The Grammarphobia Blog

Does she … or doesn’t she?

Q: I have a friend who uses the construction “Did you …?” where I would use “Do you …?” For example, if I were driving her home, she might say, “Did you want to come in?” This always makes me feel as if I’d invited myself in. Is it simply my own foible, or is there an actual grammar/usage reason behind my reaction?

A: I’ve noticed this too. For example, a barista at Starbucks might ask, “Did you want a grande or a vente?”

In effect, the barista is using the auxiliary verb “do” in the past tense (“did”), even though the present tense is implied.

It’s analogous to a salesclerk’s saying “Was that all?” (past tense) or “Will that be all?” (future) or “Would that be all?” (conditional) instead of the present-tense “Is that all?”

Why do people do this? When relatively insignificant verbs or auxiliaries are involved, some people seem to feel that the present tense (“Do you want …”) is too direct or blunt, and that an oblique, roundabout approach is somehow more polite.

I wouldn’t read anything into your friend’s usage – for example, that it’s not HER idea to invite you in. This is probably just her way of saying “Do you …?”

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An intentional slight

Q: On the car radio today, I heard someone say “for all intensive purposes.” Yuck! What is the world coming to?

A: What you should have heard, of course, is “for all intents and purposes.” Here the noun “intent” (which dates back to about 1225) means “intention” or “inclination.”

The phrase means for all practical purposes or practically. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1546 act adopted during the reign of King Henry VIII: “To all intents, constructions, and purposes.”

Here’s a later citation, written by Joseph Addison in a 1709 issue of The Tatler: “Whoever resides in the World without having any Business in it … is to me a Dead Man to all Intents and Purposes.”

In English, the adjectives “intense” and “intensive” have nothing to do with the nouns “intent” and “intention,” but all are ultimately related to the Latin verb intendere, meaning to stretch or strain.

That, for all intents and purposes, is the story.

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It’s the bee’s knees

Q: I recently tasted a mixed drink called the bee’s knees. It was delicious, and got me to thinking. Where does the expression “the bees knees” come from?

A: The phrase dates back to the 1920s, and refers to an extraordinary person, thing, idea, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The first published citation in Random House is from Fighting Blood (1923), a short-story collection by H. C. Witwer: “You’re the bee’s knees for a fact!”

Witwer wrote stories for Collier’s magazine and was also a newspaper columnist, humorist, and screenwriter. In fact, one of his silent film shorts was called “Bee’s Knees” (1924).

But why a bee, and why knees? It’s probable that the expression is merely rhyming slang, along the lines of “the eel’s heels,” “the gnu’s shoes,” “the owl’s bowels,” and so on.

The expression is similar to several other whimsical Jazz Age phrases that sprang up in the 1920s: “the cat’s meow” (1921), “the cat’s pajamas” (1922), “the cat’s whiskers” (1923), and “the eel’s ankle” (1923, Witwer again).

I’ve found many other examples of zoological whimsy in various slang dictionaries: “the clam’s cuticles,” “the caterpillar’s spats,” “the elephant’s fallen arches,” “the elephant’s instep,” “the frog’s eyebrows,” “the pig’s whiskers,” “the snake’s toenails,” and more.

During Prohibition, the drink called “the bee’s knees” made its debut. The ingredients: honey, lemon juice, and gin.

David A. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, says the original version was vile – heavy on the honey to help the bootleg gin go down. But with real gin and less honey, Embury says, the drink can be the bee’s knees.

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Due process

Q: I thought I understood the usage of “make do,” but I’ve seen “make due” twice now – the second time in the Wall Street Journal. Is this some new application of the phrase?

A: You’re right! This sentence appears in the March 5, 2009, Wall Street Journal: “Families typically have been able to make due as long as they remained employed and on a company health plan.”

This is a misuse. The correct phrase is “make do.” It means something like manage or manage with what’s available.

It’s easy to see how the original phrase came about. Whatever you happen to have may not be ideal, but you can make it do.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this early citation from The Observer (1927): “The listener who was content to receive only the programmes from his local station … could make do with a very simple and inefficient form of direct-coupled tuning arrangement.”

Here’s a more recent cite, from The School of Genius (1988) by the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr: “Many human beings make do with relationships which cannot be regarded as especially close, and not all such human beings are all or even particularly unhappy.”

You’re not the only observer to report this swapping of “due” for “do.” There’s a similar observation on the Language Log, a blog maintained by the linguist Mark Liberman.

I’ve found a few recent examples myself, including headlines like “USC has to make due without Lady Luck” and “Forced to Make Due with the Critic’s Choice Awards” and “Many make due with less this year.”

I could make do with less of this making due!

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Custom tailoring

Q: Can you clarify the meaning (and origin) of the phrase “as is my wont”?

A: The noun “wont” means habit or custom, and it can be pronounced in several ways – like “wahnt” or “wunt” or “woant.”

Here’s a good illustration of its use, from an 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The Elegy was concluded, and I was rapturizing even more vehemently than was my wont, when, whack! I received a blow on my shoulder.”

So, the expression “as is my wont” means as is my custom or as I usually do. Example: “I got up late, as is my wont, but I managed to get to class on time.”

There used to be a verb “wont,” now long obsolete, that meant to do habitually, or to make someone or something accustomed to.

This verb was used in its past-participle forms (both “wonted” and “wont”) as an adjective meaning accustomed. Thus, a 19th-century observer might have said, “I drove my wonted carriage to the ball,” or “I am wont to walk to church.”

Similarly, something “unwonted” was unfamiliar or out of the ordinary.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the adjective “wont” developed in medieval times from an Old English verb (wonen or wunen) meaning dwell or be accustomed. The noun “wont” came from the adjective.

Now, as is my wont, I’d better get to the next question in my in-box.

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Infinitively speaking

Q: On your Grammar Myths page, you say the “to” in “to escape” is a preposition and not part of the infinitive. I think you’re wrong. Most linguists would say this “to” is most definitely not a preposition, but is actually part of the infinitive.

A: I disagree on two points.

(1) “To” is a preposition, even before an infinitive.

Ordinary dictionaries (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) classify the infinitival “to” as a preposition with the function of indicating that the following verb is an infinitive.

So do more scholarly sources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that in modern English this prepositional sense has become weakened.

