19 January 2006

Practice makes perfect

BerlinBear avatarPart of my job here in Trier involves being able to tell people how British and American usage differs. Since I've not had to concern myself with that topic since I briefly went to an American elementary school at age 9, it has been a fairly steep learning curve. I had always subscribed to the belief that, apart from the -our vs. -or spellings, one different name for a letter (z), and quite a lot of pronunciation differences, the two varieties were largely identical. Well, more fool me!

I'm in the lucky position of having several American colleagues I can check these things with as and when they arise. And boy do they arise frequently! Scarcely a teaching day goes by that I am not alerted to some minor, but important, difference between British and American English.

Last week, for instance, I discovered that Americans really do spell skilful and wilful with two ls in the middle. This, after I had spent the last year coming across those words spelt skillful and willful in comments and blogs and just assuming that the authors couldn't spell. Wrong. They were just playing by different rules.

It has also come to my attention recently that in American CVs, sorry resum├ęs, the word reference is used to denote not only the thing which a person writes to support your application, but also the person who writes it, rather than using reference for the former and referee for the latter, as in British English. I'm still a bit sceptical (Oops, there's another one! Sorry, skeptical) about that one - it just sounds a bit far-fetched to me - so if any of my American readers could confirm or deny that, I'd be most appreciative.

Another one I've recently discovered is I couldn't care less and its variants. Over the course of the past year or so, I had seen several instances of Americans writing I could care less to express the same idea of not giving a damn about something. Whenever I came across that, I just raised my eyebrows and moved on quietly, wondering how the writers in question thought that phrase could mean what they were using it to mean. When you think about it, I could care less should really only mean that you don't care at all if you say it with a great big dollop of sarcasm, thus making clear that you mean the opposite of what you're saying. But now I discover that in American English, both I couldn't care less and I could care less are acceptable, with identical meanings. Make of that what you will.

The use of couple as a determiner instead of a quantifier is another American usage that I have real trouble accepting, even though modern dictionaries tell me I'm going to have to get used to it. In case you're wondering, the determiner usage is this one:
In a couple weeks, my friends and I are going camping
as opposed to the quantifier usage, which is this one:
In a couple of weeks, my friends and I are going camping
In American English, both are acceptable. (Ugh!) In other Englishes, only the quantifier usage is correct. Of all the differences I've discovered in the past few months that I was previously blissfully unaware of, this is the one which really gives me the heebee jeebees. It just looks and sounds so utterly wrong, damnit. I can't help thinking to myself "Yeah, I know you can say it like that, but I do wish you wouldn't!"

And now, to top it all off, I have learned that in American English there is no orthographical distinction between the noun practice and the verb to practise. Americans spell both with a c, as in:
At soccer practice, we practice dribbling, tackling, passing and running into space. (US)

At football practice, we practise dribbling, tackling, passing, and running into space. (Brit.)
In fact (I nearly wrote in practice), many British speakers do the same thing. But at least when they do it, it's wrong, and is a result of not having got their heads around the rule, or indeed not being able to tell the difference between a verb and a noun. (You think I'm joking, don't you?!) Now I find that when speakers of American English don't distinguish between the noun and verb forms, they're right to do so. Oh, woe is me!

As you can see, the very fundaments of what I thought I knew about the language are being shaken here. And I haven't even mentioned different than yet. I have enough trouble accepting that different to has become common usage, so accommodating different than may take me a wee while yet.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, after all that, that I am on some sort of crusade against American English. You'd be wrong. I'm not at all. Obviously, given that New Zealand English is closer to British English than American English (NZE has its own quirks, but that's a topic for another post entirely), and that I lived in the UK for quite some time, my own usage tends to lean heavily towards British English rather than American English. But that doesn't mean I can't accept the validity of another national variety's idiosyncrasies and individualities. I can't bring myself to like them all, and I won't be incorporating them into my own language use any time soon, but I can live with them. Instead, what I try to preach to my students is consistency. I don't care whether they choose to write British English or American English, as long as they are actively choosing to write one or the other. A somewhat unfamiliar national variety I can handle, a confused mish-mash, I cannot. Of course, in order to be able to handle said unfamiliar national variety, I have to familiarise myself with it. Hence the steep learning curve, and hence this post.

I wonder how long it will be before someone makes the (political - it's always political rather than linguistic) decision to classify British and American English as two different languages? It can't be all that far hence, though I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime. Just a thought.