Learning to speak Imaginary American

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Tim Parks, "Learning to Speak American", NYR:

In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.

Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. [...]

Or again, does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

God save us from such copy editors.

This one is clearly imposing a bizarre amalgam of genuine trans-Atlantic differences, uninformed personal opinions about such differences, and ignorant Zombie Rules that are not and never have been valid anywhere in the Anglophone world.

Yes, Americans always call "overpass" what Brits generally call "flyover" — that one would lead to general puzzlement on the part of American readers. But parcel is a perfectly reasonable term for Americans — it's "United Parcel Service", for goodness' sake, not "United Package Service". And the relative frequencies (per million) of parcel and package are not all that different in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and in the British National Corpus:

parcel package
COHA 3.91 43.72
BNC 7.39 58.46

Taking each frequency as a percentage of the sum of the two alternatives helps make the similarity clear:

parcel package
COHA 8% 92%
BNC 11% 89%

It might well be that in some circumstances, changing "parcel" to "package" would be a good idea — but this is nothing like the flyover vs. overpass situation.

And now we come to three cases where the copy editor is trying to pass off his or her own allegiance to various Zombie Rules as differences between British and American usage. This is dishonest or ignorant or both.

The idea that between must be used for two alternatives, and among for more than two, is a Zombie Rule with a pedigree. It was apparently invented by Goold Brown in 1851, in his Grammar of English Grammars, in order to demonstrate his superiority to earlier grammarians who had "misused" between for more than two alternatives. As the entry in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes, the validity of this "rule" is explicitly denied by both the Oxford English Dictionary and by Noah Webster, and "violations" can be easily be found in writers like Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, and the Fowler brothers.

An even worse stupidity is the belief that like mustn't be used as a preposition, so that all attempts must be changed to "as" or "such as". No competent usage authority seems ever to have claimed this — instead, as the entry in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage explains,

The frequent adjuration against conjunctional like is believed to have frightened some people into using as for all purposes, even for a preposition. This sort of overreaction is called hypercorrection …

As for the choice of like vs. such as, there have been several scattered attempts to create "rules". One idea is that such as is for examples and like for resemblances; another is that such as should be used with lists of two or more items, while like should be used for a single item. Most authorities ignore the issue or consider the rule-inventors to be nit-pickers at best and fantasists at worst — you can read the MWDEU entry for details, but in any case, this has nothing whatsoever to do with differences between British and American English.

The business about the position of adverbs like also is the worst nonsense of the lot:

Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

Mr. Parks' copy-editor is an adherent of the "split verbs rule", which was apparently invented by the committee of anonymous law students who wrote (early editions of) the Texas Law Review Manual on Style. This is a kind of Double Zombie Rule, since it involves the extension of the Zombie Rule about splitting infinitives ("boldly to go" rather than "to boldly go") to all strings of pre-verbal grammatical elements (thus "also were useful" rather than "were also useful"). The extraordinary result is to forbid exactly the most most common and natural positioning of adverbs in such strings. See "The split verbs mystery" (8/23/2008) for some discussion and citations — but again, this has zilch to to with differences between British and American English.

We could discuss the got/gotten distinction, or the rest of the other often-imaginary trans-Atlantic differences that Tim Parks lists, but I'll spare you. He should have instructed his publisher to fire that copy editor on the grounds of  incompetence and dishonesty. Instead, he accepted the fiction that the proposed changes represent the norms of American usage, and tried to rescue something positive from the experience by writing a blog post about it.

The strangest thing about the whole episode is that the editors of the New York Review, who presumably ought to have been able to smell at least one of the many dead rats in this story, instead just joined Parks in meekly accepting the copy editor's litany of linguistic nonsense. One more example of the nervous cluelessness of modern intellectuals in matters of usage.



  1. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 12:28 am

    "We could discuss the got/gotten distinction, or the rest of the other often-imaginary trans-Atlantic differences that Tim Parks lists, but I'll spare you."

    Surely got/gotten is not an imaginary trans-Atlantic difference. David Crystal has called it "probably the most distinctive of all the AmE/BrE grammatical differences." See http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/aue/gotten.html.

    [(myl) Right -- but as Crystal observes, gotten "is not simply an alternative for have got. Gotten is used in [certain] contexts [...] but it is not used in the sense of possession".

    And on neither side are things so uniform. Writers in The New Yorker often use "got" in place of "gotten", e.g.

    Elizabeth Kolbert: . The man has got plastered, the bar owner has got the man’s money, and the public will get stuck with the tab for the cops who have to fish the man out of the gutter.

    Joan Acocella: I may have got the order of events wrong. There was a lot going on.

    Louis Menand: We have all got a little smarter since then, but the people who work in movie publicity have got a lot smarter. ]

    This seems to be a house-style thing at the New Yorker. but you can find occasional similar things in many other American publications. You don't see angry peeving about those New Yorker gots, in any case, so I feel that Tim Parks is flinching before he is struck.]

  2. Jonathon said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 12:43 am

    Perhaps my favorite example of transatlantic editing nonsense comes in Deborah Cameron's book Verbal Hygiene. An encyclopedia publisher based in America enforced the that/which rule on its authors, who were both American and British. The British authors were bewildered and annoyed by the changes, because the rule is not common over there, so the publisher finally came up with a compromise: the copy editors would enforce the rule in the American authors' writing but not the British authors'.

    At least in this case they had the good sense not to impose American standards on British authors, but you'd think that maybe they'd question the necessity of enforcing the rule in the first place.