(2) When used before an infinitive, “to” is not part of the verb. Here I will quote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, written by two distinguished linguists, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum:

“Infinitival to is not part of the verb. The traditional practice for citation of verbs is to cite them with the infinitival marker to, as in ‘to be,’ ‘to take,’ and so on. That is an unsatisfactory convention, because the to is not part of the verb itself. It is not a (morphological) prefix but a quite separate (syntactic) word.” – CGEL, p. 84.

A great many other grammarians have said the same thing over the years.

And as I point out on the Grammar Myths page, the “to” isn’t always necessary. The word “escape,” for example, is an infinitive in both these sentences: (1) Blackbeard helped him to escape. (2) Blackbeard helped him escape.

The point I’m trying to make, of course, is that there’s nothing wrong with putting an adverb (like “discreetly”) between the prepositional marker “to” and a verb in this sentence: Dilbert decided to discreetly mention dating in the workplace.

In other words, the old “rule” against splitting an infinitive is bogus. If “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split.

(I discuss this in more detail in “Grammar Moses,” a chapter in my new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.)

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Happy Birthday, Strunk and White!

Pat is a guest contributor to a discussion on the New York Times blog Room for Debate to mark the 50th anniversary of the popular usage and grammar guide Elements of Style. Here are her comments:

We’ve Moved On

Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough.

Oh, the first 14 pages are still the gospel truth. And I still love the things I loved most — the “Elementary Principles of Composition” and the reminders at the end of the book. Any young person prone to getting tattoos might consider having a few of these permanently engraved where they can readily be seen: Omit needless words. Use concrete language. Be clear. Avoid fancy words. Revise and rewrite. Pure gold.

But much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney, to use a good concrete word. “He” has not been the default pronoun for both genders since “the beginnings of the English language” (only since the mid-18th century). Nobody these days uses “shall” instead of “will” in the first-person future tense.

The advice on “data” and “media” is outdated, as is some of the stuff about verbs. I see nothing wrong — and neither does Merriam-Webster’s — with “loan” or “state” as verbs, or “fix” to mean mend, or “gotten” as a participle for “get.” Nor am I losing sleep over “certainly” and “prestigious” and “offputting.”


Finally, “six persons” is not better than “six people.” Show me a guy who invariably says “six persons” and I will show you a fathead. But Happy Birthday anyway, Strunk and White.


For the rest of the debate, click here. And for more myths and misconceptions about the English language, check out Origins of the Specious, the new book that I’ve written with my husband, Stewart.

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Just the fax, ma’am

Q: I was born and raised in the US, but I’ve worked overseas most of my adult life. I get back from time to time, but my English is always somewhat out-of-date. What bothers me now is hearing so many people not pronounce the letter “t” in certain plurals. For example, “tests” becomes “tess,” “districts” is “distrix,” “next” sounds like “nex,” and “facts” like “fax.” What’s going on?

A: The pronunciations you mention aren’t unusual and aren’t incorrect. In practice, not every English plural is pronounced exactly as the singular with an “s” at the end. The distinct enunciation of several consonants in a row is often awkward and unnatural.

A phonologist could explain this much better, but I’ll do my best. Let’s take these plurals one at a time.

“Tests.” Most people would pronounce the second “t” if “tests” came at the end of a sentence or before a vowel (as in “the tests are in”). But when “tests” appears before a consonant (as in “tests tomorrow” or “tests daily”) that “t” is often elided into the following letter. Thus a speaker may appear to be saying “tess tomorrow” or “tess daily.”

“Districts.” In the plural, the second “t” is generally elided into the “s.” So it sounds like “distrix.” It would require a real bit of gymnastics for the tongue to separately enunciate all three consonants: the “c,” the “t,” and the “s.” Hence the “t” is elided into the next letter.

“Next.” When the words appears at the end of a sentence, or before a vowel (as in “next in line”), both the “x” and the “t” are sounded. But before a consonant, the “t” is often elided. Example: “nex customer” or “nex time.”

“Facts.” Again, it’s difficult (and in fact unnatural) for the tongue to enunciate separately all three consonants: the “c,” the “t,” and the “s.” Hence the “t” is elided into the next letter, which is why “facts” rhymes with “fax.”

I often wish dictionaries listed standard pronunciations for both singulars and plurals, but they don’t. Sigh.

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Dali’s droopy clocks

Q: It drives me crazy when people describe something as surrealistic. Shouldn’t one just say it’s surreal? I know there’s a difference between “real,” meaning actual, and, “realistic,” but does that apply here? It seems to me that “surrealistic” is just another redundancy.

A: The adjectives “surreal” and “surrealistic” mean essentially the same thing. But it’s arguable whether “surrealistic” is redundant or not. I would say not, and I’ll explain why later.

Both words are 1930s offshoots of two earlier ones, the noun “surrealism” (1917) and the adjective “surrealist” (1918), coined by the French painter Guillaume Apollinaire (originally as surréalisme and surréaliste).

The French words were immediately absorbed into English, where “surrealist” became a noun (meaning an adherent of surrealism) as well as an adjective. The precise English equivalents, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, would be “super-realism” and “super-realist.”

The later coinage “surreal” is described by the OED as a back-formation, derived from “surrealism” and “surrealist.” (A back-formation is a word created by dropping a prefix or suffix from an existing word.)

Other words derived from the two originals are “surrealistic,” “surrealistically,” “surreally,” and “surreality,” most of them from the 1930s and originally meaning “characteristic or suggestive of surrealism.”

So what’s the reality behind all these words?

“Surrealism” was a movement in literature and art that sought to express the workings of the subconscious mind by using techniques like juxtaposing realistic images in an irrational way. Think of Salvador Dali and his droopy clocks.

As the poet André Breton explained in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the aim was to transmute “those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.”

These days, “surrealism” and company are used both inside and outside the worlds of art and literature. In everyday language, both “surreal” and “surrealistic” can simply mean dreamlike or unreal, and in my opinion they’re a bit overused.

Now for another opinion, and you’re free to disagree. I say there’s no redundancy here because “surreal” and “surrealistic” might be used in slightly different ways. You might say, for example, that a play is “surrealistic” (meaning it has some characteristics of the surreal) without being “surreal” on the whole.

There are parallel cases in English where two derivatives or offshoots of a word may or may not take on separate meanings. For example, many word pairs in English have both “ic” and “ical” endings.

