Saturday, October 31, 2009

this/these premises

I was in London yesterday, and blew some money on a black cab, since a cancel(l)ed train had made me late. While paused at a stop light, I read a notice outside a (BrE) railway station/(orig. AmE) train station that said something like "This premises closed for necessary maintenance", which left me wondering: whoever says this premises instead of these premises? When one encounters unfamiliar forms or usages in a dialect other than one's own, one naturally suspects that one overuses the impersonal pronoun that the form is native to the other dialect and not one's own. My methodology for discovering whether this is true: search for the phrase on the web, then search for the phrase only on UK sites on the web. If one of the forms has a UK proportion that is out of line with the alternative form, then assume that form is BrE. So, for instance:
59% of the global instances of (BrE) climbing frame are from UK sites
whereas only about 1 in 27 global instances of jungle gym are UKish

1 in 40 instances of mashed potatoes are from UK sites
but 1 in 3 instances of mashed potato are from UK sites it a British thing to ignore the plural marking on premises?
23% of the world's this premises are on UK sites
24% of the world's these premises are on UK sites
This premises accounts for about 11% of the total this/these premises in the UK.
It looks like the British use the singular version to some extent, but probably were not the originators of it, or else we'd probably see them having a greater proportion of the world hits.

I also compared sites versus .edu sites as a way of comparing UK and US that avoids the trap of the international .com.
About 3% of this/these premises on sites were this premises.
About 1.5% of this/these premises on .edu sites were this premises.
So, it does not seem to be a feature of 'educated' language, but it's more common in BrE academic circles than AmE ones.

So whose form is it? My money was on Australian English, which gives us this window dressing:

(click photo for source)

Comparing world hits to .au hits gives us:
1 in 19 these premises is Australian
1 in 4 this premises is Australian
Australians write this premises 37% of the time.
And, consistent with these findings, Australians are fairly happy to write the premises is (40%) rather than the premises are.

(Feel free to repeat the exercise with New Zealand and South Africa to see if it is general antipodean English--I'm coming down with a severe case of Googler's neck.)

But then I was re-reading Arnold Zwicky's post from last month about this premises (looking at why it is that something with an apparent plural suffix would be treated as a singular), I noticed mollymooly's comment (hello!): 'Irish law treats “premises” as singular, e.g. “any premises or any part of a premises” in S.60(2)b of the Insurance Act'. And, whoa, look at this:
Irish English uses the premises is and this premises nearly twice as often as the premises are and these premises.
16% (1 in 6) of the this premises on the web are Irish.
1 in 75 of the these premises on the web are Irish.
Which is to say that you only had to read all that about Australian English because I wrote it before reading M's comment. And, to be honest, I'm fairly surprised to find it so close to England, but so far as well. Did the Australians get it from the Irish, or is it arising separately there? Are the proportions in Scotland different from those in England? Those are questions I'm not prepared to answer.

(God knows, someone new to the blog is going to want to mention math(s) in the comments. Don't do that. Click here instead.)

Oh, and by the way, BOO!

Monday, October 26, 2009

write (to) someone

Frequent contributor Marc wrote to say that he:
received this comment about a draft letter I prepared:

"Can you please put in I AM WRITING TO YOU NOT I AM WRITING YOU..this is amercian and bad english."

Comment is from an England-born Australian.

I am willing to admit that this may be American English (and the letter is on behalf of an organization that is supposed to use "international" (i.e., British) English. But it's certainly not "bad English", is it? (And I do find it easier accepting criticism on my English that is spelled and capitalized properly... but that's another issue.)

