The Grammarphobia Blog

Old Hungarian Goulash?

Q: A question regarding the expression “wreak havoc.” I find much information online about the “wreak” part, but very little about “havoc.” Would you shed some light on this when you have a moment? Also, I see in an Internet dictionary that one of the roots of “wreak” is a word in “OHG.” I assume that doesn’t stand for Old Hungarian Goulash.

A: “Havoc” is one of those words that we nearly always find in tandem with another. We rarely see “flotsam” without “jetsam,” or “wrack” without “ruin,” or “hunky” without “dory,” or (these days at least) “wreak” without “havoc.”

The origins of “havoc” are a bit shadowy.

The word entered English in the 1300s with the meaning of devastation or destruction. It was adapted from an Anglo-French word, havok, which the Oxford English Dictionary says was “altered in some way” from the Old French term havot.

In the 14th century, to “cry havoc” (crier havot) to one’s armies was to signal them to pillage and rob. We don’t know how the French got the word, but the OED says it was probably of Teutonic origin.

Shakespeare used the expression in several plays, including Julius Caesar (1599), “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”; Coriolanus (1608), “Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt”; and King John (1596), “Cry, ‘havoc!’ kings; back to the stained field.”

“Havoc” hasn’t always been this bloody. It has also been used to mean confusion and disarray, as in the expressions “make havoc,” “work havoc,” “play havoc,” “create havoc,” and of course the familiar “wreak havoc.”

Today, the “wreak” version far outnumbers the others in a Google search.

The first published reference for “wreak havoc” in the OED comes from an Agatha Christie mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): “Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.”

Note that we “wreak” havoc; we don’t “wreck” it. To “wreak” is to inflict, to cause, to bring about. To “wreck” is to ruin or destroy or dismantle. So “wreck havoc” is a misuse caused by confusing the two terms.

Speaking of “wreak” and “wreck,” people sometimes ask me about another confusing pair, “rack” and “wrack.” Here’s how I explain them in Woe Is I:

“Are you racked with guilt, or wracked? Is tax time nerve-racking, or nerve-wracking? Are you on the brink of rack and ruin, or wrack and ruin? Most of the time, you are racked (tortured, strained, stretched, punished). Just think of the rack, the medieval instrument of torture. If you’re wracked, on the other hand, you’re destroyed—you’re wreckage on the beach of life (the words wrack and wreck are related). In sum: You are racked with guilt, you’ve had a nerve-racking time, and you’re facing wrack and ruin. You need a less stressful life!”

And by the way, I devoutly wish that OHG stood for Old Hungarian Goulash. But it’s an abbreviation for Old High German.

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Is “misnomer” a misnomer?

Q: I’m tired of seeing and hearing “misnomer” used to mean a mistake or a mistaken belief. I recently read it again on Salon. Argh! We need to proclaim the correct usage – on blogs, TV, radio, billboards … everywhere.

A: I’ve often thought the same thing. In fact, this occurred to me not long ago when I read a column by the humorist Colin McEnroe, who used “misnomer” correctly.

He made a passing reference to “common sense, a misnomer given how few people have any.” The usage stuck out only because he, unlike many writers, used the word properly!

In the article you refer to, Salon quoted Rep. Robert Wexler, co-chairman of the Obama Florida campaign, as saying: “There’s this misnomer among some in the press that the Jewish community is a one-issue community. It isn’t.”

Wexler, of course, should have used a word like “misapprehension” or “misunderstanding.”

We got the noun “misnomer” from the Anglo-Norman and Old French verb mesnomer (to misname). The noun was first used in the 1400s as a legal term.

To plead or allege “misnomer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was to claim there had been “a mistake in naming a person or place; an inaccurate description of this nature.”

In the 1600s, another meaning came into use: “A wrong name or designation, esp. one which conveys a misleading impression.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) now define “misnomer” as an error in naming a person or thing.

To use it as a synonym for “mistake” is a misnomer!

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“Nobody dast blame this man”

Q: I recently saw an incredible production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and the word “dast” was used several times. Miller also uses it in the requiem speech in Death of a Salesman. I’ve never heard the word used other than in these plays and was wondering about its derivation. I can’t find it in the dictionary, but the meaning seems clear enough when heard in context.

A: When Arthur Miller uses “dast” in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, he’s using a form of the verb “dare.” In the requiem speech of Salesman, for example, Miller’s character Charley says of Willy Loman, “Nobody dast blame this man.”

“Dast” is a bit of American dialect that’s found in plays and novels depicting working-class or countrified speech.

Sometimes it means “dare” (or “dares”), sometimes “dared,” and sometimes the tense is ambiguous or irrelevant. Ogden Nash covered all the bases when he wrote: “I’d rather, if I dared or dast, conceal my academic past.”

You’re more likely to find “dast” in older works of fiction than in contemporary ones. Here’s an example from Sweet Cicely: Or Josiah Allen as a Politician (1885), by Marietta Holley, who was a best-selling satirical novelist in her day:

“I dast not, I dast not let my companion go from me into Washington. No! I felt that I dast not, as his mind was, let him go into temptation.” (Holley wrote this novel, and several others, in the folksy rural dialect of her first-person narrator Samantha Allen, Josiah’s wife.)

And here’s a quote from another novel, The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), by Harold Bell Wright: “Ain’t ‘nother man or woman in the whole country would dast spend the night here, Dad; except Pete, of course.”

Some authorities have speculated that “dast” may have come about as a back-formation of the negative “dasn’t” – also spelled “dassn’t” or “dassent” – a regional contraction, mostly found in the northeastern US, for “dare not,” “dares not,” and “dared not.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Apparently, “dasn’t” was easier to say than “daren’t” or “daresn’t” or “daredn’t.” Another American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, used this one in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931): “You dasn’t stay there till moonrise at ten o’clock.”

At any rate, “dast” isn’t so far-fetched when you consider that a past-tense form of “dare” used to be “durst.” What’s more, back when people used “thou” instead of “you” for the second-person singular, they said “thou darst” (pronounced DAIRST).

In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, the second-person singular was “dearst,” “darst,” “daerst,” or “derst,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has a “dearst” citation from Beowulf.

No wonder the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield described “dare” as “one of the subtlest and most variegated verbs in the language.”

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Are you punchy or drunk?

Q: Where does the term “punch-drunk” come from? Does “punch” refer to the spiked drink or being punched in the face and staggering around as if drunk?

A: Your second guess is correct, though either “punch” can leave you staggering around like a drunk.

The expression “punch-drunk” comes from boxing, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.), by Eric Partridge. It describes the dopey, bewildered behavior of someone who has taken a lot of hard punches to the head.

