Another invented “rule”

From a correspondent in Germany, an e-mail query about there vs. over there in English. My correspondent reports that when he was in vocational college (in Germany) he had a teacher from Great Britain who explained to the class that the difference between the two expressions was that there was used for relatively short distances, over there for significantly longer distances.

She said you can ask someone over the phone, who lives in China “How’s the weather over there?”. But asking “How’s the weather there?” is, according to her, grammatically incorrect.

Oh lord, another invented “rule”, of a sort that linguabloggers (notably on Language Log) have been wrestling with for years. Teachers and amateur usageists are especially prone to come up with misguided advice — for reasons that are pretty clear.

First, some facts. There’s no distance condition on simple there, which is unmarked with respect to distance. There is nothing anomalous — much less ungrammatical — about asking How’s the weather there? on the phone to a friend in China. But the over in over there does supply some additional pragmatic content, which makes it odd for referring to short distances except in special circumstances. (One such circumstance: Suppose I am working on one side of the room and my kids are playing with one another on the other side, very noisily. I can then say: Do I have to come over there and separate you kids? The physical distance is short, but the social distance is more considerable, and effort would be involved in my crossing the room to separate the kids.)

Then, why the teacher probably concocted that nonsense about there not being usable for long distances: she wanted there and over there to be crisply distinguished in meaning, so that (except for some fuzziness as to what constitutes a short distance vs. a long one) one and only one of them is usable in any particular context. This is one case of what I’ve called One Right Way reasoning, the effect of which is to legislate against variation, in favor of complementary distribution.

If you think this way, then faced with two alternative expressions, it’s sufficient to find circumstances that clearly favor one of them — over there, in the case at hand — and then you’ll treat the other as available only in the complement of these circumstances.

Such reasoning leads to an enormous proliferation of minor-league zombie rules, beyond the collection of major-league zombies, the ones that figure in compilations of “rules that aren’t rules”.

Teachers, especially language teachers, are especially prone to reasoning this way and so to inventing new little zombie rules; their instincts are to give the students absolutely clear instructions on what expressions to use, so that they see variation as a defect in a language, a place where there’s no clear guidance for the student.


15 Responses to “Another invented “rule””

  1. m Says:

    And it won’t be over til it’s over over there.

  2. Z Says:

    Thank you so much! I’ll keep that in mind!

  3. Dean Allemang Says:

    This reminds me of an episode when I was living in Switzerland. I had an American woman and her Swiss (German) boyfriend over for dinner. She was a teacher of ESL; he was a very adept student. She claimed that the various present-tense verb forms in English (e.g., I work, I do work, I am working) were very easy to use, following some very simple One Right Way rules. She outlined what they were (I don’t remember them now).

    He proceeded to try to apply them, outlining some scenario that clearly matched some rule, said something that sounded clearly odd to all our American ears. Then he tried again. I think he managed, quite by accident, to systematically go through all the exceptions to the rules. He ended up very confused indeed. I ended up smug, not having had to lift a finger to show how the real situation was more complex than the rules she outlined.

  4. Allison Wright Says:

    A really good article, Arnold!
    “You can say both” is my most frequent utterance to a young woman to whom I teach English.
    When there is no rule, I tell her. I give her as many examples as I can, and encourage the idea of flexibility. As a matter of course, I tell her about how language evolves, how perceptions of what is acceptable have changed. I sometimes give her the version of what she will hear in the street and the grammatically correct version. Listen. Read. Notice.
    And the fat lady isn’t even thinking about singing yet. )

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “You can say both” is generally good advice. For advanced learners, it can be combined with information about circumstances in which one or the other of the variants is more informative or to be preferred.

  5. Z Says:

    I know, a simple “thank you” isn’t enough. My aplogies. I spoke with a few women about this issue when I visited the U.S.
    None of them could give me a straight answer as to what the difference between “Give me the book, it’s there / over there.” is. One of them shook her head and said “British people are weird.”

