The Grammarphobia Blog

Once upon a time

Q: Any advice about “on” and “upon”? People seem to prefer the ubiquitous “upon” in a sentence like “Success depends on/upon education.” Are these two alternatives equally acceptable? Or is one ever preferred over the other?

A: The preposition “upon” began life around the year 1200 as a compound of “up” and “on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, the “up” part of the meaning is all but nonexistent. Here’s how the OED explains it:

“Originally denoting elevation as well as contact, the compound has from the earliest period of its occurrence so far lost the former implication, that is, it has been regularly employed as a simple equivalent of on, in all the varieties of meaning which that preposition has developed.”

The use of “on” or “upon,” according to the OED, “has been for the most part a matter of individual choice (on grounds of rhythm, emphasis, etc.) or of simple accident, although in certain contexts and phrases there may be a general tendency to prefer the one to the other.”

Thus as far as correctness goes, the choice is yours.

But not so fast. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) argues that “upon is a formal word appropriate for formal occasions.”

“Although some will argue that the two are interchangeable and the choice is just a question of euphony, rarely will upon prove more euphonious or natural,” Garner’s adds. “On is the shorter, simpler, and more direct preposition.”

We generally agree with that. But we wouldn’t go so far as to begin a child’s bedtime story by saying “once on a time.”

In fact, the conventional opening, “once upon a time,” has been a storied part of the English language since Chaucer’s day.

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Is “legit” legitimate?

Q: You use “legit” a lot as an adjective, most recently in your posting on “these ones.” I acknowledge the informal use of “legit” as an adjective (“Is this doctor legit?”), but what about its use as an adverb (“Yes, he got his MD legit”)?

A: We can’t find any legitimate reference that lists “legit” as an adverb, whether as a standard, informal, or colloquial usage.

We do, however, find the usage popping up on the Web. We googled “do it legit,” for example, and got more than 53,000 hits.

Interestingly, another wannabe adverb, “legitly,” is also showing up online, with 214,000 hits, but the usage hasn’t made it into any standard references either.

Do these newbies have legs? Only time will tell, but we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.

As for the use of “legit” as an informal adjective, we agree with you. Yup, it’s legit! But our opinion isn’t unanimous.

The word is labeled “slang” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

But the Oxford English Dictionary is kinder to “legit,” labeling it as a colloquial abbreviation of “legitimate.”

By “colloquial,” the OED means “belonging to common speech; characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

In other words, you might use it in speech or informal writing, but not in a scholarly paper or a Supreme Court brief.

The word, which in its early days was a noun as well as an adjective, seems to have had its beginnings in stagecraft.

It was first recorded as a noun, in an 1897 issue of an American magazine, the National Police Gazette:

“Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.”

(We assume this OED citation is a reference to the heavywieght boxing champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who began an acting career after he retired from the ring in 1893.)

And here’s an early use of the adjective, from Donald Shaw’s memoir London in the Sixties (1908):

“Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’ should have the preference of guzzling and swilling to the memory of the immortal poet.”

In its earliest incarnations, “legit” meant “legitimate” in the sense of “normal, regular; conformable to a recognized standard type.”

For example, the phrase “legitimate drama,” the OED says, means “the body of plays, Shakespearian or other, that have a recognized theatrical and literary merit.”

The OED notes that “legitimate drama” was sometimes elliptically called “the legitimate,” and that a “legitimate” was an actor in legitimate drama.

We think that after over a century of more or less steady usage, “legit” deserves a better label than “slang.”

If it’s a “colloquial abbreviation” in the OED, it ought to get a promotion in the standard dictionaries.

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Is “folks” too folksy?

Q: I listen by podcast from Ireland to Pat on WNYC. One Americanism that grates on this side of the pond is the use of “folks” for “people.” I originally thought it was a Bushism, but Obama uses it too. How widespread is this in the US and do any Americans find it grating too?

A: “Folks” is a very old usage in the United States, and it can’t be described as a regionalism since it’s extremely widespread. But we do know that some here find it a bit … folksy (for lack of a better word).

For example, our editor at Random House (who’s a New Yorker) blue-penciled quite a few of the appearances of “folks” in the manuscript of our book Origins of the Specious. He was probably right.

The word’s predecessor, “folk” (originally meaning a people, nation, race, tribe), is extremely old. The Oxford English Dictionary cites written examples dating back to Beowulf, and the word has roots in ancient Germanic tongues.

Since a 10th-century example in the Old English Chronicles, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing, “folk” has also been used to mean “people” indefinitely.

English speakers began using the plural “folks” that way in the 14th century, and in the 17th century the plural replaced the old form, with the singular “folk” being labeled archaic or dialect.

Though “folks” is considered to have an American flavor today, it was once used on both sides of the Atlantic and carried no taint of the backwoods. Here are some citations from the OED and their dates:

1710, from a letter by Jonathan Swift: “I have heard wise folks say, An ill tongue may do much.”

1727, from A New Account of the East Indies: “There were Folks killed in 1723.” The author, Alexander Hamilton, was a Scottish sea captain, not the American statesman. He used “folks” repeatedly in his writings.

1756, from the journal of Margaret Calderwood, a British diarist and traveler: “I could not speak to the folks and ask questions.”

1774, from a letter by Abigail Adams: “Some folks say I grow very fat.”

1774, from Benjamin Franklin’s Works: “It was the ton with the ministerial folks to abuse them.”

1775, from a letter by Samuel Johnson: “Folks want me to go to Italy.”

1879, from Robert Browning’s dramatic poem Martin Relph: “It was hard to get at the folks in power.”

Today, the OED says, “folks” in the sense of people in general is chiefly colloquial (that is, more common in speech than in writing), and has been superseded in more formal usage by the word “people.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) calls the usage “informal.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no reservations about it.

On the other hand, the OED has no objections to the use of the word to mean “one’s family, parents, children, relatives,” and neither does Merriam-Webster’s.

But American Heritage says “folks” in the sense of one’s family, particularly one’s parents, is informal.

None of the three dictionaries object to the use of “folks” to mean people of a specified kind, as in “city folks,” “old folks,” “plain folks,” and so on.

When Pat was growing up in Iowa, it was usual and even expected that one referred to one’s parents as “my folks”; if Pat’s parents or aunts and uncles made reference to “the folks” in their conversations, they always meant her grandparents.

For instance, Pat’s mother might announce, “I’m worried about the folks,” meaning her parents.

Or Pat’s sister might say, “I’m skipping school, but don’t tell the folks,” referring to her parents.

Or a friend might say, “My folks are driving me nuts,” meaning her mom and dad.

This was an everyday usage for Pat and her family. But then, as Pat puts it, “we were just plain folks.”

Sorry if you find this answer grating!

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Is next Monday tomorrow or a week later?

Q: I hope you can help me settle a dispute with my spouse! If today is Sunday, when is next Monday? Is it tomorrow, or is it Monday of next week? And what about last May? Is it the preceding month or May of the previous year?

A: There’s no good answer here. “Next” and “last” are often ambiguous words. You and your spouse aren’t the only ones at odds over these words. In fact, the two of us have very similar arguments!