The phrase “slap-happy” may have originated in the same way, a product of the boxing ring. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it started with boxing in the 1930s and described someone whose brain was scrambled in the ring.

The earliest published reference for “punch drunk” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1912 issue of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Sheboygan Press: “”Punch-drunk through the first round, and floundering around like a great helpless calf, his mouth and nose shedding blood in a thick stream.”

The expression soon came to be used more generally to refer to confused or stupefied behavior outside the ring. Here’s a citation from a 1925 issue of The American Mercury magazine: “The tattered standard is thrust into the broken hands of a punchdrunk politician.”

And physicians began using the expression to refer to the medical condition suffered by boxers and other athletes, as in this 1928 citation from the Journal of the American Medical Association: “The early symptoms of punch drunk usually appear in the extremities.”

I don’t want to leave you punch-drunk from information overload, but here’s one more OED citation, from a 2004 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports:

“For soccer, there has been some concern that heading may be associated with the development of cumulative traumatic brain encephalopathy, or the ‘punch drunk’ syndrome described in boxers.”

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PAHST times

Q: In a blog entry a few months ago, you said the British used to speak with an accent similar to the one Americans have now. This was pretty stunning to me. Without recordings, I can’t quite figure out how you know this. If it’s correct, I’m surprised that all the colonists in the recent John Adams series on HBO speak with British accents. Given the research that must have gone into that project, how could such a big blunder be made?

A: I explained in the blog item that the familiar characteristics of what we now think of as a British accent – that broad a (as in PAHST for “past”), the dropped r (FAH for “far”), the dropped syllables (SEC-ruh-tree for “secretary”) – developed relatively recently, in the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries.

Before the Revolution, the Colonists as well as Englishmen in the mother country had similar accents. In many ways, you might say, we we kept the original.

How do we know? Because there were written accounts. People wrote about these changes at the time they were happening – in books on speech and elocution, in articles in contemporary newspapers and journals, in pronouncing dictionaries, and so on.

If you’d like to know more, I can recommend a couple of books by scholars of the subject:

Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol, by Lynda Mugglestone (Oxford University Press).

American Pronunciation, by John Samuel Kenyon (George Wahr Publishing Co).

I can’t explain why the colonists in the HBO series speak with a modern British accent rather than the “American” accent used by English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic at the time.

But this is apparently not the only blunder in the John Adams series. The Wikipedia item on the series lists more than a half-dozen other examples of what it describes as “historical inaccuracies.”

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Comparatively speaking

Q: I’ve noticed that newscasters are increasingly using “more” and “most” instead of comparatives and superlatives, as in “more ugly” or “most ugly” instead of “uglier” or “ugliest.” I anticipate that before long we’ll be hearing “more big” or “most big” instead of “bigger” or “biggest.” Would you speculate about this?

A: I don’t see any evidence that the adverbs “more” and “most” are replacing the “er” and “est” word endings.

Comparatives like “uglier” (instead of “more ugly”) and superlatives like “ugliest” (instead of “most ugly”) are incredibly handy language tools.

They’re so handy that the “er” and “est” suffixes aren’t likely to be threatened by an increase in the use of “more” and “most.”

If newscasters are indeed resorting to “more” and “most” instead of using comparatives and superlatives, it may be because they’re not sure how to pronounce the “er” and “est” versions.

But relax – those versions are here to stay.

Here’s a little history.

We’ve been using the “er” and “est” suffixes to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: ra for the comparative, and ost (sometimes est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Which brings us to another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives – that is, to do the job of the suffixes “er” and “est.”

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were used with “er” and “est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.” Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fitter, more better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example ) most unkindest.”

How about today, though? Is there a hard-and-fast rule about when to use “more” and when to use “er”? Not exactly, but there are common conventions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “more” is “the normal mode of forming the comparative” with “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables.” A few single-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives this way instead of with “er” suffixes, according to the OED.

Sometimes, however, “more” is used with one-syllable and two-syllable words that normally would end in “er,” like “busy,” “slow,” “true” and so on. Why? Here’s how the OED explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So, we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

So far, we’ve talked about “more” as an adverb modifying an adjective or another adverb to form a comparative (as in “more determined,” “more bitterly,” “more correctly,” “a more just society,” and so on). But it has other uses too:

(1) As a pronoun (as in “I want more,” “more of an athlete,” “there’s more where that came from,” “what’s more,” and so on).

(2) As an adjective (as in “more’s the pity,” “the more fool you,” “more pizzazz,” “more calories,” etc.).

And here’s a little sidelight: Until the early 1600s, “more” was often contrasted with “mo,” another Old English hand-me-down. “More” was used with quantities of one thing, while “mo” (or “moe”) was used with plural nouns.

In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the lexicographer R.W. Burchfield notes that “the more/mo distinction dropped out during the 17th century and survives only in some regional forms of English.” He points out the two versions in Shakespeare, from The Tempest (“is there more toil?”), and The Winter’s Tale (“let’s first see moe ballads”).

I could go on with the history of “most,” but I think you’ve had enough. No more!

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Organic recitals

Q: Is the use of the word “organic” incorrect here? “I don’t want to go speed dating. I want to meet someone in a more organic way.”

A: The word “organic” isn’t being used incorrectly – just metaphorically. In fact, “organic” has undergone many changes – both literal and metaphorical – over the centuries.

The ultimate source is the Greek organon, which means an implement, a musical instrument, or a part of the body. Organon, in turn, is related to the word ergon, or work. So “organic” and “ergonomic” are relatives!

When the noun “organ” was first used in Old English in the 8th century, it was a musical term for a type of stringed or wind instrument. “Organ,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, didn’t mean a functional part of the body until the 1400s.

But back to the adjective, “organic.” When it first appeared in English in the 1300s, it was an anatomical term referring to the jugular vein. The earliest OED citation is from an English translation of a Latin medical text by Lanfranc of Milan, a famous surgeon of his day.

Soon after it appeared, “organic” was being used in biological and medical writings to mean having to do with the organs of the body.

Later it was applied to living organisms; to things derived from living matter; to things that were instrumental; to things that had developed continuously or naturally; to a coordinated whole (that is, something that was “organized”); and to things having the characteristics of a living organism.

In the early 1940s, the term was first used in reference to farming methods that avoided chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and so on. Thus began the greening of the word “organic.”

As with any word that becomes widely popular, “organic” has taken on metaphorical uses. During the 1970s, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, “organic” was used on college campuses to mean “fashionable.” Cassell’s says the meaning developed in “acknowledgment of ‘green’ politics.”

