Thursday, September 20, 2007

I hold these truths to be self-evident (but the British appear to disagree)

Here's a little pop quiz for all you grammarians out there. Pay close attention to prepositions and punctuation. Which of the following sentences are correct?

A) I live in London Road.
B) I need to be there for 11:00.
C) They should arrive Wednesday next.
D) Please can you help me with this.
E) I need to chat to you about something.
F) none of the above
G) all of the above

The answer to this quiz, I've discovered, is completely dependent on whether you are American or British. To an American ear, it is clearly F. Not only is each and every one of these sentences wrong, each of them (if you are a grammar nut like me) is wrong in a drag-your-fingernails-slowly-and-painfully-down-the chalkboard kind of way. And yet, here the answer appears to be a resounding "why are you asking me such silly questions" G.

I not only hear people structure their sentences like the ones above every day, I also read this kind of language in advertisements and other presumably edited for accuracy documents with regularity. Either no one pays attention to any grammatical rules whatsoever in this country or the rules are simply different. As my British friends and acquaintances strike me as intelligent, worldly people in every way other than their cringe-worthy (to my ear) grammar, I am forced to assume that it is the latter.

I have always thought grammar to be one of those things that is pretty darn black and white. Either you've said it right or you haven't, and I must admit to a terrible snobbery when it comes to the opinion I form of anyone who says it wrong with any regularity. And yet now it appears that the rules which I have always endeavored to abide with such devotion are actually not so invariable after all, at least not once one leaves American soil.

This leaves me in a tight spot, I must say. Either I adapt to a new set of standards which sound uneducated to my American-educated ear or I continue to say things my way, which -- now that I think about it -- almost certainly must sound equally incorrect (and probably just plain dumb) to the British public. Ouch. So what's a grammatically conscious displaced American to do? Good question... I'll have to think on about on about it for a bit.


Anonymous Eden said...

I just left an English Department meeting, so your posting is timely. We work with boys - young men (18+ years old) - who seem to have misplaced grammar altogether. To their "trained" American ear, they would have agreed with the British. What does this say about our high school curriculum, or our graduation criteria, in the age of IMing and text messaging? You would not believe the writing we review, hence our recent discussion about how to grade their papers...

Anyway, since you are headed back our way soon, I would suggest you hold on to your American grammar rules. Ms. Catanese would be pleased (see, I still can't drop those "be" verbs even years later). Miss ya Babe!

7:42 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

This brings up the question.... which way are your kids leaning these days? I would guess that after a year in a British school that Julia is learning the rules their way?

And if I were you, I'd stick with American grammar or you'll be doubly conflicted when you come back home. :)

8:13 PM  
Anonymous cami said...

And don't forget~ Waitrose do gorgeous choccy biscuits! (that's the one that drove me nuts)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Victoria said...

At least the British version sounds mildly like it could be right. Here in the southern US of A, it's all "fixin' to", "might could" and "mashin' the buttons". Yikes - that hurts my Yankee ears, y'all!

12:24 AM  
Blogger denzylle said...

I have to say, Rebecca, that this is not the first time I have not recognised the 'English condition' that you describe. There have been numerous times, going right back to when you wrote about 'quiet' English kids in the playground.

I'm not sure what's 'wrong' or 'English' about the examples you gave but, mostly, they aren't the expressions I use every day.

I say:

A) 'I live on...'
B) 'I need to be there by...'
C) '... next Wednesday'
E) '... talk ...' (*never* chat - to me, 'chat' is something different, much more trivial)

I'd also say 'which of the ... sentences IS correct?' and 'rightly' or 'wrongly' in your fourth para.

I'm not saying either is 'wrong' or 'right'. I'm just giving you the view of one English person.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Iota said...

Well of course I'm just flummoxed in the opposite direction. I have to help my 10 year old learn spellings, which seem all wrong to me. Do I tell him what they would be in English English as we go along, or is that too complicated for a 10 year old who isn't a natural speller and needs to be helped not confused? Actually, I'm just glad he's learning spelling at all - his school in Scotland seemed to take the view that correct spelling would just happen of its own accord at some unspecified point in time.

They also learn much more grammar and punctuation here than they did in Scotland. I'm all for it.

I thought I was a stickler for grammar, but I can't see anything wrong with (E). Enlighten me, please!

8:46 PM  
Blogger denzylle said...

Iota, isn't it that Americans 'chat (or talk) with...' rather than 'chat to...'?

I always say 'talk to...'. but writing, especially in e-mails to Americans, or writing online to an international audience, I'll often write 'talk with...'.

And D), it *must* be the lack of a question mark, which I agree is totally wrong, unless it's a 'would' instead of a 'can'...?

10:24 PM  
Blogger denzylle said...

Another comment. Sorry, I don't mean to take over but it is a subject that interests me.

I wrote a comment here about a year ago about how, when I was at school, grammar, punctuation and spelling were of paramount importance, but that since then, things have come full circle. My son was taught less well than I was, but still better than children are today in British schools.

In a recent long term job, I was always the one to whom co-workers brought their documents for proof reading. My punctuation corrections were almost always ignored by one person who told me she had been taught open punctuation in secretarial school and, therefore, used the minimum possible. This might be why Julia's school seems not be recognising the use of question marks.

By contrast, I was taught that good punctuation helps you read faster because it 'shapes' the sense of the text and provides a 'rhythm' for understanding.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Patois said...

My husband, ex-pat Brit that he is, would now start going on and on and on (and on) about the fact that there is, in fact, no "American" language and we best get on with speaking (and writing) "English" as is done by the English. I just tune him out whilst he's on about that.

2:38 AM  
Blogger said...

While I was growing up, my life was all about the dangling participle. My mom was raised in London and my Dad in Rome. Learning proper English was difficult particularly when it went something like this: from Dad, "throw me down the stairs a broom" and from Mom, "they live next door to the Cronins but one."

I English managed to learn.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Who wudda thunk the English would get English so wrong??

*sassy grin*

3:01 AM  
Blogger Mobile Em said...

Now here's a fun topic for my expat ear and English degree!

I would argue that there is nothing grammatically incorrect in any of them except for D. Maybe that's why it's the only one I haven't adopted after my own relocation to London. It's the only one that evokes for me the sort of fingernail-on-chalkboard shudder you mention, though the true accompaniment is much less screeching and much more the sort of sing-song phrasing unique to Brits that verges on whinging and drips with boredom. I instantly imagine my teenage niece at the end of a dinner that's obviously interfering with her ability to spend another hour on the phone with friends: "Please can I leave the table."

B is in fact something I said even in America. What's perhaps a better candidate for your list is "half four", meaning "half past four" but sounding much more like "two" to me.

As for the rest, they're really just a matter of word choice or, in the case of C, word order. For A, you say "on" and I (now) say "in"; they're both prepositions. For E, you say "to chat with" or "to talk to" and I (now) say "to chat to"; they're both verbs in the infinitive form followed by prepositions.

I don't hear C very often, though I do hear a lot of "Wednesday week" (meaning a week from this coming Wednesday). Again, that's one I've actually adopted.

At any rate, this was an interesting post to serve as a yardstick against which to measure my own adaptation. Give it time; you too will assimilate. ;-)

11:11 PM  
Blogger Self employed mum said...

Very interesting reading, I have never given this a thought. The incorrect grammer I hate to hear is 'I done the dishes' 'I seen the boat' aaahhhh! and as for Glasgow where I live, we Glaswegians practically have our own language which could never really be considered English....

3:21 PM  

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