  3. Hans Adler said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 4:48 am

    @Daniel Ezra Johnson: My instinct (trained in Britain) says that maybe got is a lot more acceptable in American English than gotten is in British English, and that simply using got while reducing its frequency just a little bit would have solved the problem more elegantly.

    @Jonathan: Maybe the publisher could not afford to lose the British authors? Presumably they were unpaid and could easily have walked out of the project. Force seems to be the only language that prescriptivist extremists really understand. After all, that's what got those notions into their heads in the first place.

  4. Breffni said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 4:56 am

    In the case of 'also', I wonder if the copy editor was motivated by notions of scope and adjacency, rather than the 'split verbs rule', by analogy with other focus-sensitive elements like'only'. The reasoning might be that 'trains were also useful' implies a contrast with a preceding sentence where 'trains' was the subject of 'be', perhaps with some predicative adjective [e.g., 'Trains were convenient... Trains were also useful...'], and that outside that kind of situation 'also' scopes over the entire predicate and should therefore precede the whole VP.

  5. Hans Adler said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 4:59 am

    I don't agree that zombie rules have nothing to do with differences between British and American English. It appears to me that zombie rules are much more popular in the US than in the UK. I suspect this is just another symptom of a culture which has more tolerance for stupidity and aggressive anti-intellectualism than for non-conformism. Obstinate insistence on zombie rules seems to fit nicely into Bob Altemeyer's description of right-wing authoritarian followers, a type of person that seems to be particularly common in North America. http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    [(myl) If this is true, it's a difference between British and American copy-editors, not between British and American English. And the evidence of the Telegraph's Speakers' Corner, the Guardian's Talk forums, etc., is that British usage peevers are both more numerous and more intense than American peevers are. See e.g. here or here. And the popularity of "authorities" like Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss suggests that Brits are (if anything) more interested than Americans in being or following linguistic authoritarians -- contrast American language maven William Safire, who named one of his books In Love with Norma Loquendi. ]

  6. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 7:29 am

    Let me speak up for copyeditors, if I may. Typically they do what publishers ask them to do. Publishers have style guides, most of which are crotchety and old and full of zombie rules and are sacrosanct because they were written by someone long gone and long forgotten but revered nonetheless. Managing editors are bureaucratic functionaries responsible for moving the project along, not necessarily skilled editors or people knowledgeable about linguistic subtleties, and they require the copyeditors they assign to follow the style guide as written, not quibble about zombie rules. Publishers see copyediting as a low-level mechanical function, and they don't pay well for it, so there really is not time available for copyeditors to give serious consideration to doing more than they're being paid to do. However, what they're paid to do is mark up the manuscript to note everything questionable and let the author and the managing editor make the final call on which changes to make and which to stet. Blame the publisher, not the poor copyeditor.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 7:51 am

    @Hans Adler: As a native speaker of North American English long resident in the UK, I can tell you that in the relevant grammatical contexts got is just as weird in AmEng as gotten is in BrEng. The relevant grammatical contexts are when we are really talking about the past participle of get, not contexts like I've only got £5/$5), in which have got is essentially a synonym of have. I've had to learn to say things like I would have got into trouble or I had to go back to the supermarket because I hadn't got any lettuce, where gotten is the only possibility in my native variety (in fact, when I'm in North America this is one of the adjustments that I have a hard time switching off).

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    @Dick Margulis: I agree that when copy editors are good, they're great – I've had a couple of really excellent experiences with copy editors working for Cambridge University Press. I also recently had a zombie-rule experience with a copy editor for an American Psychological Association journal, who added commas around all adverbial phrases – among other things changing my [X] can by no means be ruled out to [X] can, by no means, be ruled out. (With commas, it strikes me as the equivalent of telling someone to come in while closing the door in their face.) I protested about that one (I suggested [X] cannot, by any means, be ruled out), but I'll have to wait till the article appears in print to know whether my protest/suggestion had any effect.

    Unfortunately, if it had no effect we still won't be able to decide between your "company policy" explanation and Hans Adler's/MYL's "British/American" explanation. We need a better controlled experiment.

    [(myl) In this case, Parks was apparently told that the changes were required to make his text fit with American usage. Whoever told him that -- copy editor or publisher -- was mistaken, dishonest, or both.]

  9. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    Paradoxically, though, if you were to boldly split infinities, their number would not increase.

    @Bob Ladd: Yes, not all copyeditors are created equal. However, as the APA is heavily vested in their style manual, I suspect their own journal editors are rather heavy-handed in their insistence that it be followed by their copyeditors. In the instance you cite, though, the question isn't whether adverbial phrases should be set off by commas. She reversed the meaning of your sentence. As edited, it means , whereas your original meant . So that's a flat-out error on the copyeditor's part, no matter what she thinks the APA manual says.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    I have some doubts about the statistics on "parcel" and "package." They can mean the same thing, as in UPS, but there is a distinction in their figurative uses (at least in the US). "Package" implies an assemblage of disparate items ("package deal") whereas "parcel" refers to a quantity of something ("parcel of land") or an undifferentiated grouping ("a whole passel of relatives").

  11. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    Ah, while I was writing that, myl corrected "infinities" to "infinitives" and deleted the pertinent comment, rendering my joke indecipherable. So never mind.

  12. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:35 am

    Let me try that again:

    As edited, it means <can be ruled out>, whereas your original meant <cannot be ruled out>.

  13. djw said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    @Dick Margulis: on the other hand, since I don't have my specs on yet, I incorrectly read "infinities" as "infinitives" and enjoyed the chuckle!

