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Old Nick and English deviltry

Q: Please help. Endless frustration – unable to find where “knick,” the English slang term for prison, originated. Thanks so much.

A: Oops, it’s “nick,” not “knick.” That’s why you’re having so much trouble.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the noun “nick” in the sense of a prison, especially one at a police station, is of Australian origin. The first published reference is from The Sydney Slang Dictionary (1882), which defines “the nick” as a “gaol.”

But that’s just the beginning of the story. The verb “nick” has been used since the 16th century in the sense of to trick, cheat, or defraud. The first reference in the OED is from a 1576 work by the English dramatist George Whetstone: “I neuer nickt the poorest of his pay, / But if hee lackt, hee had before his day.”

And the verb has been used since the 17th century to mean to catch unawares or apprehend. The earliest citation for this usage is from The Prophetess, a play from around 1640 by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: “We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.”

Since the early 19th century, the verb “nick” has also meant to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of English and Scottish poems: “Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”

Last but not least, “Old Nick” (later “Nick”) has been a name for the Devil since the mid-17th century. The OED says there’s no convincing explanation of how “Nick” came to be associated with deviltry.

One theory, according to the dictionary, is that the name “Nick” comes from Machiavelli’s first name, Niccolò. Another theory is that “Nick” is a shortened form of “iniquity.”

Whatever the origin of this usage, it’s not surprising that a word with such shady connections should come to mean a place where shady characters are held by the police.

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Can you reason with Hamlet?


Q: I have questions about “cannot” and “can not.” Is there a difference? If so, then how is each to be used? If not, which is the preferred usage?

A: The short answer is that you’ll almost always be right with one word and wrong with two.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cannot” as “the ordinary modern way of writing can not.”

There are only three situations in which it would be correct to separate the “can” and the “not”:

(1) when you want to emphasize “not”: “Maybe you can spend $500 for an opera ticket, but I most certainly can not.” (This would be better written as “… but I most certainly canNOT.”)

(2) when “not” is part of another expression (like “not only … but also”): “She can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it.”

(3) when expressing an ability NOT to do something: “The true opera fanatic can not fall asleep even after six hours of Wagner.” (This is a rarely used construction. The idea would be better expressed as  “can stay awake.”)

Otherwise, the common convention in standard English is to use “can’t” in casual speech or writing, and “cannot” in formal writing.

Interestingly, this isn’t a particularly new usage. There are only five examples of “can not” in Shakespeare, according to RhymeZone’s Shakespeare search tool, but hundreds upon hundreds of “cannot” examples, like this one from King Claudius in Hamlet: “You cannot speak of reason to the Dane.”

In fact, “cannot” apparently showed up in English around 1400, according to the OED, while “can not” didn’t make its first appearance until 1451. And “cannot” appears far more often in the dictionary’s citations.

In Old English, the negative of the verb “can” was ne can, as in this excerpt, circa 1000, from the Gospel of Matthew: Ne can ic eow (“I cannot know you”).

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Two-sided words

Q: During the Olympics, the father of a Canadian field hockey player said he’d accept any “credos” for being his son’s first coach. Obviously, he inadvertently melded “credit” and “kudos.” Is there a special term for this kind of conflation?

A: Yes, it’s called a portmanteau or portmanteau word (from the French-derived word for a large suitcase with two hinged compartments). Humpty Dumpty,
a k a Lewis Carroll, coined the term in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a conversation in which Alice asks Humpty to explain “slithy” and other words in Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. Here’s Humpty’s reply:

Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.

A few common portmanteau words that have made it into dictionaries are “brunch,” “motel,” and “smog.”

As for “credos,” it’s already in dictionaries, unblended, as the plural of “credo,” or creed. It comes from the Latin credo (I believe), the first word of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

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This, that, and the other

Q: What do you think about using “that” or “which” or “this” to refer to a general concept in a previous sentence or clause if there doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity? For example: “She learned to drive in England, which made it confusing when she came to the United States.”

A: I have no problem with this usage, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. To summarize: “The use of pronominal this (and that, which, and it as well) to refer broadly to a preceding idea, topic, sentence, or paragraph … is considered quite respectable” (p. 903).

In fact, this usage is not only quite respectable now, but it has been since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has published references going back to around the year 893 for the pronoun “this” used in reference “to a fact, act, or occurrence, or a statement or question, mentioned or implied in the preceding context.”

You’d probably find it hard to read the Old English citations in the dictionary’s entry for “this” used as a demonstrative pronoun (a pronoun that points out something).

But here’s one from Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1825): “Bodies which have no taste, and no power affecting the skin, may, notwithstanding this, act upon organs which are more delicate.”

As for “that,” the OED has published references for the usage from around 855. Here’s one from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1) that I’m sure you’re familiar with: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

Finally, we come to the use of “which” to refer to a previous circumstance or situation. Although this usage isn’t quite as firmly established as the other two, the OED has citations going back to 1390, with examples from Shakespeare, Dickens, and Henry James.

Here’s a citation in Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The two Miss Crumptons proceeded to the Adelphi at the appointed time next day, dressed, of course, in their best style, and looking as amiable as they possibly could – which, by-the-bye, is not saying much for them.”

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And while we’re at it …

Q: I once had a boss who insisted that “while” should be used only to indicate things that happen concurrently. Her favorite example of proper usage was “I looked on while the dog peed on the floor.” I didn’t argue, but I wondered if “while” was really incorrect when used in place of “although.”

A: The word “while” has been used since the 12th century to mean “during the time that” – the way your former boss insisted on using it.

