Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

I’m So Disorientated!

As far as I’m concerned, the title of this post is completely inappropriate in the United States. I have always considered adding that extra syllable to the already unwieldy “disoriented” to be a grammar mistake up there with irregardless and could care less. But guess what?

It’s in the dictionary!

And this one’s no April Fool, I’m afraid. There’s an entry for orientate, as well.

So what gives? How can these obviously made-up words be in the dictionary? Why is a solid reference body like Merriam-Webster fomenting such erroneous pronunciation (and why don’t they pay me for mentioning them so often, already)?

Knowing what we do about English differences across the Atlantic, let’s first see if any of our pals in the UK can get us orientated. And how better to that than to consult the BNC? Good thing I already did, in March:

All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

Half as much, however, is still more than we see it in the United States, where the “ate” in “disorientate” is so rare that we most definitely consider it an error.

If you follow that entry for orientate, up above, you’ll see that M-W defines it as “facing to the east” – the Latin root orient – and that there is no trace of the figurative meaning we’re more familiar with, the one that’s synonymous with discombobulated, confused.

This is a tough one. Could the U.S. have fixated on the figurative meaning, while the UK has retained both terms? Could it be that this is not a new error at all, but rather one that goes back centuries, to the first reference for disorientate in the eighteenth century?

Here’s hoping I can tell you tomorrow.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Do You Beaver?

After two and a half months blogging, I am approaching the all-important 40th post. Today’s is number 39. My nose has been so close to the grindstone, however, that I’ve barely noticed. I’ve got new projects to complete, old bills to write, a daily blog to keep up…in short, I’ve been beavering away.

Have you heard beaver used in this way before? It was new to me when I first heard it at Cambridge.

I’ll let Simon J. James give another example:

One morning last week, I was sitting at my desk, beavering away (building a small dam out of gnawed down pencils)

I found Simon through my BlogRush widget near the bottom of this blog and his extended metaphor was just too adorable to leave out. I also have a sneaking suspicion he’s British, for the following reasons:

  • he spells it self aggrandisement and standardise
  • he reports a colleague’s utterance of “whilst” in a telephone conversation
  • he uses single quotes to explain in an extended riff why his colleague’s use of ‘bye now’ in said conversation was rude

‘Bye now’ suggests immediacy to me, a flagrant disregard for all others in the conversation; it’s the verbal equivalent of hanging up. And also you can’t say, ‘bye earlier’ can you really?

So London Simon (I checked) uses “beavering away.” But what about my U.S. and Canadian readers? Have you used this expression before, or would you call yourself as busy as a bee, instead?

Here’s another explanation from a UK website:

The beaver is remarkable for its industry (and skill) in constructing its habitation and creating dams to preserve its water supply. This gave rise to the verb beaver away for someone who works very hard and to the faintly derogatory eager beaver for a person who is keen to succeed.

The expression is certainly evocative. I wouldn’t dare use it around my American friends, but Simon’s usage is guileless, down to the cute little pencil dam image—or perhaps he’s done that to avoid confusion with that other meaning for beaver:

OK, stop tittering. In British English, to beaver away is to work busily. However, these days you’d have difficulty saying it without a chorus of sniggers from the peanut gallery, as we also all know the American definition. It’s the sort of thing your grandmother might say at Christmas dinner that would make the younger generations choke on their soup.

That one’s from the English-to-American Dictionary. And though apple-pie M-W does define beaver as a verb (dating back to 1946), I think this is one expression best left to the British.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Out-Group Illusion

This final post in the Language Log terminology trilogy will introduce you to another linguistic illusion to watch for on language blogs: the out-group illusion.

One of the myriad ways we can jump to linguistic conclusions, the out-group illusion refers to a belief that a certain language quirk or habit occurs only among a specific group of speakers that does not include you or anyone you would deign to speak to. As Arnold Zwicky puts it,

Things you view as novel, or simply bad, are characteristic of groups
you don’t see yourself as belonging to.

Take as an example the posts on this blog that deal with the US/UK language divide. My post on obliged vs. obligated has received more hits to date than any other piece of writing on this site. I even got a link on LEO, my first destination for German-English word look-ups on the Internet.

Who’s to say, however, that my explanation of British English speakers’ behavior, based on a few hours of web research, wasn’t tainted by my status as a U.S.-born observer? There could be plenty of native Californians for whom “obligated” grates like the Wu Tang Clan at two in the morning (turn it down, you crazy kids!). Perhaps there are Kansans I’ve never met (and that would be all of them) who favor obliged in everyday usage.

If you encounter anyone who fits into one of these categories, do let me know. You’d be free to write me up for an out-group infraction–and I’d be obligated to write about it here.

Editor at Large U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Ask 100 Million Brits, With One Click

I’m currently working on a British English editing job for a Frankfurt design company. They’ve got a 75-page “Broschüre” (read: glossy booklet), poorly translated from the German, that I am to clean up and prettify (I once described my services as “cosmetic surgery” for saggy, baggy texts).

