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May 31, 2008

Teacher Development - BE and AE (grammatical differences)

Hello readers,

Most people are aware of some of the spelling differences between British English and American English. Adding a 'u' to color to make colour, replacing 'er' with 're' for theatre or centre, or spelling aluminum with an extra 'i' (aluminium) are some of the most common differences. As EL teachers, you've probably also become aware of some of the pronunciation differences between British English and American English. In British English, the 'a' in path is like the 'a' in father, r's at the end of words tend to be dropped off, and the 't' in words like water is pronounced as a 't' and not a 'd' sound.

But did you know that there are actually grammatical ...

... differences between the two strands of English?

Check out these examples:

1. Irregular past participles

In British English, the past participle of burn is burnt, rather than burned (as it is in America). The past participle of dwell is dwelt, not dwelled; the past participle of learn is learnt. At the same time, American English also has a few irregular forms, like get-got-gotten.

2. The difference between have, got and do

In many BE textbooks for ESL learners, you will probably find a dialogue such as this:
A: Have you got a pen?
B: Yes, I have.

To Americans, this might sound wrong, as the preferred dialogue in AE would be like this:
A: Do you have a pen?
B: Yes, I do.

3. Articles

Before you start marking up your students' papers, make sure to look into what kind of English they have studied. What might look wrong to you may actually be correct to them.

BE: to be in hospital
AE: to be in the hospital

BE: in future
AE: in the future

4. Prepositions

BE: at the weekend
AE: on the weekend

If you're interested in finding out more about such kinds of differences, including those of Australian English, Canadian English, etc., check out International English, by Peter Trudgill and Jean Hannah at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/International-English-Varieties-Standard-Language/dp/0340808349/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212229339&sr=8-1.

Hope that helps!

Carol Rueckert
Writer, ESL Lesson Plan
E-mail: crueckert@eslemployment.com
Blog: www.esl-lesson-plan.com

"I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

*Looking for more articles that spotlight Teacher Development in the ESL industry? Click HERE!

About the author of this entry:
Carol, a native English-speaker hailing from the small town of St. Joseph in Minnesota, USA, worked in China for more than 7 years. During that time, she worked at universities, private language schools, grade schools, international schools, and did private tutoring as well. Besides teaching, she also worked as a Head teacher, an Education Manager, and a Material Development Manager. In addition to working on this newsletter, she also writes a monthly column for Time Out Beijing, authors ESL textbooks for publishing houses in China, and is an Editor for Garnet Publishing in Reading, England. Carol holds a BA in Communications from the College of St. Benedict/ St. John's University, and a CELTA, and has just finished her MA TESOL course at Oxford Brookes University. Look for her posts on the ESL-Jobs-Forum discussion boards!

Posted by crueckert at May 31, 2008 05:34 AM

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... In BE the use of an article, or not, alters meaning. "To go to university" means to enter university as a student. To go to a/the university means to a make a visit for some other reason (similarly with such nouns as school or hospital).

In BE the phrase "in future" suggests the need for a change of behaviour or attitude: I'll remember that in future". "In the future" suggests a possible but not defined time span so it is perfectly acceptable to say "in the future she would like to become a teacher trainer."

What is difficult for teachers to keep up with is the pace of change in the various varieties of English. In BE we are seeing the loss of the comparative marker -er, for example. I am not sure if this is happening in AE too. I have noticed for many years that AE has changed the patterns of conditionals "if you would do something" is used by speakers of AE. This is creeping into BE.

The newer but growing use of international English has its quirks too. Of course language change is part of the nature of the beast but it seems to me that the pace of change has increased.

Posted by: Brenda Townsend Hall at June 1, 2008 06:13 AM

Hi Brenda,

Thanks for your comments. The point of the examples above is not to compare the difference in meaning between the BE versions, but to point out the differences between BE and AE. While 'in future' and 'in the future' may both be acceptable in BE, they are not in AE. We would never drop off the article in that phrase. The same is true for the 'hospital' example - we would never say that someone is 'in hospital'.

Your points about the loss of the comparative marker 'er' and the changing conditional patterns is interesting. What does everyone else think about that?

