing happen again when the Blinder joined our conversation and SB had to bring her (apparently orig. AmE) up-to-speed on what had been discussed so far. She may have said in at least one case "it's midterms". Again, I could see the Blinder not really getting it, until SB continued on about the physics exam.

When SB said midterm she meant an exam or examination period. The reason for this not transferring well to BrE is that midterm examinations are not very common in higher education in the UK. At our university, if we have tests during the term, they're called coursework tests (I'm not marking that as general BrE, since I can't speak for other universities). It's only very recent that students in UK higher education have testing during the academic term. When I started at Sussex nearly 10 years ago, students had their exams at the end of the academic year for all courses--even autumn term courses that had ended 5 or 6 months before. This was frequent examination as compared to the experience of my older UK-educated colleagues, who, 30 years ago or more, had to wait until the end of their three-year degree program(me) to be tested on everything they had been taught.

I expect that when the Blinder and Maverick heard midterm, they thought (BrE) half term--which is a holiday/vacation period in the middle of a term (though Maverick would know that these students didn't get a break--it's only a six-week program(me)). They can tell us in the comments if I'm wrong about that. I've discussed half term before, so please click on the link to see more discussion and discuss more.

Because US students have midterm exams to contrast them with, end-of-term exams tend to be referred to as final exams or finals, whereas UK students (at least at my [BrE informal] uni) tend just to talk about exams.

Here's another exam-related post, in case you're interested.

And so, to conclude my lunch hour: the fruit salad was rather disappointing. Back to the coalface--which is LynneguistE for 'library'.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

at this time

For completely unrelated reasons, I just checked whether I had any unpublished drafts in my blogger account and found this one from 364 days ago, which is oddly similar yesterday's topic. That was about at the time, but this one is about at this time. It started:

Reader (though he might not be a reader anymore, since it's taken me so long to get to his request) Jon wrote to ask:
I wondered if you could explain why Americans use the phrase "at this time", where a Brit would say "now", or nothing at all.

I recently returned from the US. While on a Washington State Ferry I heard over the tannoy, "Vehicle owners should return to their vehicles at this time."

It seems strange to me, but working for a US company with Americans in the
office, I hear it a lot.
I have to say, Jon, that it's not something I think of as particularly American. (But tannoy, that's British--originally a trade name. AmE would be loudspeaker or more formally public address system--which would work very formally in BrE too.)

That's as far as the draft got. I've just checked some UK and US newspaper sites and found that the Guardian (UK) website had 277,000 instances of at this time, mostly repeats of "Sorry, commenting is not available at this time. Please try again later." That seems like exactly the type of 'empty' at this time Jon was asking about. The Boston Globe (US) and the Times (UK) both had around 5000 hits for the phrase, the Chicago Tribune 12,000. Now, searching these, there's no way to know (a) how many of the examples are the use of the phrase that Jon was talking about, (b) how many are quoted American speech.

So, let's try government sites--and let's limit it to orders of the form "please * at this time" (* being the wildcard in a Google search). The.gov.uk sites immediately examples where a now (or nothing) would have sufficed:
There is currently a suspect bag in Park Place W1. Cordons are at Arlington st and Park Place please avoid at this time

Thank you for your patience and please accept our apologies at this time.

Can you please send us at this time the form of wording your officers are considering so that we can review it at an early stage

So I would be much obliged if you could please freeze the application at this time till I gather required specifications to help you assess the planning
Now, of course, one could say 'Look at all that creeping Americanism in British English'. Or you could say 'Look at all that officialese where they try to use more words to sound more formal'. Or you could say that at this time sounds less 'at this very second' than now does, and therefore sounds less bossy than now.

At any rate, I'd need more evidence of a comparative and historical nature in order to conclude that the origin of this is American--since, as we've seen many times before, just because something strikes you as new and annoying doesn't mean it's not native to your country's dialect. So, I'm putting this in the 'project ideas' file--if one of our students would like to research this using corpus data next year, they're welcome to a neat little project.

In other news...the voting is now on at the Lexiophiles site for the top 100 language blogs. Last year I made it to a respectable number 40, but this year they've added categories and a voting process--the outcome will be 50% based on readers' votes. So, if you'd like to support SbaCL this year, please click on the button!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

adverb placement

American-translator-in-Holland David wrote some time ago to say:
I've noticed that Americans often place adverbial phrases that set the scene at the start of the sentence:

At the time, I was not very interested in his work.