For example, Stewart will say, “It happened last May,” even if he means the preceding month. But if Pat is speaking in June, she’ll say, “It happened in May.” To her, “last May” sounds like May of last year.

And Stewart will say “next Monday” when that’s only a day from now.  Pat, on the other hand, will use “next Monday” to mean Monday of the following week, and “this Monday” to mean tomorrow.

Because there’s room for disagreement, it’s better to avoid using “next” and “last” when you’re talking about dates that are not far away.

“Last May” or “next Monday” are safe enough when they’re at a distance. But the closer the date, the greater the chance of a misunderstanding.

Just as “next door” is often broadly construed as meaning “nearby,” so “next Thursday,” when there’s a Thursday very close, is sometimes construed as meaning “the Thursday after this one.”

The word “next” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “designating the time, season, etc., following directly after one described, spoken of, etc.”

But what if there’s been no hint of “one described, spoken of, etc.”? Say, for example, that Stewart says, “Let’s go out for dinner next Monday.” Does he mean tomorrow, or Monday of next week?

After 22 years of marriage, Pat knows that he means “this Monday” (he wouldn’t think about dinner a week ahead).

Your question reminds us of one we answered last year, about whether moving an event “forward” means it will happen earlier or later.

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What is a derivative derived from?

Q: I need a one-word option if it exists for the thing from which a derivative is derived. Any ideas?

A: Is there a word for the underlying asset that a “derivative” derives from? The answer seems to be no. But we might suggest one. 

Let’s start with a little history. The verb “derive” was first recorded in English in the late 1300s, adopted from a Middle French word (deriver) that came from Latin (derivare).

The Latin roots of “derive” are de, a prefix that means “from,” and rivus, a word that means “stream” or “brook.” The Latin rivus is also the source of our word “rivulet” (but not “river,” which comes from riparia). 

The ultimate meaning of “derive” is to divert or draw off water or another liquid from its source.

But from the beginning, “derive” and its cousins – the noun “derivation” and the adjective and noun “derivative,” all of which followed in the 1400s – have been used more or less figuratively in English.

The figurative uses generally have nothing to do with water, and everything to do with drawing something from or tracing it to a source.

The financial sense of the noun “derivative” was first recorded in 1985, according to published references in the OED.

The OED defines it as “an arrangement or instrument (such as a future, option, or warrant) whose value derives from and is dependent upon the value of an underlying variable asset, such as a commodity, currency, or security.”

If we were feeling inventive, what might we call this underlying asset? Since the “de” in “derivative” means “from,” why not just delete the prefix? That would give us as the source “rivative.”

Or we could go back to the classical root of “rivative,” the Latin word for “stream” or “brook.” That would give us “rivus,” a fitting image for the source of something. 

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Curbing your dog

Q: Can you explain why signs all over New York City say “Curb Your Dog,” meaning clean up after it? I hope I’m not missing an obvious explanation for this.

A: The longer message is “Take your dog to the curb [where it will presumably do its business in the street, after which you will pick up any solid matter and dispose of it].”

The signs began appearing in the late 1930s (minus the implied pickup and disposal message) in an effort to get New Yorkers to comply with a section of the municipal Health Code that requires dog owners to keep their pets from soiling sidewalks, stairways, and other public places.

The language sleuth Barry Popick, in a posting to his Big Apple website, cites two early published references to the signs from 1937, including this one from the New York Times:

“In an effort to train dog owners to observe the sanitation laws, the Department of Sanitation has posted some twenty-five signs bearing the legend ‘Please Curb Your Dog’ at points about the city.”

In 1978, the New York State Legislature adopted the Canine Waste Law, commonly known as the “pooper-scooper law,” which requires dog owners in the state’s larger cities to clean up after their pets, not just take them to the curb.

Since then, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Palm Springs, Stamford, and other cities have adopted similar legislation.

In case you’re interested, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “pooper-scooper,” which it defines as “an implement for picking up and removing litter or mess, esp. for cleaning up dog excrement.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the term is from the Aug. 28, 1956, issue of the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Super Dooper Pooper Scooper.”

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The Bible in chapter and verse

Q: Regarding the books of the Bible, which is correct: “1 Kings” or “I Kings” or “First Kings” or “first Kings”? Also, is it, “the Book of Genesis” or “the book of Genesis”? PS: I just found my report card from 1956, in which my teacher began  a note to my mother, “Words Fail Me!” Would you like a copy?

A: Thanks for the offer of a copy of your report card, but that won’t be necessary – we believe you! It does, however, give us a chance to plug Pat’s book on writing: Words Fail Me.

As for your questions about the Bible, we’ll cite what many people consider the (lowercase) bible of style, The Chicago Manual of Style.

Let’s first discuss how to refer to the books themselves. We’ll get to chapter and verse later.

Here are the guidelines in sections 8.111-113 of The Chicago Manual (15th ed.):

“The names of books of the Bible are not italicized. The word book is usually lowercased, and the words gospel and epistle are usually capitalized.”

Examples given include “Genesis; the book of Genesis” and “Job; the book of Job.”

However, the style manual adds that in a work in which all three terms are used with some frequency, they may all be treated alike, either lowercased or capitalized.”

Examples of correct usage, according to the manual, include these:

“2 Chronicles; Second Chronicles; the second book of the Chronicles”;

“John; the Gospel according to John”;

“Acts; the Acts of the Apostles”;

“1 Corinthians; the First Epistle to the Corinthians.”

As you can see, the number may be spelled out or not. So you may write either “1 Kings” or “First Kings” or “the first book of Kings.”

Again, those are the guidelines for referring to books of the Bible. Now, let’s consider how to refer to the chapters and verses in the books.

When you cite specific passages of the Bible, according to section 9.30 of the Chicago Manual, numbers are given in figures only, and “chapter and verse are separated by a colon with no space following it.”

Examples include “Acts 27:1” and “2 Corinthians 11:29-30.”

We hope this helps.

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An adjective in sheep’s clothing

Q: A client objected when I referred to a “Ukrainian clinical hospital.” He said it was incorrect to use “Ukrainian” to refer to anything but the people or nation of the Ukraine. He mentioned something about demonyms. Please clarify.

A: We can’t find any evidence to support what your client suggests. We’ve consulted all our usage guides as well as the Oxford English Dictionary and standard dictionaries.

The OED defines the adjective “Ukrainian” broadly as “of or pertaining to the Ukraine.” That would include anything from a Ukrainian official to a Ukrainian hospital to a Ukrainian sheep.

In fact, the OED’s first published reference to the adjective –  from a travel journal written in 1804 by Martha Wilmot, an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman – refers to Ukrainian sheep.

We’ve found the original online and expanded the dictionary’s citation, which describes a Hungarian merchant: “He was a tall slight young Man, very tall, his dress a jacket lin’d with Ukranian sheeps’ skin.”

The OED says the word “Ukrainian” can also be used as a noun meaning (a) “a native or inhabitant of the Ukraine” and (b) “the Slavonic language spoken in the Ukraine; formerly also called Malo-Russian, Ruthenian.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give the same meanings for the adjective and noun.

A “demonym,” by the way, is the name for an inhabitant of a place that’s the source of the name. For example, “Afghan” is the name for an inhabitant of Afghanistan, which in turn is the source of the name.

