British English just got more American – and the pictures are extraordinary

just_got_penis_censoredWhen I was a child I noticed that the Americans I heard on TV could do something with just, already and yet that I couldn’t. They could use these words with the plain past tense, whereas I had to use the have-perfect:

Me: I’ve just eaten.
Me: I’ve already eaten.
Me: Have you eaten yet?
Americans: I just ate.
Americans: I already ate. (Or I ate already.)
Americans: Did you eat yet?

Just, already and yet refer to the recent past in a way that’s relevant to the present. My British grammar insists on the have-perfect for this kind of meaning, with or without just, already or yet. The plain past, in my grammar, is for past events without present relevance; so I ate and I didn’t eat tell you about my eating in the past but nothing about my present eating situation.

American English can use either the have-perfect or the plain past for the present-relevant meaning. Listen to this headline from today’s news on the American CNBC network:

    The chairman of the Ukrainian parliament was elected prime minister



In my native grammar, that sentence belongs in a documentary, not in a news headline. It tells me about something that happened in the past; someone else may have become Ukrainian prime minister since. But CNBC was telling me about something very recent that’s still relevant now. My equivalent would be The chairman of the Ukrainian parliament has been elected prime minister.

Present-relevant use of the plain past has recently become very fashionable in British English – via the ‘Trojan horse’ of the American-style advertising slogan which tells us that something just got better, or just got more something:just_got_smallThis figure of speech is everywhere. Here it is promoting eBay and the British loyalty card Nectar:ebay nectar just got betterThomson holidays even use the term in a URL:thomson_just_got_betterIt’s used not only in advertising but in headlines:skyhigherEven from posh old Country Life (which has been guest-edited by Prince Charles):countrylife_justgotAnd from the government:gov_uk_just_gotBut it isn’t just a matter of things getting better, easier, higher and sexier. British headlines now often use just with the plain past to report events:uk_business_justgotmetro nasa just sawcity_am_justcamePrecedents for this kind of thing are all over the internet. We Brits are constantly exposed to updates of various kinds expressed with the plain past of American English. Many are news items from the US:apple_just_struckBut many instances concern the here and now of our own lives. Software updates are announced like this:tampermonkey_was_updatedIn my native English, this would be has been successfully updated. When I log on to Twitter, I get messages like this:twitter_followedThis plain followed triggers in my mind questions like When were they following me? and When did they stop following me? Of course Twitter’s intended meaning is that these people recently decided to follow me and are still following me now: in my native grammar, they have followed me. Thanks to the internet, Britons are exposed constantly to American grammar in a way that is much more personal, much less distant, than the American TV on which I was raised.

A super-common web trope which rolls news, social media update and advertising into one is the tease caption, designed to garner lucrative clicks. It typically uses the present-relevant plain past:indy_just_took_placeThe indy is British, but who knows whether this caption was actually written in the UK, or by some writer in the US or elsewhere and simply re-used? It has no audible accent. It used to be American, now it’s just webbese.

Overall, British usage of the plain past and the have-perfect remains different from American usage. This Google Ngram shows that while just saw remains far less common than have just seen in British books (eng_gb), the former has overtaken the latter in American books (eng_us):

Such Ngrams tell us about published books, where grammar is probably more conservative. In speech and online chat, things have probably changed further. I hope John Wells won’t mind me sharing a social media moment:john_just_sawJohn’s reply to my query was ‘Probably not’. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve used plain past with just myself on this very site without even noticing that my grammar’s shifting.

I first planned to write this post years ago. I took the Wimbledon Studios photo above at the time: it’s dated March 2012. My title was originally going to be Did British English just get more American? That title had an irony which seems to have faded over the intervening years. I’ve changed the title from a question to a statement: in 2016 I suspect some younger British readers will find nothing grammatically remarkable in the sentence British English just got more American.


13 replies
  1. Adam Rosenthal
    Adam Rosenthal says:

    This is a change I(‘ve) noticed recently in my own grammar. My impression is that I use it mainly, or at least more, with people my age (late thirties) and younger. But like most self-analysis that may well be wrong.

    On a lexical note, I’ve also noticed that when they are using the perfect, nu-RP and MLE speakers younger than me have ‘gotten’ in their vocabulary.

    Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Thanks Adam. Am I right that the title of the post doesn’t strike you as particularly remarkable?

      I suspect social media users of all ages are more likely to post ‘I just…’ than ‘I’ve just…’ It’s frustrating not to be able to get a clear Ngram of this change because ‘just’ is so often used to mean ‘only’.

      Yes, ‘gotten’ could become standard BrE again.

      Oxford, how haps it, in this smooth discourse,
      You told not how Henry the Sixth hath lost
      All that which Henry Fifth had gotten?

      Reply
  2. Adam Rosenthal
    Adam Rosenthal says:

    Yes, completely unremarkable – I’ve never picked up on the ‘…just got…’ headlines though I must have read hundreds. Where it is quite marked for me from a BrE speaker is under inversion, as in Did you already eat?

    Re gotten, presumably its return is influenced by AmE rather than non-standard English?

    That reminds me, there’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you, which might be interesting enough to be bloggable if you ever get the time. I spend a lot of time in the States, and Americans seem to mainly refer to a ‘British accent’, rather than an ‘English’ one. What I’m wondering is whether ‘British’ is a meaningful taxonomic grouping for accents. Is, say, a standard Ulster accent closer, in terms of distinctive features, to RP or Brummie or Welsh than it is to General American? After all, it’s rhotic, has a flapped intervocalic /t/, and its LOT vowel is arguably closer to the GA version. And then you have the antipodean accents, which are not included under ‘British accent’ but seem much closer to southern English accents than Northern Irish or Scottish ones do.