If there is a difference between UK and US English on this, does it apply to other verbs, such as "send"?
Well, as long as people are being judg(e)mental about others' language here, I'll say that it's Rude English (RdE) to claim that someone else's dialect is 'bad English'. Let's see what Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition) has to say about write:
The transitive AmE use = 'to communicate with (a person) in writing' is shown in the following examples from short stories in the New Yorker. I had written my mother about all this (1987); Liza, my dear, I have never written you yet to thank you for going out to our house (1993). This construction was formerly standard in BrE ('frequent from c 1790' says the OED), but it is now in restricted use unless accompanied by a second (direct) object, as in I shall write you a letter as soon as I land in Borneo. In old-fashioned commercial correspondence the types We wrote you yesterday; Please write us at your convenience were often used, but nowadays to would normally be inserted before you and us.
Meanwhile, John Algeo's British or American English? says:
Ditransitive [i.e. with two objects--Lynneguist] use of write (I wrote them a letter) is common-core English. But some ditransitive verbs can also be used with either object alone: I told them a story. I told a story. I told them. In American English, write belongs to that category: I wrote a letter. I wrote them. In British English, however, if write has a single object, it is normally the ditransitive direct object, and when the ditransitive indirect object occurs instead, it is the object of a preposition: I wrote to them. Also in British, if the direct object function is filled by direct or indirect discourse, the same prohibition against the ditransitive indirect object exists: I wrote to them, "I'll come on Sunday," not ?I wrote them, "I'll come on Sunday." I wrote to them that I would come on Sunday, not ?I wrote them that I would come on Sunday.
So, to sum up:
  • I'm writing you a letter is standard AmE and standard BrE.
  • I'm writing you to ask a question is fine in AmE and used to be fine in BrE.
As for other verbs, Marc mentions send, but we can't use that with just the recipient of the sending in either dialect: *I sent you. (* means 'ungrammatical')
send: I sent a package to him. I sent him a package. I sent a package. *I sent him.
So, send is in the wrong class of verbs for comparison. Write in AmE is more like tell and the following verbs, in that it can both take two objects without any prepositions and it can have just the recipient of the communication as a single object (which may or may not occur with other non-object kinds of things, as indicated in the parentheses/brackets below).
tell: I told Di a secret. I told Di (about the fire).
ask: I asked Di a question. I asked Di (about the fire).
teach: I taught the students an equation. I taught the students (about fire safety).
All of those ditransitive and transitive versions are fine in BrE--so it is only write, as far as I know, that creates a problem. Having a look in Beth Levin's wonderful* English verb classes and their alternations (1993), I'm a little disappointed to find that she's not treated this class of verbs ('Verbs of transfer of a message') fully--but she does admit to this. Since the class also includes things like preach and quote and those don't fall into the same patterns as ask and teach and tell, there's yet some work to be done here.**

So, this is all to say that there are some patterns to be found in verbs of this type, but that not every verb follows them, so it's not surprising that this is an area where dialectal differences might crop up. But don't blame the Americans. We're not the ones who (orig. AmE) ditched a perfectly good transitive verb!

* No, I'm not being sarcastic. Linguists adoooore books like this.
** Hey, final-year students--why not you?!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

à la carte

In my last, menu-related post, I cheated and let someone else do all the work. As my penance, I'll do the work on this menu-related one. Moe wrote (a half a year ago) to ask:
I'm from the US and my boyfriend is from Liverpool. Last night at a restaurant (US) he ordered a sandwich a la carte. I asked him if he wasn't hungry enough to get the fries\chips that came with the sandwich. This launched into the discussion of him stating, rightly so, that a la carte means "according to the menu". By his definition, this means just ordering from the menu directly instead of special ordering.

From my understanding and from what I've asked other Americans, a la carte means in resturant terms "by itself". Meaning if you order a steak a la carte, you would not be receiving mashed potatoes or other items along with it.

Is his understanding correct in Britain and if so, what would they ask for in a restaurant if they wanted an item "by itself"?
This is as much a difference in our expectations of how restaurants work as a difference in language, I'd say.

À la carte comes from French, bien sûr, and is used in opposition to table d'hôte--more commonly called (these days) prix fixe. In the prix-fixe situation, the restaurant offers a meal of several courses with few or no choices as to what you get in which course. You get what the chef has decided to put together. In the US, I think I've only ever seen this in the most expensive restaurant I've ever been to, though I suppose it's the same thing as a meal deal at a fast food restaurant. (But I've yet to come across a burger (BrE) pedlar/(AmE) peddler who asks you if you want your Big Mac à la carte. I believe the appropriate idiom is the sandwich or the meal?) In the UK, prix fixe is a more familiar concept--both because more British people will have experience of eating in France, where prix fixe menus are common, and because they're not entirely uncommon in the UK. That is to say, I've had prix fixe in the UK at restaurants where the (AmE) check/(BrE) bill was more in line with the cost of a ticket to the theat{er/re}, rather than the cost of a ticket to Hawaii.

