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A Bona Fide Word Nerd’s Opinions on Grammar, Language, and the Transatlantic Divide 

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Orin Hargraves

Orin Hargraves
American lexicographer and
lecturer at CU Boulder

Now more than ever before, the transatlantic divide has grown smaller due to the internet. Think about the news outlets you read and the websites you visit. Do you always know whether they’re American or British? Do you know whether THIS very site is American or British? Maybe most importantly, does it really matter? At the end of the day (a Britishism that has been adopted into full American usage), the important thing is to communicate, to be understood.

Americans and Britons today are sharing expressions and clichés, and changing the rules. This very article is an example: an American (me) interviewing Orin Hargraves, an American lexicographer and lecturer at CU Boulder, on the differences between American and British dialects, for Mash Stories, which was founded in and operates out of the UK. Want another layer? This article is also being edited by a Briton using the Mash Stories house style that is composed of mostly British rules.

Ilana Masad: You’ve written about the difference between UK and US English in terms of grammar and vocab. Do you think the differences are lessening or eroding?

Orin Hargraves: Yeah, definitely. I lived in the UK in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and I wrote Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English within the first year that I was back in the States, starting in ’92.

At that time, I think the main traffic for the dialects was via television programmes. A fair amount of British comedy and drama was seen on US TV and vice versa. But nowadays people on both sides of the Atlantic are exposed to each other’s dialects in a lot more concentrated ways than they used to be. That  means, if things used to take ten years to change, now they only take five years or less.

Terms that I regarded as Britishisms even in the ’80s and ’90s are now perfectly established here, like “at the end of the day” and “gone missing”. Regarding the latter, US English didn’t have a common expression for that; we would say it with more words, like someone “got lost” or “no one knows where he is” or “IS missing” as opposed to “GONE missing”.

Another channel that I think encourages that traffic flow is radio. NPR is a great example, because they talk to correspondents from all over the world, and often these correspondents are not Americans, but BBC employees. These correspondents deliver reports to American news outlets, and so people hear a journalist posted abroad giving a story in English but not American English. Americans get exposed more and more to British speech from reporters and come to understand it that way, perhaps not even realizing that they’re absorbing these new ways of saying something because they hear them so often, and so they just learn them in a natural way. They perhaps don’t even recognize these phrases as British and so before you know it, they become American.

Ilana: In online journalism and writing, where people from all over the world read an article, how important do you think it is to stick with the either/or in terms of US/UK? Is consistency more important than formal rules since language is an ever-evolving thing?

Orin: Yes, absolutely, I think consistency is the main thing. Even though there is a lot more traffic now in vocabulary, the rules of spelling tend to be a little bit more fixed. In other words, if you tried to insert an O-U-R spelling in “color” in American English, everyone would recognize that this is not right, this is not American.

It’s funny with punctuation though, especially with quotation marks and commas. What I find with my students is that they’re completely unclear about what the rules are. And what I find increasingly is that I don’t care; I don’t want to drill into their heads arbitrary rules, especially when there’s a completely alternative (that is, British) system which to my mind is a lot better in some ways. I don’t see the point of mastering an arbitrary system when there’s another system out there. So I let my students get away with a lot in that regard, and I don’t know whether that means that we’ll eventually move towards something more standard in both dialects.

In the case of online journalism, so much of it is far less edited than print journalism and books. I think that books will always continue to be the places where you find much more careful adherence to the rules. But so much online stuff is just put out there as quickly as possible so that people can read it and I don’t think people pay that much attention to the punctuation, and especially whether the punctuation is correct according to US or UK rules.

Ilana: You’ve recently written a book about clichés. Do you think they’re helpful or harmful to writers/literature?

Orin: Everyone is aware of them. I think the ideal is that if you use a cliché, and you’re convinced that this is the right place for a cliché, know your reasons for that. Know why it’s okay to use a cliché in this particular instance. One of the main points I make in It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés is that the word “cliché” always has negative connotations. Identifying someone’s use of clichés is a way of disparaging their writing. Despite that, everybody uses them. So the question is:

How do clichés survive if everyone hates them so much?