Sometimes these adjectives mean the same thing, and the choice is yours, as is the case with “botanic” and “botanical.” But sometimes the words mean different things, as “politic” and “political.” I recently had a blog item about this.

Sorry to go on at such length, but this language racket can get surreal!

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To have and have not

Q: I have a question about grammar. Which is correct: “I would have liked to go on the retreat” or “I would have liked to have gone on the retreat”? I always use the latter, but I am not sure if there is ever an instance when the former is acceptable.

A: Many people use too many “haves” in constructions like this and create a verbal pileup.

Here we have two verbs, “like” and “go.” Except in rare cases, only one of them needs a “have” (that is, only one needs to be in a perfect tense). That’s because you’re usually talking about only one time in the past, not two.

You can use “have” with either part of the equation. Both of these sentences are correct:

(1) “I would have liked to go” … (2) “I would like to have gone.”

When the first verb is in the conditional perfect (“would have liked”), then the second is in the infinitive (“go”).

But when the first verb is in the simple conditional (“would like”), then the second is in the present perfect (“have gone”).

The correct sentences have slightly different perspectives, because they emphasize different times.

When choosing one over the other, ask yourself: Did I wish THEN that I had gone? … or … Do I wish NOW that I had gone?

Here’s what I mean. In #1, the emphasis is on the past: “I would have liked [back THEN] to go.” But in #2, you’re speaking of the past from the point of view of the present: “I would like [NOW] to have gone [back THEN].”

Using two “haves” (as in, “I would have liked to have gone”) is usually incorrect, because it’s unlikely that you really intend to talk about two separate times in the past.

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Do leaves turn in autumn or fall?

Q: I was reminded recently of a curiosity with respect to the names of the four seasons. Despite English’s large dictionary, there are no synonyms for “spring,” “winter,” or “summer.” Why does “autumn” alone have a synonym? That’s today’s conundrum.

A: We have two words (“autumn” and “fall”) for this season because they came into English from two different sources and we kept both – at least we Americans did.

The word “fall” comes from Old English and has been part of the language since the ninth century, though it wasn’t used to mean the season until the 16th century.

This usage of “fall” made its first appearance in print in a 1545 book on archery: “Spring tyme, Somer, faule of the leafe, and winter.”

“Autumn,” which comes ultimately from the Latin autumnus, was borrowed into English from Old French in the 14th century.

Americans use both words, as the British once did. But the Brits dropped “fall” along the way. It’s interesting that they kept the French borrowing but discarded the Anglo-Saxon one.

My husband and I have a whole chapter on British-vs.-American English in our new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, which is coming out on May 5.

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Isn’t it botanic?

Q: Have you ever noticed the difference in the names of the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden? Which one is right?

A: Yes, I’ve noticed that one garden is “botanic” and the other is “botanical.” I always have a hard time remembering which is which. (Brooklyn’s is “botanic” and the Bronx’s is “botanical.”)

In fact, both adjectives are correct and there’s no difference in meaning. Some of the big public gardens around the country use “botanic” in their names and some use “botanical.”

Many word pairs in English have both “ic” and “ical” endings. Sometimes these adjectives mean the same thing, and the choice is yours, as is the case with “botanic” and “botanical,” “cyclic” and “cyclical,” “ironic” and “ironical,” “geologic” and “geological,” and others.

But sometimes the words mean different things, as in “classic” and “classical,” “historic” and “historical,” “politic” (the adjective) and “political,” “economic” and “economical.”

For example, Monk’s album Straight, No Chaser is a jazz classic, but Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” is classical. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was historic, but the two runners who paced him were minor historical figures.

Also, a politician might give a long, windy speech on budget matters. It would be an “economic” speech but not an “economical” one. Later, he might give a “political” speech that wasn’t very “politic.”

Then there are words like “mythic” and “mythical.” They generally mean the same thing, though “mythic” has a slightly different meaning when used in a literary sense (a book that’s “mythic” may have the quality of myth without being mythical per se – that is, dealing in the imaginary).

As for “botanic” vs. “botanical,” we got both in the mid-17th century, perhaps from botanique, French for botanical or botany, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ultimate source is a Greek word for “plant.”

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A little so-and-so

Q: I’ve always believed the word “so” requires “that” when introducing a clause: “There was a fire in the subway, so that it took me an hour to get to work.” But I hear an awful lot of “so”-ing without “that”-ing these days. Comment, please?

A: Not every “so” demands a “that” when introducing a clause. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “that” is optional in a sentence like yours where the “so” clause states the result or consequence of something.

The dictionary gives this example of a sentence in which either “so” or “so that” is perfectly acceptable: The Bay Bridge was still closed, so (or so that) the drive from San Francisco to the Berkeley campus took an hour and a half.

American Heritage notes, however, that many sticklers insist “so must be followed by that in formal writing when used to introduce a clause giving the reason for or purpose of an action: He stayed so that he could see the second feature.“

But even here, the dictionary says, “since many respected writers use so for so that in formal writing, it seems best to consider the issue one of stylistic preference: The store stays open late so (or so that) people who work all day can buy groceries.”

“So” may be a little word, but there’s a lot to say about it.

It goes back to Old English, when it was first recorded (as swa) in about 725. In those days it was often strengthened by the addition of eall (meaning “altogether” or “wholly”), and the Old English eall swa, all swa, and so on eventually gave us our words “as,” “so,” and “also.”

“So” is extremely useful. Here are the principal meanings (and grammatical functions) of “so” today:

An adverb, meaning “to such an extent”: I was so hungry that I drooled.

An adverb, meaning “to a great extent”: She is so selfish.

An adverb, meaning “consequently”: We were bored and so left early.

An adverb, meaning “afterward” or “then”: We went home and so to bed.

An adverb, meaning “likewise”: He was tired and so was she.

An adverb, meaning “apparently”: So you think you’ve got it bad?

An adverb, meaning “indeed”: You are not! I am so!

An adjective, meaning “true”: Tell me it isn’t so.

An adverb meaning “in this manner”: She dresses just so.

An adjective, meaning “right” or “orderly”: Their kitchen is just so.

A conjunction, meaning “with the result that”: The band didn’t show, so we left.

A conjunction, meaning “in order that”: I work hard so my boss will take notice.

A pronoun, meaning “the same” or “as specified”: She was born feisty and remained so.

An interjection, like “Aha!”: So! This is what you’ve been up to.