I’ve heard many people use “organic” as a synonym for “natural,” which isn’t technically correct (particularly in the food and farming industries) but it’s a reasonable metaphorical usage.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has this as one of its definitions of “organic”: “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”

Back to your question. I can understand that speed-dating might be considered artificial and contrived, whereas meeting a person spontaneously, as part of the ordinary course of events, might be seen as simple and natural – hence “organic.”

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What’s fishy about baited breath?

Q: I’m a novelist and I’m not entirely confident that my copy editors will get these two usages right, as the variants are so common that the correct way is now unclear. Is it “uncharted” or “unchartered” waters? (My bet is with the first.) Is it waiting with “bated” or “baited” breath? (I’m going with the first again.)

A: Waters that aren’t mapped (that is, charted) are “uncharted waters.” Only Mrs. Malaprop sails on the “unchartered” kind. Boats are “chartered,” or hired, but not waters.

“Baited breath” is another malapropism. Breath that’s held in suspense is “bated breath,” because the breathing has temporarily stopped (that is, abated). Only fish have the “baited” kind.

You’re right, of course, that the two malapropisms are growing in popularity, but the standard usages are still predominant.

Here’s the result of some googling: “baited breath,” 265,000 hits, and “bated breath,” 471,000; “unchartered waters,” 66,000 hits, and “uncharted waters, 412,000.

I couldn’t find any published references for “unchartered waters” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but “baited breath” did make it – in a humorous comment on trendy expressions.

Will these malapropisms ever become proper English? I hope not, but now we’re in uncharted waters.

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Couples counseling

Q: In Consider the Lobster, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace, the word “couple” is often used incorrectly. Here’s an example: “There are only a couple changes.” I respect Wallace’s knowledge of English, and his death was a great loss, but shouldn’t “couple” be linked with “of”?

A: I’ve often said that a writer who knows the rules has a right to break them. And Wallace certainly earned the right to break a few rules.

Generally, however, “couple of” is standard usage before a plural noun, which is what I advise in my book Woe Is I: “a couple of changes,” not “a couple changes.” Better English – that is, more formal English – demands the “of.”

The reason for this is that “couple” is traditionally regarded as a noun, so it needs a preposition to link it to another noun, like “changes.” Except in informal English, it’s not an adjective, like “two” in the expression “two changes.” For a parallel example, think of the word “pair,” as in “a pair of shoes,” or “brace,” as in “a brace of pheasants.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees with this, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is more flexible. M-W accepts the use of “couple” as an adjective (without “of”) in casual usage.

Merriam-Webster’s considers dropping the “of” to be “an Americanism, common in speech and in writing that is not meant to be formal or elevated,” and says this informal usage is especially common before “periods of time (a couple weeks) and numbers (a couple hundred, a couple dozen).”

I agree that “couple” alone is often enough before numbers and periods of time, but I still advise “couple of” before ordinary plural nouns except in very relaxed usage. Dropping “of” conveys a folksiness that you might not want in your writing or speech.

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Colleagues now, and then

Q: I am curious about the current usage and meaning of the word “colleague.” My understanding is that it used to mean an associate of one in the same profession (e.g., an attorney is a colleague of another attorney). Now, it seems to be synonymous with “coworker.” Please advise me of the proper usage.

A: “Colleague” has become a more inclusive word than it used to be.

The source of the word is the Latin collega, “one chosen along with another.” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology say the Latin word was formed from col (together) plus legare (to send or choose as a deputy).

Other English words derived from legare include “delegate,” “legation,” “legacy,” and “college” in the older sense, as in “the College of Cardinals.” (But not “league,” which comes from a different source: the Latin ligare, to bind.)

Strictly speaking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “colleagues” are associates or partners with roughly the same standing in a governmental or ecclesiastical office. In this strict sense, the OED says, the word should not apply “to partners in trade or manufacture.”

The earliest uses cited in the OED come from ecclesiastical writings. An early citation, dated 1533, for example, refers to St. Paul and “Peter hys colleague.”

But in ordinary usage (that is, not ecclesiastical or governmental), and in ordinary dictionaries, “colleague” is now defined more loosely and indeed has its place in the business world.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “a fellow member of a profession, staff, or academic faculty; an associate.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is not quite so all-embracing: “an associate in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office” (mere staff members don’t qualify).

R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d. ed., 1996), says: “The word has been sharply democratized in the 20th century. Representatives of trade unions speak of their colleagues … fellow-strikers, fellow-prison officers, associates of any kind, now qualify for the term colleagues. The word is on a downward spiral.”

I hear “colleagues” used not only for nonprofessionals but also to describe people who toil on different rungs of the corporate ladder. An editor, for example, might refer to her assistant as “my colleague.” In this sense, it does appear to be synonymous with “coworker.” But it may also be a subtle way for a superior to confer status on a valued subordinate.

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Correspondence course

Q: I’ve always thought “correspondence” was a plural noun, but if I’m referring to various forms thereof, am I to use “correspondences”? Example: “I’ve received various correspondences from different employers.” I’m sending a letter and need to get it right.

A: “Correspondence” is a singular noun for the letters and emails and so on that are exchanged by parties who communicate with one another. In ordinary English, it’s not used in the plural (“correspondences”). But “correspondents,” meaning people who correspond, is plural.

I wouldn’t say “various correspondence” or “various correspondences.” I’d simply use “correspondence,” as in, “I’ve received correspondence from different employers.”

If you want to emphasize the variety of the various pieces of correspondence, you could say “various forms” or “various replies” or “various letters” or whatever.

The plural term “correspondences” does appear in scientific, mathematical, and philosophical terminology, but in ordinary usage it’s simply “correspondence.”

Another word that stumps a lot of people is “incidence,” which is singular. It is not the plural form of the word “incident,” which is “incidents.”

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State affairs

Q: You’re the perfect person to resolve a small controversy in our office. We’re attorneys and disagree as to whether an inanimate object, like a document, is capable of stating anything. Example: “The document clearly states that.” Your input on the subject would be greatly appreciated.

A: The short answer is that I can’t find any specific prohibition against the use of “state” in a sentence like “The document clearly states that.” It appears to me that either a person or a piece of writing can “state” something.

A little history: The verb is an outgrowth of the noun “state,” which originally meant (and still does mean) a condition or manner of existing.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the original noun was related to the word “estate,” which was adapted from Old French, and is derived from the Latin status, which in turn comes from stare, to stand.

The noun entered English in the early 1200s. The verb followed in the late 1500s, with a number of meanings that are now obscure and had to do with placing a person or thing in a certain condition, or giving someone a particular status.

