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Bigger than the both of us

Q: I pricked up my ears when I heard Pat say “the both of us” on WNYC. I have always thought that one says either “the two of us” or “both of us.” I grew up in Norway and was taught British English. I also had an English grandmother who would never have said “the both of us.” Please let me know your thoughts.

A: “The both of” is an extremely common idiom, especially in the United States. But it’s not unheard-of in Britain and Ireland.

When the usage showed up in the mid-19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the first two examples were from Irish writers

In fact, the phrase “the both” was first used to mean “the two” in the 1500s, according to the OED, though the usage is now considered colloquial or regional.

Speakers in Ireland (and, in some of the following cases, Wales and elsewhere) often insert the definite article (“the”) in contexts where it’s not commonly found in standard British English.

Examples: “the both of” … “the half of” … “the whooping cough [mumps, etc.]” … “in the hospital” … “the cold [heat, etc.]” … “on the bus [plane, etc.]” instead of “by bus [plane, etc.]” … “in the summer [winter, etc.],” and others.

Some of these are also found in certain dialects in England as well. This information comes from The Grammar of Irish English, by Markku Filppula.

Americans are familiar with every one of these constructions. We commonly say “the both of us” (especially in the expression “bigger than the both of us”), “you don’t know the half of it,” “he has the measles [flu, etc.],” “she’s in the hospital,” “he can’t take the cold [heat, etc.],” “we go there in the summer.”

The use of the definite article is a complex subject, and in practice very idiomatic. Of the above-mentioned uses, only “the both” and “the half” would not be appropriate in formal written English in the US, though they’re acceptable in speech and informal writing. All the rest are considered standard in American English.

(We’ve revised our opinion on this use of “the half” and now consider it standard English. We discuss our change of heart in an April 21, 2011, posting on the blog.)

As for the usage experts, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage isn’t worried about “the both of us [you, etc.].” The conclusion: “There is no reason you should avoid it if it is your normal idiom.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage includes some British examples: “In spoken English, the use of both preceded by the is not uncommon: Good Morning from the both of us – BBC Radio 4, 1977. It is more frequently encountered in regional speech, as, for example, the both of you heard on The Archers (BBC Radio 4, 1976). The both should not be used in formal prose.”

If you’re interested in reading more, a blog item a while back on UK-vs.-US English touches on the subject of the use (or non-use) of articles .

Was it OK for Pat to use “the both of us” on the air? Well, she does misspeak once in a while during her impromptu exchanges in the broadcast booth. But not in this case.

There’s nothing wrong with using this idiomatic expression in conversation, even on public radio. However, we wouldn’t use it in formal writing.

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