Ordering à la carte, then, is ordering from the (individual courses) menu rather than ordering (AmE) the whole shebang/(BrE) the full monty. So, Moe's boyfriend saw himself as ordering a sandwich as it comes according to the menu (which may be with chips/fries or what have you).

But while we don't in the US think of ourselves as having prix fixe menus, it is the case that restaurants often distinguish between 'dinners' (sometimes called entrees in this case) and simpler courses. For example, a menu might be divided into 'pasta', 'sandwiches', 'pizza' and 'dinners'. Where I come from, a popular dinner is prime rib.1 If you order prime rib, they might ask you if you want the dinner or to have it à la carte. If you have the dinner, then it will come with salad (or sometimes the option of soup) and one or two side dishes. This always flummoxes Better Half when we go to a certain restaurant in my hometown. He orders his portobello mushroom thingamajig and is then somehow offended when asked what kind of dressing he wants on his salad.2 (Even worse, they expect him to eat his salad before his dinner! The injustice of it all!) My mother, on the other hand, is regularly shocked and dismayed when she orders a main course in England and gets only what it says on the menu--a piece of meat. And you should have heard her when she ordered veal parmesan in Ireland and wasn't served a side of spaghetti with it.3 If the menu says 'rib-eye steak' or 'veal parmesan', then you're probably going to have to look at the side-dishes menu if you want any vegetables. The exception to this, of course, is if it's a roast dinner at Sunday lunch. If it's Sunday lunch, you will be served so many vegetables that you could conceivably fulfil(l) your five-a-day requirements until Wednesday.

So, it looks like Americans have sort of reinvented the prix-fixe menu as 'dinner', but don't really think of it as a menu--just as the main course. When they want a simpler and less expensive meal, they order à la carte, which almost means 'off the menu' in this case. The equivalent in the UK would just be to say 'I'd like my steak without the potatoes, please', and I'd be very surprised if that made it any cheaper for you.

And just in case all this reminds you of (AmE) à la mode, let the link take you there.

1 I've never seen prime rib in the UK, though the term itself is not an Americanism. Instead of having rib roasts and prime rib, one tends to see thinner-cut rib-eye steaks on UK menus. Someday, when I have a lot of energy, I will have to do a post on different cuts of meat in the two countries. In the meantime, please consult the maps of cows on Wikipedia.

2 I've never been asked what kind of dressing I want on my salad in the UK. You get what you get, and it usually tastes of mustard. My commenting on this will probably send some people to the comments section to exclaim that American salad dressings (particularly French and Russian) have disingenuous names--since the comments section serves as a magnet for salad dressing-related complaints.

3 I've started to think of BH and my mother as two sides of a coin, which raises the question of what/whom he's the better half of. Maybe it means it's a good thing I'm turning into my mother. Now I'm just confusing myself.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I've had several requests for discussion of the difference between (AmE) entrée (= BrE/AmE main course) and French entrée (= AmE appetizer and BrE starter). The French term is occasionally seen in Britain (mostly in French restaurants, in my experience), but it is fairly confusing to AmE speakers.

I'm not going to blog on it. No, I'm not.

What is the point of blogging on it when there is a new blog on The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky, which has already done the deed in brilliant historical detail with pretty pictures of menus?

And I'm still on a diet. So I refuse. Enjoy Dan's post and please don't taunt me in the comments with mention of anything that's more than 150 calories.

Monday, October 12, 2009

hew to

Here's a quick topical one.