The modern meaning of the verb “state” (to declare in words) didn’t come about until the mid-1600s, according to the OED. Later in the century it came to be used in law, where it meant to set out facts for consideration by a court.

There’s no hint in the OED definitions, or in the quotations that are cited, as to whether a person has to do the stating, or whether a document or other piece of writing can “state” something.

Although the majority of the relevant published references in the OED have people doing the stating, a quick search revealed several in which documents are stating something.

For example, here’s an 1860 citation from the Times of London: “That document stated that the transfer of a barony by tenure must be confined to the blood of relations of the first purchaser.”

Frankly, this may be a case of splitting hairs. But that’s what attorneys are for, isn’t it? Sorry I can’t be more definitive.

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Vowel movement

Q: I heard it again on TV this week and my teeth are still on edge. A new public figure running for national office used the incorrect term “verbage” twice in a seconds-long film clip. You’ve probably tackled this before but would you do it again?

A: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there are two acceptable ways to pronounce “verbiage” in modern English: as three syllables or two.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) list these pronunciations as standard English: VUR-bee-idj and VUR-bidj.

This may be a relatively recent development, though. My old Webster’s Second from the 1950s lists only the three-syllable version.

A little history: The word “verbiage” (from the Latin verbum, or “word”) entered French in the 17th century and was adopted by English in the 18th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “verbiage” as “Wording of a superabundant or superfluous character, abundance of words without necessity or without much meaning; excessive wordiness.”

Now, that’s a mouthful!

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Follow the leader

Q: On a recent radio appearance, you discussed word borrowings, which reminded me of an incident some years ago. I was in Paraguay when General Alfredo Stroessner was in power. He was known as “El Líder” and I remarked to a Paraguayan friend that the word “líder” was borrowed from English. “Oh, no!” he said. “It’s a good Spanish word.”

A: The Spanish noun líder is indeed a good Spanish word and can be found in any Spanish dictionary. But you’re right – it was borrowed from the English “leader,” which has its roots in the Old English verb laedan (to lead), which was first recorded in the ninth century.

If you’re a language, borrowing is a common and perfectly legitimate way to build your vocabulary!

Here are some other Spanish borrowings from English:

comité: from “committee,” which was adapted into English from Anglo-French.

mitin: from “meeting,” which came from Old English.

bicicleta: from “bicycle,” coined in English in the 19th century.

reportero: from “reporter,” a 14th-century English word (it didn’t mean a journalist, though, until the 18th century).

suéter: from “sweater,” which has roots in Old English.

champú: from “shampoo,” which English probably adapted from Hindi.

fútbol, gol, tenis, golf: from English sports terms.

túnel, tren: from “tunnel” and “train,” both of which entered English, with different meanings and spellings, from Old French.

Perhaps the most interesting Spanish borrowing of all is guerra (war), which originally came from the Old High German werra (meaning confusion, discord, or strife). The word was wyrre or werre in late Old English.

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and medieval Latin all got guerra – and French got guerre – from this old Teutonic source. The romance languages did this, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, because the Latin word for war (bellum) was too similar to the adjective for beautiful (bello).

Of course this borrowing business goes both ways. English has borrowed lots of words from Spanish, such as “barbecue,“ “chocolate,” “embargo,” “guitar,” “lasso,” “patio,” “ranch,” “stampede,” “tornado,” “vanilla,” and many, many more.

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You have no idear!

Q: Where does the additional “r” sound come from when people in certain areas of the Northeast want a drink of “soder” or think of an “idear”?

A: This “r” business is a bit more complicated than you might think. The short answer is that the addition of an “r” sound at the end of a word like “soda” or “idea” is a regionalism and isn’t considered a mispronunciation. Here’s the story.

In English words spelled with “r,” the consonant used to be fully pronounced everywhere. But today, some speakers (particularly in certain parts of England and the Eastern US) give “r” its full sound only before a vowel, either in the same word or in the word immediately following.

Take the word “better” as an example. These speakers pronounce it bettuh, but they add the “r” if a vowel sound follows. For example, the same speaker would say, “I’m bettuh paid,” but “I’m better off.”

To use another example, the same speaker would say, “New York isn’t fah,” but “New York isn’t far away.” Such speakers are basically using the “r” to link what they pronounce as two vowel sounds. Linguists have called this phenomenon the “linking r.”

Because of the tendency to pronounce an “r” when it occurs between vowel sounds, many of these same speakers go a step more and add an “r” where it doesn’t belong, once again between two vowel sounds.

Linguists call this the “intrusive r,” and that’s what you hear when someone says, “My soder [soda] is flat.” The “r” is inserted AFTER words ending in “uh” sounds just BEFORE words starting with vowels. So the same speaker would say things like this:

(1) “My old sofa died,” but “My new sofer is great.”

(2) “That’s a bad idea,” but “That idear annoys me.”

(3) “England and America joined,” but “Ameriker and England joined.”

(4) “The law says so,” but “It’s the lawr of the land.”

(5) “Tuna grills nicely,” but “Tuner is my favorite fish.”

This explanation of the “linking r” and the “intrusive r” is greatly simplified. Some speakers will add “r” more generally, pronouncing “idea” and “soda” as idear and soder even at the end of a sentence. And some speakers will drop “r” more generally, saying things like bettuh and fah even before vowels.

But this should give you a general idear about what’s going on!

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A plea for pretentiousness

Q: In your radio conversations with Leonard Lopate, you both dismiss some usages as unworthy because they’re pretentious. Is being pretentious such a bad thing? I want to stand up in support of pretentiousness! I love to appall people, for example, by pronouncing “penchant” as pawn-SHAWN instead of PEN-chunt. It’s a French word and I enjoy saying it authentically.

A: Well, at least you have the courage of your convictions. I’ll bet you pronounce “homage’ as oh-MAHZH instead of HOM-idj or OM-idj.

Well, many people do, but “homage” has been part of the English language for 800 years and “penchant” for 400. There’s really no reason to pronounce them as French anymore.

You may be interested in a blog entry a while back on the pronunciation of “homage” and another on the tendency of some people to use “an” before “homage,” “hotel,” “historic,” and such words.

Formality has its place, certainly. And informality is very often out of place. But even formal English can be simple and clear, avoiding unnecessary obfuscation and needless showing off.

Don’t confuse the unpretentious with the incorrect. One can be well-educated without being pretentious, you know. But if you don’t mind appalling people, go ahead and satisfy your penchant for pretentiousness.

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Pat on WNYC

If you missed hearing Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show today, you can listen to her by clicking here.

