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I'm American and I'm writing a short story, one of the characters of which is British. I'm trying not to go overboard in my attempt to replicate British English in this character's speech, but I'm stumped about how to casually express the sentiment that one thing cannot compare to another. I want to say "they've got nothing on me," but I'm not sure this is idiomatically British. It sounds American to my ear. Is there an equivalent, or is this expression actually used in (some form of) British English; or should I just use "cannot compare to?"

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    Are you saying "they've got nothing on me" means "cannot compare to"? I don't understand. Or should i say: that's a new one on me! I thought it meant "they've got no evidence against me". Please clarify. – Martin F Jan 16 '14 at 6:26
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    I'd be quite tempted to answer, but this question needs clarification and greater context. Please, could you set the scene, explain the dynamics for wanting to write: "They've got nothing on me". – Mari-Lou A Jan 16 '14 at 11:30
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    @martin: as far as American slang goes, got nothing on me can mean "cannot compare to". – Peter Shor Jan 16 '14 at 12:35
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    @Peter: I think that's by extension from A has nothing on B meaning A is no better than B, for which OED's first citation is American 1906. But they have Agatha Christie using it by 1924. I suppose OP's sense might derive from A is as nothing compared to B, but either way I don't think the usage is particularly AmE as opposed to BrE. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '14 at 14:16
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is based on the false premise that A has nothing B = A is nothing compared to B is not idiomatic British English. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '14 at 14:19
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If the sense is something like:

Smith thinks he's the best English teacher in the school, but he's got nothing on me.

then it wouldn't be unidiomatic. Maybe something like:

Smith thinks he's the best English teacher in the school, but he's nothing compared to me.

is more typically British (or, at least, less typically American).

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The British equivalents to "they've got nothing on me" could be

  • "they're not as good as me"
  • "are they as good as me?" (stated rhetorically)
  • "they don't compare to me"
  • "they've got nothing on me" as others have said, but I give lower marks for it
  • "they can't touch me" but it may also be too American

PS: I grew up in Britain, but it was a long time ago and idioms of course change. I'm now Canadian, and we pick and choose between British, American and our own English at random.

  • Why do you give "lower marks" to the one-to-one option "they've got nothing on me"? Is it because it is not as idiomatic as the American version or is it because it is idiomatic but doesn't mean the same thing. – horatio Jan 16 '14 at 18:53
  • Because, a) when i first read the question, i didn't see the equivalence, and b) the OP is trying to differentiate US and UK speech. – Martin F Jan 16 '14 at 19:07
  • That's why I asked: can you clarify why you think it is a bad choice? It is an honest question in that I do not presume to know the answer to it. – horatio Jan 16 '14 at 19:09
  • I wouldn't say it's a bad choice, i just favor the others. Ultimately the OP will decide. I cannot give further clarification than my a) & b) above. If they are weak arguments (i won't argue) then feel free to give equal marks to all 5 or my options. – Martin F Jan 16 '14 at 21:09

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