Saturday, October 26, 2013

Some random thoughts on tell about

When reading ESL teachers' blogs I sometimes come upon as instruction like - 'tell about something that happened to you this week'. Now that doesn't sound quite right to me; I expect to read 'tell me' or 'tell us' about something. Without a personal object, I'd expect 'talk about something that happened to you this week'.
At first, I thought this was because the teachers weren't native speakers, but then I noticed a couple of examples from American writers, so I thought I'd have a bit of a closer look

I first noticed it in some American crime writing, and wondered if it might be a dialect use, as in this example:
Burbie said it was drink and women what had done ruined him. He told about all the women what he knowed, and all the saloons he's been in, and some of it was a lie 'cause if all the saloons was as swell as he said they was, they'd of throwed him out.
Pastorale, by James M.Cain, from the anthology The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Elmore and Otto Penzler
But then I found this from a Canadian non-fiction account of a court case:
O’Brien asked Dorothy to tell about incidents that were not physical. He prompted her by suggesting she begin by telling about an incident that occurred in Glacier National Park … . She told about how Earl had frightened her to the point of hysteria …
Be Good, Sweet Maid: The Trials of Dorothy Joudrie - by Audrey Andrews
And this from a book on social psychology:
Would people rate the man as less mentally healthy if he kept personal information to himself than they would if he told about it. They did not. In contrast to the way people rated a woman who told personal information about herself, people rated the man less mentally healthy when he told about his personal problems than when the man kept silent about his personal problems.
Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology - by Michael J Lovaglia
And this advice to job interviewees at
So, when asked to tell about yourself, don’t spend too much time on the predictable answers.
This made me wonder if this is perhaps standard North American use. And this Ngram graph indeed shows that the pronoun-less version is certainly much more prevalent in American books than in British ones.
Click on graph to see it at Ngram
So I posted a question about it on the language forum Pain in the English.

Why that enormous peak?

What is most noticeable about that graph is how this usage soared in the 1940s. As the actual figures are very low, is it possible that a few authors fond of this construction could have had a strong effext on the total? In fact, if you click on the graph and then check out books for 1941-1946, there are only 19 results, two of which are for Upton Sinclair, who we'll look at a bit later.