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Premises, premises

Q: I’m a DJ and music director at a public-radio station in New Jersey. I’m also a bit of a language nut. Recently some underwriting copy was recorded using the phrase “on premises.” It’s my contention that unless there are multiple locations the phrase should be “on premise.” Help!

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “premises” to refer to a single place, as in the sponsor acknowledgement you mentioned. Although “premises” is a plural noun, it usually refers to one place.

However, “premises” is generally used with “the,” as in “All baking is done on the premises.” The dropping of “the” by the sponsor’s copywriter strikes me as odd.

How did this plural word come to be used in a singular sense? Here’s the story.

The singular noun “premise,” which entered English in the late 1300s, was borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

It began as a term in logic, meaning “a statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (Now, it’s used more generally to mean a basic assumption or a starting point for reasoning.)

In the 1400s, the plural “premises” took on various meanings in legal terminology. Among other things, it was used as a sort of shorthand for “the aforesaid” or “the foregoing” – that is, things previously stated in a legal document like a deed.

For example, “premises” might refer to already mentioned land or buildings or rental income being bequeathed or deeded or conveyed to someone else.

In the 1600s, as an extension of this legal usage, “premises” (always in the plural) came to mean, according to the OED, “a house or building together with its grounds, outhouses, etc., esp. a building or part of a building that houses a business.”

We’re using “premises” in that way when we say “All work done on the premises” or “No alcohol allowed on the premises.”

While “premises” is a plural noun, it’s often used with a singular verb. So people might write or say “premises is” as well as “premises are,” and “premises was” as well as “premises were.”

As for the usage you mention, “on premises,” that strikes me as a bit show-offy. I’ve noticed a lot of “the”-dropping in broadcasting. Examples: “from bullpen” (as in “The manager is bringing Rivera in from bullpen”), or “on scene” (as in “This is Geraldo, reporting on scene”), or “in studio” (“Now back to Brian in studio”).

Why the missing “the”? Is it an attempt to emulate British usage (“in hospital” and so on)? You may be interested in a blog entry I’ve written about this and other Britishisms.

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Hear Pat today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to discuss the English language and to take questions from callers.

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The right medicine

Q: Why is the paper from a doctor that is filled at a pharmacy written “prescription” but pronounced “perscription”?

A: The thing your doctor writes should be pronounced “prih-SKRIP-shun.” The vowel in the first syllable sounds like the “i” in “rib,” and it follows the “r” sound. Anyone who says the first syllable as “per” is mispronouncing the word.

This transposing of consonant and vowel sounds is called metathesis. (That’s pronounced muh-TA-thuh-sus.) Other examples include transpositions like hunderd (for “hundred”), modren (“modern”), interduce (“introduce”), prespiration (“perspiration”), and purty (“pretty”).

When “prescription” entered English in the early 1400s, it referred to the use or possession of something for a long period of time or to the legal right to it because of such use or possession.

The word didn’t appear in a medical sense until the mid-1500s. The first published reference for this usage in the OED is from Gilbert Skeyne’s Ane Breve Description of the Pest (1568). The book, which describes an outbreak of the Black Death in Edinburgh, is said to be the earliest Scottish medical text.

By the way, the term “Rx” is an alteration of the medical symbol for a prescription (a capital “R” with a cross on the diagonal leg).

Some people have speculated that the medical symbol is derived from various ancient symbols, but the OED has a more prosaic explanation: it comes from the first letter of the Latin imperative recipe, or “take,” as in “Take one amoxicillin capsule every eight hours.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the medical symbol (the capital “R” with a cross) is from a 1559 translation of a Latin work on distilling medicine from plants.

The first citation for the letters “r” and “x” used together in place of the medical symbol is from an 1855 article in the New Hampshire Journal of Medicine: “The following prescription was most useful. Rx Valerian Fl. Ext.”

The earliest published reference for the two letters used in an everyday way simply to describe a prescription ordered by a doctor is from a 1911 ad in a Syracuse, NY, newspaper that mentions “RX prescription shoes.”

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Time studies

Q: I probably have too much time on my hands, which may be why I’ve been wondering where the phrase ‘”time on my hands” comes from. Can you help me?

A: For almost a millennium, people have used the expressions “on hand” and “upon hand” to describe things that were in their possession or that they were responsible for.

The things could be belongings, property, work to do, responsibilities, or business to be dealt with or disposed of. The Oxford English Dictionary cites printed references going back to the year 1025.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century collection of the Arthurian legends, for example, Merlin tells Arthur of 11 kings who have “more on hand than they are ware of.”

In the 16th century, the plural forms of the expressions, “on one’s hands” and “upon one’s hands,” showed up. The OED defines them as meaning “resting upon one as a charge, burden, or responsibility, or as a thing to be dealt with or attended to; opposite to off one’s hands.”

The earliest citation in the OED for these expressions used in reference to time is from a 1700 satirical work that mentions people with “a great deal of Idle Time lying upon their Hands.”

And we’ve had time on our hands ever since.

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The shipping news

Q: I had an interesting question in my ESL conversation group this week. What is the meaning of “ship” in words like “friendship,” “relationship,” etc.? It really stumped me. Any suggestions? (The group is made up of students from China, Iran, Peru, Mexico, Kosovo, Japan, and Turkey.)

A: You ask a very interesting question.

In Old English, the suffix “ship” – then spelled sciepe, skiepe, scipe, or scype – was added to adjectives, past participles, and nouns to create nouns that meant a state or condition (that’s how, for example, “ship” got added to “friend”).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, many old Germanic languages used this device to make compound words, and it had the meaning of “creation, creature, constitution, condition.”

In Anglo-Saxon times, “ship” was a very common suffix, though many of the old “ship” words have since disappeared or been replaced with competing words ending in another very old suffix: “ness.”

For example, “goodship” (godscipe) and “goodness” (godnes) competed for centuries until “goodness” won the popularity contest. In one familiar case, we kept both forms – “hardship” and “hardness” – though their meanings diverged.

The compounds that have mostly disappeared were ones that added “ship” to adjectives and past participles. The OED says: “Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century.”

Examples of such Old English words that didn’t make the cut are druncenscipe (roughly meaning drunkenship), glædscipe (gladship), dolscipe (foolishship or errorship), and prútscipe (prideship).

The only survivals of this kind are our modern words “hardship” and “worship” (formed from an old adjective that meant worthy).

The surviving “ship” words that are common today are mostly formed from nouns, and they’re almost countless: “partnership”, “fellowship,” “craftsmanship,” “lordship,” “professorship,” “courtship,” “township,” and so on.