Can you stand a little more? I wrote a blog item a while back about the use of “so far” in place of “thus far.” And another item about the use of “so” at the beginning of a negative comparison (“She’s not so tall as her sister”). And, in parting, an entry about “so long.”

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The whole nine yards, part 3

Q: Your cryptic etymology of the “whole nine yards” traces it to the space program in the ’60s, when it meant a detailed report. Such a report would have been on a folded stack of perforated printer paper – perhaps nine yards long.

A: You’re the second person to email me with this theory. I guess it’s possible that “the whole nine yards” originally referred to a continuous computer printout, but I can’t find any evidence to support it.

As of this writing, we simply don’t know for sure when or how “the whole nine yards” originated.

Many theories (involving cement mixers, machine guns, nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, etc.) have been debunked.

As more information is digitized, however, we’re finding earlier and earlier printed references for the phrase. It seems as if word sleuths posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, are coming up with new citations every few months.


I’ve already had two items on the blog about the expression – in 2008 and 2006 – but I think it’s time for an update.

To date, the earliest known use of “the whole nine yards” in print comes from Senate testimony by Vice Admiral Emory S. Land in 1942 about production at nine shipyards:

“You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards.” (The admiral is obviously using the phrase literally here, not in its usual sense as the whole enchilada.)

As of now, the earliest published reference for the expression in its usual sense is from “Man on the Thresh-Hold,” a short story by Robert E. Wegner printed in the fall 1962 issue of the literary magazine Michigan’s Voices.

A rambling sentence in the story refers to “house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came to the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.”

It’s clear that the author didn’t coin this usage. We can safely assume that it was an expression familiar to him (though perhaps not to his readers, since he felt the need to explain it somewhat).

The next known appearance is from a letter to the editor published in the December 1962 issue of Car Life magazine:

“Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.”

But perhaps the most tantalizing early citation so far is from an article by the World Book Encyclopedia Science Service about jargon in the space program. (A reprint appeared in the April 18, 1964, issue of the San Antonio Express and News and elsewhere.)

The article (entitled “How to Talk ‘Rocket’ “) defined “the whole nine yards” as “an item-by-item report on any project.” The author, Stephen Trumbull, added that “the new language” from the space program was spreading “across the country – like a good joke – with amazing rapidity.”

Could NASA, which was established on July 29, 1958, be the ultimate source of this usage? We don’t know, but stay tuned.

(Sam Clements, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Stephen Goranson, and Joel S. Berson are among the word detectives who helped track down the latest footprints of “the whole nine yards.”)

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The hoopla over hoo-ha

Q: You uttered the term “hoo-ha” (shiver), instead of “hoopla,” not once, but twice on the air! Didn’t you know that “hoo-ha” now means vagina and the word for uproar is “hoopla”?

A: No, I didn’t know!

The word “hoo-ha,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has meant “a commotion, a rumpus, a row” since 1931, when it was introduced in the pages of the British magazine Punch: “The devil of a hoo-ha in the papers about increasing the demand for English-grown corn.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) also lists “hoo-ha,” which it defines as a fuss or disturbance, and so does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which defines the term as an uproar or an exclamation of surprise.

The OED says the origin of “hoo-ha” is unknown, but American-Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s say it’s probably from a Yiddish word for uproar or exclamation.

As for “hoopla,” it has long been used for a similar purpose, with the additional meanings of excitement or extravagant publicity. The two US dictionaries suggest it may be derived from houp-là, a French exclamation similar to “upsy-daisy.”

By the way, “hoopla” (or “hoop-la”) is also the name of a game in which the players try to throw rings around potential prizes, according to the OED.

But you’re right about “hoo-ha” – a little googling does turn up some telltale uses of the term to mean a woman’s genital area. I guess I’d better watch myself until this catchy usage goes away (if it does).

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Dash bored

Q: I’m in a writing group. One of my submissions was criticized for having too many dashes. I thought dashes were used in mid-sentence to denote a pause longer than a comma or a semicolon. After our last session, I came across some essays by William Styron in which two pages had 11 dashes. I was wondering what your opinion might be.

A: Many people overuse dashes, though if you’re a famous author you can do as you please!

A dash isn’t used merely to signify a pause in a sentence. Ellipses (…) do a better job of conveying a pause or hesitation. Here’s how I explain the correct use of dashes in my grammar book Woe Is I:

“The dash is like a detour; it interrupts the sentence and inserts another thought. A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information: It was what Tina dreaded most—fallen arches. Or dashes can be used in pairs instead of parentheses to enclose an aside or an explanation: Her new shoes had loads of style—they were Ferragamos—but not much arch support.

“Dashes thrive in weak writing, because when thoughts are confused, it’s easier to stick in a lot of dashes than to organize a smoother sentence. Whenever you are tempted to use dashes, remember this:

“Use no more than two per sentence. And if you do use two, they should act like parentheses to isolate a remark from the rest of the sentence: After the flight, Tina looked—and she’d be the first to admit it—like an unmade bed.

“If the gentler and less intrusive parentheses would work as well, use them instead. Tina’s luggage (complete with her return ticket) appeared to be lost.

It’s OK to use dashes once in a while. But a lot of them can get boring. Think of them as spice. A dash of cayenne is wonderful, but too much of it can ruin a good dish.

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Pat on WNYC: April 15, 2009

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

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Rule of thumb

Q: During a recent appearance on WNYC, you tossed off the statement that it’s a myth the phrase “rule of thumb” originated in an English law codifying domestic violence. People working with victims of such abuse frequently use that explanation in building awareness of a HUGE social and moral problem. Instead of debunking this so casually, it would have been helpful if you had taken just a moment to explain what you meant.

A: Thanks for your question, and thanks for being patient. I get such a huge volume of mail that it sometimes takes me weeks to get through it. Only a fraction gets on the blog, but I’m moving you ahead in the queue because this is an important issue.

There are actually TWO myths here. These are the facts.

(1) There was never a law in Britain or the United States, even in “common law,” that allowed a husband to beat his wife with a rod or stick no thicker than his thumb.

(2) The expression “rule of thumb” has no etymological connection with spousal abuse.

In our new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, which is due out in early May, my husband and I devote a considerable amount of space to these widespread beliefs. I’ll summarize.

