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10 Comments

  • This not exactly eyebrow-raising to an American English-speaker (you see what I did there)…

    In all seriousness, one of the things I try to get across to my English learners is that we have lots of forms of indirectness in American English. Something I’m curious about is whether there’s really any corpus-based or other evidence that distancing or softening is really as vastly more common in British English as BE speakers are fond of claiming. It’s true that “quite” doesn’t appear as often in US corpora (for various usages), but…

    Anyway, just curious, and I’m not claiming that you’ve made any such claim here!

  • Good point, Clarissa, I think all this is primarily relevant to speakers of other languages, who may sometimes by mystified by this preference for understatement and indirectness (which is not common to all cultures). But you’re right that there’s a somewhat lazy tendency (mea culpa) to see this as characteristically British. I’m not aware of any comparative corpus-based research on this, but I just did a crude count using British and American corpus data, and – to cut (or make) a long story short – the combined count for ‘not exactly’ and ‘*n’t exactly’ (isn’t, wasn’t etc) suggests this expression occurs just over 10 times per million words in British texts, and almost 15 per million in American texts. So (though this isn’t exactly scientific) if anything, it’s more common among American speakers! In fact I suspect there are a lot of variables – regional distribution (in the UK, northerners are stereotypically more ‘direct’), idiolectal preferences, and so on.

  • Oh terrific post, Michael. Thank you!

    Another couple of phrases sprang to mind where the meaning is sometimes confrontational: “So are you saying…?” “So do you mean…?”

    In most course books they appear as phrases you can use to check someone understands you. And of course you can use them that way and in lots of conversations among non-native speakers, they are used that way. Jolly useful phrases in fact.

    But native speakers often use them to challenge – i.e. I disagree with what you’re saying so I’m asking this question to help you and others see the error of your ways.

  • Oh I’ve just seen Clarissa’s comment and your cool research Michael and I want to respond again!

    Clarissa, as a Brit living in the US, I have to say that I have often wondered the same thing. Where do Americans get their reputation for directness from? They seem to be just as indirect as me, and more so sometimes.

    Sweeping generalization coming: I think Brits employ understatement more and I think people tend to frame their ideas more positively in the US. It would be lovely to check that in the corpus, but not easy because it’s probably manifesting more at a discourse level. Quite a challenge for the corpus researcher. Any ideas, Michael.

  • Vicki – you asked ‘Any ideas, Michael?’. Nothing useful, I’m afraid. I think you’re right that this would involve a comparative study of corpus data at quite a detailed level. Without that, all we have is our hunches, received stereotypes, and anecdotal evidence. And I bet there are regional differences too, within the two countries – e.g. between Boston and Texas, or Surrey and Manchester. A good PhD topic for someone.
    (PS your opener ‘I have to say…’ is itself full of implicatures. This is a whole area where dictionaries need to do more.)

  • I believe that more than anything else, one must read heaps of books, or even better, listen to audiobooks, to understand the underlying layers of a language or be able to read between the lines. It worked for me and even though I will never be able to match British sense of humour or proficiency in irony and other subtleties when using English language myself, I will, in most cases, sense it when I hear it. It is only a matter of experience with it and if one cannot obtain it directly, then books, films and radio plays, etc. is the second best choice I would recommend to all learners of a foreign language.

  • I’m glad to hear you say that, Vicki! I’ve been wondering if it’s just that I’m naturally more indirect than other people, or my family or the regions I grew up in or the people I hang out with! (I have a lot of Minnesotan friends who have a lot of cultural pride in their special local “indirect” rudeness, which to me seems nearly identical to “Southern hospitality,” British understatement, and a lot of general American usage. I try not to say so, though. Bless their hearts. ;))

    At any rate, that’s very interesting, Michael! I know those phrase certainly flow out of my mouth a lot–possibly too much!

    Softeners, distancing, and well-chosen vagueness (both in speaking and for academic papers) are really things that I need to help my students with, so it’s good to think about these things.

    (Sorry for the very late comment–new job and all.)