The Grammarphobia Blog

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.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.