The situation in British English

This seemed to be pretty clear to me: apart from expressions like tell a lie, tell a story, tell a joke and one or two other idiomatic uses, we need a personal object - tell somebody something. Otherwise it sounds ungrammatical to us. I've checked six mainstream online British dictionaries, and none of them show any examples of 'tell' about something'.
Then I checked with the collocation finder Just the Word, based on the British National Corpus, and the waters muddied slightly. This finds over 4,000 examples of forms of 'tell about' where about is listed as a preposition. The vast majority of these appear with intervening pronouns. In just over two hundred examples about immediately follows the verb:
  • 181 examples of 'told about', nearly all passive, a few relate to stories etc. Three possible examples of the construction we're interested in:
    • Then I told about the tales the neighbours were telling about her Mum and her men friends.
      (Where there's life. Dayus, Kathleen. London 1991)
    • Way, watching Faldo's charge, told about his horror story which began on the eve of the Swiss Open
      (The Daily Mirror. London, 1992)
    • Also taking part in the programme were Flossie and Bill Jarvis, giving their memories of journeys on the railway and the Rev. Ray Arnold, who lives in the former Horderley station bungalow, told about his finds on the site.
      (Bishop's Castle Railway Society Journal, 1990)
  • 42 examples of 'tell about'. Quite a few candidates for inclusion:
    • Let the children in the classes do the talking, let them tell about those aspects of the school that they like best
      (Marketing your primary school. Sullivan, Mike. Harlow, 1991)
    • She must stop it, tell about Joe's terrible plight.
      (The Challenge book of brownie stories. Moss, Robert. Gloucestershire 1988)
    • What does each picture, on pages 19-20, tell about the costs of the inputs for farmers?
      (Decisions in geography: the United Kingdom. Farleigh Rice, W. Harlow 1985)
    • Another older woman, who had lived alone with her mother since her father died, recalled the satisfaction of coming home to someone with all the time in the world to listen to what she had to tell about her day in the office or an evening at choir practice.
      (Forty plus. Batchelor, Mary. Tring, Herts 1988)
    • Mr Loveitt wants to hear what you have to tell about being aboard the Princess.
      (The first of midnight. Darke, Marjorie. London 1989)
    • Teacher: Try to tell about the story you have read.
      (Literacy. Cashdan, Asher. Oxford 1986)
    • I must tell about the curious will he left.
      (A compass error. Bedford, S. London 1993)
    • They go to tell about
      (Strangers — talk by PC Bruce 1993)
    • In Shakespeare's day, didn't he tell about people wearing skull rings and brooches to remind them of death.
      (Cathedral. Maitland, I. London 1993)
    • so the small knot of idlers and gawpers dispersed, back to the quays and the eating houses to tell about what they'd seen, and Huy and Merymose were left alone.
      (City of dreams. Gill, Anton. London 1993)
    • There's this guy, see, he thinks he's pretty street-smart, but sometimes these things happen, he's not so sure, and he wonders, can he really tell about this one particular girl, who he really likes her, but you can't tell by looking, can you?’
      (The Laughter of Heroes. Neale, Johnathan. London 1993)
    • Tuathal, who knew that thoroughness was the secret of success, had long since extracted from Thorkel Fóstri all that he could tell about Earl Siward of Northumbria, and had deduced a good deal more.
      (King hereafter. Dunnett, Dorothy. London 1992)
    • Right here I just wanted to tell about the first time I ever saw him.
      (Hombre. Leonard, Elmore. UK 1992)
  • 14 examples of 'telling about', including the following:
    • When we examine prophecy in the Bible we soon conclude that it can be predictive (telling about the future) or proclamatory (telling about God) or both.
      (Church planting: our future hope. Cleverly, Charlie. London 1991)
    • Flavia longed to go back and slip into her place just as the soup was brought and hear them telling about Loulou's day.
      (A compass error. Bedford, S. London 1993)
    • The dead were consumed by cleansing fire at a ceremony which every Renascian was bound to attend and there would usually be a carefully arranged display of the dead person's life and a small booklet telling about his life and his work, nearly always written by Snizort and Snodgrass in gentle and tactful collaboration with the bereaved family.
      (Rebel angel. Wood, B, London 1993)
    • You were telling about that witch story afore, is that something that your father told you?
      (Orkney Sound Archive 1985)
    • It was the talk of the trade that Ken would be outrageous there on certain afternoons of the week, telling about his great aunt and the Gates of Heaven Ajar or pulling one of his fellow actors down to his own idea of size.
      (Kenneth Williams: a biography. Freeland, Michael, London 1990)
  • 5 examples of 'tells about', four of which seem to fit the bill:
    • The centre of this novel is the interpolated tale of the dead and beloved Tom Outland, who discovers a prehistoric and beautiful city in the sun on the mesa, and tells about it in immediate, enthusiastic prose.
      (The Independent, electronic edition, London 1989)
    • Reyburn tells about the panic before the coronation of the present Queen when the special needs of the assembled elderly peers had to be anticipated.
      (She magazine, London 1989)
    • David tells about his night-time television viewing being interrupted by a prompting to pray; then of several trips to New York all with no clear understanding that he was to set up a programme for those involved in drug abuse.
      (Church planting: our future hope, Cleverly, Charlie. London 1991)
    • Most women will relate to ‘Two Minute Brother’, which amusingly tells about ‘2 short, 2 inch, all mouth, no action, 2 minute fuckers’
      (Hot Press. Dublin, Ireland 1991)
Just the Word also finds 158 examples where they list about as an adverb. Here there are 11 examples of about directly following the verb, of which one could possibly be what we are talking about:
  • Is it ... am I worth telling about?
    (A compass error. Bedford, S. London, 1993)

Conclusions from the British National Corpus

Out of over 4000 instances at the British National Corpus of the verb tell connected with about, we have approximately 27 where no personal object is involved (give or take - I may have missed one or two). Three of these are from the same author, two more are from another writer and at least one is from an American writer (Elmore Leonard). Furthermore, one or two are a bit ambiguous. So, although it is possible to find examples of tell about without a personal object in respectable published sources, these seem to account for less than 1% of the total instances of the various forms of tell about at the BNC.