    (BTW I’m not quibbling with your own label ‘Standard British’, for which I understand the rationale.)

    Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      And I presume you also find negation less natural: I didn’t eat yet, etc.

      I can’t be sure about gotten. American influence of course is strong. Note that gotten brings get into line with forget/forgotten (and beget/begotten).

      There are British features of vocabulary and grammar, but in terms of pronunciation (accent), N. Ireland is closer to GA than to RP. GA is somewhat based on Scots-Irish and other non-London accents, whereas antipodean is based on London. It’s all to do with who immigrated when and from where.

      I think the term ‘British’ is used in the US and elsewhere for RP or SSB type accents because ‘English’ simply refers to the language.

      I prefer now to use SSB rather than ‘Standard British’ because the regional affiliation of the accent needs to be acknowledged, and of course there are other standard accents in the UK. I think it would have been good if SSB had spread from academia into TEFL, but I fear that publishers are going to adopt the customer-friendly ‘General British’, a poor term for many reasons.

      Reply
  3. Peter S.
    Peter S. says:

    As an American with decidedly non-British grammar, I just saw sounds a lot better than I have just seen. I think that’s because I perceive just as placing a time frame on the action. You wouldn’t say two minutes ago, I have seen. So why can you say I have just seen? For example, I would say I have eaten, but I just ate.

    Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      The word ago locates events in the past, and so is used with the past simple: I bought this car five years ago, etc. Two minutes ago may be very recent, but it’s still located firmly in the past. This is why we wouldn’t say two minutes ago I have seen, in AmE or BrE. (It can be added as a separated afterthought: I’ve just seen him – two minutes ago.)

      Although I haven’t noticed anyone else discussing the change in BrE grammar which I describe in this post, the traditional differences between BrE and AmE past tense usage are well known. Eg Cambridge:

      The present perfect is less common in AmE than BrE. AmE speakers often use the past simple in situations where BrE speakers use the present perfect, especially with words such as already and yet

      By the way, your comment uses only non-contracted forms for the perfect, and these sound less natural in spoken English. I’ve just seen isn’t as awkward (or emphatic) as I have just seen.

      (The tag for italics here is “em”, not “i”.)

      Reply
      • Peter S.
        Peter S. says:

        Distilling my previous comment to one sentence, what I should have said is that the word just also locates events in the past, so why should it be treated any differently from ago? And many Americans don’t treat it differently.

        Reply
        • Geoff Lindsey
          Geoff Lindsey says:

          Ago locates an event at a specific time in the past, with no present relevance implied. Just describes very recent events of continuing present relevance. Here’s an example to demonstrate the difference. Imagine someone phoning home:

          A: ‘I reached the station five minutes ago. Now I’m on the train speeding through the countryside.’

          B: ‘I just reached the station.’ (Or ‘I’ve just reached the station.’)

          Utterance B implies that the speaker is still at the station. The word ‘just’ implies that the action has a continuity or relevance to the present moment.

          Since the meanings are different, it’s not surprising that their grammatical use is different. Both BrE and AmE use ago with the past simple and not with the present perfect. Conversely, many speakers (inc. me) use just with the present perfect and not (much) with the past simple. But many AmE speakers, and (as my post explains) increasing numbers of BrE speakers, can use just with the past simple.

          You might be interested to see how ‘I just saw’ has replaced ‘I have just seen’ in American books over the past century or so:

          Reply
  4. Andrew Kramer
    Andrew Kramer says:

    Geoff: GA is largely based on Scots-Irish

    Sorry is this is too OT, but I’ve heard people say that. If that’s the case, however, then why is the vowel system of GA so different from Scottish/Scots-Irish? No one in all of North America has no distinction between the vowels of look and Luke or Pam and palm (both features of the Scots-Irish accent). Millions of people in North America don’t even say cot and caught the same. Many don’t say those last two the same even in areas like southern Appalachia, where everyone and their brother says they’re Scots-Irish. AFAIK, Anglophones in North America don’t follow the Scottish Vowel Length rule either. I haven’t even gotten into prosody yet…

    Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Yes, my wording was of course too sweeping and I’ve amended it. Clearly there were many influences on GA, and the settlement of N America dates back further than that of the Antipodes. But I stand by my statement that N Irish resembles GA more than RP: there isn’t some British phonological system that makes British accents distinct from non-British accents. I’ll check with my (N Irish) colleague John Harris, who knows a lot about English variation and change and who suspects substantial Scots-Irish influence on GA.

      Reply
      • Andrew Kramer
        Andrew Kramer says:

        But I stand by my statement that N Irish resembles GA more than RP…

        I think I agree with you there.

        …there isn’t some British phonological system that makes British accents distinct from non-British accents.

        True. But apparently there is a N Irish (and Scottish) phonological system that makes N Irish accents distinct from non-N Irish accents (see here, for instance). What I wonder is, if settlers from Ulster influenced GA so much, why is there no evidence of their unique vowel system in the US?

        Thank you for replying, Mr. Lindsey.

        Reply
        • Geoff Lindsey
          Geoff Lindsey says:

          I’d only add that influence can be partial. I’m no expert on historical matters, but many hear the influence of Scottish on Canadian accents (in FACE, PRICE, GOAT, MOUTH); however, the Scottish merged FOOT-GOOSE certainly did not establish itself in Canada.

          Reply
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