But “while” has also been used since the 16th century to mean “although” or “whereas.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense as meaning “at the same time that (implying opposition or contrast).”

According to the OED, this usage first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588), where Biron says to Ferdinand: “As, painfully to pore upon a book / To seek the light of truth; while truth the while / Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.”

The first “while” in the example above means although or whereas, and the second means at the same time. Since “while” can have different meanings, you have to be careful that you’re not using it ambiguously. Here’s a caveat from my grammar book Woe Is I:

“If you use while in place of although, be sure there’s no chance it could be misunderstood to mean ‘during the time that.’ You could leave the impression that unlikely things were happening at the same time, as in: While Dopey sleeps late, he enjoys vigorous exercise. Only if Dopey is a sleepwalker!”

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Don’t be a so-and-so

Q: I was taught to use “so” rather than “as” at the beginning of a negative comparison like the one in this sentence: “She’s not so tall as her sister.” Is this rule to be abandoned? Please tell me that it has not gone the way of “None of them is here,” meaning “Not one of them is here.”

A: It’s perfectly acceptable to use either “as … as” or “so … as” in negative constructions, according to modern usage guides. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for example, says a writer “can choose the one that sounds better in any given instance.”

This isn’t a new thing, either. Writers have been using “as … as” as well as “so … as” in negative statements since the 18th century. Merriam-Webster’s says the usage can be found in the writings of Swift, Johnson, Boswell, and others.

In 1785, a grammarian named J. Mennye decreed that only “so … as” could be used in negative expressions. Although the idea caught on with language authorities, writers continued to use whichever construction sounded best to them. In fact, some writers used both of them.

In 1795, the historian Henry Adams used “so … as” in a negative comparison of 13th-century cathedrals and 15th-century chateaus. But he used “as … as” negatively a year later: “The Church never was as rotten as the stock-exchange now is.”

It wasn’t until well into the first half of the 20th century that usage guides began to accept “as … as” in negative expressions, according to Merriam-Webster’s.

Today, that’s the view of the leading usage guides, including Garner’s Modern American Usage, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Merriam-Webster’s.

Interestingly, both “as” and “so” are derived from the same Old English word, alswa, which was used in comparisons eight or more centuries ago pretty much the way we use “as” these days: alswa brihht alswa gold (as bright as gold).

As for “none,” many people have been mistakenly taught that it always means “not one.” Not so! I discuss this misconception on the Grammar Myths page of Grammarphobia.com.

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A suspect usage

Q: I believe language is always changing, and the rules of English are changing too. But is it OK now to use the verb “suspect” in place of “expect”?

A: Yes and no. It all depends on how the word is used.

The verb “suspect” can mean (1) to distrust, (2) to imagine to be true, or (3) to believe guilty without proof.

The verb “expect” can (among other things) mean (1) to anticipate, (2) to consider probable or true, (3) to suppose, or (4) to be pregnant.

If the words are being used in sense 2, then “suspect” and “expect” are pretty much interchangeable: “I suspect [or expect] that the etching is not a genuine Rembrandt.”

It strikes me that “suspect,” when used in sense 2, suggests something negative. But neither The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) nor Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) seems to agree with me.

The Oxford English Dictionary, though, makes note of this negative association. It says the verb “suspect” has been used to mean “expect” since the early 16th century, usually in the sense of anticipating something dreadful.

In a 1509 allegorical poem cited by the OED, for example, a knight prepares to do battle against a fierce giant: “Makynge me redy, for I did suspecte / That the great gyaunte unto me wolde hast.”

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You’re everything but mine

Q: English is my second language and I really love it, but I can’t understand some things. For example, I don’t see the point of this song lyric: “You’re everything but mine.” Does it mean “You’re all mine” or “You’re everything but not mine”? I checked my grammar notes and I couldn’t find an explanation of this usage of the conjunction “but.” I need help..

A: I can see why you’re confused. “But” is a tricky little word that can be either a conjunction or a preposition. As a conjunction, it expresses opposition or contradiction. As a preposition, it means, among other things, except.

In that lyric from the Backstreet Boys’ song “Everything But Mine,” it can be a conjunction or a preposition, depending on how you look at the sentence.

If it’s a conjunction, the Backstreet Boys are saying, “You’re everything, but you’re not mine.” (The words “you’re not” are understood though not actually present.)

If it’s a preposition, the group is saying, “You’re everything except mine.” (In other words, “You’re everything with the exception of being mine.)

By the way, the word “but” has been both a conjunction and a preposition for a thousand years or more. Which came first? The preposition.

I hope this helps!

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A jerry-rigged expression?

Q: Help me, Rhonda! I am so tired of coming across the term “jerry-rigged.” Writers great and small, learned and not so learned, constantly get this wrong. The term is either “jury-rigged,” referring to a makeshift emergency repair, or “jerry-built,” meaning thrown together with whatever’s handy. These terms are not the same.

A: I don’t think Rhonda will be of much help on this one.

The term “jerry-rigged” has already made it into both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) – without any warning labels.

American Heritage says  the verb “jerry-rig” is an alteration of “jury-rig” influenced by “jerry-build.” Merriam-Webster’s says the participial adjective “jerry-rigged” is probably a blend of “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built.” Thus language changes.

In fact, this “new” jury-rigged (or jerry-built) phrase isn’t all that new. It’s been with us for nearly half a century, according to Merriam-Webster’s, and means built in a crude or improvised manner.

Of the three expressions, “jury-rigged” is by far the oldest, with roots going back to the early 17th century, when a “jury-mast” was a temporary mast put up to replace one that was broken or carried away, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest published reference in the OED for “jury-rigged” is in a 1788 travel book: “The ships to be jury rigged: that is, to have smaller masts, yards, and rigging, than would be required for actual service.”

