Understanding English in England



Author’s Note: I wrote this blog just prior to the terrible attack on Westminster Bridge March 22. I sincerely hope this event won’t dissuade anyone from traveling there. There really is no place like England, regardless of how you speak English.

England is Part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom

England itself is a nation that is part of Great Britain, an island that includes two other nations, Scotland and Wales.

The United Kingdom (full name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is just that. Northern Ireland is the fourth nation within the UK. People from all four nations are carry British passports and are considered British although most prefer the more exacting definition of their nation.

The island of Ireland is divided by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most people who identify as Irish are from the Republic. The Northern Irish are just that.

Both the Republic and Northern Ireland are part of the geographic designation “British Isles.” This also includes several islands governed by England, Wales, and Scotland:

  • The Isle of Wight, off England’s southern coast, belongs to England only.
  • The Isle of Anglesey, off the Welsh coast, belongs to Wales.
  • Scotland claims the Shetland, Hebrides, and Orkney Islands.

Then there’s the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey, islands that do not belong to any of these nations but are properties of the British Crown.

I highly recommend this five-minute video by CGP Grey for more information on the UK’s reach across the British Isles and the world.

Don’t Assume a Person is English!

It’s tempting to assume a person you meet in England is English. However, there are lots of non-English in England who identify with their nation. Even many Irish (as in Republic) emigrate to study or work in England.

Mistaking a Scot as English could be enough for  him to whip out his dubh or dirk.  Even some Welsh can get riled up. f they start speaking their native language (it’s now taught in their schools), you’ll be lost. “Rwy’n Cymraeg!”

I facebombed Queen Elizabeth whilst in England.
Facebombing the English Queen, circa 1995

While we’re at it, don’t bring up the Queen or her family unless you’re certain the person with whom you are speaking is English or from Northern Ireland. People from Wales and Scotland tolerate her at best.

The Scots refer to her as Elizabeth I since the historic Elizabeth wasn’t their Queen during her lifetime. Scotland had its own monarchs, including the disastrous Mary Queen of Scots, who Elizabeth arrested, imprisoned for 20 years, and beheaded. Mary’s son James ended up inheriting her throne and Elizabeth’s, joining the two nations in an uneasy alliance since 1603.

Stay tuned to see what happens after Brexit.

How do you know if you’re speaking with someone who’s Norn Iron or from the Republic? I don’t know. Best to let sleeping royals lie.

Key Differences in American and Queen’s English

I don’t know if you can call it Queen’s English everywhere. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the topic of anything Royal can become a touchy one.

Regardless, here’s a list of important linguistic differences between English spoken in the UK and in the US. I learned most of them through personal, sometimes embarrassing, experiences.

  1. Tea is any kind of snack. It’s rarely the whole afternoon ritual and might not even include actual tea!
  2. Spotted dick is not an STD. It’s a popular dessert: bread pudding with raisins.
  3. Pudding isn’t anything like our pudding. It’s soft cake, usually served with cream.
  4. Yorkshire Pudding isn’t cake but a kind of soufflé.
  5. Blood pudding is a pork sausage that includes pork blood and oatmeal. It’s also called black pudding.
  6. Bangers are also sausages.
  7. Sultanas are a type of raisin, not exotic foreigners.
  8. A rubber is an eraser. Galoshes are still galoshes.
  9. A lift isn’t a ride home but an elevator.
  10. “Mind the gap” means “watch your step.” You see it mostly in the London Underground and train stations.
  11. The Underground is London’s subway, not a club.
  12.  A coach is a bus. You won’t have your Jane Austen experience on a coach.
  13. A boot sale isn’t a sale on boots. It’s more like a swap meet or trunk sale.
  14. A boot is a car trunk.
  15. A bonnet is a car hood.
  16. A fag is a cigarette.
  17. Infant school is daycare or preschool.
  18. Someone who’s mad is crazy. Madness = insanity.
  19. “Sod it” means “screw it.” “Feck” is Irish for a similar expression.
  20. The phrase Hobson’s Choice—take it or leave it—came from a Cambridge stable owner. A horse is a horse of course of course.