By the way, the suffix “ship” doesn’t seem to be related to the noun “ship.” The Old English word for the seagoing vessel, scip, is related to similar Germanic words: skip (Old Frisian), skip (Old Norse), scheep (Old High German), and so on. The OED says “the ultimate etymology is uncertain.”

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Earthen-wariness

Q: When you were on the Leonard Lopate Show last month, you used the term “earthenware” for an embankment made of earth. You meant to say “earthworks,” didn’t you? Earthenware is a type of low-fired pottery, like a flowerpot or a majolica dish. But you knew that, of course. We potters get upset over things like that. Otherwise, I love both Leonard and you. Kindred souls and fellow language nerds!

A: You’re right of course. I thought I was saying that an “earthwork” (a man-made construction of earth) could be called an “embankment.” I must have misspoken and said “earthenware”! Sorry about that. And thanks for nudging me.

By the way, “earthenware” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, but it was often written as two words until the 19th century.

In a 1673 account of his travels through the Netherlands, the English naturalist John Ray said Delft “is noted for good earthen Ware, as Stone-jugs, Pots, etc.”

The adjective “earthen” and the noun “ware” are much, much older, of course.

The word “earthen” merely meant “composed of earth” when it first appeared in English in the early 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the late 14th century that it came to mean “made of baked clay.”

The first citation in the OED for “earthen” in relation to pottery comes from the English theologian John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Go and tac the erthene litil wyne vessel of the crockere.”

The word “ware” is a lot older, probably dating back to Alfred the Great, the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king, according to the OED. The noun, waru in Old English, originally meant watchful care, then apparently came to mean an object of care.

By around the year 1000, according to the OED, “ware” was being used in our modern sense as a collective term for merchandise or goods.

Here’s a late 14th century citation from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “Greet prees at market maketh deere ware.”

And may you and your fellow potters get a “greet prees” for your “deere ware”!

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In-laws and other strangers

Q: I teach English as a second language and this question came up in class: John and Frank are brothers. John is married to Jennifer. Frank is married to Francine. Are Jennifer and Francine sisters-in-law? I think they are, but the ESL students insist they aren’t in other languages.

A: Yes, women who are married to brothers are sisters-in-law to each other.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) give three definitions of “sister in law”:

(1) The sister of one’s spouse.

(2) The wife of one’s brother.

(3) The wife of the brother of one’s spouse.

I think the confusion here is over the English term “in-law,” an idiomatic phrase that indicates someone is related by marriage, not blood.

Your students apparently think the expression “sisters-in-law” refers to legal (that is, actual or birth) sisters. It doesn’t. Here’s how the OED defines “in-law”:

“A phrase appended to names of relationship, as father, mother, brother, sister, son, etc., to indicate that the relationship is not by nature, but in the eye of the Canon Law, with reference to the degrees of affinity within which marriage is prohibited.”

Other languages have terms to describe such a relationship, though the wording may not include the legal terminology that English uses. For example, a sister-in-law is a belle-soeur in French, a cuñada in Spanish, and a cognata in Italian.

Interestingly, the term “in-law” was once used in English to describe relationships that are now referred to with the term “step.” So, the expression “sister-in-law” once also meant stepsister. The OED says this sense “though still locally or vulgarly current, is now generally considered a misuse.”

For what it’s worth, the first published reference in the OED for “sister-in-law” dates from the early 1400s, more than a century after the first appearance of “brother-in-law.”

I’ve gone on a bit, but I hope this helps.

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Corporate-speak

Q: Why does corporate America keep trying to change the meaning of words? (I think I know the answer!) Sometimes it’s comical, but at other times it’s condescending and deceptive. I’m an account executive at a large company (60,000 employees) and this is an example: Instead of telling us we’ll have to “pay more” for medical insurance, the powers that be say there’ll be more “cost sharing.” Thank you for your time.

A: There’s no mystery here. And, of course, you do already know the answer.

When corporate bureaucrats (or anyone else, for that matter) want to sweeten a distasteful message, they use rhetoric. The ancient Greek orators knew this thousands of years ago.

Meaning is obscured when officials speak of being “incented” instead of “influenced” or “bribed.”

Responsibility gets clouded when a direct statement like “We made mistakes” becomes “Mistakes were made.”

Reality is blunted when “civilian deaths” become “collateral damage.”

And guilt becomes less clear when a “fatal drug reaction” is termed an “adverse event.” If you were doing public relations for the pharmaceutical company, which term would you choose?

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Wooly Bully

Q: Your discussion of podiums and lecterns made me think of pulpits, specifically bully pulpits. I sometimes hear the phrase “bully pulpit“ used for a public position that lets one bully people, not merely expound one’s views. I always thought that when Teddy Roosevelt coined the expression, he used “bully” the way we might use “perfect” or “great.” That is, unless this is a language urban legend.

A: No, your explanation of “bully pulpit” isn’t an urban legend. And you’re right that no “bullying” was implied in the phrase, at least originally.

The first person to use it was indeed Theodore Roosevelt. In the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine, a reporter wrote that Roosevelt “swung round in his swivel chair, and said: ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”

The adjective “bully” had been used in 17th-century England to describe people who were worthy or jolly or admirable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in mid-19th-century America, the term was widened to apply to anything that was first-rate, as in “The cook will give you a bully dinner” (1855). In the 1860s, Americans said “bully for you” or simply “bully” to mean “job well done.”

Roosevelt’s quote took on a life of its own. The OED now defines a “bully pulpit” as “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.”

No bullying there. But politics often makes for fuzzy—or wooly—thinking. As Sam the Sham and Pharaohs sang back in the ’60s, “Wooly Bully”!

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Sex symbols

Q: In a recent radio appearance, you said the idea that “he” can refer to any human being – man or woman – was introduced in the 18th century by a female grammarian. I think you’re wrong. The concept of male as universal has been around much longer.

A: If by “male as universal,” you mean using male pronouns (“he,” “him,” and “his”) for women as well as men, the idea did indeed begin in the 18th century.

Before then – for two centuries, in fact – it was considered acceptable to use “they,” “them,” and “their” as singular or plural pronouns for either men or women.

Anne Fisher, the first woman to write an English grammar, was also the first grammarian to suggest that the pronoun “he” be used generically for either sex.

In the mid-18th century, she proposed that “he” be a sex-neutral, third-person singular in cases where gender was indefinite. For example, on second reference to “someone,” “anyone,” and so on, as in “Does anyone think he knows the answer?”

There’s no surviving copy of the first edition of Fisher’s book, A New Grammar With Exercises of Bad English, but it was advertised for sale in 1745. It was followed in 1750 by a second edition (which we do have), and 30 more editions came later, making the book one of the most popular guides of its time.

