The Grammarphobia Blog

All the fixings

Q: Would you please discuss the derivation of “fixing to” do something? I understand it means getting ready to do something, but as a New Yorker living in Texas, I hear it all the time.

A: We’ve written before on the blog about the use of the phrase “fixing to” in the sense of “preparing to” or “ready to.” The construction dates back to mid-19th century America, and an earlier version, “fixing for,” is a century older.

But we wrote that brief post nearly five years ago, so we’ll refresh it now with a little more detail.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples in which the verb “fix” and its participle “fixing” are used to mean “to intend; to arrange, get ready, make preparations, for or to do something.”

In this sense, the verb is accompanied by the prepositions “to,” “for,” “out,” and “up,” says the OED, adding that these phrases are American in origin.

The earliest example in writing is by an American-born colonist, Col. Benjamin Church, who fought in the First Indian War in the late 1600s. In his account of the conflict, History of King Philip’s War (1716), he wrote: “He fixes for another Expedition.”

A similar usage appears in a 1779 document, now in the New Hampshire Historical Society Collections, in which Capt. Daniel Livermore wrote: “Troops are busy in clearing and fixing for laying the foundations of the huts.”

The OED’s first example of “fixing to” is from Norman Ellsworth Eliason’s 1956 book Tarheel Talk: An Historical Study of the English Language in North Carolina to 1860: “Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church.” (The example is dated 1854-55.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has an interesting usage note on “fixing to,” or as American Heritage spells it, “fixin’ to.” (We’ll break the note into paragraphs to make it easier to read.)

Fixin’ to ranks with y’all as one of the best known markers of dialects of the Southern United States, although it occasionally also appears in the informal speech and writing of non-Southerners. Fixin’ to means ‘on the verge of or in preparation for (doing a given thing).’

“It often follows a form of the verb to be, and it consists of the present participle of the verb fix followed by the infinitive marker to; They were fixin’ to leave without me.

“Although locutions like is fixin’ to can be used somewhat like the auxiliary verb will in sentences that describe future events, fixin’ to can refer only to events that immediately follow the speaker’s point of reference. One cannot say, We’re fixin’ to have a baby in a couple of years.

“The use of fixin’ to as an immediate or proximate future is very common in African American Vernacular English, and is one of many features that this variety of English shares with Southern dialects. Although this expression sometimes appears in writing as fixing to, in speech it is usually pronounced fixin’ to.”

As for the use of “fix up” in a similar sense (to arrange), here’s a line from J. B. Priestley’s novel Wonder Hero (1933): “I may be able to fix up for you both to go out to supper afterwards.”

And while we’re at it, let’s look at an entirely different construction—“fix up with.” The OED says it means “to arrange for (a person) to be provided with.

The earliest citation is from Booth Tarkington’s novel The Conquest of Canaan (1905): “Can you fix me up with something different?”

And then of course there’s “fix up” and “fix up with” in the matchmaking sense: “to encourage or arrange for (a person, couple, etc.) to embark upon a romantic or sexual relationship,” in the words of the OED.

Oxford’s first citation is from a Sidney Kingsley novel, Men in White (1933): “Fix him up. … It’d do him good.”

We like this later example, from Helen Fielding’s comic novel Bridget Jones’s Diary (1997): “The minute I decide I like Mark Darcy, everyone immediately stops trying to fix me up with him.”

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