Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Mailbag Friday: "These Ones"
Welcome to another edition of Mailbag Friday! Carol B. writes in with today's question:
As an American living in Australia, I'm overwhelmed by the common use of "these ones." I came across it yesterday in a British memoir! It grates on my nerves. Anybody else?
I don't know if other American expats share Carol's negative reaction, but this is not a figment of her imagination: these ones (as opposed to just plain these) does appear to be far more common in English as spoken in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries like Australia. In 2007 on Language Log (my other blogging home), Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky looked into the matter and asked for judgments from English speakers in different countries:
The big news is that the expression [these ones] is indeed regionally distributed: my US correspondents are mostly dubious about it, but my UK correspondents find it unremarkable (and were consequently astounded by my judgment that it was non-standard).
Zwicky's correspondents in Canada and Australia agreed that these ones seemed perfectly standard to them. By and large it was only Americans who found it odd to use these ones rather than these or those ones rather than those. (The distinction wasn't entirely cut and dry: some American correspondents said that these ones and those ones were common in their dialects.)
Though Zwicky's results are anecdotal, we can back them up with more systematic data. In order to determine the frequency of patterns of words like these ones and those ones, we need a huge collection of texts, known as a corpus. And to weigh the relative frequency of a pattern in American English versus British English, we would need not one corpus but two corpora, each providing sufficient coverage of their respective dialects. Fortunately, there are two such corpora readily available for analysis. The British National Corpus, created in the 1990s, encompasses 100 million words of written and spoken English. A US counterpart, the 385-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has recently gone online thanks to Mark Davies at Brigham Young University.
these ones + those ones
|US: per million words||0.16||0.11||0.27|
|UK: per million words||0.87||0.60||1.47|
As you can see, based on the COCA and BNC data, these ones and those ones are far more likely to occur in British English than American English: roughly five and a half times more likely, in fact. Of course, this isn't a perfect test of regional distribution, since the two corpora don't offer a precise apples-to-apples comparison: the overall makeup of source texts differs somewhat, and COCA generally covers more recent material than BNC. Still, the numbers are compelling.
Though it's clear that this is a genuine regional variation, the question remains: why are these ones and those ones generally disfavored in the US but not in the UK or Commonwealth countries? The situation isn't comparable to how Noah Webster popularized American spellings like center rather than centre or honor rather than honour. No American linguistic authority has decreed that these/those ones should be avoided. As Zwicky notes, English usage guides have not seen fit to remark on this variation. (One exception: Paul Brians of Washington State University lists these ones in his "Common Errors in English," but he gives no indication that this is an American preference and doesn't provide a rationale for it.) In other words, it's largely flown under the radar of the usage mavens on both sides of the Atlantic (and Down Under too).
So kudos to Carol and her finely tuned expatriate ears for picking up on this distinction. How do other readers feel about these ones and those ones? Leave your reaction — good, bad, or indifferent — in the comments below!