Tuesday, May 12, 2015

tape measure / measuring tape

Emma, an English friend now living in Canada, asked me:
Have you ever looked at measuring tape/tape measure for UK/US? A Canadian friend said she uses the first for the bendy fabric kind and the second for the more rigid, retractable builders' kind.
And I said 'That's how I do it too. What do you do?'  Since this was on Facebook, I now know that I know four Englishpeople who say tape measure for both. Everyone who's commented so far follows the English/North American division that Emma and her Canadian friend observed.

In other words, I learned to call this a measuring tape:

Photo by Ben Watkins: https://www.flickr.com/photos/falcifer/

and this a tape measure:

Photo by redjar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/redjar/with/136165399/

...and my BrE-speaking friends call them both tape measure.

What's interesting is that neither the North American semantic distinction nor the North America/UK difference is recorded in most dictionaries. They (both UK and US ones) tend to say measuring tape is another word for tape measure (Merriam-Webster [learner's dictionary], Oxford). Collins has measuring tape as an alternative for tape measure in its British English listings, but doesn't include it at all in American English. The American Heritage Dictionary doesn't have measuring tape at all. (The OED's first record for measuring tape is in 1805. Tape measure is 1873.)

Now, before you say 'maybe the distinction is a regional Americanism', note that Emma's friend is from western Canada, I'm from New York state and another Californian friend has reported that he makes the same distinction. There doesn't seem to be anything else similar among us either--male and female, people who sew and people who don't. Searching on Amazon.com, the distinction is not solid, but it's a tendency--one sees more of the metal things if searching 'tape measure' and more of the cloth things when searching 'measuring tape'. (The corpora just tell us that both terms are used in both countries.)

What the dictionaries do tend to tell us is that tape line is an American alternative for tape measure--but this is a term that's completely new to me. There is only one US example in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, and in that one the author felt the need to clarify that they meant 'some kind of measuring tape of some sort'. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, only one of the eight examples of tape line (as part of surveyors' tools) might be relevant--most are about making a line of tape (e.g. on a floor). And in the Corpus of Historical American English, the most recent relevant example is from the 1930s. The original citation in the OED is from Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), and it seems to have just been repeated in dictionaries ever since. So this looks much less current than the measuring tape/tape measure distinction. Attention lexicographers!

Friday, May 08, 2015


In case you weren't paying attention, the UK had a general election yesterday, and the exit polls and final results were a surprise, given that the previous day's polls had indicated a much closer result. Because this is a language blog, I'm going to stick with a language observation, however tempting it is to do otherwise...

Anyhow, David S in the US emailed me with the following this morning:
Some time within the last year or so I started noticing the distinctive usage of the phrase "shock poll" in the British news media; since then it seems to have migrated to the US, though apparently not in major news outlets. It appears so far as I can tell to mean simply "poll with startling results", with adjectival "shock". Some googling shows that "shock survey" and "shock study" are out there as well.

Is this use of "shock" as an adjective in fact coming out of British newspaperese, and is its usage spreading beyond a delimited set of nouns?
Are British readers surprised to know this is a Britishism? Indeed it is. The dictionaries I've checked have no separate entry for shock as noun premodifier meaning 'surprising', but it's very much there in the language, as can be seen in this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

The columns of numbers are: TOTAL || US Canada UK Ireland Australia.

This list of words comes a good way down the list of [shock + noun] items in the corpus (hence the lack of column label(l)ing) because there are other premodifying uses that don't mean 'surprising', but have to do with more physical senses of shock, such as shock absorber, shock treatment and shock wave. These are General English, not specific to any country.

Another premodifying shock means 'intending to shock', as in shock rock (theatrical rock music, intended to shock/offend) and shock jock (i.e. a radio DJ who expresses unpopular opinions in order to gain attention and responses). The OED lists these as American in origin, but shock jock now has a much stronger showing in Australia in GloWBE--and it's known and used in BrE too. Some of the examples that are showing as British in the table above could also be interpreted as 'intending to shock' --particularly shock tactic. But for most of them, what is meant 'a [noun] that the media didn't see coming'. Shock value, which also indicates 'intention to shock' is not American in origin, as far as I can tell. The OED's first example of that phrase is from the UK in the 1930s.