  14. chris y said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    This sort of thing can happen in the opposite direction as well. Stephen Jay Gould's book, "Full House" was published in Britain as "Life's Grandeur" by somebody who apparently believed that the British don't play poker.

  15. Hans Adler said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    @myl: What made me first think in this direction was the never-ending stream of American Wikipedia editors who insist that it's a crime to follow Wikipedia's punctuation house style – as opposed to putting commas and periods inside a quotation where they have no logical business other than their wee physical sort clinging to an adjacent letter for protection so it doesn't disappear before the hundredth printing.

    When I read prescriptive nonsense from Brits, I tend to feel that I am dealing either with an eccentric who doesn't mind if he isn't taken seriously, or with someone who is really trying to make a statement about class rather than linguistic facts. With Americans I usually get the impression that they are really proselytising and are going to suffer unbearibly if things don't go their way. Sort of like making Sheldon Cooper wear his Wednesday pyjama on a Friday. But I can't rule out that this distinction is just happening in my head, due to prejudice.

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    Again, I must come to the defense of the copy editor. Based on my experience with publishers (I've had five books published by five different houses, Hawthorn, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Facts on File, and Macmillan), and for each book some editor higher up in the food chain created a style sheet that the copy editor was required to follow. In fact, in each case I was also given a copy of the style sheet and was asked to follow it when making corrections on galleys and page proofs.

  17. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    @Hans, I feel certain that basic psychosocial mechanisms of prescriptivist peeving are mostly the same on both sides of the Atlantic and are approximately equally strong and prevalent (but this doesn't necessarily seem to be the case outside the context of the anglophone world).

    However, prescriptivist peeving very much involves cultural capital and class — and because "class" means different things in Britain and the US, the aspirational elements are much stronger in the US than in the UK, and there are cultural differences with regard to the kinds of conflict you describe, the peeving from Americans and Brits could certainly have a very different character in a way that leads one to incorrectly assume very different motivations.

    With regard to your specific speculations about motivations, I question both of them. I'm certain that American peeving is not "anti-intellectual" and is, rather, quite the opposite. It is authoritarian in some sense — it involves a moderately strong affiliation with the authority that validates the peeve.

    Often a teacher or a parent or someone similarly influential served as a model for the aspirational usage goal. I think the aspirational element is stronger in the US and, in general, people have a strong emotional investment in such role models. A denial of some peeve like these zombie rules is implicitly, for many people, an attack on the credibility of the beloved authority who holds a prominent place as their role model. People get very defensive on that basis alone.

    Even so, while there's an authoritarian streak in American culture, there's also a strong anti-authoritarian streak, as well. This is true in Britain, too, but the important point is that, like class, these tendencies manifest differently and operate differently. We're not necessarily authoritarian and anti-authoritarian about the same things, or express them the same way; just as this is the case with class differences.

    So, all in all, I think your analysis is facile, misapplying a couple of American characteristics (that certainly do exist elsewhere in American culture) when they aren't involved here at all, or at least not in the ways that you believe they are. Not to mention that your premise — that peeving is much more common in the US than the UK — is demonstrably false.

    Prescriptivist peeving is one part xenophobia and one part display and protection of accumulated cultural capital. That's the fundamental mechanism and I'd wager that this is true everywhere.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    One goes to the UPS website to track a 'package,' at least in the US. So, although they are named a parcel service, they deliver packages.

  19. dporpentine said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    And copy editors are very frequently freelancers, who have to prove their fealty to idiotic ideas over and over and have practically no room to argue. If you work in an office full-time, you can nudge people here, nudge people there. But outside that, it would take the kind of full bore attack that people who spend a great deal of time simply scrounging for work don't have the energy left to mount. Again, blame the publishers.

  20. mgh said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    with one funny exception, you can correctly classify as US vs non-US the first several pages of google results for "receive a (package|parcel)" by which word they use

    the "parcel" of UPS goes back to 1913 and is probably not a good indicator of usage a century later!

  21. sister_luck said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    My British edition of The Hunger Games has been Britified through "search and replace" – labor automatically becomes labour, vapor automatically becomes vapour and this works in-word, too, so we get elabourate and evapourate!

  22. Hans Adler said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    @Keith M Ellis: Thanks for your detailed analysis. You have convinced me.

  23. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    Well, that usually doesn't happen. :)

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    I'm not sure Tim Parks is right in thinking that changing some instances of "between" to "among" and some of "like" to "such as" are Americanizations. I didn't see that he said what he was told. As far as I can tell, whoever made these decisions may think that "between the three of them" and "cities like Florence" (to invent examples) are wrong in all standard varieties of English. Even if someone did tell him that such phrases were Britishisms that needed to be Americanized, I could imagine that as a tactful way to avoid calling them mistakes that needed to be corrected.

    By the way, MWDEU isn't quite accurate on Follett's and Bernstein's views about "like" and "such as". F. and B. say nothing about resemblance and examples that I could find; the objection to "writers like Shakespeare" that they ascribe to purists and dismiss is that no writer is like Shakespeare.

    There was an interesting linguistic claim in Parks's article: that alliteration and assonance are less common in translations than in original texts. Is that true? My quick search didn't find anything.

  25. Lazar said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    Somewhere along the line I picked up the rule about using "among" for three or more items, and I use it semi-consistently in my own speech just out of habit, but it recently dawned on me that "among" can't workably replace "between" in cases of spatial relationship. For example, if I say that "X is between A, B and C", it means that X is within the triangle formed by the others. If I say that "X is among A, B and C", it merely indicates that all four things are in the same general vicinity. I could easily imagine a careless copyeditor miscorrecting this and distorting the meaning.

