Book Review: Algeo, British or American English?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 29 16:35:15 UTC 2007

AUTHOR: Algeo, John
TITLE: British or American English?
SUBTITLE: A Handbook of Words and Grammar Patterns
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press.
YEAR: 2006

Reviewed by Carrie A. Ankerstein, Department of Human Communication
Sciences, University of Sheffield, England


John Algeo's book _British or American English?: a handbook of words and
grammar patterns_ is part of a series entitled _Studies in English
Language_ which aims to represent theoretical and descriptive
contributions to the study of national varieties of English, both written
and spoken.  Algeo's focus is on British and American English and how they
differ in terms of grammar and word usage.

Algeo notes that other comparative studies have been carried out
contrasting the two forms of English, but argues these have focused, for
the most part, on intonation, pronunciation and vocabulary. Grammatical
differences have been less comprehensively explored.

This study takes American as its reference point and describes British
English usage in relation to it. The rationale for this approach is that
there are more native speakers of American English and that this form is
becoming more dominant in non-native countries, excepting Western Europe.

The data were gathered over 20 years based on the author's intuitive sense
of British usage. These intuitions were later confirmed via consultation
of corpora. Algeo notes the value of corpora, but also the limitations.
For example, corpora differ in size and type of text, making comparisons
difficult. Some corpora are also not extensively tagged, making searches
difficult. Algeo states a few solutions to some of these problems and
confesses that, where necessary, intuition was used as far as British
usages were concerned.

The most commonly used corpus in the book is the Cambridge International
Corpus (CIC). The corpus contains written and spoken texts for British and
American English. These categories differed in size, but were weighted
equally for the purposes of the study. There was no separation of written
and spoken texts. Algeo argues that ignoring this distinction is unlikely
to affect the general conclusions concerning British and American usage.

All citations used in the book are of British usage, mostly drawn from the
author's collection over 20 years. These ''real life English'' samples are
chiefly drawn from newspapers and popular fiction.

Conventions and abbreviations are clearly described prior to the entries.
For example, many statistics are given as ''x iptmw'' where x is a number
of ''instances per two million words'' a convention used by the CIC. Also
''common-core English'' is defined as usages that are common to British
and American English, with little difference between the two forms. The
book is written assuming no prior knowledge of linguistics and is
described as an ''accessible account of how English is actually used''.
However, there is some unexplained terminology that may pass the
lay-reader by, including terms such as ''productive suffix'', though this
is unlikely to prove to be a hurdle in using and understanding the

There are 17 chapters. The first 10 deal with parts of speech, including:
verbs, determiners, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers,
prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. The final seven chapters are
concerned with syntactic constructions, including: complementation,
mandative constructions, expanded predicates, concord, propredicates, tag
questions and miscellaneous. The miscellaneous section includes topics
such as focus, phatic language, numbers and dates. There is also a
bibliography of British book citation sources; a bibliography of studies,
dictionaries and corpora used; and an index of words.


The chapters on syntactic constructions do not treat all matters of
English syntax, as there is little variation between the two forms.
Instead, focus is on a few matters that do show significant differences.
These include, for example, the characteristically British construction of
the use of a nation's name as a modifying noun phrase, yielding ''Turkey
carpets'' rather than ''Turkish carpets'' and ''Bulgaria Quidditch robes''
as opposed to ''Bulgarian...''. Also covered are the differences in use of
the definite article ''the''. Algeo explains that following certain
prepositions, the definite article is absent in British English, making
for example ''out of hospital'' where the American speaker would say ''out
of the hospital.'' In some cases, the source of the difference is given.
This includes the origin of the suffix -er(s) that is generally added to
the first syllable of a noun, creating ''brekkers'' for breakfast,
''fresher'' for freshman and ''rugger'' for rugby. This, explains Algeo,
started out as Oxbridge (a compound of Oxford and Cambridge, referring to
the universities) and public (American: private) school slang.

What the book does not provide is definitions of words or phrases used,
including terms such as Oxbridge and the difference between the American
and British meanings of ''public school''. Definitions are also omitted in
the chapter covering interjections. For example, the British interjection
''Bob's your uncle'' is listed, but the meaning of which is unexplained.
In some cases, the meaning can be gleaned from the citation given, e.g.,
''I was getting out of the car when -- Bob's yer uncle -- there was Peter
Finch paying off his taxi''. [Bob's your uncle means something like
''there you are''.] Thus, it may be necessary for some readers to consult
a dictionary for unknown words or phrases.

A forgivable omission is some comment on the differences in punctuation in
British and American English. Clearly, this is a study of grammatical
differences, but since the entries include both spoken and written texts,
some discussion on differences in punctuation conventions might have been

Whilst being an excellent reference for those who study comparative
linguistics, Algeo's book is also useful for teachers of English as a
Foreign Language who must cover American and British English, whilst being
a native user of one or the other. It is also possibly useful for confused
ex-pats of either side of the Atlantic who find some phrases odd or just
plain ungrammatical.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Carrie Ankerstein is currently a post-doctoral research
assistant at the University of Sheffield, England, having completed her
Ph.D. in the Department of Human Communication Sciences at the University
of Sheffield in December. She has an M.Phil. in Applied Linguistics from
the University of Cambridge, England and a B.A. in German Linguistics from
the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA and the Albert-Ludwig's
University in Freiburg, Germany. She has taught English as a second
language in Germany and has also taught on Linguistics modules at the
University of Sheffield. Her research interests include psycholinguistics
and implicit language processing.


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