The Grammarphobia Blog

Nothing but the truth

Q: I’m editing this sentence for the publishing house where I work: “There were nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.” The verb should be “was,” no? “There” is a dummy subject, rendering the true subject “nothing,” which is singular. Can you tell me if my logic is unassailable?

A: You’re right that the verb should be singular, though we can’t say your logic is unassailable. There are exceptional cases, as we’ll explain later.

In that sentence, “there” is a dummy subject—one that’s required by syntax and merely occupies the obligatory subject position.

The true subject is “nothing.” And when used  as a subject, “nothing”—even when followed by “but”—traditionally takes a singular verb, regardless of the noun (singular or plural) that follows.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to say: “According to the traditional rule, nothing is invariably treated as a singular, even when followed by an exception phrase containing a plural noun.”

The book gives these examples: “Nothing except your fears stands (not stand) in your way. Nothing but roses meets (not meet) the eye.”

When the American Heritage editors use the word “traditional,” they’re not exaggerating. We found this example in a 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar:

“Nothing but the marvellous and supernatural hath any charms for them.” (Note the archaic singular “hath” for “has.”)

Constructions like “nothing but,” “nothing save,” and so on are venerable features of the language.

Since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nothing” has been used with a “limiting particle”—like “but,” “besides,” “except,” “save”—to mean “merely” or “only.”

So you’re right about that sentence, and you can feel justified in editing it to read, “There was nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.”

But here’s a qualification to keep in mind for future use, from the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

In a usage note with its entry for “nothing,” the dictionary repeats the usual rule about using a singular verb with “nothing but,” then adds this:

“But there are certain contexts in which nothing but sounds quite natural with a plural verb and should not be considered inappropriate. In these sentences, constructions like nothing but function much like an adverb meaning ‘only,’ in a pattern similar to one seen in none but.

The usage note follows with this example: “Sometimes, for a couple of hours together, there were almost no houses; there were nothing but woods and rivers and lakes and horizons adorned with bright-looking mountains (Henry James).”

In our opinion, the Henry James example is worth remembering because it cries out for symmetry between those two clauses: “there were … there were….”

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Is it loo-TEN-ant or lef-TEN-ant?

Q: My daughter wonders why “lieutenant” is pronounced lef-TEN-ant in the UK and loo-TEN-ant in the US. Do you have any clues?

A: The word “lieutenant” came into Middle English in the 1300s from French—lieu for “place” and tenant for “holding.”

(Originally a “lieutenant” was a placeholder, a civil or military officer acting in place of a superior. Think of the phrase “in lieu of” for “in place of.” )

But since the beginning, the British have commonly pronounced the first syllable of “lieutenant” as if it had an “f” or a “v.”

In the early days, this tendency was sometimes reflected in spellings:  “leeftenaunt” (1387), “luf-tenend “ (late 1300s), “leyf tenaunt” (early 1400s),” “lyeftenaunt” (circa 1425), “luff tenande” (late 1400s), “leivetenant” (late 1500s), and so on.

But long after the spelling stabilized and “lieutenant” became the dominant form in writing, the “f” sound has survived in British speech, where the usual pronunciation today is lef-TEN-ant. Nobody knows why.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the “f” and “v” sounds “is difficult to explain,” and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it “remains uncertain.” In other words, we can only guess.

The OED says one theory is that English readers misinterpreted the letter “u” as a “v,” since in Middle English the two letters were not distinct.

But Oxford says this can’t account for the “f” and “v” pronunciations since it “does not accord with the facts.”

The dictionary is apparently referring to the fact that in Middle English spelling, the letter “v” was generally used at the beginning of a word and “u” elsewhere, regardless of the sound, which accounts for old spellings like “vpon” (upon) and “loue” (love). However, the “u” is in the middle of “lieutenant,” not the beginning.

The OED suggests two possibilities to explain the appearance of the “f” and “v” sounds in “lieutenant.”

One is that that some of the “f” and “v” pronunciations “may be due to association” with the noun “leave” or the adjective “lief.”