The phrase “rule of thumb” entered English in the mid-1600s and referred to a method based on experience or approximation. It first appeared in print, as far as we know, in a sermon by James Durham, a Presbyterian minister in Glasgow.

Durham wrote that “many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb, (as we use to speak) and not by Square and Rule.”

Durham’s statement implies that “rule of thumb” had existed even earlier. Much later, a 1785 dictionary defined “by rule of thumb” as “to do a thing by dint of practice.”

Etymologists believe the phrase comes from the old custom of using parts of one’s body as rough units of measure.

A man’s foot is about foot long; the palm of the hand is about four inches wide, a unit once called a “hand’s breadth” (a measure still used to gauge the height of a horse); and the thumb is about an inch wide, a unit once called a “thumb’s breadth” and common in the textile trades.

As for the “rule” in “rule of thumb,” think of a ruler or measuring stick.

Now for the legal history. It’s true that a husband once did have the right under English common law to “give his wife moderate correction,” according to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765). But the old right, Blackstone said, began to wane in the 1600s (and thumbs were not in the picture).

Nobody connected thumbs with chastisement until 1782, when an English judge, Francis Buller, supposedly ruled that a husband could beat his wife if the rod or stick were no thicker than his thumb.

There’s no published record of his comments, but the judge was viciously ridiculed in the press and caricatured in cartoons of the day, which labeled him “Judge Thumb” and “Mr. Justice Thumb.” He was fiercely criticized because no such law or precedent existed.

Nevertheless, in the following century, judges in three American court cases – two in North Carolina and one in Mississippi – also referred to such a doctrine.

But none of the judges offered a shred of verifiable evidence that the doctrine had ever existed. (As we now know from legal scholars, it never did.) And none of the judges used the expression “rule of thumb.”

So how did “rule of thumb,” a 17th-century term for a rough measurement, get linked with a mythological legal doctrine?

This seems to have happened after the feminist Del Martin used the phrase, apparently as a pun, in a 1976 report on domestic violence. She presented the debunked legal doctrine as if it were fact, then followed it with her unfortunate play on words.

“For instance,” she wrote, “the common-law doctrine had been modified to allow the husband ‘the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no bigger than his thumb’ – a rule of thumb, so to speak.”

Ever since, we’ve been saddled with both a fictitious legal doctrine and a false etymology.

In case you’d like to know more, here’s the most authoritative study of this issue: Henry Ansgar Kelly, “‘Rule of Thumb’ and the Folklaw of the Husband’s Stick,” Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 44, No.3 (September 1994), pp. 341-365.

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Checks garnished with parsley?

Q: Here’s a pet peeve of mine: the loss of the verb “garnishee.” The use of “garnish” is rampant, especially in broadcast television. Everybody seems to have checks covered with parsley!

A: The situation with the verbs “garnish” and “garnishee” isn’t as black and white (or as parsleyed) as you seem to think.

Among American lawyers, the preferred verb meaning to take property (usually wages) by legal authority is “garnish.” But among their British counterparts, and in a few US jurisdictions, both “garnish” and “garnishee” are used as verbs.

My authority here is Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage. He ought to know, since he’s a lawyer as well as a usage expert. In fact, he trains lawyers in the efficient use of the language.

Garner’s conclusion is that “garnishee” (as a verb) and “garnisheement” are “historically unwarranted and therefore ill advised.”

The Oxford English Dictionary backs him up. Its principal definition of “garnishee” is as a noun for a person whose property is garnished. This noun led to the use of “garnishee” as a verb (and “garnisheement” for the process) in the 1800s.

Nevertheless, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) seem to prefer “garnishee” for the verb, though “garnish” has been used in this way for almost 500 years.

I’m with Garner. Why not use the shorter, older word?

The English verb “garnish,” whether it means to serve with parsley or with a legal notice, comes from the Old French verb garnir, which had a variety of meanings: to fortify, defend (oneself), provide, prepare, or warn.

It entered English in the 1300s meaning “to fit out with anything that adorns or beautifies; to decorate, ornament, or embellish,” according to the OED.

In the 1400s “garnish” was used to mean to equip or arm oneself (or a fort or garrison), and in the 1500s it was first used in the legal sense.

In the late 1600s “garnish” was first used to mean pretty up a dish for the table. The earliest published citation in the OED is from John Dryden’s translation of Juvenal’s Satires (1693).

Here’s the Dryden passage, from a scene where a sturgeon is ceremoniously brought in on a platter: “With what Expense and Art, how richly drest! Garnish’d with ‘Sparagus, himself a Feast.”

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A nitch to scratch

Q: I’ve discovered a new word – right out in the open! So many people use it, but it’s not yet in dictionaries. The word is “nitch,” an apparent merger of “niche” and “notch.” It’s used when someone finds his place (or “niche”) in the world and his level (or “notch”) at work. Do I get a reward?

A: No reward for you! What you’re hearing is the word “niche” pronounced in the traditional way – NITCH.

Today, the word “niche” is properly pronounced as either NITCH or NEESH. But this wasn’t always so.

For generations, the traditional English pronunciation was NITCH. A Gallic pronunciation, NEESH, has been gaining in popularity in recent decades, and now American dictionaries accept both versions.

“Niche” entered English in the 17th century, a borrowing from the French, who had borrowed it from the Latin nidus (nest).

We aren’t sure how it was pronounced originally, but 14 editions of Daniel Jones’s influential English Pronouncing Dictionary, from 1917 to 1977, give NITCH as the typical pronunciation and NEESH as a variant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In writing, it’s correctly spelled “niche,” and anyone who writes “nitch” should be scratched.

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Is “horny” a dirty word?

Q: I often hear the word “horny” used where I think it’s inappropriate. To me, it’s crude slang, but apparently not everything thinks so. Your comments? Also, I assume “horny” is somehow derived from the idea of a cuckold having “horns”? But isn’t a wife who cheats the horny one, not the husband who’s cheated on?

A: Let’s go straight to your original question. Is the adjective “horny” (in the sense of sexually aroused or desiring sex) off limits in polite company?

Well, it is, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes “horny” as vulgar slang.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t raise an eyebrow about using “horny” in its sexual sense.

I go along with American Heritage’s assessment. “Horny” may have lost a bit of its old raunchiness, but in my opinion it’s still inappropriate outside one’s circle of friends.

As for your other question, “horny” and “horns of a cuckold” aren’t related. Here’s the history.

