Monday 26 August 2013

On looking very UK

A correspondent writes to my website but provides no contact email address in the relevant box, so I can't acknowledge other than via this blog. He has noticed the sentence, written as a response to a Facebook picture, 'You are looking very UK'. Apparently some people have said such a usage is incorrect, and he wants to know what I think.

The critics are living in the past. One of the most interesting contemporary trends in English syntax is the way the present progressive has been increasing in frequency in recent decades. The point has been well studied by corpus linguists. The steady rise of this form can be traced from the 17th century. There was a sharp rise in the 19th which continued into the 20th, with British English moving a tad faster than American. A famous example, which I've mentioned before, is the McDonald's slogan 'I'm lovin' it', which not so long ago would have appeared as 'I love it'.

The change is spreading through the lexicon, but with different rates for different verbs. The 'most stative' verbs, such as know and need, are taking up the usage more slowly - at least, in British English (compared, say, with Indian English, where cognitive verbs have been taking the progressive for a long time) - but verbs lower down any scale of stativity (such as love, want, enjoy) have been illustrating the usage for some time now. So I'm not at all surprised to see 'You are looking very UK' emerge alongside 'You look very UK', adding the kind of aspectual distinction that the progressive provides.

If anyone wants to follow this up in the research literature, a good source is here.


Anonymous said...

Is the questionable usage that of "UK" as an adverb?

David Crosbie said...

There's also the use of the country name UK as a predicative adjective. Indeed, I thought at first that that was the object of criticism.

This use too is on the rise, but less noticeably. I for one do notice it when I hear it — as in the ubiquitous TV commercial You're so Moneysupermarket dot com.

I still react to I'm lovin' it, but never to You're looking ADJECTIVE. For me, that's the standard Aspect for a TEMPORARY STATE.

Moonfriend said...

I thought it was incorrect because 'UK' is not an adjective...

Mike Church said...

Very interesting observations on the increasing preference for the Present Continuous. I hadn't noticed this trend if I'm honest, but you're certainly right. Indeed, more than once I've asked myself, "Why do I still teach this nonsense about stative verbs?"

I do, wonder, however, whether your correspondent wasn't asking about the use of 'UK' as an *adjective*? -> "She's looking very France"(?), "He's looking very Mexico" (?), etc.

Best wishes

DC said...

No, the point at issue was the progressive - but interesting to see that this usage might not even be noticed in a context where another point of usage grabs the attention.

John Cowan said...

NGrams shows looking very well as early as 1856 (applied to healing wounds). The first AmE hit I find is By Right Divine (1907) by William Sage (at least I think he is an American author; it's possible that his spelling etc. was changed by his American publisher). Cobbett does not count: his language habits were set by the time he immigrated.

Semantically, however, I don't see any difference between look and are looking (excluding of course the active sense of look, as in Are you looking for this?). There's a difference in register, certainly.

David Crosbie said...

Are you the O'Reilly that keeps this hotel?
Are you the O"Reilly they speak of so well?
If you're the O'Reilly they speak of so highly
Cor blimey, O Reilly, you are looking well!

This is said to date from the 1880's. A 1915 recording with slightly different wording can be heard here.

If I were still teaching, and heard a suitably advanced student say You look fine today, I would consider teaching that You're looking might be better with today.

vp said...

Perhaps we may expect that language will develop to the point where, "You are looking X" would refer to how you look _right now_, and "You look X" would refer to how you look habitually.

This would parallel the distinction with verbs of action: "you are going to work [right now]" vs. "you go to work [every day]".

DC said...

David and John: Lovely examples.

ivan said...

On UK used as an adjective:
I have heard and even read this many a time, so I am providing a few examples:
-UK Film Council
-UK weather forecast
-UK births
-UK National Statistics
-UK population

This article is a good illustration:

DC said...

Nothing unusual about UK in attributive position. It's the predicative position that people remark about.

Harsha Basu said...

This usage is rife in Indlish. It’s highly likely that the Facebook response is from an Indian.

Unknown said...

So what other place names could substitute for “UK” here?
(This reminds me of the following example from Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage: “He doesn’t sound Birmigham; I think he’s Liverpool”).

David Crosbie said...


The use of UK as a gradable adjective (one that can form comparatives or accept very) in predicative position is still a violation of two norms. It works because there are widely-shared preconceptions as to what an individual from the UK might be like.

So, you can use absolutely any place name in this way, provided that you and your audience share some such preconceptions about the place that it names.

Richard Grant said...

Regarding "I'm loving it", I certainly think it has existed longer than McDonald's or Justine Timberlake, when it means "I'm really enjoying it"

Here's a (very funny) clip from a Seinfeld episode from 1994 when Krammer goes commando

DC said...

Sure. The recent trend seems to have started around the 1960s, but corpus studies show the growth of the progressive goes way bac, into the 19th century.