Everyone seems to know that there are big differences in word choice in America vs. the UK. We Americans tend to have been exposed to enough Bridget Jones (or whomever else is the cultural cross-over dear at the moment) to know about the difference between and elevator and a lift, and the fact that “pants” in the UK means underwear, not trousers (although I do still mess that one up all the time). Most of the time I remember to ask for my coffee for “take-away” instead of “to go”. In any given sentence that I hear here, there is likely at least one word choice issue that makes it clear that I’m “here” and not “there” (aka “home”). There are, however, two peculiarities of British common sentence structure that I simply cannot parse.
Example 1: When I am the next person in line at the bank or the drugstore or wherever, and it comes my turn to be next, the cashier or clerk typically says,
“Can I help?”
Not, “Can I help you?” and certainly not “May I help you?” — just “Can I help?” I can’t figure this one out. I guess it’s a truncation, that the word “you” is implied and that there’s some perfectly good reason to drop it from the actual uttered sentence. Maybe this is just an example of the infamous English sense of economy! But I have to admit, it drives me absolutely crazy.
Example 2: This one requires a bit of background. There is this magazine here called “The Big Issue” and it is sold on the street by vendors “looking to overcome the crises surrounding homelessness”. It’s a lovely idea, although I have never actually bought a copy … but here’s why. I don’t know how general this is, but every street vendor I have ever heard trying to sell the Big Issue to passers-by utters this phrase:
“Big Issue, Big Issue please.”
I’m doing my best with the punctuation there, I’m not 100% sure that I’ve got it right. It’s definitely phrased as a statement, not a question, as you can tell from the fact that the tone is falling and not rising at the end of this utterance. As for the grammatical structure of this sentence, I am absolutely stumped. Why “please”? The word “please” is typically an adverb, but in this sentence there is no verb. “Please” can itself be a verb, “to please” but again it makes no sense when the sentence subject is “Big Issue”. Again, I think this is a case of a truncation, that there are words dropped that—if present—would make this into an actual sentence. I’m not sure what they are, though! Is it “Buy the Big Issue, please”? Or perhaps could it be, “Here’s the Big Issue, if you please.” I don’t know, I really can’t figure this one out. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
I can say this, although I’m captive and can’t help what the girls in the drug store say when I walk up to the counter with my basket of shampoo and toothpaste, until I hear a grammatical sentence coming from the street vendors I most certainly will NOT break down and buy the Big Issue!!!