The use of “horny” to mean aroused or lecherous is relatively recent. The Oxford English Dictionary says this meaning of the word is “chiefly used of a man.” (I think that last remark needs some updating, but never mind.)

The OED‘s first published citation for this usage comes from Albert Barrère and C. G. Leland’s A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant (1889): “Horny, lecherous, in a state of sexual desire, in rut.”

The adjective probably comes from a much earlier use of the noun “horn” to mean an erection or an erect penis. Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defined “horn” as a slang term for “a temporary priapism.”

The OED, in its entry on “horn,” describes the sexual use of the word in expressions like “get the horn” or “have the horn” this way: “Not in polite use.”

As for the expression “horns of a cuckold,” it’s unrelated to all this priapism business. Cuckolds and horns have been linked for centuries, the OED says, and the phrase appears in many European languages.

In German, “cuckold” (hahnrei) originally meant a capon, or castrated rooster. The “horns of a cuckold,” according to the OED, is thought to be a reference “to the practice formerly prevalent of planting or engrafting the spurs of a castrated cock on the root of the excised comb, where they grew and became horns, sometimes of several inches long.”

Thus, “cuckolds were fancifully said to wear horns on the brow.” (Why this was done to the poor roosters I can’t say. Perhaps all the scar tissue on their heads protected them from being hen-pecked.)

But back to human cuckolds. The idea here is that a man who’s been cheated on by his wife is figuratively unmanned, on the analogy of a castrated fowl.

The analogy, if not the literal expression “horns of a cuckold,” appears in a loose Middle English translation by John Lydgate of Boccaccio’s The Fall of Princes (1430s): “A certeyn knyht Giges … to speke pleyn inglissh made hym a cokold. … I sholde ha said how that he hadde an horn.”

I looked for an updated modern English translation and couldn’t find one. But you get the idea.

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A Yorkshire sweetie

Q: I heard a 93-year-old lady from Leeds use the term “doy” as an endearment for children. It meant something like sweetie/pet/love. Do you know where it comes from or how widely it’s used?

A: A book called The Dialect of Leeds and Its Neighbourhood, published in 1861, defines “doy” as “a name of endearment for a child.” Leeds is the largest city in Yorkshire, a historic county in northern England.

I found a similar explanation in Dialects of the West Riding of Yorkshire: A Short History of Leeds and Other Towns, by Samuel Dyer (1891): “Doy is the diminutive of darling. … Its origin I do not know.”

It must have been common in its time, since I’ve found many such explanations.

Also, the word appears in many old Yorkshire ditties and poems. Here’s one from a collection published in 1872: “Whear is thi’ Daddy doy? Whear is thi’ mam?”

What’s the source of the term? Susan Aaron, born in 1909 in the Yorkshire town of Knottingley, thought it might have been of Scandinavian origin.

“Many Norse words I learnt from Granddad, and when he called me it was ‘Come on Doy’ a form of endearment,” she said in “Childhood in Knottingley,” a long posting to a website called “Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online.” (The item was submitted by a nephew, Don Aaron.)

Was it originally Norse? I can’t tell, since I haven’t found the word in any of my etymology references. Unfortunately, it’s not even listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A poster to another website, Secret Leeds, described “doy” as a dialect word for love “that was used when I was a kid.” The writer added that it was “a word you never hear these days” and that it “must have died with my grandparents and their generation.”

Another poster to the site also thought that “doy” meant love, and described it as a “Yorkshire dialect word used to me when I was little by my grandma and her friends.”

Sorry I can’t be more definite.

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The dating game

Q: I recently read that the US would convert from analog to digital television “on June 12th, 2009.” I would think it is wrong to the use of the suffix “th” with a date when the year is included. In other words, it should be either “June 12th” or “June 12, 2009.” Am I correct?

A: The “th” suffix in a date – with or without the year – is unnecessary in writing even though it may be pronounced in speech. Whether it’s wrong is another matter.

This is a question of style, not grammar, and like all style issues, it’s frowned on by some and passes unnoticed by others. I’m reluctant to call it wrong, even if it is usually unnecessary.

In some writing, the author may want to put a little oomph into the date, rather than treat it as a mere statistic: “On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the sky over New York was a cloudless electric blue.”

Style guides generally require “th” in expressions like “the 12th of June” or “the 12th.” In fact, The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) calls for spelling out the day when it stands alone (“the twelfth”). But the Chicago Manual doesn’t require “th” in ordinary dates.

You may wonder how we got the “th” suffix that we attach to ordinal (meaning in order or position) numbers. It originated with the ancient Indo-European suffix tos, which gave us the Old English ending tha, the Greek tos, and the Latin tus (as in sextus, for sixth).

Some stylebooks, by the way, would also prefer that when a date is given in full, the month should be abbreviated if an abbreviation is common (“Sept.” rather than “September”). Issues like these are treated differently in the various house styles of newspapers and book publishers.

Here’s a tip about dates that just about everybody can agree on:

In the month-day-year style, we use commas both before and after the year (except at the end of a sentence): “The party on March 3, 2009, was a blowout.”

But we don’t use a comma if only the day and month, or the month and year, are given: “The March 5 party was a blowout” or “The party in March 2009 was a blowout.”

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Oh, the vision thing

Q: Can you please assist me and my wife with the difference between “envision” and “envisage”? In what context would we use each word?

A: These are similar but not identical words.

To “envisage,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is “to view or regard in a certain way (envisages the slum as a hotbed of crime)” or “to have a mental picture of especially in advance of realization (envisages an entirely new system of education).”

But to “envision” is “to picture to oneself (envisions a career dedicated to promoting peace).”

These two words obviously overlap. You might “envisage” as well as “envision” a future career. But originally, one word meant facing or confronting something, while the other meant visualizing it.

“Envisage” is derived from “visage,” a word that entered English in the 1300s as both a noun for a face and a verb meaning to face.

In the 14th century, to “visage” meant to confront as well as face something. In its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “envisage” was “to look in the face of; fig. to face (danger, etc.); to look straight at.”

Later, the OED says, “envisage” took on the meaning of “to obtain a mental view of, set before the mind’s eye; to contemplate; chiefly, to view or regard under a particular aspect.”

“Envision” is derived from the noun “vision,” meaning sight (or foresight), which entered English in about 1290.

Beginning in the late 16th century, there was a verb as well: to “vision” was to picture or call up a vision of something.