  26. Carl Offner said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    @Lazar: I suppose if I saw "X is between A, B, and C", I would conclude that it probably was in the triangle formed by A, B, and C. But I think it's an awkward construction, and I don't think it's standard usage. (Not that "among" would be any better, of course.) I think in this case, you really have to talk about the triangle.

  27. GeorgeW said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    I am a native speaker of American English, I would say "I have a thought," "I've got a thought," but not "I have got a thought."

  28. Jon Weinberg said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    I dunno that Texas Law Review editors *invented* the split verbs rule. Google reveals that the split verb rule was in the Texas style manual at least as early as 1979, but that style manual didn't become influential under the late 1980s, and the "rule", for its part, seems to have cropped up earlier. One Allen Black reminisced in the Yale Law Journal in 2000 that when he clerked for the great Judge John Minor Wisdom in the mid-1960s, Judge Wisdom (himself educated in the 1920s) held an editing pen that "was death on split infinitives and split verbs" — forbidding (Black says) sentences such as "the burdened vessel was slowly proceeding down river."

    [(myl) Interesting! In fact a simple Google Books search turns up a relevant discussion in The King's English... I'll look into this further.]

  29. Peter Erwin said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 7:23 pm


    Neil Gaiman once wrote about going through the galleys of the American edition of his novel American Gods and finding similar search-and-replace nonsense:

    F’rinstance: All instances of the word round have become around. Fine for walking around the lake, less helpful for the around glasses, the around holes in the ice; blonde has uniformely become blond, and so blonder has become blondr; for ever has become, universally, forever, and for everything thus became foreverything, and we also got foreveryone, forevery time and so on

    Even better were the search-and-replaces on his earlier novel Neverwhere, which converted British "flat" into American "apartment", with result that "People said things apartmently, and believed the world was apartment."

  30. Joshua said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    And the popularity of "authorities" like Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss suggests that Brits are (if anything) more interested than Americans in being or following linguistic authoritarians …

    But Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a big best-seller in the United States, too.

  31. Rebecca said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    Are there dialects of BrEng that use "gotten" fairly regularly? Grabbing a couple of books from my iBooks shelf (with British authors), one had no instances of "gotten", but the other, the Keith Richards bio, had quite a few. I don't know if those stem from Richards or his also British co-writer. Or is it possible that this edition has been purposely "Americanized"?

    [(myl) I don't know whether "dialects" have anything to do with it, but there are 103 instances of gotten in the British National Corpus, including for instance this sentence from Stephen Hawking's A brief history of time: "In fact, things were going rather well for me and I had gotten engaged to a very nice girl, Jane Wilde."

    There may have been a change over time -- thus Hobbes in Leviathan uses gotten 20 times, starting with

    ... and so by succession of time, so much language might be gotten, as he had found use for ...
    But all this language gotten, and augmented by Adam and his posterity, was again lost at the tower of Babel ...
    By this it appears that Reason is not as Sense, and Memory, borne with us; nor gotten by Experience onely; as Prudence is; but attayned by Industry...


  32. Rebecca said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

    Fwiw, "gotten" is used 16 times in the Richards bio.

  33. hanmeng said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    Although American, I'm fond of those quaint (to me) Britishisms. I wonder if any of these editors has got their hands on writers like Shakespeare and put them into proper American.

  34. Chris said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 5:01 am

    @Keith M Ellis and Hans Adler: while I'd agree that prescriptivist peeving is probably more or less universal, my own impression is also that there is a difference here between the US and the UK, and that zombie rules are more popular in the former. A related phenomenon is that American writers generally seem to be far more concerned with what style guides have to say than British writers are. As someone who's worked as a translator for more than a decade alongside numerous colleagues from both the UK and US, I can recall few instances of British colleagues asking the rest of us what a style guide had to say on a particular linguistic issue, whereas the Americans do so regularly. Similarly, there are simply no British style guides that have become established as bywords of written style in the way that CMOS or Strunk and White have. Even Lynne Truss's work tends to be treated more as something that you read with boisterous approval and then never pick up again, rather than a reference bible to guide your daily work. The level of interest/devotion just isn't there in Britain. It's like the British attitude to commas: British writers will often tell you that the "rule" is that you simply insert a comma wherever you would normally be inclined to pause when speaking. Americans, on the other hand, will readily quote a raft of quite specific rules for comma placement, or if they can't actually quote them, they will feel the need to look up some book that will tell them what they are.

    As a sort of corollary of that, British peevers seem happy to base their peeving on little other authority than their own rock-hard certainty, whereas American peevers are far more inclined to base their opinions on some established "rule" that they can find in a book. It's not that Brits are less inclined to peeve, it's just that they seem to do so in an more idiosyncratic and eccentric way.

  35. Matt said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Those stats on parcel vs package are misleading. If I read a sentence that said parcel to refer to something delivered in the mail (or by UPS), I would indeed assume the writer was British. I have spent half my life in the northeast, and half in California, and I have never once heard a person use the word parcel to refer to a package. Never. Parcel may be used here, but not as a synonym for package.

    [(myl) From the NYT:

    One Christmas not too long ago, he opened an elegantly wrapped parcel, and there was a book.
    A young man with a paper-wrapped parcel under his arm came along and looked hungrily at the apples.
    It is an old strategy among parcel delivery drivers in New York City ...
    Takes up small parcel tied with red tape and sealed, looks at it, feels it, weighs it, .presses it.

    And let's not forget "parcel post".]

  36. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    @Chris, your points seem mostly correct to me.

