Thursday, October 16, 2008

Her Majesty's Government Feel and I Does Too

The variations in the American and British takes on the English language are always a source of fascination to me. Which shows how little of real import goes on between the vertices of my pointy little skull. My hat, it has three corners, three corners has my hat. And had it not three corners, it would not fit my head...

On some matters I can't make up my mind. For example, an American will say different from, while in the UK you will typically hear different to. If you think about this one for a while, neither sounds quite right. Why not different with? Different in? Different at? All in all, it's best left alone; I just accept that we will continue to use the phrase in a fashion different through one another. Different along each other. Different upon one another. Differently.

The somewhat-archaic American use of "gotten" is rather handy, as it allows a neat distinction between acquisition (I've gotten a headache) or coming to (I've gotten as far as Las Vegas, and I'll call you when I get to Reno) and mere possession (I've got a headache) or state (I finally got here). I've gotten to like the word...though gotten is one of those words you shouldn't stare at too long, or it starts to look very peculiar and foreign. Gotten gotten gotten. Maybe the British are right to avoid it. Gotten. Too Wagnerian-looking, sort of begging for an umlaut.

On the topic of whether a unitary body composed of individuals should be treated as plural, however, I have to vote for American practice. Shell Oil, for example, is not the collection of individuals who work there. It is a corporation, a body formed by law to act as an individual . It may be a legal fiction, but it's a singular legal fiction, and no matter how often I read The Economist, the phrase Shell Oil believe strikes my ear much like What do Bob thinks?

I'm willing to make an exception for Her Majesty's Government because of the royal we. But I never want to hear the phrase The White House think. (But, then, the White House don't think, do him?)

But there's one British locution where I'd like some advice. Here in the US, a university of any sort is something you go to. And while you are there, you are at it, or even in it (and might be kicked out of it). But in novels by, say, Evelyn Waugh, people are constantly going up to Oxford or coming down from Cambridge. Even if they start or end somewhere well north of those schools, or at higher elevation, while they are there they seem to be up, and when they are back they seem to be down.

Does this connote loftiness? Are you up at all universities? Or only those two? Are you up if you attend equally venerable institutions abroad, such as the Sorbonne, or Heidelberg? Are you also up if you teach there--a sort of permanent professorial high--or are you up only if you are being educated there?

Are you also up at other sorts of schools? Is there a distance or age factor involved? Can you also be up at a Montessori pre-school class?

Do seven-year-olds sigh wisely, and say, "It was all quite different when I first went up to creche..."?


Tim Stretton said...

A person who is invited to leave university is said to be "sent down". This makes perfect sense if you went *up* there in the first place, but not if you went *down*. This latter contingency implies not being sent home, but being exiled even farther away...

Incidentally, my own employer, a local government organisation, is rigorous in referring to itself (cf themselves) as a singular entity.

Alis said...

As far as I know you were only ever 'up' at Oxford and Cambridge - as these were the only universities where those who were prepared to talk about being 'up' wanted to be seen. Those of us who were at Oxford or Cambridge in the last 30 years don't generally adhere to this affectation as it makes you sound as if you're in one of the Waugh novels you mentioned and, therefore, that you think you are (or worse, want to be) of that social class. I neither am nor do I want to be. I went to Oxford and when I was there, I was 'at' the university.

By the way, I didn't realise that my fellow-countrypeople were supposed to say 'different to' - I've always used 'different from' on the basis that you'd say 'it differs from x in y way'.

Given the two admissions above, maybe I'm not British at all. But then, I did spend all my formative years in Wales...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"Sent down." That has a frightening, Biblical sound, doesn't it?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Ah, so it is indeed limited to those two!

In the US we often use "up" and "down" geographically--people go/come up to San Francisco or down to Los Angeles. This implies that we put a bit too much stock in maps.

My knowledge of British English comes more from reading than from the spoken word, which is perhaps not the best guide, especially since written English covers a wide span of time.

And I also read (though don't always agree with) The Economist, since it has better news coverage of the US than any US news magazine. But their usage is perhaps a bit stodgy, as though they are worried the ghost of Henry Ward Fowler is going to dash out and rap their collective knuckles.

Come to think of it, the chair of my dissertation committee was British, and a stickler for correct writing. That has no doubt permanently warped my fragile little mind.

Anonymous said...

'Different from' is the correct usage, as it's from the latin de+ferro = carry away. Goodness knows why it shifted over here.

There are lots of ways US English maintains usages which UK English has lost, not least typographically and in punctuation. (And according to my sister in Maths education, too, but that's a different story) Strunk and White is much more 'old fashioned' in places than Fowler. But I find it hard to forgive you Yanks for the total disappearance of 'alternative'. It is NOT the same as 'alternate' ;-), and we need both.

In posh/old-fashioned English locutions Oxford, Cambridge and Scotland (presumably for the shooting, not the oil rigs) are the only places you go 'up' to, apart from London. And of course ;-) you 'read' a subject at university, you don't study it. I still say the latter, and get some funny looks, not least because I did drama, so in fact spent my university years not reading but pretending to be a tree...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Well, if any place is "up," it would be Scotland, so that one has the virtue of making perfectly good sense.

We still have the word "alternative", but its most prominent use is as an adjective for "alternative energy", "alternative lifestyles," etc.

When I was young I was baffled by the fact that so many bionotes told me about someone who attended university and "read Latin," or, even sillier, "read classics." After all, did I tell them what sorts of books I liked? I'm really glad I didn't encounter your bio back then, as hearing about someone reading theater would have been the last straw.

S. Boyd Taylor said...

Related to the topic of "reading" a subject:

I recently stumbled into the fact that Canadians "write" a test instead of "take" a test. This caused quite a bit of confusion because the teacher usually "writes" the test in the US (ie, writes the questions down).

I assume this is also a UK phrasing.

David Isaak said...

Hey, SBT--

I've never heard of 'writing' a test, but, yes, it does sound rather British. And confusing.

Actually, I don't know why we 'take' them either. It would make more sense if we just said we were 'being tested,' wouldn't it?

Charles Lambert said...

Slightly off the point, but as we're talking about tests, I thought you might like to know that Italians 'give' them. What's more, there is no verb in Italian for 'to fail', as in fail a test. You have to say. 'The teacher failed me,' thus shifting all responsibility away from you, the person who actually screwed up.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Charles--

The Russians run to the other extreme on the personal responsibility scale. They are prone to say things such as, "To me, it is cold," rather than our sweeping generalization "It's cold."

This must give their politicians a lot of trouble, since it makes global assertions difficult, and makes it more ovouse that everything is just the opinion of the speaker!