And, as George Herbert Walker Bush might put it, that’s all I have to say now about the vision thing.

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Heads up!

Q: I’m interested in learning more about the phrase “heads up,” as in “I will give you a heads up when the contract is signed.” Does it have an origin older than the current corporate use?

A: The short answer is yes, but the longer one is more interesting. So let’s begin at the beginning – a couple of centuries ago.

The expression “heads up,” used as an interjection meaning “straighten up” or “hold your head up,” dates back to the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was first used in this sense, as far as we know, in the English novelist Maria Edgeworth’s short play The Knapsack (1801): “They marched, and I amongst them, to face the enemy – heads up – step firm – thus it was – quick time – march!”

Since the early 20th century, the expression has been used in the United States as an adjectival phrase, meaning alert or in the know, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first adjectival citation is from a 1913 article in the New Smyrna (Florida) News: “He was always right on the job, and looking ‘heads up.’ “

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an earlier adjectival usage, from William A. Caruthers’s book The Kentuckian in New York (1834): “There I sat with my feet drawn straight under my knees, heads up, and hands laid close along my legs, like a new recruit on drill.”

In this sense, Random House says, the expression is probably a literal one: a wide-awake, alert person holds his head erect rather than falling asleep and nodding.

Now, on to your question about the current use of “heads up” as a noun meaning a warning. This, it turns out, is of much more recent vintage.

The OED cites a 1981 example from the Associated Press: “When that data is provided … it is regarded as being a heads-up on a sale.”

A bit earlier, in 1979, the Washington Post used the longer phrase “heads-up alert” to describe a warning by intelligence officials about unauthorized diplomatic contacts.

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There is no where there

Q: I’ve always been puzzled by the phrase “to where” as in “It got to where I had no alternative.” Is this a valid usage? Or should we construct the phrase differently?

A: First, let’s get straight which usage of “to where” we’re talking about here. Some combinations of “to” and “where” are perfectly legitimate.

For example: “We drove to where my parents lived” … “We disagreed as to where the sofa should go” … “How did we hike to where we are?” Everyone agrees that these examples are standard English.

The “to where” construction that you mention is quite different. In this case, “where” doesn’t mean an actual place; it means something like “a stage at which.”

For example: “He got ill to where he could no longer eat” … “We cleaned the house to where it sparkled” … “I fixed the toaster to where it didn’t smoke.” This usage is considered nonstandard.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “to where” as American dialect meaning “to such an extent that” or “to or at a point, position, etc., such that.” Here are the first three OED citations, all from Southern novelists:

1933, from South Moon Under, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “Is your loggin’ to where you kin leave it for a whiles?”

1938, from The Yearling, also by Rawlings: “My grand-pappy got hisself stung oncet to where he was in the bed a fortnight.”

1960, from To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: “Having developed my talent to where I could throw up a stick and almost catch it coming down.”

The OED adds that sometimes the “to” is omitted, as in this example from an interviewee quoted in Studs Terkel’s Working (1974): “I want to have enough money where I wouldn’t have to be a bum on the street.”

Though the non-geographic use of “to where” isn’t considered standard English, it’s extremely common, and when I google the phrase I find many examples in educated usage.

For example, I found this sentence in a linguistics discussion group, from a person studying Spanish: “Once I get to where I’m only coming across unfamiliar words once every few hundred words or so, then maybe I’ll be good enough to start listening?”

Here’s another such sentence: “This analysis is based on the idea that a Universal Grammar does exist, to where what is good for English is truly good for other languages as well.”

I agree that this is not the best English today. But who knows how it will be labeled in 50 years’ time?

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Portion control

Q: A colleague and I are grappling with a grammar question and would appreciate your advice. Here is the sentence in question: “A portion of the awards [is/are] based on merit.” I believe the subject is “portion,” which is singular and requires “is.” My colleague believes the subject is “awards,” which is plural and therefore requires “are.” Thanks for your help.

A: You’re right in that “portion” is the subject of the sentence. Here “portion” is what’s called a collective noun, a noun that is normally singular and denotes a collection or a number of things.

R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says that when a collective noun is followed by “of” plus a plural (as in “a portion of the awards”), the choice between a singular or plural verb is up to you.

Traditionalists (at least in American English, which is somewhat stricter on this point than British English) would insist on a singular verb – in this case, “is.” But as Burchfield points out, “in practice a plural verb is somewhat more common.”

Faced with this construction, however, I’d rewrite it. A sentence beginning “A portion of the awards is” just doesn’t sound like good English, even if it technically might be.

What’s wrong with “Some of the awards are”? Alternatively, there are collective nouns that are used in the plural more often and more naturally than “portion.”

For example: “A number of the awards are” or “A handful of the awards are” or “A majority of the awards are.” These collectives are more flexible in their usage and are often construed as plural. If you’d like to read about how to use them, I wrote a blog entry about collective nouns a while back.

Sorry it’s taken me so long to answer you. The volume of my mail has mushroomed. My in-box doesn’t understand the concept of portion control!

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Kicking the bucket

Q: I got this purported derivation of “kick the bucket” from my Shakespeare professor: If a prisoner in Elizabethan times wanted to end his life, he could make a noose from an article of clothing, stand on an inverted slop bucket, and kick the bucket. Well, it’s not as far out as some of the other fables one hears.

A: I’ve done a little checking of my own. It seems that there are two possible buckets in the phrase “kick the bucket,” but it’s uncertain which one gets kicked here.

In the late 1500s (when Shakespeare was writing and Elizabeth I was on the throne), “bucket” was a word for a beam or yoke on which something could be suspended. This usage may have come from the Old French buquet (a catapult or balance), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A pig, for instance, was often hung by its heels from a beam (or “bucket”) before or just after slaughter, and thrashed about in its final spasms. I guess one could say that the dying pig was kicking the bucket.

A more recent reference in the OED, citing an undated “Mod. Newspaper,” says this sense of “bucket” was still being used in Norfolk “even in the present day.” (I assume the Norfolk mentioned was the English county.)

The other “bucket” is, of course, the receptacle. Although the OED says the etymology of this “bucket” is uncertain, it compares the word with the Old English buc, meaning a pail, a vessel, or a belly.

I suppose somebody contemplating suicide (or someone about to be executed) might indeed stand on an overturned bucket with a noose about his neck, then break his neck or strangle when the bucket was kicked away.

