Apr 202009

There seem to be some rumours about AmE in English language teaching that don’t tally with what I’m hearing on the streets. So here’s a quick quiz for British teachers to check their ‘merican.

1 Is a bumper called a fender in the US?
2 Do American’s have pennies?
3 Is an ‘oh’ always pronounced ‘zero’ in American telephone numbers?
4 Do Americans say mustn’t?
5 Do Americans use the present perfect?

1 No. A bumper is called a bumper here – just like BrE. A fender is an AmE word for the part of a car that’s like a mudguard round a wheel of a vehicle. So a fender-bender is a small collision.
2 Yes, they call their one cent coins pennies. They just don’t put them in slots and spend them in quite the same way.
3. No. Americans say ‘oh’ as well.
4 No. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone using that contraction here, except me. They might say things are ‘not allowed’ though.
5 Yes. Really! BrE speakers use the present perfect slightly more in conversation than AmE speakers. AmE speakers sometimes use a past tense where only a present perfect is possible in BrE. But the present perfect is alive and well in AmE.
Here are some usage notes on just, yet and already. American readers – I hope you’ll tell me if I’ve got things wrong:

  • British and American speakers both use ‘yet’, ‘already’ and ‘just’ with the present perfect: Have you done it yet? I’ve already done it. I’ve just finished. (BrE and AmE)
  • American speakers might also use a past tense with ‘yet’ and ‘already’. Did you do it yet? I already did it.(AmE)
  • British and American speakers both use ‘just’ with the past tense to describe something that happened a moment ago: Did you just call me? (BrE and AmE)
  • British speakers generally use ‘just’ with the present perfect to give news. I’ve just passed my driving test!
    American speakers might say this too, but they also use the past tense to give news: I just passed my driving test

I’m still not sure exactly when American speakers prefer to use the past with ‘just’, ‘already’ and ‘yet’. But my hypothesis is this:
Past forms may be a tad more informal in AmE, and present perfect forms more favoured when you’re speaking ‘carefully’. And there might be something else going on with ‘yet ‘where ‘Did you do it yet?’ sounds a bit more urgent to an American ear than ‘Have you done it yet?’. One helpful American has offered this rule of thumb: if you can end the question with ‘godammit’, you can use ‘did’.

 Posted by at 7:46 am

  17 Responses to “Quiz time”

  1. […] Oh and Brits wanting to test their ‘merican might like to try this quiz. […]

  2. Sort of off topic, but in US English it also seems possible to use “yet” where in the UK we’d use “still”. I was once told a joke, which I can no longer remember (but which wasn’t very funny even after I’d translated the punchline, so you’re not missing anything from the fact that I can now only remember the punchline), but which ended “It’s in her yet”. It took me ages to work out that it meant “It’s still in her”. It seemed kind of archaic to my UK ears.

  3. Oh, not off topic at all, Andy. I think you may have latched onto something here and there could be something curious going on around ‘still’.. Let me investigate, and THANK YOU!

  4. After a bit of good old “native speaker intuiting”, I tend to agree with you about the slightly more formal/slightly more informal distinction for present perfect/past simple in AmE.

    One things that’s curious, in positive statements with “already”, the two are interchangeable, though I’m always one to put the “already” at the end. “I did it already.” Nevermind that where I’m from you’re more likely to hear someone say “I done did it”, but that’s another story.

    Also, for some reason, “I didn’t do it yet” sounds O.K., but “I didn’t get the message yet” doesn’t–I much prefer “I haven’t gotten the message yet.” Maybe it’s just a question of prosody, an esthetic thing–just me.

    Also, regarding “It’s in her yet”, to me it sounds like just a simple play on words from a bad joke–and yes, very archaic. You probably won’t hear this usage from any living American, unless they’re an actor playing the villain in a Victorian-era historical drama or something…

  5. Oh a big welcome Nicky. Thanks for sorting out the archaic ‘yet’ thing and delighted to get your native speaker intuiting.
    That ‘already’ positioning is an interesting one. I’m really not sure but I wonder if there’s a tendency to put it there in NooYawker speak – perhaps some Yiddish influence from the Jewish population?
    Where do you come from? There’s a song called ‘I done did it’:

  6. Holy cow! That’s the first time I’ve seen Mike Jones mentioned on a “linguistics” blog! Nice one! Who? Mike Jones! Who? Mike Jones!