The writer used the expression as a passive verb.  To “jury-rig” now means to improvise or do something in a makeshift way.

The first citation for “jerry-built” is in an 1869 glossary: “Jerry-built, slightly, or unsubstantially built.” The origin of the expression is unknown, but it’s thought to be influenced by the use of the word “jerry” in English dialect to mean defective. The expression still refers to something that’s shoddily made.

The language sleuth Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, lists eight of the more imaginative theories about the origin of “jerry-built,” including suggestions that “jerry” refers to the biblical walls of Jericho, the prophet Jeremiah, or German soldiers.

I’m not ready to use “jerry-rigged” myself, but with 56,000 hits on Google, it’s holding its own with “jerry-built” (79,000) and “jury-rigged” (123,000).

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You give me fever

Q: Would the adjective be “feverous” of “feverish” in these lines from a poem I’m writing: “tree branches wave arms / cooling the feverous spell”? The meaning is hot, as in the weather.

A: I’d stick with “feverous” if I were you. It’s perfectly legitimate for a poet to use an unusual, off-beat, or archaic adjective in a passage like that one.

Although “feverous” isn’t common in current usage, it was once used routinely and interchangeably with “feverish.” Both “feverous” and “feverish” first appeared in print (in fact, in the same book) in 1398, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “feverous” as “ill of fever; affected by fever” or “apt to cause a fever.” Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (1603), where Isabella says to Claudio: “I quake, lest thou a feavorous life shouldst entertaine.”

The latest citations in the OED are all from the 19th century. Here’s Tennyson, in a line from a sickbed scene in his poem “Enoch Arden” (1864): “After a night of feverous wakefulness.”

“Feverish” was used the same way as “feavorous” for the first few hundred years, but in the 1630s “feaverish” gained a figurative meaning: “excited, fitful, restless, now hot now cold.”

It may be that this added dimension is responsible for its eventual domination over “feverous,” which is now rarely used. (“Feverous” doesn’t appear at all in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. It’s listed in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., simply as meaning “feverish.”)

So if you’d like to give your poem an archaic flavor and restrict the meaning to “hot,” then “feverous” would be appropriate. “Feverous” merely means hot, though “feverish” has that added meaning of restless and fitful. (The author of the poem is Merilee Kaufman.)

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The Loch Ness naches

Q: My daughter is now a Shakespeare professor. She credits me for her love of language, which gives me nakhes. You know that Yiddishism, I assume?

A: Yes, but I’ve usually seen it spelled naches. I love Leo Rosten’s advice on how to pronounce it: like a Scot would pronounce “Loch Ness” (more or less).

It means, as you know, proud pleasure, particularly that special joy a parent gets from the achievements of a child.

The linguist James A. Matisoff describes naches (he spelled is nakhes like you) as “one of the richest of all life’s treasures.” He says it’s “a peculiarly Jewish concept that is as hard to render in English as Chinese xiào (which usually gets translated as ‘filial piety’).”

Matisoff, in his book Blessings, Curses, Hopes, and Fears: Psycho-Ostensive Expressions in Yiddish, discusses the kind of childhood accomplishments that can give a parent pleasure:

“As far as nakhes-providing potential goes, anything may be an ‘accomplishment’ (growing one’s permanent teeth, becoming bar-mitsve, marrying a Jewish spouse, playing the violin for company, etc.).”

A Shakespeare professor, that’s an accomplishment. Mazel tov!

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Commander Data and the Doc

Q: In your blog item about the word “graffiti,” you say it should be treated as a singular noun, like “data.” So, how is “data” pronounced? I’m presuming it’s DAY-tuh, but I’ve heard others say DA-tuh. On a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Commander Data (an android) corrects the ship’s new doctor when she calls him DA-tuh instead of DAY-tuh.

A: It’s hard to get this one wrong, though Commander Data had every right to insist that Dr. Pulaski pronounce his name the way he wanted.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has three correct pronunciations: DAY-tuh, DA-tuh (the a in the first syllable is like the one in “cat”), and DAH-tuh. There’s no indication that any of them is more common than the others.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has the same three pronunciations in the same order, though it says the last one (DAH-tuh) is heard less frequently than the first two.

The Oxford English Dictionary, though has only one pronunciation, the one preferred by Commander Data: DAY-tuh.

In case you’re interested, the OED has at least 44 Star Trek citations. The earliest published reference is from The Making of Star Trek, the 1968 book by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry.

The most recent citation is from an Oct. 15, 2002, review of the video game Gex in the New York Times. The game, the reviewer says, mimics everyone from Austin Powers, James Bond, and Maxwell Smart to “the entire cast of Star Trek and the Star Wars trilogy.”

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For better or worse

Q: I’m usually a pretty good writer at school, but for some reason I always use “worse” when I should use “worst” and vice versa. I’m not sure why I do that, but do you know any rules or tricks that would make it easier for me to remember?

A: The words “bad” … “worse” … “worst” are parallel to their opposites: “good” … “better”… “best.” It might help to think of them this way.

Another way is to remember that “worse” (like “better”) is what’s known as a “comparative,” a term used to compare things. It’s the comparative form of “bad.” So, one thing can be “worse” than another (or a group of other things).

But “worst” (like “best”) is what’s known as a “superlative” term. It’s the superlative form of “bad.” It measures one thing against all others and finds it the “worst” of the lot.

I hope this helps!