A Compass Error, by Sybille Bedford

The fact that three of these examples are from the same source caught my eye. Sybille Bedford (1911 2006) 'was a German-born English writer. Many of her works are partly autobiographical. Julia Neuberger proclaimed her "the finest woman writer of the 20th century" while Bruce Chatwin saw her as "one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose" ' (Wikipedia). Click on the links to see examples at Google Books.
tell about3
told about1

The situation generally

Click on graph to see it at Ngram
Although objectless tell about seems to occur more often in American writing than in British writing, from comments I've received on Pain in the English, it seems to be pretty marginal in the States as well. This seems to be borne out by figures at Netspeak, based on web use.
tell about472,000
tell us about1.9 million
tell me about1.1 million
tell you about1.0 million
tell others about324,000
tell them about256,000
tell friends about245,000
tell him about95,000
tell her about69,000
tell people about64,000
These figures are pretty similar to those at Ngram, with tell about getting considerably less hits than tell me / us / you.

Tell about the South

Many of the instances of tell about are references to Tell About the South, the South of course being the southern states of the US. This can refer to a collection of essays about the South, Tell about the South: The Southern Rage to Explain, edited by Fred Hobson, or to a series of three documentary films about Southern literature - Tell about the South: Voices in Black and White.
Google Search gets 541 hits for "tell about", while "Tell about the South" gets 154 hits, accounting for nearly 30%.
There's also a book called Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South.
Could tell about perhaps be Southern dialect?

The strange case of Upton Sinclair

The American writer Upton Sinclair (born in Baltimore, Maryland) seems to have been especially fond of 'tell about'
Update - I originally wrote that Sinclair was not a Southerner, but it has been pointed out to me by AnWulf that Maryland is in fact a Southern State, which I have since confirmed. This makes me wonder even more whether 'tell about' could be a feature of Southern dialect.
'Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. (September 20, 1878 – November 25, 1968), was an American author who wrote close to one hundred books in many genres. He achieved popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, acquiring particular fame for his classic muckraking novel, The Jungle (1906). It exposed conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that contributed in part to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act'
Could Sinclair and a mere handful of other writers (especially crime writers) have been responsible for that peak in the forties, I wonder? Click on the book titles to see examples of Sinclair's use of tell about at Google Books
World's End19405
Between Two Worlds19412
Dragon's Teeth 19421
Wide is the Gate 19437
Presidential Agent 19443
Dragon Harvest194510
A World to Win 194610
A Presidential Mission 19473
A Giant's Strength 194816
One Clear Call 2 19484
Oh Shepherd Speak 19497

Update - William Faulkner 1897-1962

Jim, of Providence, Rhode Island, has reminded about William Faulkner. Faulkner was from Mississippi and "is one of the most important writers in both American literature generally and Southern literature specifically" (Wikipedia). So I've been checking some of his works, to see if my Southern theory could possibly be true.
Unfortunately not all of Faulkner's books at Google Books are not searchable, but I've found enough instances to suggest that this expression was not unknown to Faulkner:
  • Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner 2011
    9 results for "told about"
    4 results for "tell about"

    All that day the halfwit told about the dollar and seventy-five cents which Grant had taken from him

  • Faulkner Reader 2011
    4 results for "told about"

    2 results for "tell about"

    they told him it was Saturday again and paid him and he told about it

  • As I lay dying 1930 (contains quite a bit of non-standard English)
    1 result for "told about"
    2 results for "tell about"

    listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was

  • Sanctuary 1931
    1 result for "told about"

    She told about lying in the darkness with Gowan snoring beside her

  • Light in August 1932
    5 results for "told about"
    3 results for "tell about"

    He told about the negro girl in the mill shed on that afternoon three years ago

  • Absalom, Absalom 1936
    1 result for "tell about"

    Tell about the South. What it's like there.

  • The Hamlet 1940
    1 result for "told about"
    1 result for "tell about"

    He told about it: how they had discovered almost at once ...

  • Go Down Moses 1942
    1 result for "told about"

    ... that noon when the train-crew told about it

  • The Town: A Novel of the Snopes Family 1957
    2 results for "told about"

    And when he told about it, he was downright crying

  • The Mansion 1959
    1 result for "told about"

    She told about Ernest Hemingway and Malraux

  • The Reivers 1962
    1 result for "told about"

    Miss Reba told it, sitting in the car, with Grandfather and Colonel Linscolm and me standing around it because she wouldn't come in; she told about Boon and Butch.


Collocation finders




AnWulf said...

One little thing ... Maryland is a Suthern state. It was one of the border states that didn't breakaway but that was only owing to Lincoln arresting the pro-South legislators.

Warsaw Will said...

@AnWulf - thanks for that - I was indeed mistaken, and have corrected it. But it does make me wonder even more whether 'tell about' is a feature of some Southern dialects.

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