Though the OED doesn't list this the 'surprising' sense of shock, it does have a 1974 example of shock news, which seems to be of the same ilk:  
1974   Times 3 Apr. 1/1 (heading)    Shock news is broken to EEC ministers.
Like David S, I blame British media. British headlines are notorious for "noun piles", and shock poll is a two-word noun pile that is conveniently (for headline writers) shorter than shocking poll result.  I recommend reading Language Log on the subject of noun piles, but here's an example (without a shock):

The OED does, though, cover another 'shocking' BrEism: shock horror. This is used as a compound noun on its own or in a premodifying position, as in these OED examples:

1977   Gay News 7 Apr. 15/3   The message must have got through: certainly there were no shock-horror reactions and fun was had by all.
1980   Times Lit. Suppl. 31 Oct. 1240/4   The shock-horror world of the media men.
1981   Brit. Med. Jrnl. 18 Apr. 1312/2   The shock-horror TV Eye of recent weeks.

For some of us, the news today is less shock and more shock-horror. Oops, I got political. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


A pleonasm is a word or phrase with semantically redundant parts. So, for example, at this moment in time is a pleonasm because there are no moments outside time, so we don't really need to say in time. But people do.

Pleonastic expressions are things that language haters like to hate on. (These people often claim to be language lovers, but they don't seem to be very good at the love part.) So, they're the kind of thing that people complain to me about, with the Americans saying "Why do the British say X? It's repetitive and illogical", and the British saying "Why do Americans say Y? It's repetitive and illogical."

At their worst, these complaints come out as "Why do Americans/Brits always add extra words?"

When I get those complaints, I reply with some phrases from the speaker/writer's own dialect that have 'illogically redundant' words (it's not hard to do) and I say something like "language is not logical and it thrives on redundancy".

I mean, why say Yesterday we baked a cake? Yesterday is in the past, so why bother with the past tense marking on the verb? So redundant. Chinese wouldn't put up with that.

Thinking about these accusations that Brits/American always add extra words, I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook for BrE/AmE-specific pleonasms that others have noticed. We can see from the resulting lists below that there are no innocent parties in the Pleonasm Wars. Many of expressions aren't only said in the 'offending' dialect, but they are more common in one than the other. To indicate the relative "Americanness" or "Britishness" of a phrase, I've given a ratio, which indicates the proportion of instances of the phrase in the British and American portions of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. (The minority uses in the other dialect may be things like "Can you believe the British call beets beetroot?". That is, the fact that there are some in the other dialect doesn't mean it's necessarily really used in that dialect. The ratios help indicate the chances that it really is AmE- or BrE-specific.) I've bolded the bit of the expression that could arguably be left out without a change in meaning and put links to places I've discussed these before, if available.

American expressions that British folk might find pleonastic
irregardless       5:1  (though generally considered non-standard in AmE)
in and of itself   3:1
tuna fish            3:1 (0 BrE instances as closed compound tunafish)
where I( a)m at  2:1  (again, not exactly standard AmE; and the corpus numbers have a lot of 'noise')

(An American one I didn't count was off of because the of is there for grammatical reasons not semantic ones. See the old post for discussion.)

British expressions that American folk might find pleonastic
beetroot             22:1
hosepipe            13:1
in N days' time  10:1
goatee beard      9:1
go and [verb]    e.g. go and see = 6:1 versus go see 1:2; note that go+verb predates go and verb in English--the and has been added in BrE, not deleted in AmE
postgraduate      6:1
station stop         4:1
at this moment in time    4:1
chocolate brownies         3:1
general consensus        1.6:1

You might want to argue that some of these are not redundant. It is a matter of perception. Brits might say beetroot isn't redundant because it distinguishes that part of the plant from the greens, but beetroot is redundant to Americans in the same way that carrotroot would be. Chocolate brownies is redundant because in AmE if it's not made of chocolate, it has to be called something else (e.g. blondies). (Americans do have the word brownie for other things too, the context is enough to let us know it's a baked good and not a fairy.) It's been argued to me that station stop is not redundant because trains sometimes have to stop (e.g. for a signal) when they're not at a station, and they sometimes pass stations without stopping. Did you know there's a tuna fruit?