One reason her book is so important historically (there are other reasons, too) is its suggestion that “he” and company be used as a blanket term for both sexes.

The Masculine Person,” Fisher wrote, “answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.”

Fisher’s book was widely pirated. Another grammarian, John Kirkby, said the same thing soon after Fisher’s first edition came out, but language scholars feel he plagiarized the idea from her.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, a linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and an expert on early English grammars, has written a fascinating paper that includes much information on Fisher. The paper, which was originally published in the journal Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics, is available online.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was acceptable to use “they,” “them,” and “their” as all-purpose pronouns. “They” and the rest could be either masculine or feminine, singular or plural – as “you” can be today.

The grammarians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who condemned the use of “they” as a singular pronoun (and deprived us of one of the handiest usages) were perhaps influenced by Fisher. If you’d like to read more, I’ve written about “they” on the blog before.

Etymologically speaking – that is, focusing only on word formation – this male-vs.-female business has given rise to many myths. Here are a few facts:

(1) “Female” isn’t related etymologically to “male. We got it from the Latin femella, a diminutive of femina, the Latin for “woman.” The word “male,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin masculus. When “female” entered English in the early 1300s it was spelled “femelle,” similar to the word in Old French. The spelling “female” arose later out of confusion with the spelling of “male.”

(2) “Woman” isn’t derived from “man.” In Anglo-Saxon times, manna and other early versions of our modern word “man” referred merely to a person regardless of sex – that is, a human being. A single or married man was a wer (“male person”) or a waepman (“weapon person”). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman (both meant simply a woman). Over many hundreds of years (roughly, from 700 until 1400), wer and waepman fell out of use and were replaced by “man”; meanwhile, wif became “wife” and wifman became “woman.” So both “man” and woman” were derived from a universal term that was neither masculine nor feminine.

(3) There’s no “man” in “human.” We got the word “human” in the 14th century from the Latin humanus (of or belonging to humankind). Humanus in turn is related to the Latin homo. The Romans used homo for a person in general, vir for a male, and femina for a female.

(4) There’s no “his” in “history.” We got the word “history” from the Latin historia (an account or narrative). The English pronoun “his” isn’t part of the word.

My husband and I discuss these and many other myths about English in Origins of the Specious, a new book that’s coming out next spring from Random House.

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A growing concern

Q: I often notice new trends in English. One that bugs me is the increasing use of “concerning” instead of “worrying” or “alarming.” For example, I hear people on radio or TV describing a news event as “concerning.” Have you noticed?

A: No, I haven’t noticed this use of “concerning” as an adjective (as in, “We’re having a concerning week on Wall Street”). But you have, so it must be out there.

The word “concerning” is a participle form of the verb “concern,” as in “His mismatched socks were barely noticeable, and were concerning him unnecessarily.”

It’s also used as a preposition meaning regarding or in reference to: “Concerning his socks, I would say nobody noticed.”

As for “worrying” and “alarming,” it’s standard English to use those participles as adjectives, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, “We’re having an alarming week on Wall Street.”

But it’s not considered standard to use “concerning” that way, at least not in modern times. In the past, though, “concerning” was indeed used as a participial adjective, according to the OED.

The dictionary has a few citations for this usage, dating from 1649 to 1834, including this one from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1741): “I cannot bear anything that is the least concerning to you.”

Richardson seems to have had a thing about using “concerning” as an adjective. In The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1781), he describes Lady L. as “speaking for her sister on this concerning subject.”

The adjectival use of “concerning” is considered archaic today, according to the OED. Is it now being revived? Will it stick this time? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Calm and composed

Q: Now that the verb “comprise” has come to mean “compose,” what word are we supposed to use for the old meaning of “comprise”?

A: “Comprise,” as you’ve noticed, has become ambiguous through misuse.

The traditional rule is that the whole “comprises” (consists of, includes, or contains) the parts, and the parts “compose” (constitute or make up) the whole.

The whole, meanwhile, is “composed of” its parts, not “comprised of” them, as people are increasingly saying and writing.

My advice is to stay away from “comprised of” altogether. It makes no sense, and to a stickler it makes you sound uninformed. In addition to saying something is “composed of” this, that, and the other, you can say it “includes” or “consists of” or “is made up of” them.

As I said, that’s my advice, but “comprised of” is now a very common usage, and dictionaries are bound to accept it without qualification one of these days.

R.W. Burchfield, the editor of The New Fowlers Modern English Usage, said in 1996 that opposition to the use of “comprised of” for “composed of” was getting weaker. He was right.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agree with Burchfield that opposition to the usage is abating.

But the two dictionaries warn that you’re still likely to be criticized by traditionalists for using “comprised of” to mean “composed of.”

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Patently singular

Q: In the following sentence, which verb – “is” or “are” – is correct? “Only one in ten business-method patents is/are granted to a financial institution.” (FYI, a business-method patent is a patent for a new method of doing business.)

A: A subject like “one in ten” or “one out of three” or “one in every six” always takes a singular verb: “One in ten is” … “One out of three comes” … “One in every six says” … and so on. The subject here is “one.”

This is true even if you insert a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb) between the “one in ten” part and the main verb.

Here’s the kind of sentence I’m talking about: “Only one in ten business-method patents that are issued is granted to a financial institution.”

When you insert a clause beginning with “that” or “who” in such a sentence, the main verb (the one following the clause) stays singular, but the verb inside the clause is plural.

Here are some more examples. I’ll put the inserted clauses in brackets:

“One in ten plumbers [who claim to be licensed] is an impostor.”

“One out of the three [that are most popular] comes from Japan.”

“One in every six women [who vote Republican] says she’s an independent.”

The verbs are sometimes easier to figure out if you rearrange the sentence:

“Of every ten plumbers who claim to be licensed, one is an impostor.”

“Of the three that are most popular, one comes from Japan.”

“Of every six women who vote Republican, one says she’s an independent.”

(And, by the way, please ignore those fake statistics. I made them up for purposes of illustration.)

“One” may be a simple number, but it raises lots of grammatical questions. People often ask, for instance, whether they should say “one less” or “one fewer.” Here’s a Grammarphobia Blog posting on that one.

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Reach out and touch someone

Q: I hear thirty-somethings around the newsroom where I work use a phrase that sets my teeth on edge: “reach out,” as in “Why don’t you reach out to correspondent Jane Doe and see if she’ll file a piece for us?” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “reach out,” but it seems out of place for a phone call to a reporter. If you wouldn’t mind reaching out to me, what are your thoughts?

A: Only a psycholinguist can answer this question. My guess is that ordinary language (“Why don’t you ask Jane Doe to file a piece for us?”) sometimes seems inadequate.


