More British grammatical adventures

I have come to the conclusion that a big difference between American and British grammar in daily practice is in the Brits’ tendency to abbreviate. The discussion on “port of last departure” versus (the more specific but longer) “airport of…” yesterday, the “can I help?” statement, the “Big Issue, please” phrase and others. It is as though the Brits are okay with leaving a word off since it is somehow implied, and it is this that confuses me since I’m not a Brit and therefore am not used to this convention.

The latest example came to me today when cooking lunch. I worked at home this morning and was saute-ing some broccoli–I recently discovered that I am more likely to eat a healthy meal if I do it this way around than if I work 9-6 and come home too tired to bother cooking. Thank goodness my job is outcome-driven and there are not formal hours! Anyway, the package of broccoli florets from Sainsbury’s had a sticker on it with the words “Best of British” and again I made that puzzled face. I checked the dictionary and it did not help, unless one wanted to defend my new theory of words implied. As a noun, it can refer to people or the language. Clearly neither of these is broccoli. Therefore it appears to be being used as an adjective but with the noun being modified mysteriously missing, and therefore only implied. I personally would probably have made the stickers say “Best of Britain” but that’s just me… What could the noun be? Best of British-grown farm produce or something, I assume. I guess I see how that does not roll off the tongue. But it is an odd one, and similar in construction to “Can I help?” with the “you” implied. There were several times last week when I had to get one of my fellow travellers to explain a word from British, and I have noted that there is usually at least one word that is different in each sentence when comparing British and American English. However, This truly is a peculiarity of grammar, not word choice per se.

The thing I find most odd about this is that it is a very casual, informal and almost slang type convention, while other things in British language are almost archaic. Yesterday I spent an hour debating with an editor who was working on an article I had written. They wanted to capitalize the word “nature” in the middle of sentences, when I was talking about engineers doing biomimetic things. It took several minutes for me to even track down the reason for this rule, which came down to this rule: “Common nouns may be capitalized when used as names for the entire class of such things, e.g. what a piece of work is Man.” I managed to argue that I was not referring to all of Nature and therefore did not need the “N” but it did take some time. I can’t imagine having this discussion with an American editor. The good news is that I learned something, although one could argue that the likelihood of my ever using this new capital letter rule is fairly low.

Alright, I’m ducking now, waiting for the response to this one.

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3 responses to “More British grammatical adventures

  1. > “can I help?”

    Once again, the context establishes the meaning, surely? If a sales assistant comes up to you and asks this, then obviously it is you they are willing to help, not that person over there, not President Bush, not the Man in the Moon.

    > “Big Issue, please”

    This does not sound like standard British English usage to me (I wonder if the vendor is not a native speaker?) So I am dubious about whether it is useful as example of British English.

    It would take a researcher in linguistics to confirm whether Brits are more likely to use abbreviations than Americans. My hunch is that it is the other way round. And I did notice that NFAH, in her additional comment on Mexican food (topic immediately above this one), uses the term ‘guac’ instead of ‘guacamole’!

  2. Where I live, “Big Issue, Please” is standard by a range of street vendors.

    Re: guac. I agree, I shortened a word, but that’s different than leaving one off entirely, no? I agree, the context establishes the meaning both for “Can I help” and “Best of British” but it does seem notice-able to one trained in a different flavor of the language that the omitted word is not a construction I am accustomed to!

  3. > Where I live, “Big Issue, Please” is standard by a range of street vendors.

    But not where I live. Again, I suggest it is not a good example to use for British English in general, but let’s wait and see what other Brits say.

    As for ‘Can I help?’, if you look up the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, you will find that ‘help’, even in American usage, can be transitive or intransitive. If intransitive, it has no object. ‘Can I help?’ is in the verb’s intransitive form, so it is not that the object is missing, or that the sentence has been abbreviated. M-W gives as the first definition of the intransitive form of ‘help’, “give assistance or support “. So ‘Can I help?’ is exactly equivalent to ‘Can I give assistance or support?’

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