Posted by: Carol at June 4, 2008 02:21 PM

As I said in my original, unabridged comment, varieties of English, US, Australian, Candian, S. African etc., all develop their idiosyncracies. But as perpetual students of English, as well as teachers, we have to avoid being dogmatic. "Never" is a dangerous word when dealing with language habits! There is in fact a very informative article on the way the phrase "in (the) future" is used in BE and AE at this URL:
I think what is interesting about the article is that it proves what a wonderful tool concordances can be when researching current usage.

As for the -er comparative marker, the spoken language is, as usual, ahead of the written form. Listen to broadcasters and you will hear on a daily basis examples such as "more happy", "more calm", "more easy". This, of course, is just a continuation of the process that has seen the erosion of inflected forms over many centuries.

Posted by: Brenda Townsend Hall at June 5, 2008 03:49 AM

Hi Brenda,

You are absolutely correct - 'never' is quite a dangerous word to use when dealing with language!

Thanks for the link to the interesting article about 'in future' and 'in the future'. I wonder if the three instance where 'in future' were found in the Wall Street Journal corpus were simply typos. I would still stand rather firm on the fact that 'in future' is not generally (if ever) used in American English.

What does everyone else think? It'd be great to hear from you to see how 'in future' and 'in the future' is actually used in 'real' English (American, British, Australian or otherwise).

The decline in use of the -er comparative marker is also an interesting one. I've heard examples like the one that you wrote about in your last comment quite a few times in Britain, but am not aware of the same phenomenon in America. Of course, that may simply be due to the fact that I haven't lived there in a decade!

Looking forward to hearing from other ESL Lesson Plan readers!!

Posted by: Carol at June 5, 2008 07:46 AM

I'm sure it was not intended to read like this, but the tone of your article (and first comment) makes you sound like you are saying American English is better than British English. Eg 'what might look wrong to you, may be correct to them'. It's not just correct to them..but actually correct. Full stop (or period as you guys say). British English is just as correct as American English, it's not just correct to a few people here and there.
And maybe British English speakers are not the ones to add an extra U, but American English speakers the ones who drop it out..

Posted by: Jo B at June 24, 2008 06:06 AM

BE, don't you just love it?
Quite apart from issues of grammar and usage, we have regional accents to contend with. "Path" is not always going to have the same 'a' as AE 'father' or 'farther' (which in BE would probably be 'further') - it can be pronounced anywhere between 'math' (which we would always call mathematics or maths, with an 's') and Darth (as in Darth Vader - which, for once, sounds exactly the same!).

The 'in future' vs 'in the future' debate is a bit confusing. In BE, certain institutions are referred to as almost abstracted concepts - university and hospital being perfect examples - where they are almost 'states of being' rather than places. Maybe 'he went to Mass' (as in the Catholic service, not the US State!) illustrates the idea - I doubt that Americans say 'he went to the Mass'. We wouldn't say 'I'm going to doctor's', but "I'm going to the doctor's" - we're referring to a specific visit to a health centre, not the idea of spending time there. One of the recurring jokes in the US comedy series "Arrested Development" was that the slightly challenged son (Buster Bluth) would talk about "joining Army" or being "in Army" rather than "the" Army - at least, to a British ear that's funny!

With 'in future' vs. 'in the future', we also have an overlap of meaning with a phrase that is usually used as part of a set expression - "I'll remember that in future", "Be more careful in future", "In future, please be punctual". When discussing The Future itself, rather than some behaviour that we may be modifying, we will always use "the", just as we always do with The Past - so we would say "we've quarrelled in the past, but we won't in future". See how "we ate animals in the past, but we won't in future" is subtly different from "we ate animals in the past, but we won't in the future". (I've just read your link, and the 'from now on' point is well made - something must already exist/occur/have happened for it to be modified 'in future').

It's also true that 'have you got' is more common than 'do you have', but there may be a class issue here - in BE, 'do you have' is probably used more by those in higher socio-economic groups, and has a more formal sound to it.

I love English for all the fascinating nuances, and BE in particular - but I pity anyone trying to learn it! Tiny deviations from these subtle anomalies give you away, even if you perfect an accent (or your accent is perfect!). I was teaching in Madrid a few years ago, and my US-raised, Spanish boss had a phenomenal grasp of English, but even she would get caught out. In BE, we might say "lightning-fast", "like lightning", or "quick as a flash" to describe some almost instantaneous response. When she said "fast as lightning", something about it just didn't sound right to my ear - maybe it's an AE phrase!?


Posted by: Adrian Gould at June 24, 2008 06:17 AM

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