    I suppose that my completely speculative guess about what differences exist are that the prescriptivism and peeving cluster around different things in ways that I alluded to when I talked about class and aspirational differences. That is, in Britain it's about what one is accustomed to within one's subcultural experience, seeing deviations as inferior (either ignorant or pretentious), and the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation. In the US, that's true, as well; but there's also a notably stronger emphasis on aspirational/acquired usage that represents movement across class boundaries — that is to say, there's more emphasis on acquiring and keeping (and defending) prescriptivist usages that solidify one's place in one's target class.

    In both cases, it's a defense of cultural capital. But one emphasized inherited capital, and the other has increased emphasis on deliberately acquired capital. If you compare this to economic capital differences with regard to class across the Atlantic, you can see how the comparable class differences will play out differently — there's an American emphasis on process, greater insecurity, and and an emphasis on the less subtle markers.

    I know that my analysis is built around what is generously described as a simplistic view of class in these two cultures, and more critically as a common caricatured mispresentation. However, I think it might apply more in this context than otherwise, because prescriptivist peeving (of the type we're discussing, the kind most associated with prestige usage) is relatively restricted to groups within whom those old class distinctions arguably better apply.

    @Jerry, you wrote:

    There was an interesting linguistic claim in Parks's article: that alliteration and assonance are less common in translations than in original texts. Is that true? My quick search didn't find anything.

    That's an interesting point and I don't think it's easily answered, even speculatively. On the one hand, I'm inclined to argue that Parks is being very ungenerous to translators to the point of simply being wrong. That is, good translation is good writing on its own terms and should exhibit the same care in construction as the original. A good translator would recognize these stylistic techniques and replicate them as much as possible, both specifically and generally. Alternatively, a good writer may do so when translating independent of the source's style. Whether that's a good translation, or not, is another subject.

    On the other hand, Parks's assumptions about translation may be largely correct with translators who are not very good translators and not very good writers, either. Something closer to mere transliteration will necessarily lack most of the original's style in this respect. So I suppose the answer depends upon the overall quality of translated works. But his intuition that it's necessarily the case is surely false and unfair to translators.

  37. Andy Averill said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    Got vs gotten, I was brought up, so to speak, on The Elements of Style, where we find the sentence: The preferable form of the participle is got, not gotten. Consequently I avoided gotten for years until I finally realized I was the only American obeying that rule.

    As for Tim Parks, he's one of my favorite writers. He wrote two hilarious and very shrewd books on his experiences as an Englishman living in Italy. He also wrote, for the NYR, one of the best essays I've ever read on the difficulties of translating literature from one language to another. It's here, but you have pay, or be a subscriber, to read the whole thing.

  38. Andy Averill said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    – and therefore I would side with him over some officious copy editor any day.

  39. Mark F. said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    When your American style guide says to do X, and your British author balks, it's natural to assume that the difference is UK/US rather than rejecting vs accepting zombie rules.

  40. biagio said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    To Andy Averill.

    I've never heard of such a proverb in my language (I'm Italian); I might well be ignorant on that score, but it even sounds awful in Italian.
    I've googled that sentence and what I've got is just a reference to Mr Parks' article. So I doubt that that "proverb" really exists in Italian.

    Off topic, I know, and I apologise for it.

  41. Andy Averill said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    @biagio, I've usually seen it in the form "Un Inglese italianato è un diavolo incarnato", but I'm pretty sure you're more likely to encounter it in England than in Italy! Google has numerous hits for it.

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

    @Mark F.: Yeah, and when your American copyeditor balks, it might be equally natural to assume that the reason is a US-UK difference. Though Parks does raise the possibility that some of the edits might be the copyeditor's personal preference.

    @Keith: Here's what Parks wrote:

    This is why, statistically, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm tend to be weaker in translations than in original texts; consciously or otherwise a writer, even of the least ambitious prose, is guided by sound, while the language itself is constantly forming standard collocations of words around pleasantly assonant combinations—fast asleep, wide awake. Any intervention in these patterns, whether simply substituting words to suit a local use of the same language, or more radically translating into another language, disturbs the relationship between sound and semantics.

    "Statistically" suggests that there's been some kind of study, though I'm not sure what he means by "weaker". (I may have misinterpreted it.)

    I think you have a good point about good and bad translators, and I imagine a statistical study would have to correct for the possibility that more books by good writers are translated by bad translators than the other way around (or vice versa). Is alliteration as weak in good translations (however determined) as in bad ones?

    And when there are such differences in prose, is there any statistical evidence that they make a difference to the reader?

    As a reader of Nabokov, I have some sympathy for the idea that literal meaning is the most important thing to preserve, so "My sin, my soul" should be translated as "Grekh moy, dusha moya."

  43. michael farris said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 6:42 am

    Getting here late, but in my (SAE) intuitions parcel is (mostly) a hyponym of package.

    That is, my mental image of a parcel is wrapped in paper and string while package encompasses a broader range of forms many of which are not wrapped or stringed. I have no idea if other speakers share the same intuitions.
    I also find parcel to be archaic and/or a little affected sounding and have a hard time imagining myself using it.

    Got (when gotten would also work) also sounds very strange to me. Perfectly understandable but less… American.

    For that matter 'have got' for possession as used by speakers from the British Isles also sounds distinctly odd. For me 'have got' implies immediate access.

    I have a car. (simple statement of possession)

    I've got a car. (implies that it we can use it right now)

    Some other AE speakers have told me that 'have got' works in a similar way for them while BE users don't.