Grammar Anarchy

There are some grammatical differences as well. The one I noticed the most involves plural versus singular distinctions.

Is a team or band a group or separate individuals? Grammatically, we screw this up.

Americans tend to consider everything and anything that ends with an “s” as a plural, even if it’s a singular item. Not so in the UK.

  • There: Pink Floyd reunite in a one-time reunion. (I wish.)
  • Here: Pink Floyd reunites in a one-time reunion.

Yet we’d both say “The Rolling Stones play” because we see an “s” at the end of the band’s name. They just see everything as plural.

Personally, I’d treat the Yankees and say, Manchester United as a singular entity. The Yankees would agree; they don’t even put players’ names on their uniform shirts! But it would sound odd to say “Manchester United play an exhibition game against Phoenix United next week.”

Have you travelled and heard unusual phrases to American ears? Add your comments below!




Active Writing for Better Reading

I  wrote a post on LinkedIn about the Oxford comma debate that included a discussion on style guides. As I noted, style guides differ on their Oxford opinions.

One thing they all do agree on is that writing should be done in the active sense.

What Is Active Writing?

The phrase active writing is kind of funny when you first hear it. It’s not like you can write while working out or going for a run. In fact, most writers prefer to write in quiet places. Some are OK with a little background music.

(I sometimes have NPR on in the background. The reporters’ soothing voices make me feel like I’m not really alone in my home office.)

Passive sentences often force a reader to re-read them. They can be difficult to follow. Active writing is straightforward and a lot easier for readers to understand.

Active writing means making the subject of your sentence the center of the action.

Think about instruction manuals. They’re easier to follow when they go from a to b to c.

I was recently reminded of this during a struggle with a jammed photocopier at a school where I often substitute teach. The instructions that appeared on the copier’s screen were step-by-step. They told me which door to open, which lever or knob to lift or twist, where to spot the problem, and how to remove a jammed paper. This helped me easily fix the problem.

If those instructions began with something like, “the jam is in Area D, under Lever 2,” I probably would have moved on to another copier and let someone else fix the jam. In other words, I would have been as passive as the instructions!

How to Change Passive Writing into Active

Here’s an example of how to change a passive sentence and into an active one:

Passive: “With Salt River Fields just a mile from my house and loving baseball as I do, I’m working spring training games.”

Active: “I love baseball and work spring training games at Salt River Fields, which is only a mile from my house.”

Even better is to split the sentence into two distinct ones:

“I love baseball and work spring training games at Salt River Fields. It’s only a mile from my house.”

I find it helps to approach a blog or article like a really good reporter. Sports pages, appropriately, often have the best examples of active writing. It’s an active topic whose followers demand straightforward language.

Jane Austen: The Epitome of Passive Writing!

I feel for high school students assigned to read Jane Austen’s books.

While I enjoy Austen, I admit I managed (somehow!) to avoid her in high school. I read her on my own and I’m not ashamed to admit this often happened after seeing a movie based on one of her books. Her writing is about the best of the 19th century but my god, some of the dialogue is so passive it’s can be really hard to understand what anyone is saying.

Of course, this was how Austen made fun of the society in which she lived. Her heroines were outspoken young women who shocked their mothers by saying what they meant instead of tiptoeing around.

I used to work with a writer who loved Jane Austen. I liked to send her what I called Austen-speak IMs:

Me: Would you not like to go out for lunch with us?

I would hear snickering.

She: Sure. What time?

Me: Yes or no. Would you not like to go out for lunch with us?

More snickering.

Saved By the Graphic Novel!

Marvel's graphic novels of Jane Austen's books are in active voice.
Are we not speaking in active voice?

Marvel took on the task to create adaptations of Jane Austen, which may be the only way she’ll be preserved in years to come. I bought the one for Sense & Sensibility.

It’s like Cliff’s Notes with illustrations. The adaptor, Nancy Butler, is an unapologetic fan who did a sound job with all the narrative Austen used so that readers could follow her rapid scene changes.

The illustrations by Sonny Liew are fun but I couldn’t help notice how the adapted Edward is nowhere as pretty as Hugh Grant or Dan Stevens. I guess Liew took a pass on Austen cinema!