    I’m from North Carolina, not as far south as Mr. Jones (Houston, TX) or Li’l Weezy (New Orleans), but still technically “the Dirty South” – i.e., the losing side of the Civil War.

    Now, if you’ll excuse I’m going to make a Mike Jones-related lesson for my blog, he he he…

  7. Yeah, Mike Jones! Who? Mike Jones!
    Funny thing is Nicky I didn’t know you were fond of hip hop when I wrote that, but I just revisited: http://strictly4myteacherz.wordpress.com/category/listening/
    and found the bias. Looking forward to that lesson.

  8. Hello Vicki,

    This week my adult students will be taking your quiz in class! I’m getting them to visit different blogs to increase their learning and several were very interested in British versus American English. I know it is meant for teachers, but it will be an interesting discussion!

  9. Oh, do hope it went well Shelly (and lovely to meet you at BESIG)
    It would be fun to put together a little quiz for students – nice task for me for a cold winters night. Thanks for the idea!

  10. […] not a big Coldplay fan.  But, I’m having a hard time finding a language point to teach in a Mike Jones song, as I’d only half-jokingly mentioned on another blog.  Maybe for simple telephone number practice (“If you wanna get me for a show or give me a […]

  11. For “American’s” read “Americans”.

    I am a Yank of the Yanks, and I certainly said “You mustn’t do that!” to my errant daughter. (Now at age 23 she says it to me.)

  12. Oh great to meet you John and thank you so much for chipping in.

    This is a very timely comment, John, because I have been wondering about this this week. I have been engaged in a project where I’ve been collecting together lots of extracts from American movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and I have collected lots of spoken examples of ‘mustn’t’. Lots and lots!

    Has the language changed I’ve been wondering or have I not been playing close enough attention? Quite possibly the latter. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English is a very hefty and noble tome and it indicates mustn’t is rare in both varieties, but particularly so in American. But I am now wondering if it might be wrong about that. It can be a problem when the the corpora is small and I think the spoken American corpus they were using might have been pretty small.

  13. Such a late reply, but I had to chime in about mustn’t! I found your website through ‘separated by a common language.’ When I taught English in Southeast Asia (using horrible books with no attempt whatsoever to make their americans american), this would often come up – it was always hard to get them to say “can’t” or “shouldn’t” instead of “mustn’t” (because their accents were american – if they had sounded british, as they do in singapore/malaysia, it wouldn’t have been a problem).

    I understand what John says (John posts quite expertly on many linguistics blogs), but I think I have to say that the generation after his, ‘mustn’t’ lost that meaning for many americans outside the midwest. I find that my cohorts only use it to suggest a negative “probably” or the equivalent (with all the messy modal negatives and auxiliaries moving around), as in “he mustn’t be from around here” to mean “he’s probably not from around here,” or better yet, “he can’t possibly be from around here.” The imperative heft seems to have been lost (at least in my circles), though the prohibitive power is still there.

  14. Do you have anything on differences in preposition use?

    E.g., Agree something vs. agree on something
    Directly you arrive vs. directly after you arrive
    I’m on [phone number] vs. I’m at [phone number]

    If so I’d love to see it and share with Am and UK colleagues.

  15. I don’t Eleanor, but I’ll listen out for them and try to do something on them if you like. In fact I’ll try to listen out for lots of ‘small’ words because as well as differences with prepositions like ‘on/at the weekend’ there’s also stuff like ‘in (the) future’ and ‘anyway(s)’

  16. […] and Brits wanting to test their ‘merican might like to try this quiz.  Posted by Vicki at 6:11 […]

  17. […] and Brits wanting to test their ‘merican might like to try this quiz.  Posted by Vicki at 6:11 […]

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