Before I leave this subject, I’d like to discuss an idiomatic expression seen in many guises, including “if worse comes to worse,” “if worse comes to worst,” and “if worst comes to worst.”

The expression began life in the 16th century as “if the worst come to the worst,” and it meant roughly “if the worst thing were to happen in the worst way.”

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1597, but here’s a later, more interesting one from a 1667 Dryden comedy: “Why, if the worst come to the worst, he leaves you an honest woman.”

The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website, has examples of the “worst/worst” version from the works of Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain, and H.G. Wells.

The earliest citation in the OED for the “worse/worst” expression is from Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe: “If worse came to the worst, I could but die.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage speculates that the “worse/worst” variant is the result of a “desire to make the phrase more logical.” But since when do idiomatic phrases have to be logical?

Nowadays, the two most common versions are “if worse comes to worse” and “if worst comes to worst.” A distant third, we find after a bit of googling, is “if worse comes to worst.”

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The well-tempered prelude

Q: As a musician, I’m truly bugged when I hear sophisticated music hosts on NPR pronounce “prelude” as PREL-yude. The correct pronunciation should be PRAY-lood. The “yude” version is the fingernails on the blackboard for me!

A: I’m very sorry to hear that NPR music hosts are using the pretentious (to my ear) pronunciation of “prelude” as PREL-yude. I’m not surprised, though, since dictionaries accept that pronunciation. EEK!

In fact, the first pronunciations in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) are “yude” versions.

Well, I don’t care what the dictionaries say. Anybody who says PREL-yude went to an elocution school for twits.

The English word “prelude,” which was borrowed directly from the French prélude in the 16th century, refers to a musical or other introduction. It ultimately comes from the Latin praeludere (to play before): this combines the prefix prae (before) and ludere (to play).

According to my old unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.) from 1954, the second syllable was originally pronounced “lood” (yes, including the letter l). The pronunciation PREL-yude is a case of sloppy syllabification, if you ask me.

In case you’re interested, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first published reference for the word “prelude” is in a 1548 English translation of Erasmus’s writings on the Gospel of Mark: “They shall only be preludes of the ende [that] is to come.”

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More than meets the eye

Q: I believe “He’s shorter than I” is grammatically correct, but it sounds awkward to my ear. Is it a crime punishable by heaven knows what to write “shorter than me”?

A: There’s more to this “than I” vs. “than me” business than meets the eye.

Since Anglo-Saxon days, the word “than” has been considered a conjunction, a linking word (like “and” or “but”) that connects words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.

Nobody has a problem when “than” is used to join two complete clauses (a clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb). Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I do.”

But things get complicated if the verb in the clause following “than” isn’t actually present: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than …” Is it “me” or is it “I”? They’re both correct, depending on what you mean.

“Trixie loves spaghetti more than I” means she loves it more than I do, while “Trixie loves spaghetti more than me” means she loves spaghetti more than she loves me.

If ending a sentence with “than I” seems awkward (particularly in speaking), you might simply restore the missing verb: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I do.”

Pedants would stop here. End of story. They insist that “than” is strictly a conjunction, and that it can’t be anything else.

But great writers have been using “than” as a preposition as well as a conjunction since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. And as a preposition, “than” should be followed by a personal pronoun like “me” (or “him,” “her,” “them,” “us.”).

You can find examples of “than” used as a preposition in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, and others. Here’s an example from “To Stella, Visiting Me in Sickness,” a 1720 poem by Swift: “And, though the Heaven’s severe Decree / She suffers hourly more than me.”

Until the mid-18th century, nobody seemed to mind that these writers were using “than” as either a preposition or a conjunction, depending on which sounded best to their ears.

Then along came Robert Lowth, the Latin scholar who helped popularize the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. In a 1762 grammar book, Lowth decreed that “than” should be treated as a conjunction, not a preposition, before a personal pronoun.

To this day, some pedants take the view that “than” is only a conjunction. Nevertheless, millions of educated people use “than” as a preposition too. And the more sensible contemporary language authorities are on their side.

“Than is both a preposition and a conjunction,” says Merriam-Webster’s. “In spite of much opinion to the contrary, the preposition has never been wrong.”

Now, back to your question: Is it “a crime punishable by heaven knows what” to write “shorter than me”? The short answer is no.

Even the more traditional usage guides now accept this in speech or casual writing. And I see nothing wrong with the usage in more formal contexts. If the grammar police try to give you a ticket, tell them about Milton, Shakespeare, and Johnson.

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Is “too” an also-ran?

Q: I’m often confused about whether to use “also” or “too” in a sentence, and exactly where to put it. Should I write “Include Jim in the email too,” or “Also include Jim in the email,” or “Include Jim too in the email,” or whatever?

A: I can see why you’re confused. These two little words can be confusing in the best of circumstances.

Traditionally, the terms “also” and “too” – meaning “in addition” or “besides” – are adverbs (words that modify or describe verbs).

Some usage or style guides are critical of placing them at the beginning of a sentence, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds nothing wrong with the practice.

My ear objects to beginning a sentence with “too.” But if it sounds OK to you, go ahead and do it. As Merriam-Webster’s puts it, “the best guide in matters such as this is your own sense of idiom.”

My only concern with using “also” and “too” is the potential for ambiguity. What exactly does the following sentence mean? I also emailed Jim.

Does it mean that I sent an email to Jim in addition to other people? Or does it mean that I, in addition to other people, sent an email to Jim?

In speech, we usually emphasize the words “also” and “too” to clarify our meaning. But in writing we have to be more precise when using these words.