British writers, in contrast, are more likely to put the adverbial element in the middle of the sentence, or at the end.

I was not, at the time, very interested in his work.
I was not very interested in his work at the time.

I believe all these word orders are available in both dialects; it's a question of preference, at least in formal writing.

Indeed, all of these are available in either dialect, and Algeo's British or American English reports that some temporal adverbials occur in medial position more often in BrE than in AmE--though they most often occur in initial or final position in main clauses. He lists during the week, earlier in the week, last night/year, now, this afternoon, today and yesterday as more often occuring medially in journalistic BrE than AmE. Now, I haven't the wherewithal to do a big search, but I searched for at the time in the Guardian on-line and the Chicago Tribune on-line, and counted the first 30 main-clause-modifying at the times in each paper according to whether they occurred at the beginning, middle or end of a past-tense clause. I didn't count at the time when it was part of a longer phrase like at the time of his confinement (because the length of a clause might make it more likely to hang out at the end of the clause), and I limited myself to past tense clauses. My results:

newspaper beginningmiddle end
Guardian (UK)10614
Tribune (US)13413
The moral of the story is: if there is a difference, we're going to have to look at a lot more sentences to build up enough steam to see a significant pattern.

But I do want to note that when these adverbials occur sentence-initially, they are much more likely to be followed by a comma in AmE than in BrE. Searching the Guardian and Tribune sites again and just looking at sentence-initial At the time, 27 out of 30 Tribune instances are followed by a comma, while only 13 of 30 Guardian ones are. (You might protest that this depends on the style sheet of the newspaper and the vigilance of its [AmE] copy editors/[BrE] sub-editors, but note that each of these searches included blogs and readers' comments as well as newspaper text.) In general, British readers find AmE writing too littered with commas, while overly-literate punctuation-dependent AmE readers like me (I presume there are less punctuation-dependent readers who aren't terribly bothered) find themselves having to start sentences over again because we assume that the adverbial phrase hasn't ended yet, but then it doesn't develop into anything bigger. So I read:
At the time he...
And because there isn't a comma to stop the adverbial, I wait for the he to develop into a relative clause that modifies time (e.g. At the time he ascended to the throne, he was only 17). It doesn't matter to my reading mind that a that-less relative clause is not a likely thing to happen after a pronoun after at the time, I HAVEN'T HAD A COMMA YET! THERE ARE NO BRAKES ON THIS THING! I DON'T KNOW HOW TO STOP!!!

But back to word order.

Adverbials like at the time or last night tell you when something happened, and contrast with adverbs of frequency (always, often, never, etc.), which usually occur in a medial position in either dialect. However, the dialects differ in the placement of these with respect to auxiliary verbs. To quote Algeo "American has a higher tolerance for placement before the first auxiliary". So, either of the following is grammatical in BrE or AmE, but the second is more likely to occur in AmE:

She is usually at work before 9. (BrE or AmE)
She usually is at work before 9. (more likely in AmE)
Now, it's more likely in AmE than BrE, but usually is not more likely in AmE than is usually. As Algeo says, AmE just has a 'higher tolerance' for it. I've just searched for always, usually, and never in my blog posts and found that I've never put them before the auxiliary--except when I used examples because I already wrote about this phenomenon a bit with never. (I thought I was sounding familiar to myself...)


Another adverbial order difference that Algeo notes concerns adverbs of possibility, like certainly or probably. Searching in the Cambridge International Corpus, he found the following, expressed in 'instances per ten million words':


BrE
AmE
has certainly22.7
13.4
certainly has11.7
22.2
has probably21.2
14.5
probably has8.8
18.6
So, again, one can say either in either dialect, but He has certainly left his mark is more likely in BrE and He certainly has left his mark is more likely in AmE. Of course, this works with auxiliary verbs other than has as well.

In other business:
The folks at myGengo, a translation company, have put a mini-review of SbaCL on their 'translation resources' pages, so here is some free publicity for them in return. (I've not used them, so can't vouch for anything, but it looks like an interesting concept.)