    IME the biggest difference between American and British English revolve less around single words (much less those that lend themselves to systematic subsitution (like lift and elevator) but in the particular semantics (esp implications) of words and larger constructions. But these differences are also ones that don't necessarily show up in corpus studies (at least not without some extra digging).

  44. Andy Averill said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    Speaking as an American who reads a lot of books by British authors, I concur that it's very annoying to have almost anything changed from the original text. I can handle the metric system and the 24-hour clock just fine, thank you. Even honour and colour. And by now I've figured out that "first floor" means something different there than here.

    Where it gets a bit sticky is in words like "truck" that seem to have undergone a shift. I used to think that "lorry" was the preferred term for that particular type of vehicle in British English, but I've started seeing "truck" more often, and I see from the Google ngram viewer that in fact "lorry" has been losing ground to "truck" since at least the 1940's in their BrE corpus. But that's exactly my point — how am I supposed to figure that out if American publishers routinely change the word in American editions?

  45. richardelguru said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    Then there was the first Harry Potter book: which had the philosophers' stone of the title magically changed to the sorcerers' stone by the perhaps less-than-appropriately named Scholastic Inc.
    There were even two slightly different versions of the movie, one for the US with both the audio and the video of the scene in the library where they look up the sorcerers' stone and a different one for the rest of the world where they discover it's the philosophers' stone.

  46. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    that alliteration and assonance are less common in translations than in original texts. Is that true?

    @Keith & Jerry:

    I can readily believe that assonance and alliteration are probably not reproduced at a high rate in translations, without seeing any kind of statistics. These are my reasons why:

    Even the best translations are woven out of many compromises. If you have an assonance or an alliteration in the source, the best translation (and this applies to many other features of texts as well) is very much a matter of it-all-depends. One's starting point as a hopefully non-bad translator is the first version of the sentence/passage that reads straightforwardly and yields the meaning and tone of the source. Chances are this will not preserve a specific assonance or alliteration. If one is a good translator and has the time, one notices the feature and experiments with working it in somehow, and weighs up whether it brings any benefit. Since a good translator should be if anything generally more willing to murder their darlings than a good writer, if they have lots of time, they might well think up a few variants that reproduce the assonance or alliteration and then toss them out again because they don't really seem to work. The feature in question may be more complex, e.g. it may work by being a variation on a common collocation or phrase – and then you will be very lucky indeed to find something that works in a equivalent way in the target language.

    But that is all under ideal circumstances in which the translator has the time to bother about these details. I guarantee you, if the translator has to live off the proceeds of translating, they usually don't. In general a job is economically viable for me from around € 1.50 a line (55 characters including spaces); I can get that kind of price for my specialty, which is roughly speaking where engineering or science overlap with advertising. Many book translations are done at half that rate, so either the translator has a sufficient other source of support or they don't have the time to bother aboout non-essential things. Therefore, the majority of translations done in the real world relate to the ideal in about the same way that emergency medicine relates to fully-equipped high-tech surgery. It doesn't mean, though, that the translator is a "bad translator" any more than than the doctor attending an accident scene on a dark, rainy night is a worse doctor than his or her colleague in the brightly lit, dry and tidy operating theatre. In fact, just as good triage decisions are an expression of genuine medical skill, the ability to size up a translating job and prioritize where to put the very limited resources which are being paid for is also a mark of a good translator, although it means deliberately deciding not to bother about certain details.

  47. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    oops, sorry, I forgot to put in an at the end of the quote at the beginning.

  48. Martha said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

    michael farris – At least one other speaker has the same the intuitions, because I think of parcels the same way. I'd use the word "parcel" if I were trying to be cutesy in describing the Christmas presents I wrapped in brown paper and tied with strands of raffia. It wouldn't occur to me to refer to the box I taped up and sent them away in as anything other than a "package."

  49. Diane said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    I hate to argue with the data but…I just cannot believe that there are not big differences in the usage of the word "parcel" between the U.S. and Britain. I am American born and raised and I have a lot of relatives in Britain and "parcel" sounds very British to me. I don't believe I have ever heard an American use it to refer to a package except for tongue-in-cheek.

    Perhaps you are capturing things like "part and parcel" and "to parcel out"? I can believe Americans use those phrases, but I just cannot believe there are very many Americans who go around calling packages "parcels."

    [(myl) You're certainly right that there are large trans-Atlantic differences in these two words' patterns of usage. The question is, how would American readers respond to uses of parcel (meaning "small wrapped package") in a book about Italian railways?]

  50. SeekTruthFromFacts said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 7:05 am


    I wonder whether this goes back to earlier generations of immigrant Americans needing to unite around standard rules, especially when they needed to demonstrate their cultural capital in prestigious publications.

  51. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 9:48 am

    @Ben Hemmens: Thanks for the knowledgeable reply. I certainly shouldn't have implied that less-than-optimal translations are the work of bad translators.

    On the subject of alliteration and assonance, what you say is plausible, but I'd still like to see the study. For one thing, does professional prose really have more alliteration and assonance than random e-mails, or is it only a few belle-lettrists who increase those sound correspondences, or no one? Are there times a good writer takes out sound correspondences? Not to call myself a good writer, but elsewhere I just almost wrote "[certain] changes should be made case by case based on [certain criteria]", and then changed "based on" to "according to" because I didn't want the jingle. (On the other hand, people write "on a case-by-case basis" all the time.) So I'm still wondering what's actually known—but not wondering enough to spend a lot of time searching.

  52. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    @Ben Hemmens and Jerry Friedman,

    You both make very good points and I honestly have no idea what the actual state of things are, except that I'm inclined to believe that Parks's assertion is probably true … but not as true as he insists and not precisely (or always) for the reasons he provides.