In the end, the Twitter and Facebook and email people gave me more British [alleged] pleonasms than American ones.  Possible reasons for this:
  • Maybe British English does have more of them.
  • Maybe my social media posts were at better times for the US than the UK. (My waking hours don't quite fit the UK, in spite of 15 years' residence.)
  • Maybe Americans notice British pleonasms more than Britons notice American pleonasms (I was required to buy a copy of Strunk and White at college. I can't imagine the same happening in UK, where writing isn't a required university subject. So, maybe Americans are trained to cut extra things out of language where British folk are not. We're the country most likely to excise extra letters in the spelling system too.)
 Feel free to raise the American pleonasm count (or the British one) in the comments. If I like them, I may retroactively add them to the list here.

All my linguistically-correct tolerance for pleonasms aside, I am a ruthless redactor of extra words in academic writing. I train my students in Strunk and White's Rule 13: Omit needless words. If they write
--> Another reason why the categorisation of chocolate* is significant for humans derives from the fact that humans are essentially and uniquely a ‘languaging’ species. ...they get back the following, with an obnoxious note along the lines of "Your way: 24 words; My way: 11 words. Don't make me read twice as many words as I have to!!": 
Another reason why the categorisation of cChocolate* is also particularly relevant  significant for humans derives from the fact that humans are essentially and uniquely as a ‘languaging’ species.
Chocolate* is also particularly relevant for humans as a ‘languaging’ species]
* The noun has been changed to chocolate in order to protect the author's identity. But chocolate is particularly relevant to humans as a 'languaging' species. Without it, we couldn't have Cathy cartoons.
In writing academic essays for which (a) you have a word limit, so (b) the more words you use, the less you can say, and (c) you can be assured that your reader is going to be tired and grumpy before they even start reading, pithiness rules the day.

Thanks to those who contributed pleonasms to the list: Amanda P, Barbara J, Catherine P, David L, Iva, Jennifer, Kim E, Naomi N, Nicole S, Pam T, Rebecca M, Richard H, Sian C, Simon B.
I don't give full names unless I'm given permission to, and I am always happy to link your name to your blog/Twitter/webpage. So, if this applies to you, let me know and I'll add surnames and/or links.

Friday, April 17, 2015

an appreciation

I'm overdue for blogging here (I have a few topics lined up and partially researched) in part because I spent a very, very long time on US taxes and FATCA. This is definitely worthy of a rant. The US treatment of its expatriated citizens is absurd. But lots of other people are doing that rant. And I come here not to rant, but to appreciate.

I feel extremely privileged that writing this blog has led to so many interesting, polite, cooperative, informative, entertaining and just plain rewarding interactions--mostly online, occasionally in real life. Last week, a reader, correspondent and virtual friend died unexpectedly. I'm finding it strange to realise that you can miss someone you've never met. But the fact that the world is missing such a funny, interesting/interested, and generous person is difficult knowledge to have. That's before one even starts to consider that there are people who loved him closely who will be affected far, far more than internet acquaintances like myself. My heart goes out to them, though I do not know them.

Writing for the internet public about language is hard. It's also fun and has lots of perks. But it is hard because it's risky. There's always someone there to tell you that they think you're wrong, that they think you're unqualified, that you didn't talk about what they wanted you to talk about. It's hard because you can't always tell if people who respond to you are joking or talking down to you, if they're exasperated or just brief. And there are certainly people out there who haven't yet figured out how to tell when I'm any of those things. My strategy is to always try to read anything sent to me in the most positive way possible--to imagine a kind smile on their imagined faces and to try to have a sincere smile on mine when I reply. If I can't do that, it's better not to reply at all. I don't always succeed in not-replying to perceived rudeness, but with practice it gets easier.