Picky writes today to ask about a New York Times headline:

Clinton Urges Hewing to Irish Peace Process

Picky asks:
Hewing? What means she "hewing"? The text doesn't seem to help.
It's unclear to me that Clinton actually said hewing. In the text of the article, the meaning becomes rather clearer:
On Monday, Mrs. Clinton, now the secretary of state, addressed a more select audience of 100 lawmakers in the imposing chamber of North Ireland’s Stormont assembly, exhorting them to stick with a peace process that the Clintons have made something of a family project. (based on the Random House Dictionary) defines the relevant sense of hew to as:
to uphold, follow closely, or conform (usually fol. by to): to hew to the tenets of one's political party.

Is this an Americanism? Well, what I can tell from a very quick look is that the OED does not include this sense, but Random House, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster do. The first 20 UK hits for "to hew to" are by Americans or Brits quoting Americans. So, it's looking likely that it is an Americanism. Not the most common phrasing in the world, but certainly one I recogni{s/z}ed.

Looking a little further, I found it in a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem uses hew beside cleave, another word that can seem to be its own opposite (a Janus word):
A Hagging Match

Axe-thumps outside
like wave-hits through
a night ferry:
whom I cleave to, hew to,
splitting firewood.
This raises the question whether it is also Irish English, or whether Heaney is just more aware of this sense than a typical east-of-Greenland speaker.

The earliest use I've been able to find (thanks to Wordnik!) is from The Honorable Senator Sage-Brush by Francis Lynde, first published in 1913. So, nothing there contradicting the feeling that this is AmE.

And that exhausts the time that I can dedicate to this tonight. So, can anyone else do any more/better on the topic? Is to hew to American and not British English?

Relevant P.S. (after the original post): I've just had a look in the British National Corpus (1 million words) and the TIME corpus of American English (1 million words). BNC has zero occurrences of hew-to and hewing-to, and the only hewn-to examples are passives in the more physical sense of the verb (the stone had been hewn to build the farms of the dale). TIME had 38 of hew-to, 29 of hewing-to, and one relevant example of hewn-to. I've briefly checked the 4-million word Corpus of Contemporary American English just to make sure it's not just a TIME thing, and there are plenty of examples there too. So, it's looking pretty American to me.

(original post's) P.S. I've been congratulated for trying to raise money for MSN/DWB, but haven't actually raised any (except through other means than this blog). Congratulations are very nice, but money for a wonderful cause is nicer. Do have a look back here if you'd like to think about helping out.

Friday, October 02, 2009

a week (from) tomorrow; Wednesday week

I'm writing on the eve of High Lynneukah, the fourth day of Lynneukah this year. I know I've mentioned Lynneukah before here, but I've never properly explained it, and since I did so earlier today on Facebook, I thought I'd offer the same explanation here. After all, Lynneukah is orig. AmE:
  • Lynneukah ('The Joyous Festival of Lynne') is the name of the ritualistic marking of my birthday, over a number of days each (AmE) fall/(BrE&AmE) autumn.
  • It was named/founded in the 80s by an ex of mine who noted that I liked to string my birthday celebrations out for as long as possible.
  • It is the consecutive days in any year that include 3 October and involve some marking of my birthday--e.g. a card in the (BrE) post/(AmE) mail, a colleague buying me a drink, an email from a long-lost somebody who noticed it in their (AmE) datebook/(BrE) diary.
  • 3 October is referred to as High Lynneukah. (Also German Reunification day, but it was High Lynneukah first!)
  • Because the definition relies on consecutive days, you can't necessarily tell when it has started. On receipt of the first card, I declare it 'Lynneukah season' and then wait and see what the next few days bring. I typically know it's Lynneukah by day 3.
  • It's been as short as 5 days and as long as 12.
  • It is a sin to try to artificially prolong Lynneukah.
  • You don't have to know me or do anything for me to celebrate Lynneukah. The theme of the day/season is 'being nice to yourself'--so if anyone uses it as an excuse to sleep late or eat chocolate, that's great.
But if you'd like to use Lynneukah to be nice to someone else, then may I suggest a donation to Médecins Sans Frontières (known in the US as Doctors Without Borders)? I'll be making a birthday donation myself, but know that I often wait for an excuse (someone running a race or selling something or taking a collection) to donate to good causes that aren't my regular charities. So, I'm offering you an excuse to donate a little or a lot to a group that does a lot of good in a lot of very difficult situations.
If you're in the US, you can click here to make a donation.