    Ben, you describe the mechanics of translating specific phrases in this context; but you don't deal with two other ways in which these stylistic features may appear in translation.

    First, if these things feature in a writer's prose sufficiently, a translator may choose to use them outside of their specific use in the source material so as to preserve their flavor in the work as a whole when it's not possible to do so for a specific example.

    Second, these things may be a feature of a translator's inherent style, independent of the source. I'd agree that better translators manage to somehow replicate or evoke the source's style and would limit the imposition of their own, especially when it's in conflict with the source. But sometimes it won't be in conflict (even when it's not so present in the source) and other times there will be translators who can't avoid their strong stylistic tendencies even when it creates a stylistic clash with the source.

    Both cases will increase rather than decrease alliteration and assonance.

    Parks's reasoning about translation seems weirdly mechanistic and simplistic to me, considering that he's a well-regarded translator. I associate translation that's closer to transliteration with bad translation, not good; while I associate translation with a moderately wider scope as better translation. But, even then, very much depends upon the source writer. Some writers will use particular words in very particular ways that practically demand something very close to transliteration. Other writers will have a stylistic presence that is best understood as a gestalt that should be replicated, as well as possible, also as a gestalt.

    So, in very many different respects, I'm having trouble with assertions about how all translations are done and what the results must necessarily be.

  53. Andy Averill said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    @myl re how would American readers respond to encountering the word "parcel" in a book by a British author? It might be interesting to find out whether publishers actually have any evidence for the notion that they would respond negatively, and that therefore the word must be changed. We've already established that Americans pretty much all know what the word means, even if it's not our everyday word for the thing. And it's hard to imagine that anybody reading Tim Parks's book would be surprised to learn that he's British. Really hard to think of a good reason for changing it.

    A propos of Harry Potter, there's a website that lists all the differences between the British and American editions of the first book. I was amused to see that "It was staring down Privet Drive as though it was waiting for something" in the British edition was changed to "It was staring down Privet Drive as though it were waiting for something" in the American edition. They may have zombies in the UK, but apparently not zombie rules, or at least not the same ones.

  54. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    @Andy, I don't think that the irrealis were is a zombie rule, is it? And I'd not had the impression that there was much of a transatlantic difference in its usage. That Potter change may just be an example of what Mark describes — an opportunistic edit using the UK-US changes as cover.

  55. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 9:48 am

    (Although I'm uncertain that's actually an irrealis. Maybe it's a hypercorrection?)

  56. Lily said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    As both a reader and having some linguistics background, I find it extremely frustrating that British books are edited in this way (particularly when it's so ham-handed). Not too long ago, I found out that Christopher Fowler's excellent Bryant and May books are edited to remove descriptive and expository passages, things that are "too British", and so on in addition to the British vocabulary. I wonder if it has occurred to the publishers that, like the (extremely haphazardly edited) Harry Potter novels, they're removing part of the appeal for fans of series like that…

  57. Andy Averill said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    @Keith M Ellis, haven't actually read the book, but it didn't sound to me like a condition contrary to fact. The whatever-it-is could presumably actually be waiting for something.

    But you may be right about it not being a transatlantic issue. A quick trip to the Google ngram viewer reveals that the predominance of "if it were" over "if it was" is the same in British and American sources, although declining since the 19th century in both cases.

  58. Bruce said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 5:04 am

    The prejudice against "split infinitives" came from imposing grammatical rules of another language (Latin or French) on English. Similarly a compound verb form is a formal abstraction — correct so far as it goes, but still an imposition from above so to speak. In particular, the past-participle naturally attracts a modifier (adverb) when construed as an adjective — and forcing it to precede an auxiliary ("have", etc) dilutes the immediacy of the meaning. Of course all of this is a matter of taste. Maybe someone wants to be formal and construe the entire phrase as an indivisible verb instead of "going with the flow".

    The placement of the modifier one way or another may be good or bad in a certain context, but you have great freedom to choose — subject of course to your readers understanding what you say.

    In any case to me this illustrates one of the maddening and wonderful things about English: relative freedom compared to other languages I know to use words any way that seems useful and convenient — with the final arbiter being your readers not a rule-book.

    This has nothing to do with the language itself, but the ABSENCE of anything comparable to the Academie Francaise for French which arbitrarily rules on which innovations in that language are legitimate. Of course when it comes to formal language, we can all do with some helpful SUGGESTIONS, but nothing like Grévisse [French's rough equivalent to Fowler] which you defy in print with some peril.

  59. K L Scott said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Who makes the decision that American readers of fiction and general nonfiction are so helpless that they cannot understand a slightly unusual (to them) usage whose meaning is, however, clear? And there is always the dictionary. This "Sorcerer's Stone" complex is, to my mind, rather insulting to the American intelligence and is a more vexing issue than the specifics of just which changes are made to render the text comprehensible to Americans.

    Regarding those devils in disguise, copyeditors, of course(!), before dumping on these underpaid and generally conscientious souls it would be well to find out just what instructions were given in a specific case.

    That said,I agree that there is a lot of "gratuitous tampering" out there and I have experienced it with my own writing, where I know perfectly well that the CE had no clear reason for making a change and would not be able to provide an explanation if challenged to do so. As an American copyeditor I subscribe to the idea that one needs to be able to explain changes that one makes, if asked to do so (or I provide a brief explanation as a comment). Personal-preference-based changes—where there is nothing really wrong but the CE just likes something different—are what I call "twiddling the dial." Many of the rules decried here as "zombie rules" do have bases in improving clarity and sense, but it is of course the writer's right to differ. The infuriating thing is when changes are made unilaterally and the writer has no chance to veto or disagree and can only register horror ex post facto when she sees her piece in print—horror that may well grow to an irrational hatred of the whole tribe of copyeditors.