The first published citation for the expression in the OED comes from Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “To kick the bucket, to die.” Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which bucket is referred to here.

The expression also appears in a collection of American proverbs from 1789, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which agrees with the OED that the origin remains uncertain “despite much speculation.”

But Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English goes for the slaughterhouse explanation. So does Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, which calls the suicide theory “rather less likely.”

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Is it the floor or the ground?

Q: I was waiting on hold to speak with you on WNYC, but I never made it on the air. I wanted to comment on the use of “floor” vs. “ground.” My husband, in particular, has a pet peeve about the use of “floor” outside where it should be “ground.”

A: Others have asked the same question, so this must be a trend!

Normally, the floor is what you walk on inside a building, and the ground is what you walk on outside. I too find it jarring to hear the words “floor” and “ground” used interchangeably.

But many people do this. Not only do they refer to the floor as the ground, but they call the ground the floor. At least so far, dictionaries maintain the distinction between the two words.

“Floor” was an archaic word for “ground” centuries ago, and in Britain “floor” is used in the game of cricket to refer to the ground, but these examples can hardly explain such a usage in American English.

We occasionally refer to the “floor” of the ocean or of the forest, and so on, but in ordinary usage, a “floor” is part of a building or other structure.

In Spanish, suelo means both ground and floor, but I can’t see any connection with the increasing use of the two words as interchangeable terms in English.

The phrase “ground floor,” of course, refers to the floor of a building closest to the ground. And the expression “getting in on the ground floor” means joining a venture at an early, advantageous time.

If I find out anything more, I’ll put it on the blog, so stay tuned!

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Capital punishment

Q: I edit newsletters for a group of local school districts. In my experience, educators tend to be quite capital happy, but I am often able to change their minds if I can cite a rule. I usually follow The Chicago Manual of Style, but I can’t find an answer to this question: In referring to “the class of 2009 valedictorian,” should “class” and “valedictorian” begin with capital letters?

A: There’s no reason for these words to be capitalized. Schools love to toss around uppercase letters, which is why we see so much of this: “the College,” “the University,” “the Faculty,” “the Art Department,” and so on.

Companies and governments, as we know, do the same (“the Company,” “the Union,” “the City”).

This is a style issue rather than one of grammar, and styles often differ. The house styles at book publishers and newspapers, for example, vary widely in their approaches to capitalization.

The New York Times formerly capitalized the word “president” in reference to the head of our government, but no more, except as part of a name. Thus: “President Obama” and “Mr. President,” but “the president.”

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, has some interesting things to say about all this. First, he notes: “For writing that goes into print, the standards – in capitalization more than in most other aspects of written English – lie in house styles.”

He adds, however, that these days there’s “a modern trend away from capitalization, resulting in a minimalist rule: unless there’s a good reason to capitalize, don’t.”

In fact, he says, the tendency to overcapitalize is losing ground even in academia: “the University of Colorado at Boulder recently declared that its internal style is to always make university lowercase when it stands alone.”

Bravo, Boulder! And I’d encourage anybody who’s in charge of house style for an organization, company, or publication to go minimalist, too.

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Body language

Q: I’m fascinated by the use of a word denoting a body part to characterize a person. For example, an expert in detecting different smells is known in the fragrance industry as a “nose.” And a smart person is commonly known as a “brain.” I’m wondering how this all came about.

A: We have a long tradition in English of referring to people as body parts. In fact, it almost seems that for every body part there’s a hidden (or not so hidden) noun meaning a person. We’ll skip the obscene ones, if you don’t mind!

Besides the usual meaning (one’s schnozz), “nose” has also meant the sense of smell, or the faculty for discriminating scents. It’s had that meaning since about the year 1375, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This use is probably what led to its becoming a slang term for a spy or informant, a meaning it has had since the late 18th century. And it also means “a person who creates, identifies, or judges fragrances, esp. in the perfume industry,” a meaning of “nose” since the late 1950s, the OED says.

A brainy person has been called “a brain” or “the brains” pretty regularly since 1914. But an earlier, figurative use meaning something more like “head” or “nerve center” was recorded in 1844, in Alexander W. Kinglake’s book Eothen: Or, Traces of Travel Brought Home From the East: “The accomplished Mysseri … was in fact the brain of our corps.”

The word “head” has been used to mean a person to whom others are subordinate since the late 9th century.

“Foot” was once used to mean a person traveling on foot (1200-1600s) or a foot soldier (1500-1800s).

Someone who lends a hand or works with his hands has been called a “hand” since 1590 (the same time the word was first used to mean a round of applause).

In Victorian times, a “leg” (short for “blackleg”) was a name for a swindler at a racetrack or other gambling venue, and in the mid-20th century “leg” was a slang term for a young woman of easy virtue.

Since 1382 the word “eye” has meant a person who uses his eyes on another’s behalf (hence the later term “private eye”).

From the mid-1500s until our own time, we’ve used the word “mouth” to refer to a consumer of food or a spokesperson. We’ve also called a big-mouthed person a “mouth” since the 1600s.

And since the late 19th century, the OED says, we’ve used “finger” as slang for “(a) a policeman or detective; (b) an informer; (c) a contemptible or eccentric person; (d) a pickpocket; (e) one who supplies information or indicates victims to criminals.”

A sympathetic person is called “a shoulder to cry on.” And for at least a century, we’ve called someone we depend on our “right arm.”

There are no doubt other examples that I’m missing, but you get the idea! It’s a long and honorable tradition.

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The Grammarphobia Blog

Cultured plurals

Q: What is the rule for the plural spelling of surnames? My Thunderbird spell-checker adds an apostrophe. But the consensus on the mailing list of the Association of Professional Genealogists is that the apostrophe is not required. What are your thoughts?

A: An apostrophe is NEVER added to a straight plural. Only possessive names (both singular and plural) get apostrophes.

Here are some examples of how to treat four family names.

Surname: Brown … Jones … Smith … Lopez

Plural: Browns … Joneses … Smiths … Lopezes

Singular possessive: Brown’s … Jones’s … Smith’s … Lopez’s

Plural possessive: Browns’ … Joneses’ … Smiths’ … Lopezes’

I hope this helps! If you’d like to learn more, you might check out “Comma Sutra,” the chapter on punctuation in my grammar book Woe Is I.

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