Two Nations, Two Languages. Grammar.

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As promised in my last blog, today's manuscript will focus attention on some of the differences between British and American grammar, with an emphasis not so much on nit-picky variants but on grammar as a style more than purely correct application. First, however, I cannot resist bringing up a few more examples, this time not of the British fondness for using French phrases, but of their tendency to use big words in simple situations — which Americans find somewhat inflated. For example, when an Americans call someone on the phone and can not get through, he thinks that the line is "busy."  The Brit decides that the line is "engaged."  When, while driving down the road, an American speeds up to get in front of a slower car, he has simply "passed" the other vehicle. The Brit has "overtaken" it. Also, the first time I went swimming at an indoor pool in England, it was pointed out where I could change into my "swimming costume". I had only brought my "bathing suit." (Well, maybe that sounds just as stupid). "Swimming trunks" is better.

Sometimes real confusion can occur, much of it amusing, but not always. Just the other day, my wife and I were looking to meet an Englishman (Brian) whose girlfriend is a Bulgarian doctor. My wife had an appointment with her, He gave us directions and kept telling us that all we had to do was pull into the "garage." So we were looking for a big drive-in building where you could park your car, like at a mall. But what Brian meant was the "gas station"  (or "petrol station" if you will ). We ended up driving back and forth in front of this "garage" about five times before we finally just parked the damn car and got out and walked. We were not amused, but it was not Brian's fault either. He no doubts thought WE were the idiots for not knowing what a "garage" was.

Anyway, when I first went to England at attend university in 1973, there were some other American students also along for the ride. One guy, whose name was Kevin, was really into learning British slang and informal chat. He soon learned that your friends were not your "buddies" but rather your "mates". Likewise, he came to understand that slang for a cigarette in England is a "fag" (as in "Give us a fag, mate!" — the Brits ALWAYS use "us" in this situation rather than "me.". I think it is because in the old days the King would refer to his realm as "Us" and "We", and this is the British commoners way, even after all these centuries, of "taking the piss" out of the lordly monarch — which means making fun of someone, Or so I believe.) In American usage, "fag"" is a not-very-nice word used to describe homosexuals. So one night at a mixed party (Brits and Yanks), Kevin positioned himself in the center of his English friends, whipped out his pack of Marlboros and triumphantly cried out "Would any of you Fags like a Mate ?"  (He got it backwards, you see.)  People were a bit confused.

      The second little story involves my attempt to get a haircut in the city of Bath  I had just arrived from America, and the style of haircut I wanted was known back there as a "shag."  Little did I know that this word in vulgar English slang means to have sexual intercourse. So a found a hairdressing salon and entered.There were two men working, one "straight"" and the other obviously gay. The straight guy already had a customer, and so the gay guy beckoned me to his barber chair and inquired, in the sweetest of voices as to what I would like. I informed him that I would like a shag. His eyes twinkled merrily and he asked, "Would you indeeeeeed??"

       So these are some of the things that can happen between two nations divided by a single language.

       Now to the grammar. and style of speech. Erm…but before that, I would like to bring up the theme of "parasite" words and phrases. These are what people in both countries (and the world over) use as "filler" language when they are stalling for time, trying to figure out what to say next, or merely reverting to unbreakable verbal tics. Americans say "you know" a lot. Silly American girls punctuate every sentence with the word "like.". ("Well, like, I was like getting dressed and like I couldn't decide and so like I just like threw on the first thing I could find and like went out like that.")  Kind of nauseating, isn't it? The Brits always say "a bit of" and "sort of". ("Well, I sort of got up and had a bit of breakfast, and then I sort of looked around for something to sort of wear, and then I had a bit of an idea and sort of put on my new jeans and sort of went out for a bit of a walk.") There was a time, thankfully passed, when Americans, following the lead of a popular TV sitcom then, would always say "Yada-yada-yada when they meant "and so on and so on."  This habit almost turned me into a mass murderer.

      Ah yes, grammar. The main bone I have to pick with British English here is their dedicated love of throwing in extra modal verbs wherever possible. Examples:  ""It WOULD appear" instead of simply "It appears.". "I SHOULD think" instead of just "I think.".  "I MUST say…" (Why must you??). But the worst of it is when they come out with stuff such as "He INSISTED that he SHOULD pay for the meal (the British never have lunch or dinner; it is always "a meal") and "She SUGGESTED that I SHOULD take the job offer." To my way of thinking, "insist" and "should" run counter to each other, while "suggested" and "should" are merely redundant, a matter of saying the same thing twice in different words. I mean, if you suggest I do something, it means you think I SHOULD do it, right?"

      Why not simply "He insisted on paying for the meal" and "She suggested that I take the job offer." ?

      The British will probably argue that the extra modals add "tentativeness" or "nuance" to these sentences. If they think so, then so be it. I remember reading somewhere that for an Eskimo (excuse me, "Innuit" — PC version) there many words to describe "snow."  For a Brit or a Yank, snow is snow and there's an end to it. But since Eskimos live in the snow the year round, presumably their eyes are able to discern many different kinds of the stuff. Similarly, in places where there is plenty of bamboo===, there are many words to describe apparently intricate variations of the same.. To me, bamboo is bamboo, like wood is wood and water is water. No so at all for real connoisseurs.
     So I will take the Brits on good faith if they insist on the necessity of these extra modal verbs, but I have a suspicion that it is done to impress and appear more sophisticated than it really is. On the stage it may sound great; in private life, it just sounds "piss-elegant" and pretentious, at least to me. I mean really,, why "I should think so" instead of simply "I think so." ?  "Should" here does nothing but fatten out the sentence to no good end..

      In my opinion, the reason for this likely hearkens back to the days (much praised by me in an earlier blog) when the clever and elaborate conversation was considered an art-form. Shakespeare got it right when he wrote that "Brevity is the soul of wit"; however, in the hands and minds of lesser mortals, the way to eloquence attains not to brevity but to bulky mannerisms and convoluted verbal posturing.

      Another quirky British habit is, instead of simply using the auxiliary verb "have", or the modal "could" British English adds "done." and "do" Ex. , "I didn't do my homework but I should have DONE." Or. Q. "Could you help me later?"  A. "Yes, I could do."  Other strange ones: instead of "She was standing there.", it comes out as "She was stood there." Or even "She was stood standing there." And, instead of simply "I think about it", British is "I'll have a THINK about it."  What????? Have a think?
       As far as I am concerned, the most annoying variant in the English language (but everybody uses it, Yanks and Brits alike), is "have got.". Instead of "I have a car,"  people say "I have GOT. a car." This is just plain stupid, no other word for it. "I got (bought) a car yesterday" is fine because we are speaking of purchase rather than ownership, otherwise "got" is just a parasite word in this context. Why do I say this? Simple. "Have got" can only be used in the present tense. You can not say "I had got a car last year." Or "When I was younger I had got long long hair." It has to be "I had a car" or "I had long hair."  And you can not possibly say, "I am having got breakfast."  Only "I am having breakfast." So why use this idiotic form in the first place? But it will never go away.

       These are a few of the things I wanted to mention. More tomorrow maybe But, all in all, the Brits win a split decision. Too many great things about British English for the Americans to claim first place. British slang can be a barrel of laughs too (only the African-Americans can compete here.) American guys "beat their meat."". English guys "pull their pudding."  I, for one, wouldn't know what in the world they are talking about, but whatever it is, the British version sounds best to me.
Your opinion?

===Eric Richard Le Roy===

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