We can’t find the word “demonym” in standard dictionaries, but it’s popular among geographers as well as geographer wannabes on the Web.

We’ve read that the term first appeared in print in Names’ Names: A Descriptive and Prescriptive Onymicon, a 1988 work by George H. Scheetz, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to check this out.

The OED does, however, have an 1893 citation for the word “demonymic,” which it describes as an adjective or noun that can refer to an Athenian citizen. It’s derived from deme, Greek for people.

In short, “Ukrainian” is indeed a demonym – a noun for an inhabitant of a place that’s the origin of the noun – but like many other demonyms (“American,” for example), it’s also an adjective that can refer to just about anything that concerns that place.

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Is the temp hot or high?

Q: I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1960. I have a pet peeve about the English spoken here. Why do weathermen speak of temperatures as “hot” or “cold,” instead of “high” or “low”?

A: You’re technically correct about “hot” or “cold” – that is, if one is measuring temperature strictly in number of degrees.

In that case, good usage would call for an adjective like “high” or “low” or something in between. Numbers in themselves aren’t hot or cold.

But here’s another way of looking at it: Does temperature have an independent existence, apart from its measurement in numbers?

We think it does, in the sense that people often speak of the temperature subjectively – not in numbers but in terms of its effect on them personally. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “temperature” in this sense as “the state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness, referred to some standard of comparison.”

The OED goes on to say that temperature is “usually measured by means of a thermometer or similar instrument.” But the instrument or standard of comparison could also be the human body and its comfort range.

We would argue that temperature exists (or manifests itself) apart from its measurement by a thermometer.

We’ve found references in the OED to the noun “temperature” modified by adjectives like “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” “moderate,” and “comfortable” – all of them subjective rather than numerical assessments.

Someone who says “The temperature is too hot” is using himself and not a thermometer to do the measuring.

In short, it may not be scientifically accurate to speak of a “hot temperature,” but such a phrase is not only idiomatically common but supported by common sense.

If you’re unconvinced and would like another opinion, here’s a word from the columnist Barbara Wallraff, writing in The Atlantic in 1998: “Hot and the rest of them as modifiers for temperature fall well within the acceptable bounds.”

“The conceptual relationships of English adjectives to their nouns are multifarious,” she writes, “and it will be a sad day, a sorry state of affairs, an unhappy turn of events, and so forth if our language ever loses this characteristic.”

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Is “mayhap” a mishap?

Q: A colleague of mine often uses the word “mayhap” when we discuss ideas at a meeting, as in “Mayhap we could first consider point three.” What is the origin of this? Is it a valid word?

A: The word “mayhap” (sometimes “mayhaps”) is an old adverb meaning “perhaps” or “possibly.”

It was first recorded in writing in the 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation is from John Heywood’s early Tudor drama The Play of the Wether (1533): “May happe I wyll thynke on you when you be gone.”

The OED describes “mayhap” as a shortened form of the phrase “it may hap”; that old phrase incorporates the archaic verb “hap,” which once meant “to come about by ‘hap’ or chance.”  

Another old adverb, “mayhappen” (circa 1577), sometimes abbreviated to “mappen,” is a shortened form of “it may happen.”

The OED says that both “mayhap” and “mayhappen” are still alive in some dialects in Britain but are otherwise archaic.

However, the lexicographers at the OED may have underestimated the use of the term today.

Your colleague has lots of company, according to the hundreds of thousands of hits we had on  Google searches for “mayhap,” “mayhaps,” and “mayhappen.”

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Does it “affect” or “effect” your funksmanship?

Q: I used to know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” but I’m not sure anymore. I often find them used interchangeably or in ways that I once thought were incorrect. Can you help?

A: Pat has discussed the distinction between “affect” and “effect” during her appearances on WNYC, but we find to our surprise that we’ve never written about it on the blog.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from the new third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

AFFECT/EFFECT: If you mean a thing (a noun), ninety-nine times out of a hundred you mean effect. The termites had a startling effect on the piano. If you want an action word (a verb), the odds are just as good that you want affect. The problem affected Lucia’s recital.

NOTE: Then there’s that one time out of a hundred. Here are the less common meanings for each of these words:

Affect, when used as a noun (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), is a psychological term for ‘feeling.’ Termites display a lack of affect.

Effect, when used as a verb, means ‘achieve’ or ‘bring about.’ An exterminator effected their removal.

In addition, the verb “affect” can be used in the sense of to put on a false show (“He affected a British accent”) or to show a liking for (“She affects flashy clothing”).

With all these meanings, it’s no surprise that people have been confused by “affect” and “effect” since the various usages of these words showed up in English in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

“All this history of befuddlement has left us with a fat collection of warning notices,” says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which adds that nearly every usage handbook published in the 20th century had such warnings.

Most published writers know how to use these words, according to Merriam-Webster’s, but errors get into print because of “inattention to spelling,” “poor proofreading,” or “no proofreading.”

As an example of such a typo, M-W cites a comment by the former NBA player Darryl Dawkins about the impact on his flashy playing style of having therapeutic electrodes attached to his shoulder during a game.

Although Dawkins used the verb “affect” correctly (to have an impact on something), it appeared this way in a carelessly edited wire-service report: “It effected my interplanetary funksmanship.”

Our advice: When you use these words, especially when you’re in a hurry to finish an email, take another look before hitting Send.

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Let’s get physical

Q: More and more, I hear sportscasters use the word “physicality” to describe the physical strength of a football player or other athlete. Is this even a word? And what would be a better one to refer to a physically strong person?

A: “Physicality” is a legitimate word. Whether it’s a good choice as a sports term is another matter.

The noun “physicality” entered English in 1592, when it was another word for medicine or medical practice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1827, it was first used to mean “the fact, state, or condition of being physical (as opposed to mental, spiritual, etc.),” the OED says.

In 1844, “physicality” began to be used in another sense: “the awareness of the body or of bodily sensation; a bodily function or experience.”

At the same time, it came to mean “the quality of being physically demanding; physical intensity; strong physical presence or appeal.” For example, a 1994 citation the OED refers to “the sheer physicality of the work.”

These days, sportscasters and sportswriters use the term in a couple of ways the OED hasn’t caught up with.

For some, as you point out, “physicality” means fitness and good physical conditioning.

But for others it means physical violence – “the collision part of collision sports,” as a Denver Post sports columnist put it.

This ambiguity alone may be reason enough to retire “physicality” from sports terminology. 

As an example of the more benign usage, Graham Watson, a blogger on ESPN, said in April that San Diego State’s football team was looking to improve its “strength and physicality.” By this he meant the team’s physical conditioning.

He quoted San Diego State’s coach, Brady Hoke, as saying, “We’re really concentrating on the strength and weight part of it and body composition part of it right now.”

But the darker side of “physicality” is apparently more common.

In an article last March on CBSSports.com, a basketball game was described as “a brutal slugfest” and the columnist, Mike Freeman, referred to the aggression as “physicality.”

An Associated Press article in April said “the trash-talking, in-your-face forward” Matt Barnes had brought “physicality” to the Orlando Magic’s lineup.

The article went on to describe Barnes’s aggressive elbowing, bumping, shoving, yelling, screaming, and generally menacing behavior.