The trouble is that after 30 pages of dubious English, you begin to doubt your own instincts. For example:

  • Is it okay to use “orchestration” when you’re not talking about music or some massive multi-person heist?
  • Once and for all, is it Majorca or Mallorca?
  • I already know that UK English speakers use “orientated” much more frequently than North Americans, but is it preferred to the extent that I should replace “oriented” with its regularized British counterpart?

That’s where the British National Corpus comes in.

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.

In other words, instead of driving your English boyfriend crazy with questions on normativity, you can query the hive mind:

  • The proposed meaning of “orchestration”, as used in the glossy I was editing, showed up exactly NOWHERE in the Corpus. I composed a list of alternatives and left it to the client to decide.
  • The proper English term for that big island off the coast of Spain is Majorca. But I’ve heard the double-ll Catalan/Spanish designation of Mallorca used by British friends so frequently that I had to check which was the most current. The BNC cleared up the confusion: 28 instances of Mallorca, out of 100 million words; 139 uses of Majorca.
  • All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

So here it is, y’alls: the big, bad BNC. You can use the new link on the list of References to the right from now on.

I won’t tell you exactly how few uses I found of obligated, so you can enjoy the moment for yourself.

Editor at Large Politics U.S. vs. U.K.

What’s in a Name? A Jail Sentence, in Germany

Via Language Log:

American Ian Thomas Baldwin, PhD., is a researcher at one of the German Max Planck Institutes, a prestigious network of institutions which carry out cutting-edge research for the public good. Baldwin has been using his “Dr.” title with pride for two decades.

Now he’s facing criminal charges. The Washington Post explains:

Under a little-known Nazi-era law, only people who earn PhDs or medical degrees in Germany are allowed to use “Dr.” as a courtesy title.

The law was modified in 2001 to extend the privilege to degree-holders from any country in the European Union. But docs from the United States and anywhere else outside Europe are still forbidden to use the honorific. Violators can face a year behind bars.

The Post reports that at least seven U.S. citizens, some of whom, like Baldwin, had been using their hard-earned titles for decades, were outed to the German authorities by an anonymous informant.

Germany is title-crazy; anyone who lives and works here can see that soon enough. I recall writing letters to Frau Prof. Dr. So-and-so or Herr Dr. Dr. Something-or-other.

But there is a method behind the madness: only in Germany, for example, does one write a separate dissertation, after the PhD., to qualify for a professorship. And even then, there is debate over whether one can still claim to be a Professor after retirement.

Germany has more restrictive speech laws generally than the United States; the criminalization of Holocaust denial is probably the most well known, but there are stipulations for Internet content as well that apply to this very blog.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Expect a New Post Momentarily

The title above has two meanings, but only one of them is universally accepted. Which are you thinking of?

From Merriam-Webster (American):
1: for a moment (was momentarily delayed)
2 archaic : instantly
3: at any moment : in a moment (will be leaving momentarily)

I make one new blog post every weekday: each day of the Western business week running Monday to Friday. One moment of each day, I post a new entry to this page.

If I updated according to the uncontroversial usage for momentarily, you wouldn’t see any of them for long: they’d be online for just that one moment, and no longer!

Of course, you probably thought from the title that I would be making a new post very soon. The question is, did you think I had made a grammatical error?

A Questionable Coinage for an Established Word
You can see that Merriam-Webster does not; the “incorrect” usage of momentarily to mean “almost immediately” is present and accounted for. But just as prescriptivists and descriptivists have been sparring over hopefully for four decades, people can get crabby about the proper use of momentarily.

The prescriptivists are sick of the word being shoehorned into waiting rooms and voicemail queues:

The doctor will be with you momentarily.
Your call will be answered momentarily.
You will receive a grammatically incorrect response momentarily.

The descriptivists, on the other hand, see speakers creating a practical new definition that ends a sentence more conveniently than the three-word “in a moment” and more precisely than the hazy “shortly.” While we may not be able to measure the length of a moment, it is at least a countable noun: we know that “a few moments” would be longer than just one.

But Should You Use It?
This abbreviation of “in a moment” is here to stay, at least in the United States. What M-W cites as the third definition for momentarily, Princeton’s WordNet cites as the first. The usage would not pop up in so many places if it did not fulfill a lexical need. Be careful, though: I don’t think the need for momentarily has permeated the entire English-speaking population to the level that you can use it with the impunity afforded to a word like hopefully, a formerly controversial usage that takes the place of the mouthful “it is to be hoped.” The British seem particularly irked by the iffy use of momentarily, so watch out if you’re submitting something to the Financial Times.

In any case, this all means that my pragmatic prescriptivism still gets activated when a writer I’m editing promises to prove her point “momentarily” in a paper.