So, think of what you want to say and then make sure you’re saying it, either by putting “also” or “too” in the most logical place, or by adding a few extra words. I’m sorry that I can’t give you a more definitive answer.

As for your examples, all three are clear enough, but the third one sounds clunky to me. This is a matter of taste, though, so let your own ear be the judge.

On a related issue, some language experts object to using “also” as a conjunction (or linking word) in place of “and.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes the usage as a regionalism and gives this example: “It’s a pretty cat, also friendly.”

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Hardy of heart

Q: My dictionary says the English word “surname” comes from the French sur (“over”) and nom (“name”). I speak French, but I can’t for the life of me understand why a “surname” (or “over-name”) should be a family name. In French, a family name is a nom de famille, a given name is a pénom, and a nickname is a surnom. Would you kindly explain the logic behind “surname”?

A: We got the word “surname” from French – actually the Anglo-French spoken by the Norman rulers of England – probably before 1300, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

The English word originally referred to a title or epithet or nickname added on to someone’s name. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from around 1330, refers to a knight whose “surname was: hardi of hert.”

Within a few decades, however, the word was being used to refer to a family name, perhaps because of a misunderstanding about the etymology of the term.

The word was sometimes spelled “sirename” or “sirname” or “sir-name,” suggesting that the “sur” of “surname” was thought by some to be related to “sire.”

As for your question, there may not be much logic behind why a surname is a family name in English, but the same can be said for a lot of idiomatic English words and expressions.

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Home study

Q: A recent guest on WNYC kept referring to “a home or an apartment.” Since when is an apartment not a home? I thought “home” meant the place you live. And yet many people use the word as if it were synonymous with a house. As an apartment dweller, I find this unsettling; it seems to suggest that I am homeless.

A: The noun “home” has many different meanings, from the headquarters of a company to a residence for the elderly to the place where a cursor hangs out in the upper-left-hand corner of a computer screen.

But the primary meaning in modern dictionaries is the place where one lives, whether a house, an apartment, an Airstream, a Quonset hut, or an igloo.

The noun “home” has been with us since Anglo-Saxon days. In its earliest published reference, from around the year 900, the word meant a village or town – that is, a group of dwellings. But it soon came to mean a dwelling place, especially one’s principal residence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the last century or so, according to citations in the OED, the word “home” has been used increasingly in place of “house.” Although this usage is most common in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the dictionary says, it is spreading elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Interestingly, the first published reference I see in the OED for “home” used to mean “house” comes not from a North American or an Australasian, but from the 19th century English poet Felicia Hemans.

The stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land.

The poem, which was first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s magazine, was parodied by Noël Coward in his 1938 musical Operette:

The Stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand.

Is this usage legit? Well, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists “house” as one of the meanings of “home.” But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t include this sense in its entry for “home.”

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, recommends against using “home” to refer to a house. “In the best usage,” Garner writes, “the structure is always called a house.” I’ll second that.

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As you like it

Q: I often hear people use “as” to mean “because,” as in the sentence, “We have to clean out our basement as we will need more room for your things.” This usage sounds horribly stuffy, though I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong per se. Are there any rules or recommendations for using “as” vs. “because” vs. “since”?

A: Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) say the conjunction “as” can mean “since” or “because” or “for that reason.”

But American Heritage warns that this sense of the word can be confused with the use of the conjunction “as” to mean “at the same time that”: “She was finishing the painting as I walked into the room.”

The dictionary recommends, therefore, that “as” should be preceded by a comma when used in place of “because” in the middle of a sentence: “She won’t be coming, as we didn’t invite her.”

When beginning a sentence with “as,” according to American Heritage, “one should take care that it is clear whether as is used to mean ‘because’ or ‘at the same time that.’”

The dictionary gives this example of a confusing sentence: “As they were leaving, I walked to the door. It’s unclear whether “I walked to the door” because, or at the same time that, “they were leaving.”

But back to your question. Dictionaries may say it’s OK to use “as” in place of “because” or “since,” but that doesn’t mean a careful writer should do it.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says this usage “should generally be avoided” because “it may be misunderstood.” I’m with Garner on this, and I don’t think sticking a comma in front of “as” will do much good, no matter what the AH lexicographers think.

On the issue of “because” vs. “since,” some sticklers insist that “since” should be used only to indicate a time period, as in “I’ve been sick since you saw me last.” I disagree.

As I say in my grammar book Woe Is I, “since” can also mean “because” or “for the reason that,” as in this sentence: “Since you asked, I’ll tell you.” People have been using “since” in this way for 500 years.

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It’s a guy thing

Q: Hi, guys. Is it true that the term “guy” is derived from Guy Fawkes?

A: Yes, it’s true, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but there were a few twists and turns along the way.

To begin at the beginning, the word “guy” first appeared in English in the mid-1300s, meaning a guide or a conductor, but that usage is now considered obsolete.

In the early 1600s, the term came to mean a rope used to guide or secure something on a ship. It still has that nautical meaning today. And we often refer to guide wires as “guy” wires.

So who’s responsible for the “guy” that refers to a man or a fellow? The culprit, as Ayto points out, is indeed Guy Fawkes, one of the leaders of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in England.

The term “guy” later came to mean an effigy of Guy Fawkes paraded through the streets and burned on the anniversary of the plot. The first published reference for this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1806.

By the 1830s, the word “guy” was being used for a person of grotesque appearance, especially someone dressed in a bizarre way. And a decade later, bingo, it meant a man or a fellow – that is, a regular guy. (These days, even gals are often referred to as “guys.”)

Although the OED says the use of guy to mean man or fellow is of American origin, the first citation in the dictionary is from Swell’s Night Guide (1847), a book about nightlife in London: “I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy.”

