Saturday, August 18, 2007

Of Articles, Plurals and Syntax

We've frequently posted on language/dialect issues, so I'd rather not belabo(u)r them, but our most recent visitors (bye, Bill and Michelle!) had a lot of fun with English as a Foreign Language during their time here.

There are some strange variants on the use of articles and plurals between American English and English English. For example, Americans say "sports" to encompass all athletic activities while English say "sport" (and the English reserve "athletics" for what Americans call "track and field"). Now you could say that Americans are right--there are many different sports, so it ought to be plural. But you could easily say that it's one large field, so it ought to be singular. I guess we're both right.

There's an area where the usage is completely reversed. Americans say "math," while English say "maths." It's one large field, so it ought to be singular, right? But wait: Math is simply a truncated version of "mathematics," which is plural, so the truncated word ought to be plural. I guess we're both right again.

Then there are the articles. Visitor Michelle pointed to a news report about somebody who had been injured, and the news report stated that the victim "was in hospital in a serious condition." The same report in the United States would have said the victim "was in a hospital in serious condition." Same number of articles, just different placement. (Or worse yet, "hospitalized in a serious condition," but that's a nasty usage that involves turning a noun into a verb using the dreaded "ize" suffix. Bad!)

Finally, I had a good laugh at sign in a public toilet in Paignton that read "When wet, these floors may be slippery" rather than the concise "floors slippery when wet" you'd likely see in America. (I believe Jon Bon Jovi's English cousin Simon Bon Jovi was going to title the group's 1986 album "When Wet, These Floors May Be Slippery," which prompted Jon to kick Simon out of the band and go with the mega-hit title Slippery When Wet.) But in either case, the reader is warned: Step carefully on this floor if it appears to have fluid on it. So again, I guess we're both right.

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Anonymous Turbo said...

I love it.

You forgot to mention the plural/singular distinction for collective nouns. I'll never forget, during my first week here many years ago, reading the headline "ENGLAND LOSE!" on the back of the Mirror.

Unendingly amusing is the sign you occasionally see posted in restaurants, etc.: "This door is alarmed." Never fails to bring a smile to my face.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

Hello from Oxfordshire, from another American ex-pat!

Are you familiar with the linguistic blog called "Separated By A Common Language" ( If you don't know about it already, you'll find it interesting.

Stop by Lord Celery sometime, when you have a few minutes.


4:11 PM  
Blogger kellynbreesmom said...

I enjoy listening to English/English.It makes me curious.You see I thought I spoke English- silly me :)

2:13 AM  

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