Anyhow, that all said, my life on the web has been easy. (Which is good because the grief I do get is plenty enough!) Even though there is no shortage of people willing to be very rude on the internet about the national dialects I write about, they don't seem to come here (or to my Twitter feed or Facebook page) very often. Or maybe they do, but they behave themselves when they come here. If so, I'm very grateful to them for that restraint.

But more generally, the people who hang around this blog and virtually interact with me seem to be lovely people. If we knew each other in real life, we might well drive each other bonkers, but maybe not.* There have been readers/commenters who were active for a while and then faded away; I'll never know if they're just lost to the blog or lost to the world. There are others who've been the blog's constant companions for years. And I'm sure the majority drop in for a word then forget about the blog. Whichever one you are, I just want to take a moment to appreciate the interactions we've had and will (I hope) continue to.

At any rate, here's to Marc Naimark. He is missed. As a tribute, here are some of the blog posts he inspired:
finger-tip search
write (to) someone
the big list of vegetables

* Marc and I got to know each other on a more personal level than some of us have, because we became Facebook friends in the early days when I accepted friend requests from names I recogni{s/z}ed from the blog. I now rarely accept friend requests from people I've not met in person. Sometimes I think I should do so, knowing how valuable I found those interactions with Marc, but on the other hand there were other requests that I accepted, then later became uncomfortable at having let those strangers into my family life. I'm sticking with that anti-social social-media policy (and directing people I don't know to interact with me on the Lynneguist page or Twitter feed) not because I don't want to get to know you better, but because my child's privacy is my priority. That said, perhaps we'll meet...

Monday, March 23, 2015

by cash

A(n) historian I know has taken to calling me his favo(u)rite linguist. I have a suspicion I'm the only linguist he knows. Nevertheless, flattery gets you a blog post. And a flattering pseudonym.

So, Generous Historian, when he emailed me about Important University Business, included this:
P.S. A little piece of English-language usage that has struck me a couple of times lately and made me think "Lynne might be interested in that", is that people in shops and cafes now invariably say "are you paying by cash", whereas they would have said "are you paying cash" until recently. The ubiquity of card (and, soon, phone) payments is doubtless to blame, but I was interested by the addition of the pointless "by" because it seems characteristic of US-English (where you "beat on" someone, instead of beating them; "meet with", instead of simply meeting, etc.). Any thoughts?
This historian is English, as you might be able to tell. But he's married to an American so I'm not about to let him off lightly for this (AmE) rookie mistake (=beginner's error).

Note that I didn't say that flattery gets you a flattering blog post.

This is how I chided him:*
You notice more prepositions in AmE because they're new info where you weren't expecting it.  But BrE has an awful lot of prepositions where AmE doesn't--e.g. in expressions of time (on Tuesday), with certain verbs (protest at the decision), etc. I submit, as attachment, data to indicate that this is one not an Americanism. :)

The attachment was this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), showing who says pay by cash:
The darker the blue, the stronger the strength of the expression in the particular nation. Since the Irish sub-corpus is about 1/3 of the size of the US or UK (GB) ones, Ireland uses pay by cash not 3 more times than Britain, but three times more.

So, it looks like BrE is getting by cash from Ireland--where it probably arose on analogy with pay by card. (Or maybe BrE is inventing it separately--that can happen with analogies.) I was particularly taken with this example from the Irish data (from the Garda [police] website):
You can pay by cash, cheque, bank draft, or laser card.
Laser card? They have cards with lasers in Ireland? Let me in!!** 

Incidentally, pay cash, which GH says he would say, is the most strongly American of the alternatives (according to GloWBE). Pay with cash is the most neutral on the US-UK comparison, but has the strongest showing in Canada.

* I once got to see a letter of recommendation that had been written about me, which said "She writes devastating footnotes". This remains the best compliment I have ever received. Nevertheless, I fear my epitaph will be "She wrote chiding emails".

** Apparently laser card means 'debit card' in Ireland, based on the name of the first company to offer them. False alarm. Everyone back to normal, please. Don't mind me; I'm just weeping with disappointment.