The OED doesn’t go as far as Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins in linking this usage to Guy Fawkes, but it says the “earliest examples may be influenced” by the grotesque sense of the word “guy.”

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Who do you love?

Q: When I got the New York Times Book Review recently, I was surprised to see this headline on the cover: “Who Do You Love?” Shouldn’t it be “whom,” since it’s the object of a verb? I know there’s no longer much distinction made in informal usage, but I never thought this would apply to the Book Review.

A: You’re right – “whom” would be technically correct. But it would look stuffy in that headline and raise more eyebrows than “who.”

I used to write headlines myself at the Book Review, and I’d guess the headline writer in this case was aiming at a colloquial feel. In colloquial English, “who” is often used to begin sentences and clauses that should technically start with “whom.”

Besides, the expression “Who do you love?” is a pretty well established idiom by now. (What famous rock band hasn’t recorded Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”)

I talk about this more liberal use of “who” in a section of my grammar book Woe Is I called “A Cure for the Whom-Sick” (page 9 of the third edition) and in the section on grammar myths (page 215).

In a blog entry last fall, I discussed taking liberties with “I/me” and “who/whom.” And here’s a link to the online version of the grammar myths section in Woe Is I.

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The whole nine yards, part 2

Q: You made a comment on the Leonard Lopate Show that the phrase “the whole nine yards” came from the space program. I am aware of two other possible origins, one involving machine guns and the other cement mixers. I would be interested in hearing more about your space-program reference.

A: Both of the supposed origins you mention for “the whole nine yards” have been disproved, along with many, many others (involving nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, and more).

I discussed this once before on the blog. But that item was written in the fall of 2006, and now it’s time for an update.

Language researchers have long scoured archives in an effort to find a clue to the origin of this expression, and one of them may have finally found it. Last year, a philologist named Sam Clements discovered what is so far the earliest printed reference to “the whole nine yards.”

In a posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, Clements reported finding the expression in an April 18, 1964, article about lingo in the space program. The article, in the San Antonio Express and News, said: “Give ’em the whole nine yards” means an item-by-item report on any project.

Of course, questions remain. Why “nine yards” instead of, say, “ten pounds” or whatever? All we know (as of this writing, anyway!) is that the expression appears to be an Americanism from the 1960s and a product of the space program.

I’ll keep readers of the blog posted on any late-breaking developments!

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Mix and mash

Q: I know what a “mash up” is – a digital recording that combines elements from different musical works – but I can’t find the term in my dictionary. What’s going on here?

A: Not all terms make it into all dictionaries, especially not all at once.

I can’t find the expression “mash up” (or “mash-up” or “mashup”) in the two references I consult most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

But I do see an interesting draft entry for “mash-up” in the Oxford English Dictionary, with a published reference for the term going back a century and a half, well before anyone ever dreamed of making digital mash ups.

In the earliest citation, as well as a couple of recent ones, the expression meant a “mixture or fusion of disparate elements,” according to the OED. A character in an 1859 play, for instance, is said to speak “a mash up of Indian, French, and Mexican.”

The OED says the term was rarely used before the late 20th century, when it took on its musical meaning. Here’s how the dictionary defines the term now:

“A fusion of disparate musical elements. Now usually: a piece of popular music created by merging the elements of two or more existing songs using computer technology and production techniques, esp. one featuring the vocals of one song over the instrumental backing of another.”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage comes from a June, 1994, article in the Times of London: “So what is Jungle, this frantic, weirdly fragmented mash-up of eerie samples, dub bass lines, jittering snare drums, ragga chat and soul vocals and why should we care?”

The term, spelled “mashup,” has another meaning in computer technology – a Web page or application that combines data from two or more sources. Example: a real-estate site with data from MapQuest and a multiple listing service.

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A sort of answer

Q: It seems to me that the unnecessary use of “sort of” has become ubiquitous. I’m not talking about saying something is “a sort of iPod,” which is another way of saying it’s like an iPod. I mean a sentence such as this: “It’s time to, sort of, fill up our car.” Why on earth would “sort of” be used like that?

A: I agree with you that the “sort of” in your second example is unnecessary. It’s similar to “you know,” “I mean,” “um,” and other superfluous words, phrases, and grunts that litter our speech. They’re sometimes called “fillers,” sometimes “verbal tics,” and they can become terrible habits once they get hold of you.

I’m one of the people who struggle not to say “you know” in every other sentence. I do my best to avoid it when I’m on WNYC, but once in a while I let loose a “you know” and get angry email in response! If you’d like to read more about these other verbal tics, check out my Sept. 7, 2006, blog item.

As for the superfluous “sort of,” A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge, describes it this way: in some people’s speech merely a verbal tic or hiccup, a “noise to keep the lines open,” with no more meaning than “er … um … er.”

The phrase “sort of” has been used since the 1500s to mean “kind of” or “type of” or “variety of” – the most common ways we use it today. Here’s an example from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671):

Have they not Sword-players, and ev’ry sort
Of Gymnic Artists, Wrestlers, Riders, Runners,
Juglers and Dancers, Antics, Mummers, Mimics,
But they must pick me out with shackles tir’d,
And over-labour’d at thir publick Mill,
To make them sport with blind activity?

The expression has been used since the late 18th century to mean imperfectly or somewhat or to express “hesitance, diffidence, or the like, on the speaker’s part,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a diffident example from Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903): “I’ll sort of borrow the money from my dad until I get on my own feet.”