If you're in the UK, you can click here to make a donation (and GiftAid it, if you qualify).

If you're anywhere else, you can see if there's a MSF fundraising branch in your country, but there's nothing (other than the risk of credit card fees for foreign payments) to stop you using the above donation sites.

That said (and thanks for reading through to here), I was trying to think of a birthday-themed topic to blog about, but we talked about the spanking rituals last year, and I can't think of anything else at the moment (requests for next year are welcome). But birthdays are about time, so here's a time-related topic, spurred on by this email from Gordon:
I just came across this phrase, written by a Brit: a week tomorrow. I've never heard it that way, but I interpreted it to mean "a week from tomorrow". It was used multiple times, so I know it wasn't a typo.

A week tomorrow, on October 1st, a book is going to be published. This is not news. Lots of books will be published a week tomorrow, and indeed a week after that (and, for that matter, tomorrow). [source]
What's the story here?
Indeed, that's a very natural way to say (AmE and BrE) a week from tomorrow in BrE, as in these quotations from the Guardian's website:
...a royal ceremonial funeral, which will be held a week tomorrow at Westminster Abbey.

... with each of the three contenders wanting to chalk up a good result ahead of the key South Carolina Democratic primary a week tomorrow.

Luka Modric broke a leg in a Premier League match against Birmingham City last Saturday, ruling him out of World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley a week tomorrow.
BrE can do the same kind of thing for other days than tomorrow (today, yesterday). Where using the name of a day of the week, one needs on, as in the following examples:
A week on Wednesday one of JMW Turner's finest paintings, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, will be auctioned at Sotheby's.

John McCain is expected to make his VP announcement a week on Friday

Where you read a week tomorrow in AmE sources, it generally refers to the past (all examples from the Boston Globe's site):
I've been married a week tomorrow and I am on cloud 9 with my husband!

It will be a week tomorrow and I am still waiting for the car dealership to get approval from
In these cases, we can read this as 'tomorrow, it will be a week since X happened'. This is no good in BrE, as far as I can tell (web searches and consulting Better Half) logically possible, but perhaps not as likely in BrE--you'd have to probably say I've been married for a week tomorrow. (I could say either in my AmE dialect.)

You can use either of these phrases with other lengths of time, but the longer the time, the less likely you are to find the BrE future-facing version. There are at least hundreds (I haven't gone through and discounted all the irrelevant ones) of cases of a week tomorrow on the Guardian site and only one of a year tomorrow.

Now, we must note that the BrE future-facing a week tomorrow and the past-facing AmE a week tomorrow have different prosody (intonation). If you've read this blog before, you know that (BrE) I'm rubbish at phonology, so I won't try to draw any intonation curves or anything. I'm so rubbish at phonology that I might even be wrong about there being a difference, since when I try to recreate it in my head, they end up sounding like a hundred different things and like each other. But bidialectal or prosodically-gifted folks out there are welcome to weigh in on that.

On a related topic (but certainly not exhausting week differences across the dialects), I'd like to point out day-week combinations in BrE, as in the Elvis Costello song 'Wednesday Week', which starts:

The movies save on conversation
And the TV saves on sight
We met in a head-on collision
So I would say our chances would be slight
You can lead and I will follow
See us dancing cheek to cheek
You'll remember me tomorrow
But you won't give a damn by Wednesday Week
Now, ([orig.] AmE) back in the day, when I was a young thing snubbing (AmE) pop in order to listen to British (BrE) pop, I enjoyed this song very much, not appreciating that I didn't understand it. I thought Wednesday week was just a nonsense date for a song, like the 12th of Never. Now I know that it's a BrE way of saying 'a week from Wednesday'.

Thus concludes this instal(l)ment of my continuing public service of explaining British song lyrics to mistaken Americans like me who (in the 1980s) thought they were cool for (orig. AmE) 'getting' British music.

Happy Lynneukah to all, and to all a good night!