Monday, March 09, 2015

it's rude to...

One of the fun things that you can do with the GloWBE (Global Web-Based English) corpus is ask it to compare collocations (words that regularly go together) across varieties of English. The software does a statistical evaluation so that you can see which collocations are most typical of a particular variety of English in comparison to another. So for instance, if you ask it about words that come before tea in the British and American parts of the corpus, you learn that the top-three most American (and least British) collocates are GOP ('Grand Old Party', i.e. the Republican party), Republicans, and conservatives (because of the Tea Party movement), and the three most British/least American are cream, cuppa and vintage.
All that explanation is just prelude to the difference I want to point out.

I'd seen Susan Waters' paper in Journal of Pragmatics "It's rude to VP [verb phrase]: the cultural semantics of rudeness", in which she looked at which verbs follow rude in Australian English (gathered via Google searches). You'd have to collect data that way to get enough for any real study of what's considered rude in a culture, as there aren't enough examples in existing corpora to make solid conclusions about such things. Nevertheless, I read Waters' paper and immediately went to GloWBE to see what's rude in the UK and US.

I asked GloWBE to compare which words come immediately after rude to in  British and American web-based writing. While I'm really interested in the verbs, I couldn't just search for verbs after rude to because the software said there was too little data. So, here are the words that come after rude to in AmE (left) and BrE (right).

In the columns, TOKENS 1 = the number found in American websites, TOKENS 2 in British. PM stands for 'per million', so the first row of the left table says that there are .06 examples of rude to him per million words in the American data, but .03 per million in the British.  Green ones disproportionately belong to that dialect, and red (or pink) are found less than would be statistically expected. White are found frequently but not statistically differently in both dialects.

We can debate whether there's anything worth saying about the hims and hers--it might just be an accident of the corpus. The words her and him are not found at particularly different rates in the two corpora, so it's not that British people talk about women more than Americans do. The you is  interesting, because it's usually used sympathetically and/or in giving people (possibly uninvited) advice (e.g. If he IS a jerk and rude to you and everyone around you, get out of there). A more American thing to do? Very possibly.

But what I'm really interested in are the two verbs in these tables. According to this data set, the most British-and-not-American rude thing to do is to ask something and the most American-and-not-British rude thing to do is to say something. This goes along with some stereotypes (and even serious analyses) of British and American differences in what is considered 'polite', and so I found it interesting.

In British culture, much more information is considered 'private' and 'personal' than in American, so you don't ask people about themselves or tell them about yourself at anything like the rate that Americans would. (Recall this earlier post about giving or asking for names.) Here are some examples from the GloWBE data:

He'd never talk about his work and it felt rude to ask.
is it just plain rude to ask if a child is disabled?
I wouldn't say it was rude to ask why someone is a vegetarian
Is it rude to ask Koreans if they're from North or South Korea?

Of the 21 British rude to ask examples, at most three or four are asking for things or favo(u)rs (e.g. rude to ask to borrow a tool). The others are about asking for personal information. The American rude to ask examples (11 unique examples--plus one duplicate) are also mostly about information (two favo(u)rs). In a couple of the American information-asking cases, it's not rude to ask something, but it's rude to ask it in front of an audience (rude to ask personal questions in public).

Meanwhile, in the typically-American rude to say examples, we have:

it would be rude to say " white people,

I think it was really rude to say that people who liked it have low standards

If you have something rude to say about it keep it to yourself

it's rude to say non-curvy women look like little men.
...which gives the impression that Americans feel that people should rein in their opinion-giving or their pigeonholing of people in order to not make anyone feel different or bad. There were 25 American and 15 British rude to says with two of the British ones being rude to say no and another one being rude to say you don't want something. The American data didn't have any such 'rude to refuse' examples.

