Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to speak American English: 2 Confusing Questions

The old cliché, two nations divided by a common language is, of course, true to some extent.  The English language can become remarkably perplexing to a Brit when it is in the hands of an American (Editor: Shouldn’t that be “mouth of an American”, not “hands”?).  Before my American readership reach for their guns, let me point out that I am not blaming anyone for the confusion.  I just never fully appreciated that American English was capable of causing me such bewilderment before I began living here, especially in public situations, where I am prone to bouts of faux pas, following swiftly by outbursts of embarrassment.  Anyway, here is my latest installment of: “How to Speak American English”.

Confusing Question Number 1:

“Is plastic okay?”


Normally asked by a guy in a green apron who is lingering near the checkouts in a supermarket.  He is normally very old, or very young.

Incorrect responses

“Yes, I suppose so, as long as it is degradable.”

“Who’s Plastic?  I didn’t know he was ill?”

Correct response.  The store attendant is a bag packer and he is asking you if you want your produce (fruit and veg) putting into a plastic carrier bag, or whether you have brought or wish to buy a reusable bag made from a more durable material.  You can therefore answer: yes or no, accordingly.

Reason for confusion.  Bag packers in the UK are relatively rare, you are usually expected to pack the bags yourself.  The staff member working the till will most likely refer to a “plastic bag” or “carrier bag,” if the topic of bags comes up (which isn’t by any means a certainty), rather than just “plastic”.

Confusing Question Number 2

“Could you pass me a Sharpie?”


Normally asked by American family members.

Incorrect Response

Dropping your jaw open and adopting a blank expression.  The family members will then just ask the same question over and over again, apparently perplexed by your bewilderment.

Correct Response

A Sharpie is not druggie slang for a syringe.  Nor is “passing a Sharpie” slang for some kind of sexual behaviour.  It is in fact a form of pen, similar in some ways to a felt tip pen, but fatter and more cigar-shaped.  You should therefore pick up the pen and pass it to the relevant family member, if requested to.

Reason for confusion

Sharpies are not a traditional part of British life and therefore must be comparatively rare, if indeed they exist at all in the UK.  Although, should they ever gain a foothold in Blighty, I suspect that they will breed like wildfire and spread all over the country, rather like tobacco and the grey squirrel did.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

British English vs American English: Which is best?

Following on from my last blog, where I mentioned how lots of Americans love the English accent, I thought that I would ‘stick my oar in’ on the old British English vs American English debate.  The most recent incidence of this controversy reared its ugly head a couple of months back, when Matthew Engel announced in an article on the BBC website, that he found Americanisms irritating.  This was then countered by American writer, Grant Barrett who staunchly defended American English.  A debate then ensued with British and American readers joining the (increasingly) heated debate.

I must admit that I am pretty much an anarchist on this matter and have never worried much about the influences on, or particular fate of British English.  I never really minded Americanisms appearing in Britain and I would hate there to ever be some sort of national council sitting to decide the official rules for what words can and can’t be officially used, as happens in France.  I tend to think that the whole thing should be allowed to proceed organically without any artificial “rules” being imposed.  I am also generally skeptical of anti American English opinions expressed in the UK and suspect that they are rooted in snobbery to a greater or lesser degree.

Although there has obviously been interplay between Britain and America for four hundred years or so, the American English invasion never really got going until the 20th Century when American English expressions started creeping into British English via the American Movie/Film industry.  Before that, British English ruled supreme, thanks to the British Empire.  But as the British Empire declined and the increasingly cool American movie/film stars dominated the popular imagination, all sorts of expressions slipped into the UK.  The process became even more pronounced with the American forces arriving in Britain during World War II, American music coming onto the radio, and more recently, American English expressions arriving via computer and internet technology (e-mail instead of e-post etc).

One possible reason for my own relaxed attitude to English is that I grew up speaking with a regional accent and back in the 1970s, when received English  (“BBC English”) was still seen by some as the “proper” way to talk.  In the class-ridden UK, regional accents were generally looked down upon, which I resented (that said, regional accents became increasingly more accepted by the “well-spoken” from the 1960s onwards and are now pretty much accepted).  Anyway, I think it made me more sympathetic to the attitudes towards language found in the “New World” countries, with their generally more egalitarian approach.

Language is, of course, deeply political.  The Celtic nations in the UK have attempted to bolster and/or revive their traditional languages in recent years, which are associated with a sense of independence and pride.  That makes me wonder how Americans would feel if the situation was reversed with English: if their own American English expressions were gradually disappearing and being replaced by British English equivalents?  Since I began living in the USA, I have noticed that there is a small but significant minority in the USA who feel threatened by what they perceive as an increasing Spanish language influence on their country, especially in the South of the country.  I tend to agree with my fellow British expat blogger, Rob, who argues that America has been a multilingual country pretty much from the beginning and so it is a bit late for people to start complaining.

Anyway, moving swiftly away from the social politics and back to the strictly personal, one practical problem that I have on an everyday level with regard to the British English vs American English debate is, of course, spelling.  When should I use British English spelling, and when should I use American English spelling?  This problem is especially profound when it comes to the internet, which has no national boundaries.  My solution has been to use American English when my writing is mainly aimed at Americans and British English when my writing is aimed at Brits.  And when my writing is aimed at either or both, like with this expat blog, I just spell the words however I like!