Finally, a hockey article a month ago on the New England Sports Network was headlined “Cody McCormick Hopes to Bring Physicality to Sabres Lineup.”

The article read as though “physicality” here referred to a player’s willingness to bloody a few noses.

You ask whether there’s a better word than “physicality” to describe the physical strength of an athlete. How about simply “strength” or “fitness” or “stamina” or “power”?

And, of course, there are lots of better words than “physicality” to refer to roughness on the court or field. But it’s obvious to us why writers and coaches prefer “physical” and “physicality.”

Words that might more honestly assess this kind of behavior – “brutality,” “cruelty,”  “violence,” etc. – sound so darned unsportsmanlike! 

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An educated opinion

Q: I work for a population research organization in Washington. I wonder which of these phrases are correct: 1) “Children by household head’s educational (or “education”) attainment,” and 2) “Per-pupil educational (or “education”) expenditures adjusted for regional cost differences.”

A: Both “educational” and “education” can perform the function of adjectives. When the noun “education” is used as an adjective, it’s called an attributive noun.

But just because a noun can be used attributively as an adjective doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to use the noun that way. Sometimes a straight adjective (like “educational”) is better. 

In the first phrase you’ve asked about, we’d recommend the straight adjective (“educational attainment”).

Why? Because we’re speaking here of an attainment that’s “due to, or arising from, education,” to use the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “educational.” 

But in the second phrase either the straight adjective or the attributive noun would be fine to modify “expenditures.”

Our preference, though, would be for “education expenditures.”

Why? Because the expenditures are for education – they aren’t in themselves educational.

As you can see, however, the choice between a straight adjective and an attributive noun is quite often a judgment call.

We recently answered another question on the blog that involved attributive nouns. And we wrote a blog entry last year that deals with words like “botanic” and “botanical.”

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Why don’t we say a batter flew out?

Q: Is it OK for sportcasters to say “flied out” when the proper past tense should be “flew out”?  What’s your feeling on this?

A: The past tense and past participle of the verb “fly,” when it means to hit a fly ball, is “flied,” not “flew.”

So sportscasters who say “he flied out” and “he had flied out” are using the standard terminology.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give “flied” as the only past tense for the word in its baseball sense.

The Oxford English  Dictionary, which isn’t quite so definitive, says the past tense of “fly” on the ball field is usually “flied.”

The OED’s first citation for the baseball verb is from a report in the Chicago Tribune on July 3, 1893, about a game between the Chicago Colts and the Boston Beaneaters: “Kittridge flied out to Brodie.”

However, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, has a much earlier reference.

It comes from a report in the Boston Globe on June 13, 1872, about a game between the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics: “Cuthbert flied out to Harry Wright.”

So the verb had the past tense “flied” when it was first used in this sense, though the Dickson book notes that in the early days of baseball both terms (“flied” and “flew”) regularly appeared in sports writing.

The OED, for example, has this 1904 “flew” citation from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: “Wallace flew to Lush for the third out.”

But the remaining OED citations use “flied”:

1912, from Christy Mathewson’s book Pitching in a Pinch: “Sheckard flied out to Seymour”;

1948, and from the Durant (Okla.) Daily Democrat: “Baker then flied to center and neither runner was able to advance.”

Eventually, “flied” beat out “flew.” As Dickson explains: “Although the past tense of this verb is sometimes stated as flew out, it is now customary to say or write ‘flied out.’ ”

Why? The probable explanation goes to the very structure of the language, specifically the two kinds of verbs we have in English.

There are regular verbs with modern “ed” endings in the past tense and past participle, like “walked,” “laughed,” “jumped,” “helped,” and so on.

And there are irregular verbs with older, Anglo-Saxon endings, like “drove/driven”; “wrote/written”; “sang/sung”; “rose/risen,” and of course “flew/flown.”

We have only about 200 of the older verbs left. As we form new ones or give new meanings to oldsters, we tend to give them modern “ed” endings in the past tense.

This is particularly true when we make a new verb out of a noun, even if that noun is related to an earlier verb with an irregular ending.

And the verb phrase “fly out” is derived not from the old verb “fly” but from the noun “fly,” a baseball term (for “fly ball”) that originated in 1860.

So even though the sports noun is based on the old irregular verb “fly,” the new verb arising from the noun is given a modern “ed” ending.

Here are some other examples of this principle at work:

The past tense of “stand” is “stood.” But the verb “grandstand,” formed from the noun “grandstand” (1834), has the past “grandstanded.”

The past of “grind” is “ground.” But if a stripper performs a “bump and grind” (a relatively new term for an old dance), we  say she “bumped and grinded.”

The past tense of “light” can be “lit” or “lighted.” But we use the modern “ed” ending to say someone “moonlighted” as a plumber.

The usual past of the verb “cost” is “cost.” But we say an accountant “costed” (that is determined) the company’s proposed project.

The past tense of “spin” is “spun.” But the past of “spin” in its newer political sense is a work in progress. Some people say a politician “spun” the incident while others say he “spinned” it. May the best word win!

The verb “snowblow” hasn’t yet made it into standard dictionaries, but it’s alive and well in snow country … with a modern past tense.

We should know. We “snowblowed” our way through many a winter in rural New England.

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Is this species of English extinct?

Q: I’m wondering if the phrase “go extinct” is correct, as in “That mammal has gone extinct.” Until recently, I’d always heard “become extinct.”

A: Just like other species of living things, words and phrases battle it out in a kind of linguistic version of natural selection. It appears that the verb phrase “go extinct” has made a place for itself.

In its earliest sense, the word “extinct” meant “extinguished,” and was a past participle of the verb “extinguish.”

It was first recorded in writing in the mid-15th century. Here’s the earliest citation (dated 1432-50) from the Oxford English Dictionary: “That fyre was extincte.” 

Soon the word was being used in an adjectival sense, as in this citation: “The lampe of grace in thy soule wyll soone be extinct” (1526).

“Extinct” can be used as a simple adjective to modify a noun, as in “an extinct volcano.” But when used with a verb, it has historically been accompanied by some form of “be” or “become.”

So the most common verbal usages for many centuries were “be/is/are/was/were extinct,” or “become/became extinct.”

The OED has no citations for the new verb phrase “go extinct,” which along with its variants gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google.

But Oxford has many citations for the verb “go,” when accompanied by an adjective, to mean “to become, get to be (in some condition).”

The OED’s citations for this use of “go,” dating from the late 1500s to the present day, include the phrases “went low,” “went less,” “gone thick,” “go cold,” “went dead,” “go gray,” “gone mad,” and “goes sour.”

Also, “went scarlet,” “goes lame,” “gone vacant,” “go native,” “gone Hollywood,” “gone missing,” “go public,” “go ‘arty,’ ” “gone serious,” “going establishment,” “going nuclear,” and “go postal.”

(We wrote a blog entry a few years ago about the now popular “gone missing.”)

As you can see, “go extinct” has caught on for a reason: it has a long history of analogous usage behind it.

But the phrase “become extinct” is not about to go the way of the dodo. It still vastly outnumbers “go extinct” in Google hits.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Is “hearsay” a cousin of “heresy”?