If one’s purpose is to make asking Jane Doe sound subtly complicated, weighty, and significant (in other words, a brilliant idea!), then one says “reach out to Jane Doe.” Corporate language is full of stuff like this.

But on to the expression itself: “reach out.” It always brings to mind AT&T’s famous “Reach out and touch someone” ad campaign, which had its debut in 1979 (the first commercial ran on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”). Perhaps we have AT&T to thank for the ubiquitous use of “reach out” today.

The verb “reach,” meaning to extend one’s hand or arm or whatever, is very old. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a book written in Latin in the 6th century by Pope Gregory and translated into Old English by King Alfred around the year 897. Alfred’s translation reads, Ic ræhte mine hond to eow (I reach mine hand to you).

From the beginning, as you can see, the word had almost a figurative sense when used in religious writings. Since about the year 1000, “reach” has also been used metaphorically to mean to strive after something, to jump to a conclusion, to extend one’s power or influence, to spread or run into, and so on.

Here’s a citation, using the verb phrase “reach out,” from Henry Hammond’s commentary on the Psalms (1659): “As if by his own right hand from heaven, his holy seat of mansion, he should reach out deliverance to him.”

In the more earthly sense, “reach out,” meaning to offer tangible services or help, dates from the early 20th century. Here’s an example from 1919: “a system of motorized transport which will operate as a public service reaching out to every home.”

In the last half-century, the usage has become a cherished part of the corporate vocabulary, as in this example from 1950: “The old basing point mills, since they can reach out to new markets through freight absorption, tend to overdevelop.” The rest is history.

A related noun, “outreach,” was probably inevitable. The OED‘s entry for “outreach” includes several figurative meanings. One of them uses the word loosely to mean “the area or extent of influence; scope.”

The OED gives this example from the Atlantic Monthly in 1893: “No subject has come up in New Hampshire with a larger outreach, or that more requires far-sighted men to handle it properly.”

Another figurative meaning uses the word loosely for “the action of reaching out.” The OED has an 1859 citation from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel The Minister’s Wooing: “His mind and life were a constant channel of outreach through which her soul held converse with the active and stirring world.”

An 1884 example comes from a collection of sermons by Phillips Brooks, who was an Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts (and the author of the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”): “What a different thing this life and this outreach toward man becomes.”

Later, these figurative uses gave rise to a new sense of “outreach,” specifically meaning an organization’s activity in seeking out, and developing relationships with, outsiders.

The first example cited in the OED is from 1899: “We met many who discovered at once the fundamental principles of sympathy outreach and information underlying and mellowing each department of the Congress.”

And later (1918): “In its natural outreach to control its own trade at home, and under its great necessity to make new trade abroad … it pushes on serenely.”

And to think I always considered “outreach” some new kind of sociobabble. On the contrary, it’s old sociobabble! It certainly doesn’t convey the intimacy or the one-to-one quality its inventors were looking for. Instead, it seems cold and bureaucratic (or, to borrow your own words, “out of place”).

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The Grammarphobia Blog

The iron age

Q: Why is “iron” pronounced EYE-urn, not EYE-run? Also, is “iron” related to “irony”?

A: I’ll answer the easy part first. No, the word for the metallic element isn’t related to the word for saying one thing and meaning another.

“Iron,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the “most abundant and useful” metal, has roots in Old Frisian (isern), Old Saxon (isarn), Old Norse (isarn), and many other ancient Germanic languages, including Old English.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that it ultimately comes from the prehistoric Celtic isarnon, which may in turn be related to the Latin aes (bronze) and the Sanskrit isira (strong).

“Iron,” spelled isern when it first entered Old English around the year 700, had all sorts of spellings (isen, ysen, iren, irin, yrin, yron, and so on) before settling down in the 17th century to its present form.

Why did the letter “r” replace the “s” seen in the early spellings of “iron”? The OED says this apparently began in poetry and later gained wider acceptance. Interestingly, the “s” has survived in the modern German word for iron: eisen.

As for “irony,” it’s derived (via the Latin ironia) from eironeia, a Greek term for feigned ignorance. It first appeared in English in the early 16th century in the works of Thomas More, who gave as an example of “ironye” the description of a “good sonne” as a “noughty lad.”

Finally, why do we pronounce “iron” as EYE-urn, not EYE-run?

Well, I can’t give you a definite answer, but the OED suggests that the present pronunciation of “iron” evolved after the “diphthongation” of the vowel “i.”

As modern English developed, speakers began pronouncing the long “i” in words like “bite” and “hide” and “wise” as a diphthong, a spoken sound that glides from one vowel to another.

The linguist and grammarian Otto Jespersen, who first studied the evolution of “i” and other vowel sounds, called this development “the Great Vowel Shift.”

In his book Essentials of English Grammar (1933), Jespersen described the vowel changes as the “greatest revolution that has taken place in the phonetic system of English.” He said the changes began in the 14th century, but other scholars have given both earlier and later dates.

Linguists disagree about what caused the changes in pronunciation. Theories have ranged from the impact on language of mass immigration after the Black Death to a linguistic backlash against England’s French-speaking Norman rulers.

I haven’t seen any phonological studies dealing specifically with the pronunciation of “iron,” but my guess is that English speakers simply found it easier to say EYE-urn than EYE-run.

Perhaps that’s also why we have EYE-ur sounds in so many other common English words: “buyer,” “fire,” “liar,” “mire,” “tire,” “wire,” and so on.

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The Grammarphobia Blog

Sound advice

Q: My boss wrote a memo with this phrase: “in order to display an EULA.” The acronym “EULA,” which stands for “End User License Agreement,” is usually pronounced “YOO-la.” So was he correct to write “an EULA”? Does how a word looks on the page trump the way it sounds? Just wondering.

A: We generally use “an” in front of a word that begins with a vowel (“a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u”), and “a” in front of a word that begins with a consonant (a letter with a hard sound like “b,” “c,” “d,” “f,” “g,” “h,” and so on).

But not all the time. Whether we’re speaking or writing, the choice of “a” or “an” depends not on the actual letter that follows, but on the way the letter is pronounced.

The rule is that we use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant sound even if the first letter is a vowel (“a university,” “a European,” a “EULA,” etc.), and we use “an” before a word that starts with a vowel sound even if the first letter is a consonant (“an honor,” “an hour,” “an M&M”).

And, remember, an acronym (like “EULA”) is a word: it’s a word made up of the initial letters of other words.

I’ve talked about this “a”-vs.-“an” business on the blog once before. You might find the earlier posting helpful.

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