METM19 Chronicles: Lynne Murphy

The evolution of concision: editors’ role in changing English

I think I first became aware of the difference between British and American English as a child when Auntie Mavis came to stay. I must have heard Americans in films and on television, of course, but to have someone in the same room talking with that accent really brought it home to me that this wasn’t quite the same language that we spoke at home. And on top of that her teenage daughters kept wanting us to say things twice or three times “because it sounds so cute”.

In fact Mavis (my father’s aunt) wasn’t American at all. She’d moved over at the end of the Second World War to marry her GI sweetheart. Although to me she always seemed to have completely gone native, in later years she confessed that she didn’t feel at home on either side of the “pond”. In England, she was far too American and in the States she was always an English woman.

The reverse could be said of Lynne Murphy, who gave the closing keynote talk at METM19. An American who has also lived in South Africa, she is now Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex, putting her in a wonderful position to review the differences between the forms of English spoken on either side of the Atlantic, something she has done extremely successfully in best-selling books, articles and a popular blog, Separated by a Common Language.

In her fascinating talk, she undermined the preconceptions both British and Americans come out with when talking about their own and each other’s versions of the language. There is the British theory, for example, that English is constantly being invaded by awful Americanisms that have to be fought off at all costs but which all end up being adopted into the language. This does happen, of course, but it seems that sometimes the words we believe to be American actually originated in the UK. This includes a good deal of the business-speak so heartily detested by many British people.

Not only that, although in Britain we may not believe it, words also travel in the opposite direction, carried above all by British TV series and films. Harry Potter is apparently responsible for several “Briticisms” spreading to the US, including the term “ginger” to refer to a person with red hair. Meanwhile, Americans have their own ideas about words they use that might be of UK origin. Usually they are expressions that sound slightly quaint or old-fashioned – but some of them are as American as fast food and baseball.

One big difference between Brits and Americans is that Americans know their grammar. The reason for this is simple: they are taught it. While in the UK whole generations of schoolchildren barely learned the difference between a noun and an adjective, in the US they are properly taught, and this teaching goes on to university level, where courses in writing are a compulsory part of many degrees. British students, it seems, learn by osmosis or not at all. Ask an American, said Lynne Murphy, why something is written this way and not that way and you will probably get some sort of grammatical explanation. A British person won’t have a clue why, but they will know that it “sounds right”.

She also gave some useful pointers to the way English is developing on both sides of the Atlantic. Most importantly, it is becoming denser, which means we are saying more with fewer words. Articles are disappearing and we are constructing sentences packed tighter and tighter with words. This is happening more in the US than it is in the UK. Our language is also becoming more colloquial, as our writing becomes more like our speech, with more informal expressions and contractions. And it is becoming more democratic, with change driven by all speakers, not just the elites.

For Lynne Murphy, though, in Kentucky and Cornwall it is essentially the same language. It may not always be easy, but Brits and Americans can understand each other’s films and television shows, novels, poetry and academic papers. Like it or not, the relationship is a close, ongoing one, and, however much some of us might want to at times, we can never follow the suggestion of the old song and “call the whole thing off”.

  This METM19 presentation was chronicled by Simon Berrill.

Featured photo by METM19 photographer Mario Javorčić.

6 thoughts on “METM19 Chronicles: Lynne Murphy

  1. Lynne made a very good point about the big gap in grammar knowledge between UK and US speakers. I so wish I’d had a decent grounding at school.
    The whole language learning syllabus was (is?) so illogical in the UK. Good at languages at age 12? Great, start learning German but give up Latin because it doesn’t fit on the timetable with the extra foreign language.

    1. It’s an interesting point. I also fell into the grammar black hole and learned mine by osmosis and by studying foreign languages. Is there any MET member who has school-age children in the UK who can tell us what the grammar teaching situation there is these days?

      1. I learned grammar by osmosis, by studying foreign languages and by teaching English at a Bavarian university (a useful experience even though I had to modernize my English afterwards). Lynne’s talk explained why my American teaching colleagues were better at explaining things like the use of commas in English unhesitatingly. And why American editors can respond to their choices being challenged with something more convincing than “because I say so” or “because that’s just the way it is”.

        I like the idea of relying quite heavily on precedence, British-style, especially when we take the time to apply precedents objectively (by checking a corpus, say) rather than just using our own hunches as “precedents” based on a sample size of n = 1. But I could benefit from becoming more “American”—a more rules-based approach would probably make me more productive (less hemming and hawing, quicker decision-making) and better able to explain some of my choices.

        1. Yes. I didn’t mention teaching English, which I also did for a while, learning a lot of grammar, or at least terms and rules for what I already knew by osmosis. I was horrified, for example, when my students started talking about “the Saxon genitive” only to discover that it was just my old friend the possessive apostrophe.

  2. Thanks, Simon, for the really lovely write up of one of my top two METM keynote presentations! Lynne is a masterful analyst and communicator; I love the way she lets several different balloons loose and then brings them all back together in a tidy and gorgeous bunch.

Leave a Reply