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This Transatlantic Life

I’ll grant that it might have been my location at the time—sitting in a university clinic—that made the phrase “winding up in hospital” jump out at me when listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. But I put the jolt down to the lack of an article. This was This American Life, after all, and the speaker, Nancy Updike, sounded as Yankee as they come; shouldn’t it have been “winding up in the hospital”?

Well, yes, according to custom and Google’s Ngram viewer:

That’s looking in the American corpus. Here’s what turns up from the British corpus:

Updike might have been tempted to drop the because of the full phrase—“winding up in hospital or rehab.” If rehab doesn’t get an article, maybe this seemed a cleaner solution than “sitting in rehab or the hospital.”

Or maybe she’s one of those Americans increasingly adapting British words and phrases. The New York Times pulled together a fairly convincing chronicle of the trend a couple of years ago. But it seems to have passed columnist Roger Cohen’s family by. He wrote on Monday about moving back to his native England with American-raised children, and the amusement and dismay they all feel upon encountering words like “lovely” and “baggage reclaim.”

I am unpersuaded by his argument that British English is (or, rather, has become) entirely affected, but I was pleased nonetheless to see that his diagnosis addressed the style of delivery as much as the words themselves. “Well, hellooo there” instead of “hello” was his example; mine is the tendency to end a phone call with a string of ever softer “Bye’s,” as if you can’t bear to hang up, but the receiver is being pulled from your hands.

As it happens, I’m constantly self-patrolling for creeping Britishisms as I don’t want to sound like Madonna, a fellow Michigander who also spent many years in London. But as much as I avoid saying “cheers” and “brilliant,” I still get Americans telling me I sound English (the English laugh at this notion), and that, I’m afraid, is down to rhythms of speech that are very hard not to pick up amid constant exposure. Conversely, I doubt even the most Anglophile Americans will adopt these speech patterns if living in the U.S.—though I’d be curious to know if Lingua Franca readers have found evidence otherwise.

My non-native speaker students are often drawn to Britishisms. A few identify with the culture, but the majority seem to find them fun and quaint in a world dominated by American English. Before fans of the Queen’s English get too excited, however, be warned: The students use the words and phrases enthusiastically, but often like Americans would. Thus, “quite good” means very good to them, not fairly good. One step forward, two back.

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