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.


  1. The Sharpie example is really funny - I hadn't thought of it as anything but a marker. I did read on Iota's blog, I believe, that the Sharpie has arrived in the UK - as well it should. A great product :)

  2. Haha, these are too funny. I can imagine there are many of these kinds of 'confusing moments' for you. I know my husband, who is Canadian, even has a hard time in Texas.

  3. The one that always got me is when I first moved over from the UK was the greeting "What's up?"

    In my part of England that was always said if you seemed worried or distressed. I'd always answer "Nothing. Why?" which threw my American friends :-)

  4. The "plastic" one is useful, thanks! Sharpies are definitely mainstream in my experience, but maybe that's because I worked in a school for the last 4 years and they're known for being great pens.

  5. @ Happy H - Yes, I have vague memories of Iota mentioning Sharpies too!

    @Cornelia - It is strange what can throw you when you go to another country. 95% of things are similar in the US, but the other 5% is completely different.

    @Texa - Well Texas is seen as a unique place, even in the USA, I believe? ;-)

    @ David Mead - I remember that truly irritation beer advert with the guys phoning each other and saying "Waaazzzzup!". So I think I was aware of that one. However, saying "I'm good" to mean I am up for it, rather than meaning I have had enough, confused me!

    @Eve - I can imagine that Sharpies are found in schools. It's funny, but some US objects, they use the brand name and some they use the generic term, but they're different to the ones that Brits do. Brits often call a vacuum cleaner, a "hoover", for instance, (and also use 'hoover' as a verb) rather than use the generic term. I don't know if I explained that very well, but hopefully you got the drift! lol

  6. This is a funny blog, honey! :-) xx

  7. The question that got me when I first moved over to England from the US was, "Are you alright?" For months I would always wonder if something was wrong with me, like that I looked ill. Until I figured out they were just saying, "How ya' doing?"

  8. Yes, the "Is plastic okay?" Appears to be rhetorical as they have often already packed half of the produce in the plastic bag by the time they ask!

    For a while I was perplexed by the question "credit or debit?" I still fail to understand the difference, it works either way and it comes out of the same place (though having a way of using a card without knowing the PIN number seems like a nice loophole for thieves). I don't remember being asked that question in the UK, perhaps because of the advent of chip and pin?

  9. @anon - I think that's the English version of the American: "what's up?" ;-)

    @Rob - In England you have a credit or debit card, but I think you can use one card for either. I think it might make a difference if you didn't have enough in your account to pay that bill?

    Yes, banking security is surprisingly lax in the US. I also read an interesting BBC article on "black economies", where tax isn't paid. The US is more honest than the UK for paying taxes too. (11% of the British economy is "black", only 7% of the US)

  10. Sharpie's have been in the UK for a couple of years now - I think David Beckham was in a TV advert for them. They're not that well known though, and people would probably just refer to them as markers. I think they're just permenant markers anyway, but with a thin nib instead of a fat one?