Some time in the past few weeks (they’ve all blurred together by now), I was discussing some research on syntactic alternations with a professor who’s from Britain but has been living in the U.S. for a while. Discussing such matters with him is always enlightening, not only because he approaches the question from a data mining perspective, but also because he often brings up the British obsession with grammar. Amongst other topics in this particular meeting, we talked about the difference in American English between meet and meet with.

That called to mind a comment I had read a while ago, by John Humphrys. Humphrys wrote the introduction to James Cochrane’s atrociously angry book Between You and I, which I discussed (read: became very angry about) in a previous post. It’s a fitting introduction to this book; Humphrys’s writing is overly sentimental about prescriptivism and Cochrane’s ‘Lost Causes’ of grammar. Plus it urges the public execution and display of the body of a job candidate who used the phrase ‘proactively networking’. Yes, quite fitting.

But more importantly (given my love of prizes), the introduction also contains an offer of champagne:

“We all have our own pet hates. One of mine is the relatively recent and altogether hideous American import ‘met up with’. I have offered a bottle of the best bubbly to anyone who can explain how that differs from ‘met’. The bottle sits in my office to this day.”

Thanks to that earlier conversation, I am now prepared to claim the prize. Here are some of the differences between meet and meet up with. In fact, let’s do one better and differentiate between these two and meet with as well.

Difference 1: meet has a single word, meet with has two, and meet up with has three. To be fair, Humphrys notices this difference himself. This may mean that he technically has first claim to the bottle of champagne. But hopefully he wants a usage difference, in which case I still might get the bubbly with differences 2-4.

Difference 2: meet up with has an informal tone to it, meet with has a formal tone, and meet has neither. Compare the following sentences. The first set are in what I intend to be a formal tone and the second set are in an informal tone.

(1a) I met the agitated CEO in the boardroom.
(1b) I met with the agitated CEO in the boardroom.
(1c) (#?) I met up with the agitated CEO in the boardroom.

(2a) I met my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.
(2b) (#?) I met with my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.
(2c) I met up with my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.

(#? is linguists’ notation for possibly semantically weird.  We like symbols.) To me, (1c) is weird, as the CEO and I probably aren’t on good enough terms for me to meet up with him, especially if his agitation is directed at me. Similarly, the only time I’ve met with a girlfriend is to discuss the divvying up of things and friends at the end of a relationship, an uncomfortable and formal occasion. Otherwise, it’s always meeting or meeting up with girlfriends.

Difference 3: meeting with someone usually implies that we are holding a meeting to discuss an issue, not just getting together with:

(3a) I’ll meet you at the grocery store to grab some food.
(3b) (#) I’ll meet with you at the grocery store to grab some food.
(3c) I’ll meet up with you at the grocery store to grab some food.

Similarly, (2b), which I had said I found semantically weird, can become normal in the right context:

(4a) I met with my girlfriend in the pit lane to go over our racing strategy.
(4b) I met with my girlfriend to plan our friend’s surprise party.

In the terms of formal semantics, this is suggestion of a discussion is an “implicature”, an assumption that can be negated by the rest of the sentence.  meet and meet up with do not carry this implicature.

Difference 4: probably the most significant difference. I usually meet people I don’t know at all and meet up with people I know quite well. This tendency is especially strong in the past tense:

(5a) I met my girlfriend at a party, where we fell in love.
(5b) (#?) I met up with my girlfriend at a party, where we fell in love.

(6a) (#?) I met my mother at a movie theatre.
(6b) I met up with my mother at a movie theatre.

A swell example of this is the title of the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The show would be about something noticeably different if it were titled How I Met With Your Mother or How I Met Up With Your Mother.

So that’s four differences, and pretty easy ones to come up with if you consult a native speaker of American English. So why does the distinction elude Humphrys?

My guess is that Humphrys’s view of grammar is too black-and-white. You’ll note that I used a fair number of usuallys in my discussion. That’s because there are not categorical differences between the three forms. I can meet someone I already know, meet up with someone I’d never met, and meet with my friends. It’s just that I generally don’t: I usually meet people I don’t know, meet up with people I do, and meet with colleagues. These words have certain tendencies, connotations, and implicatures that can make one more or less fitting for a given situation. It’s not that one form is completely disallowed in a situation, but rather that it’s dispreferred because it sets up a conflict between the actual meaning of the sentence and what you expect the sentence to mean.

Thus the difference (at least for me, as an American English speaker) between these forms is that meet sets up an expectation for an initial encounter, meet with sets up an expectation for a discussion, and meet up with sets up an expectation for friends getting together. I suspect Humphrys will have trouble seeing this difference, because he’s expecting to find a cut-and-dried prescription that marks certain usages as completely unacceptable, rather than merely a bit odd. But the truth of the matter is that the interesting bits of grammar lie in uncovering these expectations and understanding how language users get these intuitions, how they remember them, and how they use them to communicate effectively. (This is the key result of all the work on syntactic alternations I’ve been studying for the last year; if you’re interested in a good linguistic introduction to this idea, allow me to suggest Bresnan & Nikitina’s 2007 paper “The Gradience of the Dative Alternation”.)

I think Humphrys should be celebrating meet up with, rather than vilifying it as an ugly Americanism. As he himself says:

The more elaborate and the more precise our vocabulary, the greater the scope for thought and expression.

Well, having words for the two different senses of meet (to encounter and be introduced vs. to have a meeting with), even if they aren’t completely distinct, adds expressive power to the language. I think that’s a good thing.  So too do you if use both meet and meet up with.  Hopefully Humphrys will think so eventually.

As for the bottle of champagne, I don’t really drink, and my taste buds certainly lack the discriminatory power to distinguish a crummy bottle of champagne from the best. So, assuming the bottle still rests in Humphrys’s office, he’s welcome to it. But I would be willing to accept a sandwich as a prize. After all, I am a poor grad student.

Summary: Meeting with someone usually means you’re getting together to discuss something semi-formally. Meeting someone usually only happens the first time (or the first couple of times if you have a bad memory) that you encounter someone. Meeting up with someone usually only happens after the first time you encounter someone.  But each can be used for the other sometimes.