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I'm translating a short story from Spanish into English. A small child says (literally):

Why don’t we knock?” I asked. “They’re gonna tell us off.”

(The Spanish is: Nos van a regañar.) I've already translated the story into a mostly American English and would like to keep that register, but can't think of another expression to use.

Is "to tell off" a normal, acceptable American expression, or is it specifically British?

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I doubt a child would use the expression "tell off". I'd suggest "They're going to yell at us", which does not imply actual yelling but scolding. – StoneyB Oct 16 '12 at 11:43
@StoneyB Convert to answer. – bib Oct 16 '12 at 12:02
@StoneyB Make that a real answer and I'll accept it. Thanks! – sanschaises Oct 16 '12 at 12:07
@StoneyB: It's true OP asks about American usage, but that's because he doesn't know what it is. I'm pretty certain this particular expression is universal children's English of recent decades. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 14:10
@FumbleFingers I say "even &c" because that's all you can justify from NGrams. I think we're in agreement otherwise; my original statement was intended to convey that no Amurrican kid would say "tell off"; some adults might. – StoneyB Oct 16 '12 at 21:45
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Tell us off is an American idiom. However it is much less frequently used in American literature than in British literature.

As noted by StoneyB, young children in the US would be very unlikely to use the phrase. In addition to his yell at us, young children might say

We'll get in trouble
We're gonna get it

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It's not an American idiom - it's an English idiom. I'm not sure exactly why, but your NGrams are misleading. Apart from anything else, I don't think to tell off in the sense of to reprimand goes back more than a few decades, so there's no point including stuff from 1800 onwards - you should probably restrict yourself to usage from 1970 onwards. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 14:06
@FumbleFingers We know it is an English idom, but the question was whether it is also an American idiom. The ngrams are for tell us off, but there are clearly non reprimand uses. I do agree that recent usage is more to the point, so a time restricted analysis makes sense. Google books caries it back to at least 1959 – bib Oct 16 '12 at 14:43
You've lost me there. I know it's an English idiom, because I speak English and it's well-known to me. 7 hours ago I discovered that it's almost exclusively a British English idiom, which is why I downvoted your answer (because I disagree with the first sentence in it). Whatever - I've now posted my own answer with an NGram that imho conclusively establishes this. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 21:46

No, it's colloquial American English as well.

A specifically British synonym would be 'to scold', or possibly (and more crudely) 'to bollock'.

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When did you last hear anyone use scold? – Barrie England Oct 16 '12 at 11:54
@BarrieEngland Scold doesn’t seem too uncommon a word, at least when talking about children and animals. – tchrist Oct 16 '12 at 11:56
@BarrieEngland Last night on Downton Abbey. Also almost every day on parent support websites – Hmobius Oct 16 '12 at 12:00
Downton doesn't count because it's of its period. Websites, maybe, but that's not speech. I think it would be unusual to hear, say, 'If you don't stop doing that you'll get scolded' instead of 'If you don't stop doing that you'll get told off.' – Barrie England Oct 16 '12 at 12:05
Indeed - I was thinking of scold in an of-its-era use rather than today. @sanschaises doesn't say what time period the short stor is set in. Downton characters wouldn't say "Run, or the master will bollock you" either. – Hmobius Oct 16 '12 at 12:28

The truth seems to have been arrived at in comments posted by myself and StoneyB, but here it is as an answer. Firstly, note this chart of British usage for "told off for not"...


...where if you follow the link and switch to the American corpus, you'll see that even though this indexes far more books, there aren't even enough results to graph.

I specifically included "not" in the search string because that ensures almost every instance will be for OP's "scolded" sense. Without that, the results would be swamped by contexts where "to tell off" means either to count off, or assign responsibility (both of which senses are "dated", if not archaic, but still occur often enough to obscure what we're interested in here).

If you leaf through the citations in that link, you'll soon notice that many if not most of them involve young people. It's essentially a post-war British children's slang usage, so the answer to OP's question is: No - it's not a normal, acceptable American expression.

