Monday, March 12, 2012

catching up and catching breaks

Mwncïod on Twitter asked:
AmE/BrE diff? Watching US sit-com "Big Bang Theory" character says "catch/caught a break" vs BrE "get/got a break"?
Get a break is not so much BrE as general English. Break meaning 'a bit of good luck; a chance' is originally AmE and continues to be used there with get. The Corpus of Historical American English has its first instance of catch/caught a break in 1986, and it gained ground through the 1990s and 2000s. But it is still far outnumbered by get/got/gotten a break in AmE. Catch a break is an even more colloquial rendering of an already colloquial phrase, but it hasn't made as much of an impression in the UK yet.

Taking a break for a tangent: The Americanness of the 'good luck, chance' meaning of break is perhaps illustrated by the differences in their KitKat (AmE) candy bar/(BrE) chocolate bar slogans, both of which play on break, because one breaks off 'fingers' of a KitKat (is this just used in BrE? It makes sense in AmE, but I don't believe I've heard anyone say finger of a KitKat in AmE). In the UK (the ancestral and spiritual home of the KitKat) it's Have a break, have a KitKat. In AmE, there's a completely ear-worming jingle: Gimme a break/gimme a break/break me off a piece of that KitKat bar. The UK catch( )phrase plays on the 'pause in the working day' sense, the US one on an extension from the 'chance' sense meaning 'An allowance or indulgence; accommodating treatment' (American Heritage).  This has come into BrE, but it retains an American feel.  [paragraph added next morning, after getting jingle stuck in head in the shower]

Thinking about this reminded me of another catch difference across the dialects: the argument structure of catch up--that is, how a verb phrase containing catch up is structured.  If I started jogging down the road and you followed a minute later, you would soon catch up, because I am terrifically unfit. Catch up works fine as an intransitive (no noun after it) phrasal verb as in that last sentence. But if you wanted to tell the tale later, mentioning the unfit academic you bested, you'll need an object for that verb. BrE can give you one. AmE (at least the version I speak) can't. The Collins English Dictionary gives a perfect example in its entry for catch up, which I've underlined here:
2. when intr, often foll by with to reach or pass (someone or something), after following he soon caught him up
The grammatical information at the start confirms that one can say catch up with [someone] in BrE, and it has that in common with AmE. But my AmE ear cannot understand the transitive catch [someone] up as 'run (or do something) till you're at the same level as someone' because that meaning is just not transitive. AmE-me can understand transitive catch up only for the 'bring someone's information up-to-date' sense. So, if you tell me you ran after Bill and caught him up, my AmE self thinks you've run after him, stopped him, and filled him in on all the gossip he needs to know. Or maybe you shouted the information at him from five paces behind. All my AmE self knows is that you're talking about information, not about where you were physically, because only the information sense can be transitive in my native dialect. My AmE self has to be told off by my internal BrE editor sometimes in order for communication to succeed.

[paragraph added the next morning, after sleeping on it] The reason BrE speakers don't confuse the 'running' and 'information' senses is that the 'information' sense is AmE. Here's the American Heritage Dictionary definition, which also nicely illustrates the verb-object-up structure:
4. To bring (another) up to date; brief: Let me catch you up on all the gossip.

Speaking of catching up, I'm never going to be caught up (in the 'bring an activity to a state of currentness' sense, found in both dialects). You know, it was only today that I was struck by the reason why it's so much harder to blog now than it was in the beginning. It's because I'm a parent (who has a job in one of the worst careers for unpaid overtime). And apparently not a very bright parent, if it took four years to figure out the connection between having a child and blog productivity. I'd been blaming the job, but it's not the job that changed. It's hard work raising a child, particularly when one has to be trilingual to keep up.  (She tells me "I know three languages: Spanish, English and American".)