Q: I wonder if there’s a connection between the words “hearsay” and “heresy,” or is the similarity just a coincidence?

A: The nouns “hearsay” and “heresy” come from very different sources and are not related.

“Hearsay” was first recorded in writing in 1532, and is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a substitute use of the phrase “to hear say,” which in turn was in use before the year 1000.

The OED defines “hearsay” this way: “That which one hears or has heard some one say; information received by word of mouth, usually with implication that it is not trustworthy; oral tidings; report, tradition, rumour, common talk, gossip.”

The roots of the noun, the verbs “hear” and “say,” go back to Old English and have their origins in ancient Germanic sources.

The noun “heresy,”  on the other hand, is from Greek.

It was borrowed into English, probably before 1200, from the Old French word eresie or heresie, an adaptation of the Latin haeresis, which comes from the Greek hairesis.

The meaning in the classical languages was broader than in English and referred to a taking, a choosing, a school of thought, a set of philosophical principles.

The English “heresy” is defined by the OED as “theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox.”

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Hear Pat today on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll appear on Talk of Iowa after the news at 10 AM Central Time (11 Eastern) to answer questions from listeners about the English language.

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How do we know when usage changes?

Q: You’ve written that it’s acceptable (though perhaps pretentious) to use “utilize” instead of “use.” I’d venture to say “utilize” has nearly replaced “use.” It seems most people prefer three syllables to one; I do not. How do you judge when popular usage overwhelms tradition? Why do you accept “utilize,” for instance, but not “fun” as an adjective, though you acknowledge it’s common too?

A: You ask a very complicated  question, and the answer won’t be black and white.

When we make a judgment about a  usage, we consult many sources: the OED as well as current standard dictionaries (and sometime older ones, for historical perspective); old and new usage guides; scholarly studies where available; and articles in journals like American Speech.

This gives us a feel for whether educated opinion about a usage has changed.

The examples of “use/utilize” and “fun” as an adjective are different.

No one denies that “utilize” is a legitimate verb and part of the language. It’s been used in the sense of “to make useful” for a couple of hundred years.

Although “utilize” originally suggested putting something to a new or expanded use, dictionaries now accept the looser meaning of putting something to use – that is, using it.

The question here is not legitimacy; it’s style: is “utilize” a more or less felicitous choice than “use”?

But the increasingly common use of the noun “fun” as an attributive adjective represents a change in part of speech – a change that’s still labeled nonstandard by many (though not all) sources.

Changes in grammatical function are much slower to gain acceptance than relatively small changes in the meaning of a word where no new function is involved.

I hope this doesn’t just muddy the waters. Many of these things are judgment calls that leave room for disagreement.

As we wrote in our 2008 posting about “utilize,” it’s not a word we like but we can’t call it incorrect. And we think it’s more likely to be used in writing than in speech.

People like to be pretentious in writing, but they tend to use more natural English in speech.

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Waiting on … and on and on

Q: Which of these two sentences is correct? “I’ve been waiting for you” or “I’ve been waiting on you.”

A: In the sense of “await,” both “wait on” and “wait for” have long histories of usage in English, both in Britain and in the United States.

In general, “wait for” is more common, but “wait on” is part of mainstream usage in both countries.

We’ve written about this subject before on the blog, but it’s probably time to update the brief earlier post.

As we said three years ago, even though there’s nothing wrong with “wait on,” it does seem more informal than “wait for.” But that may be because we were discouraged from using it as children. Here’s a little more information.

In the US, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “wait on” is “most strongly identified” with speakers in the South and the Midwest, though plenty of Northerners use it too.

In fact, “wait on and wait for cannot be accurately characterized as dialectal, colloquial, regional, or substandard,”  M-W says.

“If it has been the mission of Northern teachers to stamp out wait on, they have failed in more places than just the South,” the dictionary adds.

The M-W editors conclude that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wait on or its occasional variant wait upon. If the use of wait on is natural to you, there is certainly no need to avoid it.”

Another source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an interesting thought: “One reason for the continuing use of wait on may lie in its being able to suggest protracted or irritating waits better than wait for.

The dictionary gives several examples to support this idea, including one from Charles Lindbergh: “for two days I’ve been waiting on the weather.”

The idea that irritation may be at work here makes sense to us, and it’s likely to strike a chord with anybody who has sat for 45 minutes in a medical office, waiting on the doctor … and on and on.

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Why are British names so odd?

Q: I once heard a theory as to why British names are so strange – Biggerstaff, for example. I’m hoping you can help me track it down.

A: We did a bit of poking around on the Internet, but couldn’t find such a theory – at least one that made any sense to us. If you come across that theory again, let us know.

We agree with you that some British names are indeed odd. We’re reminded of a New York Times article earlier this year about the amusing names of British streets and villages.

Here are some beauts: Crapstone, Pratts Bottom, East Breast, North Piddle, Spanker Lane, Crotch Crescent, Thong, Penistone, Tumbledown Dick Road, Titty Ho, Wetwang, Slutshole Lane, and Butt Hole Road.

You’re undoubtedly aware that some British surnames are not only odd, but also pronounced very differently from their spellings.

Examples: Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), Featherstonehaugh (“Fanshaw”), Marjoribanks (“Marchbanks”), Brougham (“Broom”), and Beauchamp (“Beecham”).

There’s a wonderful Monty Python sketch (which we’ve referred to before on the blog) about the odd pronunciation of odd British names.

A character in the sketch is named Raymond Luxury Yacht. As he explains, “My name is spelt  ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

But let’s not get too smug. The British like to poke fun at American names too.

A favorite author of ours, the British writer Angela Thirkell, did a lot of such poking in a series of comic novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

One of her offstage characters is a sexy movie star named Glamora Tudor, whose steamy productions pack ’em in at the Barchester Odeon on Friday nights.

Miss Tudor’s hunky American leading men have names like Hash Gobbet, Hastings Pond, Hank Hawksfoot, Crab Doker, Croke Scumper, Hake Codman, Washington Swop, Buck Pickaback, Hick Pilldozer, and Hank Pilsener.

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Does the majority rule?

Q: Even people on NPR will speak of a “majority” of something when I’d use “most.” Doesn’t one deal with a number of items while the other with a portion of something? Or has usage changed when I wasn’t looking?

A: Many usage guides discourage the use of “majority” for things that aren’t being counted. So they would frown on “The majority of the cake was eaten,” or “He slept through the majority of the ballet.”

In such instances, usage commentators would prefer “most.” They would save “majority” for referring to more than half of a number of items, as in “a majority of votes” or “the majority of the contestants.”

However, the majority rules in English, and dictionaries now accept using “majority” in a looser sense.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes “the greater number or part” among its definitions of “majority.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this definition: “the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).”

In fact, the noun “majority” meant simply a state of superiority when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the word took on its meaning of more than half the number of items.

Although most of the OED citations for this sense use “majority” strictly, an 1882 item from the journal Nature takes a looser approach: “The majority of the coral which I collected … was obtained by divers.”

Today, as we’ve said, standard dictionaries consider the looser meaning standard English. Can the usage guides be far behind?

But just because lexicographers (or language mavens) say a usage is OK doesn’t mean you have to use it.