    Actually, there a lot of things that need to be figured out. Has anyone of you ever heard someone say “It’s over to you”, meaning “It’s up to you”?

  6. Bob Richmond Says:

    The German in the original example may have been looking for the English equivalent of a distinction common in Standard Average European, which however is not present in present-day standard English.

    German distinguishes ‘dieser’ (this, something that’s near the speaker), ‘der’ (something that’s near the person spoken to), and ‘jener’ (something that’s distant from both of them). Spanish similarly distinguishes este, ese, aquel. In older English the distant object could be identified as ‘yon object’, preserved in Southern English as ‘yonder’. But normally I don’t make this distinction.

    Sort of like ‘immigrate’ and ’emigrate’, which I always have to think about before I use them – or here, hither, hence and there, thither, thence. Distinctions I make in German without much difficulty.

  7. Ellen Says:

    Bob Richmond beat me to it, though the examples I’d have used are German ‘hier’ / ‘dort’ / ‘dort drüben’ (here / there / over yonder) and Spanish ‘aquí’ / ‘allí’ / allá’ (same progression).

  8. h.s. gudnason Says:


    “Actually, there a lot of things that need to be figured out. Has anyone of you ever heard someone say “It’s over to you”, meaning “It’s up to you”?”

    On U.S. news broadcasts, one anchor/reporter sometimes yields to another with the phrase “Over to you [,Chet].” (Never, as far as I’m aware, with an initial “It’s.”) It’s a figurative representation of a physical passing of control (or of camera focus)–roughly “Jetzt bist Du dran,” rather than the “Das hängt von Dir ab” that you suggest.

  9. Z Says:

    @ h.s. gudnason

    John Algeo has published a fantastic book, which is called “British or American English?”. According to his studies, “over to someone” in BrE means “up to someone” in AmE.

    That’s funny. I bet that “over to you” would confuse many German high school students (unless you point at someone while saying it).
    What we usually learn in high school is:
    Jetzt bist Du dran/Du bist an der Reihe/Du bist dran = it’s your turn.
    Das/Es hängt von Dir ab = it’s up to you. These are the only options given in English textbooks.

  10. Manfred Speer Says:

    Be careful with the use of “dieser” and “jener” in the German language, for both are used depending on the situation.
    E.g. “Dieser Mann ist ein Lügner, jener aber sagt die Wahrheit.”

    The purpose of “dieser” and “jener” in this given excample is NOT to express a distance but to differ between two men.

    When Germans use “dieser” and “jener” to express distance, they almost always add “hier” and “dort” – “dieser hier” / “jener dort”.
    “Dieser Mann hier ist ein Lügner, aber jener dort sagt die Wahrheit.”

    Z. you should study Linguistik!

    • Bob Richmond Says:

      I think my German has gotten a little hazy since I finished my major in German in 1959 and went off to medical school! I should have consulted Hammer’s German Grammar.

  11. Walt Becker Says:

    First, on a subsidiary point — “Over to you” seems to me to be an adaptation of radio talk. With radio or other communications connections that are one way only, i.e., will only transmit in one direction at a time, you need to end what you are saying with “over,” meaning you are finished and leaving the channel free for the other party to respond. You are surrendering the means to transmit. So by extension, “over to you” in normal conversation means, “it’s up to you.”
    On the more general issue of the “there/over there” distinction, , “over there” seems to me to have a suggestion of distance. Even if it is only a question of crossing a room, if there is a bunch of noisy children, and you say, “Do I really have to come over there to sort this out,” you are saying, “I have got to get out of my space and into yours.” While, if you just meant you’d go across the room to do something, you could say, “I’m on my way over in a minute,” with no sense of urgency, or effort.

  12. laughing out loudly « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] German correspondent of “Another invented rule” writes with another teacher-inspired query, going back to when he was a senior in high school. His […]

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