    Regarding like/such as, I always change such items as (or, items like) "in countries like Germany and Russia" where the only countries being referred and relevant to the situation ARE Germany and Russia. This is wordy and illogical and is very common and has nothing to do with the use of "like" as a preposition per se. Recently I saw just this phrase in The New Yorker, along with other incorrect "like" usages. If I were a NY copyeditor I would have changed this to "in Germany and Russia."

  60. Dan T. said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 12:23 am

    Where I live (in south Florida), a nearby construction project (recently completed) was titled the "Dixie Flyover", being an overpass of Dixie Highway over a railroad track and some roads. So at least the people responsible for that construction have "flyover" in their vocabulary.

    [(myl) Interesting. I wonder is this is becoming (or has become) a general thing, or if it was an isolated bit of exotica? I'll look into it for a future post.]

  61. Josephine Bacon said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 3:57 am

    As someone who has lived and worked on both sides of the pond and who makes some of their living by americanizing, I think the operative words in the original post are "to save money". This is a false economy (as so many are) because UK readers will find the text "American" and U.S. readers will find the text "British". There is much more to the adaptation from one lect of English to another than changing a few spellings and, of course, the "newsagent" does not exist in the USA, nor does the "tobacconist" just as there are no "drugstores" or "soda fountains", or even "convenience stores" in the UK. I am sorry to say that a certain group of British editors to which I belong frequently admit to being asked to "americanize" text even though they have never lived in the USA, let alone worked there in publishing. I dread to think what the results look like.

  62. John Cousinor said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    Does anyone not know what a "parcel" is? Does anyone not understand the meaning of the word "package"?

    As someone mentioned, there is always the dictionary, and most are available online or as an app for a tablet or cell phone.

    Or do we have to revamp Indian, South African and Australian English, too? And what about regional vocabulary (for example, in the South, the Far West and Silicon Valley)? Strike out the word whose meaning someone might not know, even if an author would like to use it!

    British and American English both have great qualities, and each should be encouraged to stand with its own charm (or lack of such).

  63. Hans Adler said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    I guess it doesn't come as a surprise that overzealous editing to change from one language variant to another occurs in other languages as well. German German and Austrian German are so close to each other that it would never make sense to have different editions. There are some reports from Austrian writers that even editors at Austrian publishers urge them to replace typically Austrian words by standard German ones. Apparently they believe that this improves a book's appeal to the larger market. I suspect that if anything the opposite is true, though I wouldn't know how to test this. http://books.google.de/books?id=o3bse2hTyeIC&lpg=PA468&ots=nvKRzfeGP8&pg=PA468

  64. Dw said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 1:33 am

    @Keith M Ellis

    [I]n Britain [peeving] is about what one is accustomed to within one's subcultural experience, seeing deviations as inferior (either ignorant or pretentious), and the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation. In the US, that's true, as well; but there's also a notably stronger emphasis on aspirational/acquired usage that represents movement across class boundaries — that is to say, there's more emphasis on acquiring and keeping (and defending) prescriptivist usages that solidify one's place in one's target class.

    Bravo! (UK-to-US emigrant here). You express my thoughts on the subject better than I could myself.

  65. English books in American translation said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

    [...] continues, with another huge cast of commenters, at Language Log, where Mark Liberman  looks into the sources of Parks's editing woes. If you missed any of these in the pre-holiday [...]

  66. Adrian said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

    @Keith: "If I were" is a zombie rule inasmuch as "if I was" is not a mistake.

    @Josephine: I'm not sure where you're living at the moment, but if you move around London or Birmingham you will see a goodly number of "convenience stores".

  67. Ted said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

    Coming in even later, I agree with Michael Farris and Martha about the parcel/package distinction: Some, but by no means all, packages might also be described as parcels.

    When the guy behind the meat counter gathers together the sausages and chops that I'm buying, wraps them up compactly in butcher's paper and ties them up with string, he gives me a neat little parcel. When the FedEx guy rings my doorbell to deliver something I've ordered from Amazon, he's bringing me a package — certainly not a parcel.

    Distinguishing markers of parcelhood include size (a parcel can be no bigger than a breadbox) and style (a parcel must be prepared by hand, with a certain degree of evident care). There may be others that don't come to mind at the moment.

    @myl: I don't think it's quite right to say that "the question is how would American readers respond to uses of parcel (meaning 'small wrapped package') in a book about Italian railways." Rather, the question is whether the use of parcel is limited to cases where the American understanding of its meaning ("small wrapped package") accurately describes what the author is referring to.

    Given that Americans would understand it to mean "small wrapped package," any instance where "parcel" is used to refer to something that is not a small wrapped package (i.e., another sort of package that would be considered a parcel in BrE but not in AmE) should be replaced to avoid misunderstanding.

  68. How copy editing is like cleaning a room—YOUR room | Bleacher Report – The Writers Blog said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    [...] is outside the scope of this post. But the piece elicited a response from Mark Liberman of the Language Log blog, who argued that the problem wasn't the inflexibility of the American reader, it was just a [...]

  69. Luke Allen said,

    February 15, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    When reading fanfiction of an American-written cartoon, I sometimes find dialogue that clearly marks the author as British. It's always funny to me, like running across blatant racism in older science fiction.

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