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Sylvester Stallone’s mama

Q: Sometimes I see graffiti that adds to, or comments on, an actual sign. For example, someone once scribbled the following over the name “Yo-Yo Ma” on a sign at Lincoln Center: “How Sylvester Stallone summons his mother.”

A: I never saw the sign you mention, but I did read about it some years ago in the “Metropolitan Diary” column in the New York Times.

Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, I was just listening to his recording of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Which reminds me of a joke I’ve seen online.

In one version, Steven Spielberg is making a movie about famous composers. He asks Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger which composers they want to portray. Stallone chooses Mozart and Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be Bach.”

Seriously, your comment raises an interesting question about English usage: Is “graffiti” singular (as you used it) or plural?

The word comes from Italian, of course, where the singular is “graffito” and the plural is “graffiti.” And that’s the way it was when the word entered English in the mid-19th century, though it was primarily used in the plural.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1852 book on archeology that describes Viking inscriptions in Scotland as forms “of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti.”

The first published reference in the OED for “graffiti” used as a singular noun comes from a May 28, 1967, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Graffiti was written in San Francisco, Berkeley … and Montreal.”

So what’s the scoop on “graffiti” today?

The main entry for the word in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) is entitled “graffito,” but a usage note says “graffiti is far more common than the singular form graffito and is mainly used as a singular noun in much the same way data is.”

Although the singular “graffito” is etymologically correct, American Heritage says, it “might strike some readers as pedantic outside an archaeological context.”

The dictionary goes on to say that there’s “no substitute for the singular use of graffiti when the word is used as a mass noun to refer to inscriptions in general.” It gives this example: “Graffiti is a major problem for the Transit Authority.”

Over the years, many foreign plurals have been Anglicized as singulars in English: “agenda,” “erotica,” “insignia,” “opera,” “stamina,” “trivia,” etc.

It’s time to admit that “graffiti” has joined other Italian plurals that now take singular verbs in English: “zucchini,” “fettuccine,” “spaghetti,” and so on.

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A sign of approval

Q: During your last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, a caller corrected Leonard’s pronunciation of “imprimatur” (im-PRI-muh-tur). Not knowing what the word meant, I looked it up and found (in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary), that Leonard’s version was one of three acceptable pronunciations. Since this was near the end of the show, I was unable to call.

A: You’re right about Merriam-Webster’s. My 11th edition lists these three pronunciations: im-pri-MAH-tur, im-PRI-muh-tur, and im-PRI-muh-tyur.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only two acceptable pronunciations, im-pri-MAH-tur and im-pri-MAY-tur.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one: im-pri-MAY-tuh. And the other British reference I consult the most, Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, has two – im-pri-MAH-tuh and im-pri-MAY-tuh (it says Americans may pronounce the “r” at the end).

The score: 3-to-1 against im-PRI-muh-tur. But I’d go easy on Leonard, since M-W gives his version its imprimatur.

The word “imprimatur,” which means “let it be printed” in Latin, entered English in the 17th century, according to the OED. It comes from the verb imprimere (to press or imprint).

At first, an “imprimatur” was an official license to print a book. But by the end of the 17th century, it was being used figuratively for any sign of approval.

Here’s an example from a 1672 pamphlet by the poet-satirist Andrew Marvell: “As things of Buffoonery do commonly, they carry with them their own Imprimatur.”

The use of the word in a publishing sense is still around, but it’s primarily seen in the Roman Catholic Church, where an “imprimatur” is a declaration that a book is doctrinally or morally acceptable to be read by the Catholic faithful.

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Budget wise

Q: In your July 9, 2008, blog item, the questioner asks why we talk of “borrowing” words from another language when we don’t give them back. That’s not always true. Look at “budget,” a word that we borrowed from French in a different form and then returned to the French with its modern spelling and meaning. But perhaps it’s normal for a financial term to be stricter as to the terms of borrowing.

A: You’re right. We borrowed the word “budget” (originally “bowgette” in English) in the 1400s from the French bougette (a diminutive of bouge, a leather bag).

The English word initially referred to a leather pouch or bag or wallet. A citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from around 1530 refers to a “boget with leteers hanging at his sadel bow.”

By the late 16th century, the word was being used to refer to the contents of a bag or wallet. And by the early 18th century (after an etymological hop, skip, and jump) the contents of the wallet had become a statement of projected revenues and expenses.

The earliest OED citation for the new financial usage, dating from 1733, refers to a budget of “publick Revenues” as “this Art of political legerdemain.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The French, as you say, borrowed this handy word back, in the early 19th century, spelled the English way: budget.

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Rose is a rose, or is he?

Q: Does the name “Sally” have anything to do with the verb “sally,” as in “Let’s sally forth”? Is the name “Ginger” related to the spice “ginger”? Did people named “Ernest” and “Frank” make such an impression that their names became ensconced in the language as the adjectives “earnest” and “frank”? Or is this all coincidence?

A: In other words, what’s in a name? A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but did the flower give us the woman’s name? I’ll have more about this rose business later, but first your questions.

“Sally,” it turns out, is a nickname for “Sarah” and has nothing to do with the look-alike verb. The r’s in names sometimes become l’s in nicknames (“Dorothy/Dolly,” “Harold/Hal,” and others). For more, see the May 6, 2008, blog item on nicknames.

“Ginger,” on the other hand, does indeed come from the English word for the spice as well as the reddish-brown color. But it can also be a diminutive of the name “Virginia” (think Ginger Rogers).

“Ernest” is derived from an Old English word, eornust, meaning seriousness, while “Frank” comes from a Teutonic word for the West Germanic tribes known as the Franks.