We’d rather eat most of the cake, not the majority of it – that is, if we weren’t on a diet!

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Is “these ones” legit?

Q: We live in Iowa and we’re bothered when we hear people say “these ones,” as in “Do you want these ones?” or “These ones are for sale.” Is this acceptable English?

A: Let’s begin by looking at the singular version: “this one.”

The main part (or head) of the phrase is “one” (an indefinite pronoun, not the number 1), modified by “this” (a demonstrative adjective). Together they form a noun phrase: “I like this one.”

Logically, the plural form of this noun phrase would be “these ones.” And logically, we can’t see any reason why this would be grammatically incorrect. “Which ones do I like? I like these ones.”

The chief argument against “these ones” is that “these” alone would suffice (“I like these”). But the same objection could be made against the singular form: Instead of “I like this one,” you could simply say “I like this.” So that argument isn’t convincing.

Now, we have to admit that to our ears “these ones” sounds like a childish usage. We never say or write “these ones” (or “those ones”). But our prejudice against it doesn’t make it grammatically incorrect.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, writing on the Language Log, says that apparently the use of “these ones” is widespread in Britain, where it’s not considered odd or nonstandard at all.

The situation is less clear in our neck of the woods. Is it acceptable in the US or not?

Educated users of the language seem to differ, and your opinion many depend on where you grew up, according to Zwicky.

”It’s possible that in North America these/those ones’ is a variant in the gray area between standard and nonstandard – fully acceptable to educated middle-class speakers in some areas, but not fully acceptable, though not actually stigmatized, to such people in other areas,” he writes.

Like many questions of English usage, this one has a fuzzy answer. We can’t find any evidence that “these ones” is grammatically incorrect. The only reason to discourage it is that many – perhaps most – Americans find it objectionable.

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Does this usage get you to thinking?

Q: I was reading a blog entry by an expert on the English language, and I noticed that he used the expression “I got me to thinking.” Is this proper English?

A: No, “I got me to thinking “ is not a grammatical construction. Anyone who uses it is probably joking or being folksy or making a typo.

So let’s assume the blogger meant to write “It got me to thinking.” This is a very common way of speaking – but is it acceptable English?

When we use the verb “get” in a causative way (meaning something is caused to happen), the verb that follows is usually either an infinitive or a present participle:

(1) “It got me to think” (“to think” = preposition + infinitive).

(2) “It got me thinking” (“thinking” = participle).

These are both standard English, and very common. But there’s also a third construction, one that appears to be a hybrid of the other two:

(3) “It got me to thinking” (“to thinking” = preposition + participle).

The verb phrase at the center of all this is “get to thinking,” which consists of verb (“get”) + preposition (“to”) + present participle (“thinking”).

This is an extremely common way of using the verb “get.” We hear things like “we got to talking” and “I got to thinking” all the time.

The verbs “fall” and “set” were once commonly used this way, too, and such usages can be found in older writing.

Examples: “He fell to eating” … “We fell to laughing” … “They set him to working” … “She set to making the beds.”

In usages like these, “get to” and “fall to” and “set to” all mean something like “start.” Some activity –represented by the participle (the “ing” word) – is being caused, or put into play.

But back to your question or rather the usage behind the apparent typo that inspired it. Is “get to thinking” legitimate English?

As common as this is, we haven’t found much about it in usage guides or dictionaries.

One of the few authorities that has any comment at all is the Longman English Dictionary, which calls it an “informal” usage.

Longman says the phrase “get to thinking/wondering something” means “to start thinking something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking how disappointed his parents would be.”

The Macmillan Dictionary does not give this usage a label one way or another. It simply notes that “get to doing something” means “start doing something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking that it was all his fault.”

In this sense, according to Macmillan, “get to” means “start on,” “begin,” “set about,” “embark on,” etc.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary has little to say on the subject. Under its entry for the verb “get,” it notes that the verb is sometimes followed by a present participle (as in “get talking”).

It dates this construction from 1727 (in the phrase “get writing”), and it includes some very modern-sounding citations: “I got thinking” (1872), and “they got talking” (1889).

The very familiar “get going” was first recorded in writing in 1897 and has been going strong ever since.

But Oxford has no comment on the version that includes the preposition, as in “get to thinking” or “get to talking.”

We tend to agree with Longman that phrases like these seem more at home in informal English. But then so do the shorter versions, “get thinking” and “get talking.”

All of them are normally used in conversational English and casual writing. And in our view, that’s probably where they belong. 

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A piece of cake

Q: I’m a fourth-grade teacher in Massachusetts. My students have been reading Pat’s grammar book for kids, Woe Is I Jr., and they’ve asked why we say “I’d like some pieces of candy” as opposed to “I’d like some pieces of candies.”

A: We’re talking here about “candy” as a general category. The word “candy” doesn’t stand for an individual object, but for an entire category of food, like “meat” or “bread” or “fruit” or “cake.”

When this is the case, the thing you’re counting (“candy”) remains singular, whether you’re talking about one piece or many.

That’s is why we say “pieces of meat” and “pieces of bread” and “pieces of fruit” and “pieces of cake.” We don’t say “pieces of meats” or “pieces of breads” or “pieces of fruits” or “pieces of cakes.”

If you look on pages 24 and 25 of Woe Is I Jr., you’ll find a section on how to use phrases like “kinds of” and “sorts of” and “types of” with plural words.

However, these phrases can also be followed by singular words if those words represent an entire category of something.

This is true with the phrase “pieces of” as well as “kinds of,” “breeds of,” “brands of,” “varieties of,” and others.  

Here’s how it works:

“Our teacher has an important piece of information” … “Our principal has two important pieces of information.”

“Emma’s mom made one kind of chicken” … “Jordan’s mom made two kinds of chicken.”

“I am familiar with only one breed of dog” … “At the dog show, there were fifty breeds of dog.”

“He likes one brand of cereal” … “She likes three brands of cereal.

“This painting has one variety of red” … “That painting has three varieties of red.”

“Our kitchen has only one piece of furniture” … “Our living room has eight pieces of furniture.”

In all these cases, the noun following “of” (that is, “candy,” “information,” “chicken,” “dog,” “cereal,” “red,” “furniture”) doesn’t represent a single object but a category of something, so it remains singular. 

We hope your students find this answer a piece of cake!  

And by the way, Pat would like to inform you and the class about an error in Woe Is I Jr.

On page 99, the second sentence of the second paragraph should read:

“Most of the time, we use an in front of a vowel, or soft letter, and a in front of a consonant, or hard one.”

Please mark this in your book, which mistakenly has the rule reversed! Pat hopes this will be corrected in later printings.

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Is it proper to refer to oneself as “Esq.”?

Q: I’m bothered by the use of the honorific “Esq.” for a lawyer. I believe it should signify a gentleman. I’m also bothered that lawyers, both men and women, tack the honorific on their own names. It should be conferred by others as a term of respect, and only on men.

A: We wrote a brief blog item a few years ago about the use of “Esq.” as an honorific, but it’s time for an update that includes some history of how the noun “esquire” gave us this title of respect.

Before going on, however, we should mention that the title is treated differently in Britain and the United States, which has led to some confusion about the usage.

