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British/American English: “back yard” vs. “back garden”


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In American English, when a house has a sizeable space in front of the house and behind the house, we call these front yards and back yards. How about in British English? Are these called front gardens and back gardens? (I have had students in China who call them front gardens and back gardens, Until now I have considered these to be mistakes.)


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Don't think a house in the UK would have a yard. A yard (when not three feet) is commercial premises - builders yard, brewers yard. I can see a definition for British English:


a piece of uncultivated ground adjoining a building, typically one enclosed by walls or other buildings.
"tiny houses with the lavatory in the yard"
but nowadays, it'll have been laid to grass and be a garden, or paved for use as a driveway. I suppose I can imagine a paved area, enclosed by fences or other buildings, being referred to as a yard, but it sounds like your students are using the terms correctly as far as British English goes (and on the assumption they aren't running a building supplies firm from home). 
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but do you say a "back" and "front" garden? I've only ever heard brits say  "a garden", "in the garden"


To an American , a garden is a place where you grow vegetables

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Yes you would say a front, side or back garden in the UK, a yard in the USA. 

To me a yard always sounds empty and bare, whereas a garden is grassed with flower beds, trees, bushes and more. There may be a vegetable patch in a garden or even a kitchen garden with vegetable, herbs and fruits depending on the size of your home.

I was born in Canada where I lived till I was 15 with many summers spent in the USA and then living and going to school in the USA for couple of years. Now I have been in the UK for over 45 years.

My ear still hears yard as most definitely American and garden as British with Canada coming in the middle with a lot of people having a garden to the rear and yard in the front or to the side.

A yard to me, conjures up a place of work, where vehicles are stored, or fuel such as wood or coal.

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Something that is hard to explain in a blog, but might be of interest is the difference in American English between how "back yard" and the compound "backyard" are said.   In the former, the emphasis is on "back" whereas in its compound form, emphasis is on the 2nd syllable.  (to contrast:  "he's in my backyard" versus (a place)  "he's in my back yard"  (to differentiate it from the front yard)


Another more obvious example is "he lives in a white house" (emphasis on its color, i.e., it's not green, blue...)  versus "the president lives in the Whitehouse"   (emphasis on house because "whitehouse" is a place).


By chance last night , I was listening to the linguist John McWhorter's "Language A to Z" course and he has a whole discussion on the above (the whitehouse example is his).  He even gives an example from the Mary Tyler Moore show from the 1970s.  At that time, Chinese food was still somewhat of a novelty so the emphasis was on "Chinese" whereas now most Americans put the emphasis on food (because chinesefood is now said as a compound, even though we don't write it that way yet.  An exception to this would be similar to the above, i.e., if an American wanted to differentiate between Chinese and Italian food.  In this case, the emphasis would be on "Chinese").  


The above is one of the reasons I like McWhorter so much.  Until he pointed out the above, I didn't realize we make this distinction.  


In England, word stress can be different, so I don't know about the above.  



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Interestingly I noticed this difference yesterday writing something with the word "maybe"  and the words "may be" and the different meaning they have.


Maybe it will happen or it may be that something else will happen.

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I want to thank everyone for their answers. This is very helpful and helps to sort things out clearly for my students in China.


I am wondering if there is a ‘cultural difference’ between American back yards and British back gardens. American back yards are usually ‘large’ empty spaces with nothing but grass and maybe a couple of trees. My image of England is that the average British back garden does not have a lot of empty space, but that most of it is used for a plant-garden. Is this true? ‘Empty’ back gardens are a rarity in England?


I have a couple of examples to ask about.


1. We have a garden in our back yard.


2. Our back yard is almost entirely taken up with a garden.


I can assume these two example sentences rarely occur in British English?


3. We have a pool in our back yard.


I can also assume this example sentence does not occur in British English? Southern California has numerous back yard pools whereas I believe England doesn’t!


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You'd generally have a mix of lawn and flowerbeds and trees. It really depends. Looking out the back window I can see a mix of flowers, vegetables, trees and grass, but it's mostly grass, mostly neatly mowed. 


Jump on Google Map satellite view and have a look. Here's a random bit of London, near where I used to live.

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15 minutes ago, NinjaTurtle said:

Southern California has numerous back yard pools

These things are subtle.  I would have written it "backyard pool"  because that's how I would say it.  Similar to Shelley's maybe versus may be.  However, if I was distinguishing it from a front yard pool, I would say "It's a BACK yard pool."  


This comparison also illustrates another point that McWhorter made, i.e., we can correctly write "back yard" or "backyard."  The latter is correct because "backyard" has become a place (just as Whitehouse became a place).  In contrast, front yard hasn't quite made that evolution, so we  can only write "front yard;"  currently "frontyard" is wrong in writing.  However, in spoken language we can say front YARD (as a compound).  


As a further example of the above, McWhorter said if you watch old TV shows, people will say ICE cream, because at that time "ice" was still a descriptor for cream.  However, now "ice cream" is a thing, so we say "ice CREAM."  (we say the latter as a compound, despite that we haven't started combining the words in spelling form).  


Another example that may be true for all English speakers (and another McWhorter example), we don't say BREAKfast, we say breakfast (because "breakfast" is now a thing, not a descriptive phrase).  


This is likely more than you need for your students, but if they have questions, knowing the above might help explain things.  Once a 2 word phrase becomes a "thing", stress moves to the 2nd word in American English.  (and I'm sharing it because I think it's fascinating and I just happened to have listened to McWhorter's lesson)  




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Yes you are correct, very very few gardens in the UK have pools in the sense of the permanent ground level pools you see in southern USA. There are more temporary above ground pools appearinging gardens recently as the summers warm up, but the pool season is short lived in the UK and you have to be brave to get into 3 or 4 feet of cold water in maybe 25c (77F). Popular amongst adults are hot tubs, some people use these more of the year.


In the UK the contents of a space to the front, rear or side doesn't really make it a garden or not. All patches of ground in front, to the side or in the back of a house are called a garden. And yes some gardens in UK are nothing more than a grass area with a bush or a tree and not much more. You then get the sort of garden that is crammed to the gunnels with plants and flowers, trees, water features, a vegetable patch at the end of the garden or to the side. And you get everything in between. 


A popular decoration for a front garden is dead washing machine or soggy sofa, usually in more run down areas, but not only. This last sentence is a bit tongue in cheek but you do see them.


Some front gardens have been turned into a car parking space for one or more cars, often one up on axle stands being worked on, this would still be called the front garden but may be listed by an estate agent as a car standing or carport.


You can probably safely replace the word yard with garden and get it right except when its a compound word like coalyard, lumber yard etc.

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  • 1 month later...

American back yards are usually ‘large’ empty spaces with nothing but grass and maybe a couple of trees.


American back yards are often filled with swings, a slide and a sandbox or other stuff for kids to play on or in.  And maybe a picnic table and BBQ grill for the adults.  They are not usually empty.

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