“Frank,” as you probably know, is also a nickname for Francis (yes, that was Frank Sinatra’s first name).

As for “Rose,” a bunch of websites say it’s derived from various old Germanic words, including the name of “a giantess of Norse mythology.” But the Oxford English Dictionary gives a more prosaic source – the Latin word rosa, which means (you guessed it) a rose.

P.S.: The famous Gertrude Stein remark, often misquoted, is “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, is a rose.” The “Rose” in question was the English painter Francis Rose.

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The long and the short of shrift

Q: Is there any other kind of shrift than a short shrift?

A: The short answer is yes. But this question deserves a longer answer.

The word “shrift” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. It was spelled scrift in Old English and meant a penance imposed by a priest after confession. So someone would take shrift or do shrift or give shrift.

The noun “shrift” is derived from an even older word, the verb “shrive,” meaning to hear confession, impose penance, or give absolution. The verb, spelled scrifan in Old English, dates back to around 776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the original meaning of “shrift” is considered archaic today, the OED has published references from as recently as the late 19th century for the word used in the sense of penance or confession. An 1880 translation of Goethe’s Faust, for example, mentions going “to shrift with nothing to disclose.”

As for “short shrift,” the expression originally referred to the brief period of time that a prisoner was allowed for confession before being executed.

The phrase first appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III (1594), when Lord Hastings is sentenced to be beheaded and told: “Make a short Shrift, as he longs to see your Head.”

By the 19th century, the phrase “short shrift” was being used in the sense of making short work of something or giving it little consideration.

In 1887, for example, the Times of London criticized a measure before Parliament and said “it is to be hoped that the House of Commons will give it short shrift to-night.”

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People oriented

Q: The recent Supreme Court decision about the Second Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” seems to hinge on the word “people.” It’s my understanding that “people” was once a singular noun, and the plural of “person” was “persons.” If “people” is singular, doesn’t this suggest that the right is guaranteed to the people as a group – i.e., militias – rather than to individuals? Of course, that’s not how the case was decided.

A: I’ll let the legal scholars and law reviews reargue District of Columbia v. Heller. As for “people” versus “person,” I don’t believe the etymological history supports your argument.

Although some language authorities have declared that the plural of “person” must be “persons,” not “people,” the people who actually speak the language have been doing otherwise for hundreds of years.

English speakers have used “people” as well as “persons” for the plural of “person” since at least the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, Chaucer writes of “a thousand peple in thraste to save the knyght.”

In the past, “people” was sometimes used in a general sense and “persons” in a specific sense (that is, to emphasize individuality). Nowadays, though, most people use “people” in all cases.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says this general-versus-specific distinction “is now a pedantic one,” and the use of “people” for more than one person is “the more natural phrasing.”

As for your question, using “people” as the plural of “person” was perfectly acceptable English when the Second Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that some language pundits began questioning the use of “people” as a plural for “person,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The first known complaint came in 1861 when Henry Alford, a clergyman and grammarian, reported receiving a letter from someone who insisted that the expression “several people” should be “several persons.”

Alford, who’s chiefly responsible for the myth that it’s wrong to “split” an infinitive, didn’t buy this one. But many other so-called language authorities did. By the early 20th century, newspapers were adopting all sorts of rules for when “people” could or could not be used as a plural for “persons.”

When I worked for the New York Times in the 1980s and ‘90s, for example, the newspaper permitted the use of “people” for round numbers (“one million people”), but insisted on “persons” for precise numbers (“1,316 persons”).

By the end of the 20th century, though, the Times (as well as most other newspapers) had accepted “people” as the standard plural for “person” – no ifs, ands, or buts.

Needless to say, the people were merrily using “people” all along.

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Immune response

Q: My mom says that I’m “immune from” the mumps since I had the disease as a child. And she ought to know! But I’m not sure she knows the correct preposition to use with “immune”? Shouldn’t she say I’m “immune to” the mumps?

A: I’m on your side. Medically speaking, somebody is “immune to” a disease or has “immunity to” it.

In its entry for “immune,” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) uses “immune from” in the sense of exempt or protected (“immune from further taxation … immune from arrest”), but “immune to” in the sense of not susceptible or responsive, as well as in the sense of medically resistant (“immune to all pleas … immune to diphtheria”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) appears to agree. The examples it gives in its entry for “immune” use the preposition “from” in the sense of exempt, or not subject to an obligation: “immune from taxation; immune from criminal prosecution.” But it uses “to” in the sense of not susceptible or responsive (“immune to persuasion”). There’s no example given for medical immunity, but the definition uses the phrase “resistance to infection.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by R.W. Burchfield, says a person is “immune to an infection” but “immune from some undesirable factor or circumstance.” Burchfield adds, however, that “the division is not clear-cut; in some contexts from is idiomatically used in type (a) and to in type (b).”

In fact the Oxford English Dictionary has many examples of “immune to” and “immune from” that don’t follow the predictable pattern. Your mom, for instance, could reasonably argue that she says “immune from” because she means that you’re “protected from” the mumps rather than “resistant to” the mumps.

Here’s an interesting aside. “Immunity” is the original word, dating from the 1380s. “Immune” is the latecomer, a back-formation dating from the mid-1400s. Also, the sense of “exempt from” preceded the medical meaning (“resistant to”). That may explain some people’s belief that “immune from” is the preferred form.

Anyway, this is an issue of usage or idiom rather than grammar. It all reminds me of a particular irritant of mine—folks who say so-and-so “died from cancer” rather than “died of cancer.”

We wouldn’t have problems like these, of course, if English weren’t so rich in prepositions!

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