So that amused me. How about you? It would be rude not to comment on this blog post.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


I'm sure that more than one person has asked me to cover likely, but at this point I can only find an email from Richard B (so apologies to anyone else who feels they should be credited with noticing this one!).  Richard writes:
I've noticed a difference in the way Americans and British use 'likely', as an adverb and an adjective (I think) as in 'I will likely visit at the weekend' vs 'It is likely that I will visit at the weekend'. However, in Britain you'll hear 'I will probably visit at the weekend' and even 'I will most likely visit at the weekend'
You can tell Richard is not American by the (BrE) at the weekend in his example, but that's stuff for another post. This is the kind of thing that Brits are more likely (ho-ho) to notice because they don't use likely to mean 'probable'/'probably' in ways that Americans couldn't, but Americans use it in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb in Britain.

In the American He'll likely visit this weekend, likely is indeed an adverb. Probably is another adverb that might go there, but for me likely sounds more likely than probably, tautologically enough.

In the American and British She is likely to win the Nobel prize, likely is an adjective. How can I tell? The technical answer is because it's the semantic predicate in this clause, following a copula. The less technical demonstration is to notice that you can't substitute the adverb probably in this case:
*She is probably to win the Nobel Prize
(Linguists use * before an example to say it's not a possible expression in the language.) 

But you can substitute the right kind of adjective (i.e. one that can take an infinitive verb after it):
She is happy to win the Nobel Prize
 Adverbs go in adverb places, adjectives go in adjective places. This likely is an adjective.

So far it looks like AmE has likely as an adverb or adjective and BrE has only the adjective. But wait! What's likely doing after most in Richard's other example I will most likely visit...?  It's being an adverb in British (and American) English, that's what! As the OED says, the adverb likely is:

Now chiefly most likely, very likely; otherwise rare exc. Sc. dial., or (freq.) N. Amer.

Yet another usage that has become extinct in (most of) the UK, but has been preserved in AmE.

Going back to adjectives, likely also works in both countries as a pre-nominal ('before the noun') adjective, as in a likely reason for her magnetism is her diet of iron filingsBut there are certain uses of it that the OED claims as more country-specific. First, this one [earliest examples omitted]:

(Now chiefly U.S.) Of young persons (occas. of animals): Giving promise of success or excellence; promising, hopeful.

1793   G. Washington Lett. in Writings (1891) XII. 381,   I am very sorry to hear that so likely a young fellow..should addict himself to such courses.
1863   Advt. in Dicey Federal St. I. 254   He [a fugitive slave] is..stout and well built; very likely.
1883   J. Gilmour Among Mongols xviii. 226   Chinamen go to Mongolia in spring, buy up likely animals.
The most recent example they have of this is from 1883 (but the entry has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1903). I must say, it's not something I'd say.

Next we have:

Of seemly or comely appearance; good-looking, handsome. ? Now U.S. and dial.

I can't say I have that one either, though it has some similarity to the fifth sense in the American Heritage Dictionary. The likely spot example sounds fine to me, but I'd put it with sense 3. Better Half doesn't like the example in 5 though (he says it sounds 'very old-fashioned and Enid Blyton'), so maybe it is different from sense 3 and more American.  
1. Possessing or displaying the qualities or characteristics that make something probable: They are likely to become angry with him. See Usage Note at liable.
2. Within the realm of credibility; plausible: not a very likely excuse.
3. Apparently appropriate or suitable: There were several likely candidates for the job.
4. Apt to achieve success or yield a desired outcome; promising: a likely topic for investigation.
5. Attractive; pleasant: found a likely spot under a shady tree for the picnic.
 On the other side of the Atlantic, we have The Likely Lads. (I'd embedded a YouTube video here, but within hours, embedding had been disabled for that video. So, you'll have to go to YouTube to see it.)

According to Wikipedia (the OED is not as clear for this one):

The word "likely" in the show's title is somewhat ambiguous. In some dialects in Northern England it means "likeable", but it may be derived from the phrase the man most likely to, a boxing expression in common use on Tyneside, hence, in Geordie slang, "a likely lad". Another possible meaning is the ambiguous Northern usage of "likely" to mean a small-time troublemaker.

And that's likely all I have to say on the matter. Until you point out in the comments what I've missed.