On many occasions when submitting this column I have received a reply from my editor reading “Thanks. American usage, please.” It’s the extra U’s, mostly. They’re my favourite…er, favorite. So decorative. This really shouldn’t be a problem for me. I grew up in the U.S. I was born in Washington, D.C. I have ancestors who fought against the British in the American Revolution.
My British credentials and residency are comparatively recent and marital in nature. They are sound, though. I have, for example, developed a passion for cricket since crossing the Pond, and this is a sport Americans are taught is inherently ridiculous. How can two teams play for five days, the score line read 379-8 at close of play, and the match be declared a draw? Those are good points. But consider this: you can bring a picnic to a local cricket match comprising crusty bread, a cheese platter, quince jelly, pate, and a bottle of wine and no one will consider this odd. I have enough picnics at cricket ground that I can now understand the infamous cricket match chapter in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise. If there was a literary litmus test for Britishness surely this is it. Exempli Gratia:
“The innings opened briskly. Mr. Barrow, who was rather a showy bat, though temperamental, took the bowling at the factory end of the pitch and cheered the spirits of his side by producing a couple of twos in the first over. Mr. Garrett, canny and cautious, stonewalled perseveringly through five balls of the following over and then cut the leather through the slips for a useful three. A single off the next ball brought the bowling back to Mr. Barrow, who, having started favourably, exhibited a happy superiority complex and settled down to make runs.”
Once one has absorbed enough knowledge to decode this passage, it is very difficult indeed to spell any number of words without a U.
I don’t think cricket is entirely to blame, however. There is also the fact that I am simply a terrible speller. Always have been. Despite being gifted at spotting the misspellings of others, when writing my own copy, there are words I can’t spell well enough to look up. Corroborate is one. Meringue is another. I know they’re spelled correctly here, but that’s because I keep a list labelled “Words I Can’t Spell Well Enough to Look Up.” Or rather, I keep a list labeled as such, because “labelled” is British usage. They like the double-L’s. I’m quite fond of them, too.
“Quite” is another key term of British usage. It’s spelled the same everywhere, but In America, it is synonymous with very, whereas in the UK it means something more like ‘rather’ or ‘somewhat.’ An American friend of mine discovered this to his chagrin when working on his masters degree in the UK. He spent most of a year pleased at being told by his supervisor that his draft chapters were “quite good” before someone clued him in.
Of course, there are nuances. “Quite good” is straight-forwardly “somewhat good,” but “really quite good” signals that British understatement has come into play. The greater the inflection of surprise on the “really”, the greater the understatement, and therefore the closer the British “quite” comes to an American “quite.” Of course, the phrase still lacks the enthusiasm an American would give it. The surprise in the “really” is utterly authentic. Conversely, without the “really” there is a possibility that “quite good” is an understated British overstatement: the thing being described is terrible, but describing it as good would be a step too far for decency, so the “quite” takes the overstatement down to a more decorous level.
None of this was covered on the Life in the UK test I had to pass for permanent residency. For that I only had to know things like who is entitled to free NHS dental treatment, the date of St Andrew’s Day, and the percentage of the population that is Roman Catholic. (Yes, really. 10% according to the study guide.) It’s as if the bureaucrats who set these tests have no idea what one actually needs to know to get by in the UK, let alone assimilate with the native population.
The first time I first visited London, at the age of 14, thanks to years spent reading British literature I had a pretty good handle on the history, geography, and polite vocabulary of the British Isles, but books will actually only get you so far. During my undergrad I spent a semester in the UK and made significant progress in the less polite vocabulary. At that time I also learnt — and I share this as a public service — that “pants” in the UK are underwear; what Americans call pants are called trousers. So do not — I repeat, DO NOT — tell the young man sitting next to you in lectures who has just complimented your appearance that you are wearing a dress because “it’s just too nice a day to wear pants.”
That’s another one that didn’t make the Life in the UK test. Bureaucrats are truly culture dunces.
If you want to know if someone is getting on in Britain you need to ask the following questions:
- Your line-manager says your work has been “quite good” this year. Are you chuffed or bricking it?
- Pronounce “Edinburgh,” “Bicester,” “Ashby-de-la-Zouch,” and “Llandudno.”
- It’s the third day of the test. Rain is predicted in the afternoon. Ben Stokes is carrying a niggle but Joe Root just hit a double century. England ended their innings on 462-8 declared. The Windies posted 214 all out. Should England enforce the follow-on?
- How many U’s are missing from the following text?: “Your favorite uncle, the honorable Mr Duncan Burbank, upon hearing a rumor that his glamorous neighbor was harboring fugitives, donned his armor and laid vigorous siege to her pebbledashed suburban semi-detached house. The valor and the splendor of his labors should be remembered, however humorous a figure he appeared in his multi-coloured battle regalia and bowler hat.”
- What is the speed limit on a two-way single-lane country road with passing points and why is 60mph a perfectly reasonable speed to travel around blind corners into oncoming farm traffic if your American wife would only stop shrieking in terror?
- Is it acceptable for a lady to wear pants to a summer wedding?
- Cuppa? How do you take it? Builders?
Anyone who can attempt an answer to any of those will be prone to British Usage in their writing, however much they intend to comply with editorial edicts. Which is to say, I am really quite sorry, Chris.
(It’s quite all right, I assure you. No apologies necessary. Carry on. – Ed.)
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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