It also means that I make use of hopefully all the time–but that’s a post for another moment.

Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

On Posting Regularly: Obliged or Obligated?

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry: I’m about three hours later than usual. Then again, this blog has only been up for two weeks, so I’m trusting my eight regular readers (That includes you, my two loyal feed subscribers! Thanks!) to forgive the later update.

See, I grew up in California. I’ve got a little bit of that Protestant work ethic in me (or maybe just Jewish guilt) that makes me feel obligated to write regular daily posts, just as I feel obligated to market my word business to ensure that potential customers know who I am.

But as this is a word-obsessed blog, I have to ask, dear readers: does my use of obligated grate on your nerves? Is your lip curling as you read this at work? Are you cursing me under your breath for adding two extra syllables to the perfectly serviceable obliged?

Take a deep breath. You’re probably English.

Obligated passes the Merriam-Webster test: in U.S. English the word means legally or morally bound, and I find it makes an excellent description for the commitment I have made to put a new post up here every day.

Of course, good old M-W has a similar definition for oblige:

1: to constrain by physical, moral, or legal force or by the exigencies of circumstance <obliged to find a job>
2 a: to put in one’s debt by a favor or service <we are much obliged for your help>
b: to do a favor for <always ready to oblige a friend>

Here’s the thing: I’m a huge word nerd. When I was eleven, I got laughed out of after-school detention for using the word “procedure.” My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is one of my most prized possessions. My multifarious vocabulary has won me large amounts of money.

And I don’t think I have ever uttered the word obliged.

My English friends, however, use it all the time. As a matter of fact, they use it in every single instance that I would use the word obligated. So is this all another tempest in a teapot?

Looks like. In my decidedly unscientific survey of the interwebs, I found that most posters who had problems with “obligated” were indeed English. And “John” at Pain in the English knows why:

From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage page 675
“obligated” remains in Scottish and American use, but has dropped out of British English. Both “obliged” and “obligated” mean “being constrained legally or morally”. When the constraint is applied by physical force or circumstances, “obliged” is used. “obligated” is also used to been “indebted for a service or favour”.

John’s right. I checked Google Books and the entry for obligated came up on exactly the page he said it would. There’s an even better explanation, too:

Part of the diffidence toward obligated that is to be found in usage books may come from its having dropped out of use in British English while remaining in Scottish and American use. British commentators and commentators born in areas of British speech are hostile to obligated …Bremner 1980 quotes with obvious satisfaction the fun George Bernard Shaw made of [U.S. President] Woodrow Wilson’s use of the word.

I think that about wraps up today’s U.S.-U.K. debate. But here’s some more amusing evidence that obligated really has dropped out of English English:

And finally:

I was once a legal proofreader/ copy editor in the US. We snagged the word “obliged” (in a multimillion-dollar legal contract) where it should have been “obligated.” We were thanked profusely by the attorneys involved, who said it saved their hides.

Editor at Large Mad CAPS U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Capitalizing on Halitosis

Pop quiz: What country is this label from?

Label with border
Camouflaged by Paint.NET and liberal use of the “Clone” stamp

Let’s take a look at the first line of the copy to find the answer:

kills germs

Hmm. The use of a capital letter for the first word and lower-case on the rest probably indicates British English headline style. If this were a title in the United States, we would see almost every word capitalized–just take a quick glance at my blog to see what I mean. Then again, the capital “K” in “kills” could also just be the beginning of any US or UK English descriptive sentence. We’ll have to keep on reading.

But on the second line, the copy starts to get weird:

bad breath

When did bad breath become a Capital Condition? Even scary, life-changing diseases–breast cancer, hepatitis, bird flu–don’t merit capitalization in run-of-the-mill body text. But plaque gets upper-case treatment too, so could this be some sort of American English title, with only the “important” words in caps?

Not with what’s been done in the lower-case third line.

kills germs bad breath gum disease

Definite article “the” never takes a capital letter, unless it’s the first word in a title. But what about gum disease, the terrifying tooth destroyer? If a social hindrance like bad breath qualifies for capitals, surely a condition that could land you in dentures deserves some highlighting here. After all, gingivitis gets the capital treatment in the last line of the label.

So why did this company choose such inconsistent capitalization? It could be an effort to convince the reader in a hurry that this product Kills Bad Breath Plaque & Gingivitis, de-emphasizing connecting words such as “that” and “cause.” If this were true, however, killing [G]erms would probably be just as big of a draw to potential buyers. If this had been my job, I would have recommended the strategic use of bold or a larger font to highlight the advantages of this U.S.-made product (brand is behind the link).

At least the manufacturer is calling it Bad Breath [sic] these days, not the pseudoscientific diagnosis that this company first popularized through a massively successful ad campaign in the early 1920s.

Bonus link: Consumerist noticed another label oddity from the same source in December.