The Grammarphobia Blog

Stiff upper lips: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about British vs. American English.)

(1) Did Americans once speak with British accents?

(2) Is the word “apartment” an American barbarism for the British term “flat”?

(3) Did the British ever use “gotten” as a past participle of the verb “get”?

(4) Which is older: “whilst,” which is commonly heard in Britain, or “while,” the preferred American version?

(5) Did Winston Churchill ever describe the US and England as “two nations divided by a common language”?

Answers:

(1) The truth is the other way around. In many respects, the English spoke in the 17th and 18th centuries much the way Americans do today. The accent we now associate with educated British speech didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.

(2) “Apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for a dwelling until the 1820s or so.

(3) At one time, English routinely used both “got” and “gotten” as past participles of the verb “get.” But after the two branches of English split in the 18th century, Americans retained both forms while the British abandoned “gotten.”

(4) Although “whilst” has an air of antiquity about it, “while” is actually the older word, dating back to the year 1000.

(5) No, but George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde made similar cracks.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.