In our earlier posting on the subject, we cited A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, whose author, Bryan A. Garner, is both a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary.

For this update, we checked out the new third edition of the usage guide (now called Garner’s Modern English Usage), which reiterates that “Esq.” in American English “typically signifies that the person whose name it follows is a lawyer.”

“The mild honorific is used nowadays,” Garner’s notes, “with the names of men and women alike; it is incorrect, however, to use it with any other title, such as Mr. or Ms.”

The title, as you point out, should be conferred by others; it’s not proper legal etiquette to use “Esq.” to refer to oneself.

Somehow, the idea has gotten out that Esq. is something you put after your own name,” Garner’s says, adding, “In fact, it is quite non-U for a lawyer to put Esq. on cards, stationery, and self-addressed envelopes.”

The reference also notes that in British English “esquire is used of any man thought to have the status of a gentleman.” (More on that later.)

The noun “esquire” has had an interesting history. It entered English in the late 15th century, borrowed from the Old French esquier,  literally “shield-bearer,” and ultimately from the Latin scutum, “shield.”

In 1460, when “esquire” first appeared in writing, it meant a man belonging to the higher gentry, just below a knight, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “squire,” from the same Old French word esquier, is much earlier, and was first recorded in writing in 1290.

In the feudal military system of the 13th century, a “squire” was “a young man of good birth attendant upon a knight,” the OED says.

In 1475, “esquire” was first used as a term in chivalry to mean the same thing: “a young man of gentle birth, who as an aspirant to knighthood, attended upon a knight, carried his shield, and rendered him other services.”

In later usages, “esquire” took on these meanings: an officer in the service of a king or nobleman (1495); an armor-bearer (1553); a landed proprietor or county “squire” (1597); a title accompanying a man’s name (1552-53); and a gentleman who attends (or “squires”) a lady in public (1824).

However, “esquire” does not precisely mean “gentleman” in Britain. As the OED explains, some authorities believe esquires fall into five classes:

(1) younger sons of peers and their eldest sons; (2) eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons; (3) chiefs of ancient families; (4) esquires by creation or office, such as judges, officers of state, military officers, justices of the peace, barristers-at-law; (5) esquires who attend the Knight of the Bath on his installation.

“The correctness of this enumeration, however, is greatly disputed,” the OED adds. “It would be impossible here to state the divergent views on the subject.”

As for “Esq.,” the OED says the title “is now commonly understood to be due by courtesy to all persons (not in clerical orders or having any higher title of rank) who are regarded as ‘gentlemen’ by birth, position, or education.”

The dictionary notes, however, that “in the U.S. the title belongs officially to lawyers and public officers.”

In summary, lawyers should not tack “Esq.” onto their own names. But in the US it may properly be used in reference to them – women as well as men.

Note that even in Britain, barristers may be entitled to “Esq.” after their names.

We hope this satisfies any lingering doubts you may have.

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Do MDs misuse the verb “present”?

Q: I heard Pat joke on WNYC a few months ago that doctors are the only people who use the verb “present” incorrectly. Since I’m starting my residency in July, I was wondering if you could explain. I’d rather not make this mistake in my career.

A: The remark Pat made on the Leonard Lopate Show was that doctors are the only people who use “present” as an intransitive verb. This usage isn’t a mistake, but it’s largely confined to the medical profession.

A verb can be transitive or intransitive or both.

A transitive verb needs a direct object to make sense; we call it “transitive” because the action is being transmitted from the subject to an object.

An intransitive verb, on the other hand, doesn’t need an object to make sense.

Many verbs in English are used both transitively and intransitively. The verb “grow,” for example, can be transitive (“He grows dahlias) or intransitive (“Dahlias grow quickly).

And “give” can be used  transitively (“He gave a donation) or intransitively (“He gave already).  So can “see,” which is either transitive (“We saw it) or intransitive (“We saw clearly).

Some verbs are strictly one or the other. They’re either transitive (like “lay and “raise) or intransitive (like “be,” “die,” “fall,” “go,”lie,” and “rise).

For most people, “present” is solely transitive, even at a medical office: “The receptionist presented the dermatologist’s bill to me.

But doctors often use it intransitively too: “The head of the fetus is presenting” … “The patient presented in my office with symptoms of fibromyalgia.

The verb’s use in obstetrics dates back to the early 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For a fetus, to “present” means “to be positioned (in a particular way) for delivery.” And for part of a fetus, it means “to appear first at the mouth of the uterus during labour.”

The OED‘s earliest citation is from a translation of Pierre Dionis’s A General Treatise of Midwifery (1719): “The Exercise they use near their Time occasions the Child to turn sooner that it ought, and to present less favourably.”

The more general medical meaning dates to the 19th century and is defined this way in the OED:

“Of a condition, symptom, physical sign, etc.: to show itself, to appear, to be manifest, to occur, esp. in a certain manner, position, etc. Of a patient: to come to medical attention, esp. with a particular symptom, etc.”

Oxford‘s first citation for this usage is from 1836, but it’s questionable. This more definite example is from A System of Medicine, edited by Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1897): “A periœsophageal abscess frequently presents laterally.”

So, the intransitive “present” has a past. Feel free to use it, especially among doctors, but be aware that the rest of us may find it a bit strange.

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Is the band Phish singular or plural?

Q: I have a question about band names. Which is correct: “Phish is from Burlington” or “Phish are from Burlington”?

A: If the name of a band is inherently plural (like “the Doors” or “the Beatles”), then treat it as plural and use a plural verb (“are”).

If the band’s name is inherently singular (say, “Snow Patrol” or “Radiohead”), then treat it as singular and use a singular verb (“is”).

The name “Phish” (like “fish”) could be construed as either singular or plural. We’d come down on the side of the singular (“is”). 

In fact, that’s how the band treats itself on its website, as in this March 15, 2010, news item: “Phish Performs At 2010 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.”

The band, formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont, was first called Blackwood Convention (a reference to the bidding term in bridge), but it soon began performing as Phish.

Why Phish? There are lots of explanations, but the one heard most often is that the name refers to the band’s drummer, John Fishman, commonly known as Fish.

If you’d like to read more about band names, we wrote a blog post a while back on this subject.

In American English, by the way, a collective noun like “band” is construed as singular. The Brits, on the other hand, treat collective nouns as plural.

If you’re still game, we wrote a blog item some time ago about differences between US and UK English.

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Can we be too possessive?

Q: How do you explain the common construction seen in sentences like “It is a book of Bob’s” and “That is a stamp collection of Jane’s”?

A: We assume you’re referring to using both “of” and an apostrophe plus “s” to show possession.

This construction, often called a double possessive or a double genitive, is perfectly standard English. We wrote a brief blog item about it a few years ago, but it’s time for a more extensive update.

In the 18th century, some Latinists criticized this usage for not conforming with the grammar of their favorite language. The first one to look askance at it was Robert Lowth, the guy who gave us the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

But as the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the double possessive is “an idiomatic construction of long standing in English” and “a perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal form in modern English.”

In a construction like this, the preposition “of” is “followed by a noun in the genitive case or a possessive pronoun,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Examples of this usage go back to the early 1200s, and would include phrases like the ones you mention as well as “a relative of hers” and “a customer of theirs.” There’s nothing wrong with any of them.