I think they survive because they do actually have some good uses. One useful function of clichés is establishing a connection with your audience: it indicates to them that you speak the same language and you’re on the same page. Another place they come in handy is when you’re talking about ordinary things, because clichés are extremely ordinary expressions, and how often is it important to use really creative and innovative language to talk about something? Not very often. If you didn’t use clichés in normal speech someone might think something was wrong with you, that you’re trying to make some obscure point by not saying something in a conventional way. Clichés flying under the radar in day-to-day speech is a mark of their success.

Conversely, clichés fail when someone uses an expression and the first thing you think is Oh, what a stupid cliché. That is, in a situation where someone had the opportunity to be creative or expressive and they failed to do so because they just tossed out (or, more Britishly, trotted out) a cliché, they lost that opportunity to say something original and memorable and impressive.

Ilana: Do you have a favorite bit of linguistic trivia that you’d like to share with us? Something obscure or fun that most of us won’t know about?

Orin: Well, I have to tell you first that I am a real grammar and language nerd. So one thing that I get a kick out of is the fact that the subjunctive mood is a lot more common in American English than it is in British English, and the reason I get a kick out of that is, though I don’t want to overgeneralize here, there is often a prevailing sense that British English is the “real” English and American English is a kind of bastardized version of it.

You can see some examples of this in the more careful use of the perfect tenses in British English than in American English. So it’s a little bizarre that Americans are more careful about the subjunctive than Britons are. Brits have more or less thrown them out and they just use the indicative in places where American use subjunctive.

Ilana: For those of us who are not as nerdy as Mr. Hargraves, Orin gave us two examples, one from a UK news site, and the other from a US news site.

Orin: Compare the two sentences below:

Leslie was given a 12-month community order with a supervision requirement and a requirement that she attends 10 aggression management sessions. (UK)

Wyckoff was returned to probation, but with the additional requirement that she attend the Day Report Center program. (US)

The difference: UK stories use the indicative twice, and the modal construction once; US stories use the subjunctive in all cases. This is not to say that the subjunctive is not used in the UK; it’s just that it’s used much more consistently in the US in these constructions (after a noun or verb of order, obligation, requirement, permission, etc.)

Ilana: Finally, writers so often break the rules in order to create art, whether it’s in poetry or prose (usually not journalism, but it does happen in narrative non-fiction). As a linguist, how do you feel about rule-breaking in order to create a distinct style of writing? Does it bug you when you read fiction or poetry in which authors stylize language and break the rules? Or are you able to shut that part of your brain off?

Orin: It’s a matter of degree. If it goes a little bit too far, I would regard it as “experimental” fiction and that’s not a genre that I enjoy.

To give you an indication of where I’m coming from, my pantheon of novelists are all in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t think anybody has surpassed Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James. I think Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of the greatest novels ever written. I don’t think the use of English in the novel form has surpassed any of them in the modern era. Not to say that we don’t have great novelists today, but we don’t have novelists like 19th century novelists. Writers like Jane Austen and George Eliot did in fact nearly always use complete sentences—I do like a complete sentence. Not to say that there isn’t a place for breaking some of the rules, but I don’t think there’s a reason for breaking rules just for the sake of doing so. If it contributes to the reader’s participation in the novelist’s vision, then it’s okay. But the very nature of language is to be grammatic and systematic and if you’re going to go outside of that box you need to have a good reason for it and you need to know what that reason is.

Ilana: While I completely respect Orin Hargrave’s opinion regarding language and rule-breaking, I also find that many of the most beautiful works being produced today often use run-on sentences, play with both format and grammar, and sometimes, for effect, do not use full sentences. What do you think about experimenting with language, for prose or poetry?

Whether you’re an American, a Brit, or an English speaker somewhere else in the world, do you even notice, while browsing the ever-more international internet, the difference between content written by Americans or by Brits?

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Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Printer’s Row, Tin House’s Open Bar, McSweeney’s, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is also the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and struggling writers.