Although I'm not American, and therefore probably shouldn't pronounce on whether an expression is familiar to Americans, I think it's worth pointing out that (British) "Mum told me off" gets over 300 hits in Google Books, whereas (American) "Mom told me off" gets none at all.

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+1 I disagree only 50% with your conclusion--"it's not a 'normal' American expression, but it is an expression acceptable to Americans. Langue v parole. – StoneyB Oct 16 '12 at 22:44
@StoneyB: I've no idea how langue v parole relates to this matter - unless you just mean that you would understand the usage, but not produce it yourself. Which is a bit irrelevant when we're talking about what children would understand. For what it's worth, British Mum told me off gets over 300 hits in Google Books. American "Mom told me off" gets none at all. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 22:58
Exactly. It's in the American lexicon, though little used. It's probably not even in the lexicon of American kids. – StoneyB Oct 16 '12 at 23:14
@StoneyB: Couldn't you perhaps disagree only 25% then? You're obviously a more competent speaker than the average adult, so it's no surprise you'd know of the usage. But it's so obviously not significantly used by American children that for OP's purposes we might as well say it's not appropriate to have the (by implication, American) child say it in his story. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 23:31
Tell off is an American term. See also. It is not very common compared to other terms for the same concept. Tell off for not is not an American term. – bib Oct 16 '12 at 23:42

I don't think a child would say "They'll scold us". "We'll get told off" is much more likely.

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I agree, but it doesn't seem to relate to the question. – Alan Gee Oct 16 '12 at 17:44

It is a common usage in the US, including among (at least pre-adolescent) children. The phrase that is likely the most universal (by personal experience) for expressing emotion charged, hostile and hostility-tinged, English/non-English, statements of that kind is: (to be) mad at. It is a "way of saying" comfortable to all ages.

"Why don't we knock?" (little first person) I asked. "They'll be mad!" (was the reply)

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This question was asked and answered quite a while ago, but I think there's another interesting facet to the story so I'm asking this answer.

This is an old-fashioned AmE idiom, but with a slightly different meaning than the BrE idiom which would make it inappropriate in the given situation. Specifically, it is used between adults (often from someone in a slightly lesser position of power) to express outrage or anger over the other's behavior, especially behavior that had previously gone uncensured; similar to "give a piece of (my) mind". I would, for example, expect to hear it used about a blow-hard co-worker, but not about one's child.

This usage goes back to the middle of the 20th century, at least. An Ngram of "really told him off" in the American corpus finds usage back to the 1940s, which peaked a couple of decades later and has been gradually fading ever since. enter image description here

Interestingly, many of the earliest available examples are from transcripts or reporting, suggesting the idiom may have been in use in spoken language for at least a little while before authors caught up. For example:

Q: You really told him off, didn't you, Bob?

A: Well--

Q: You were mad?

A: I was sore.

Q: And you really let him have it?

A: Yes, sir.

(From the Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, combined snippets)

Switching to the British corpus and searching "told him off" (the "really" element is common in AmE but not BrE) does turn up a few early examples, notably a 1957 ethnography that uses the phrase in the American sense. (A tantalizingly early work appears to actually be a more recent translation of the 1910 book.) However, it appears that the American usage may have predated the British.

Examples of the "truth-to-power" sense of the phrase include a 1949 anecdote about a man who meant to tell off a city official, but accidentally got the man's "innocent wife"; a 1962 review of the play The Desk Set (later a Hepburn-Tracy vehicle) which describes three underlings deciding to tell off their boss; a 1975 description of a wife telling her therapist about "standing up to" her husband and telling him off; a 1988 story of a man telling off a doctor over not being allowed in his wife's delivery room; and so on.

None of the examples I looked at were of adults scolding children, or described children speaking (though some of them described younger people doing the telling off).

It is unclear whether there is a direct relationship, and, if there is, how an adult phrase for scolding of peers or bigwigs turned into a children's term for a parental scolding. It seems plausible that an idiom about empowerment would appeal to children, but that's just a guess, and doesn't explain how the power dynamic of the phrase got flipped.

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