In fact, as the OED points out, possessive pronouns like “hers” and “theirs” are in effect double possessives already (at one time they were written “her’s” and “their’s”), and were formed “by association with the possessive case in such phrases as ‘a friend of John’s.’ ”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that the double possessive also can be a very handy tool for sharpening an ambiguous possessive:

“In practice one of its most useful functions is that it enables English speakers to distinguish between the simple types a picture of the king (= an actual portrait of him) and a picture of the king’s (= one owned by him).”

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Same old, same old

Q: As a young airman in Japan during the 1950s, I often heard locals (and GIs) use the expression samo, samo to mean the same. Did this usage give us the expression “same old, same old”?

A: The use of samo, samo in Asia apparently predates the appearance of American GIs by quite a few years.

An English buccaneer noticed this use of the phrase among the people of Mindanao in the 1600s. Back then in the Philippines, it didn’t exactly mean “same old, same old,” but it did refer to sameness.

We came across this information in an 1862 reference book, A Dictionary of English Etymology, by Hensleigh Wedgwood, with notes by George P. Marsh.

In a bracketed note­­, Marsh cites this passage from A New Voyage Round the World (1703), by the much-traveled adventurer and explorer William Dampier:

“They would always be praising the English, as declaring that the English and Mindanaians were all one. This they exprest by putting their two fore-fingers close together, and saying that the English and Mindanaians were samo, samo, that is, all one.”

Marsh, in his note, wonders whether samo in that quotation was “a native word, or had the people of Mindanao borrowed it from earlier English visitors?”

(Dampier, who lived from 1652 to 1715, really should be the subject of a splashy Hollywood spectacle, but that’s another story.)   

So did those 17th-century islanders have their own word samo, or did they adapt “same” from English explorers? We’d guess that the usage was influenced by earlier explorers.

In checking a few modern Filipino dictionaries, we find the verb sámò (to cry or plead) and the noun samò (an entreaty), but no indication that either word could refer to sameness.

In a 2001 posting to the Linguist List, Douglas G. Wilson says samo doesn’t appear in Japanese dictionaries either, but samo, samo apparently exists as a dialectal variant of a Malay term meaning same or together.

Perhaps this dialectal variant is related to the samo, samo that Dampier heard in the Philippines on his round the world trip. But we suspect that the Malay term may have been influenced by English-speaking visitors.

Our word “same” entered English in about 1200, probably influenced  by the Old English swa as well as similar words in Scandinavian languages.

It has cousins in Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic, Old Irish, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Russian, Sanskrit, and the prehistoric language families proto-Germanic (reconstructed as samaz) and Indo-European (reconstructed as somos).

But back to “same old, same old,” an expression suggesting that nothing has changed in one’s life.

The usage first showed up in the 1970s in American black English, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

Did it originate in the phrase samo, samo that you heard while stationed in Japan in the 1950s?

Maybe it did … and maybe it didn’t. Here’s the story.

In “Bamboo English,” a 1955 article in the journal American Speech, Arthur M. Z. Norman suggests that samo, samo originated in the Japanese tendency to use reduplication when speaking pidgin English. (In linguistics, reduplication is the repetition of the root of a word or part of it.)

“The changey-changey samey-samey phenomenon heard among the Japanese,” Norman writes, “is responsible for samo-samo ‘the same’ in American Slang.”

But Wilson, in another 2001 posting to the Linguist List, raises the possibility that samo, samo may have been coined not by the Japanese but by US soldiers – as baby talk the GIs used in an attempt to communicate.

“It is possible that ‘samo’ or even ‘samo-samo’ was simply a nonsense augmentation of ‘same’ by American servicemen,” he says.

Channeling a ’50s GI, Wilson adds: “That’s how we used to say ‘same’ in Tijuana, maybe it’ll work here too,” or “I think these people will understand English if you repeat each word slowly, with ‘o’ or ‘a’ on the end; they understood me fine that way in Manila.”

In answer to your question, the 1950s phrase samo, samo, meaning the same, may have evolved into the 1970s expression “same old, same old,” meaning nothing’s changed, but this isn’t certain.

Although some word sleuths see a connection between the two expressions, Cassell’s describes “same old, same old” as merely a slang version of the standard English “same old thing.”

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Just an FYI

Q: Why do people write things like “Just an FYI”? Isn’t “an” supposed to be used before a word starting with vowel, not a consonant?

A: In the phrase “Just an FYI,” the abbreviation “FYI” is being used as a noun. It’s similar to saying “an SOS” or “an RSVP.”

But why, you ask, do we use “an” instead of “a” in front of “FYI,” a word beginning with a consonant, not a vowel?

When choosing which indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) to use before a word, the key is the sound the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

If the word begins with a vowel sound, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” or “an RSVP”).

If the word begins with a consonant sound, the article is “a” (as in “a house,” “a university,” “a PhD”).

We use the article “an” before “FYI” because the pronunciation of the abbreviation begins with a vowel sound: eff-why-eye.

If you’d like to read more about this “a”-versus-“an” business, we discussed it last year in a blog item about which article to use before the word “herb.”

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A moment in time

Q: I’ve been thinking about the expression “moment in time.” In physics, a moment can describe more than time (a moment of force, for example). So the explosion of a star 2,000 years ago would be a significant moment in time. Moment = star exploding. Time = 2,000 years ago.

A: We can’t find any etymological evidence that the phrase “moment in time” has been used – at least to any significant extent – in the technical sense you mention.

The noun “moment” originally meant a small quantity of something, especially a small period of time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It entered English in the 1300s from Middle French, but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin momentum, which in turn is derived from the from the verb movere (move). 

The OED defines the noun “moment” as a “very short period of time, particle, movement, impulse, influence, importance, decisive stage.”

In English, as we all know, “moment” has had many meanings that have nothing to do with  time.

It can mean significance or importance; an influence or consideration; a small particle; a small weight or counterweight; or momentum.

And as you suggest, “moment” also has several technical meanings in mathematics, physics, and statistics.

But in the common English expressions we’re all familiar with, “moment” does have its usual temporal meaning.

These include “in a moment,” “at a moment’s notice,” “not for a moment,” “at any given moment,” “never a dull moment,” “at (or “for”) the moment,” “on the spur of the moment,” and “live for the moment.”

Also, “of the moment,” “for one moment,” “from this moment on,” “any moment now,” “one has one’s moments,” “moment to moment,” “moment of truth,” “moment of silence,” and of course “moment in time.”

All these phrases have to do with time and its duration, whether literally or figuratively.

As for “moment in time,” the expression that’s on your mind, the rather redundant “at this moment in time” is the only version given in the OED’s entry on the noun “moment.”

It was first recorded in 1972, and all the quoted citations in the dictionary’s entry mean simply “now” or “at the present instant.”

However, the OED has several additional versions of the phrase, in citations for other entries, that refer to specific times in the past, present, or future.

The earliest of these citations, in a 1959 issue of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, is “the most favorable moment in time.”

Others include “at that moment in time” and “the imaginary moment in time.”

As for that explosion of a star 2,000 years ago, it could indeed be described, in either the usual or the technical sense, as a significant moment in time!

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