A likelier theory is “that the labial glide at the end of Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f.” (A labial glide is a transitional sound in which air is forced through the lips.)

Oxford also notes the existence of “the rare Old French form leuf for lieu,” which may have influenced the English pronunciation. (The language researcher Michael Quinion cites a medieval form of the word, leuftenant, in the records of what is now a Swiss canton.)

However it came about, the usual pronunciation in Britain today begins with “lef,” and seems unlikely to change.

As Oxford notes, John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1793) gives the “actual pronunciation” of the first syllable as “lef” or “liv,” though he “expresses the hope that ‘the regular sound, lewtenant’ will in time become current.” Despite Walker’s advice, that pronunciation “is almost unknown” in Britain, the OED adds.

Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), recommends only one pronunciation for the word, which he renders as “lutenant.”

American dictionaries have followed Webster’s lead and give loo-TEN-ant as the pronunciation, though they usually note the lef-TEN-ant pronunciation in Britain.

Finally, an aside. Another of our correspondents once suggested that the British pronunciation arose though squeamishness: “The Brits didn’t want to refer to their officers with the term ‘loo’!”

Intriguing, but untrue. The word “loo” wasn’t recorded in the bathroom sense until the 20th century. Another theory down the drain.

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Noseblind spot

Q: A Febreze commercial uses the apparently new word “noseblind” to describe someone who can’t smell. As far as I know, there are only two common adjectives for sensory deficiencies: “blind” and “deaf.” Aside from obscure medical terms, are there common words for the loss of the three other traditional senses?

A: Although the Febreze commercials have helped popularize “noseblind,” the term had been around for a dozen or so years before Procter & Gamble began using it last summer to promote the air freshener.

The earliest example of the usage we could find is from an Oct. 8, 2002, comment on a Mazda discussion group: “I use 89 octane from esso all the time, but haven’t noticed any smell at all. Maybe I am nose blind, but it hasn’t been a problem for me.”

And here’s an example from “The Revisionist,” a short story by Helen Schulman in a 2004 collection from the Paris Review:

“The resultant odor was strong enough to etherize an elephant, but Hershleder the rebel was nose-blind to it.”

Julia LaFeldt, a P&G spokeswoman, told us that “Febreze first started using the term ‘noseblind’ in July 2014 when we launched our current campaign.”

In a July 9, 2014, press release, P&G announced that the actor-comedian Jane Lynch would be promoting Febreze to counter “noseblindness,” a condition that “occurs naturally over time when a person becomes accustomed to surrounding smells.”

In videos featuring Ms. Lynch and others, the adjective “noseblind” is repeatedly used to describe people who are so used to their own odors that they can’t smell what their guests do.

On a web page that features videos promoting Febreze, P&G offers a mock dictionary entry that defines “noseblind” as a noun but treats it as an adjective in the accompanying example:

“noseblind [nohz-blihnd], noun; The gradual acclimation to the smells of one’s home, car, or belongings, in which the affected does not notice them (even though their guests do).

“Example: I can’t attend Book Club this week. Nancy is completely noseblind to the fact that her house smells like a feral cat shelter.

As for your question, we don’t know of any common words for the loss of the three other traditional senses: taste, smell, and touch (though “numbness” might describe an inability to feel a touch). The usual medical terms are “ageusia” (taste), “anosmia” (smell), and “analgesia” (touch—actually, the inability to feel pain).

A more general term, “sensory processing disorder,” describes a condition in which the nervous system doesn’t properly organize sensory signals into the appropriate responses. It can affect one or more of the senses, according to the SPD Foundation.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who discussed “noseblind” recently on his blog, describes it as “a fairly clever coinage for this sensory saturation effect, treating it as similar to being temporarily blinded by bright lights or deafened by loud noises.”

“But it’s not truly similar to being blind or deaf, which are enduring and more global inabilities,” Zwicky adds.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve answered several questions on the blog about “nose” and “blind,” including a post in 2009 as well as posts in October and November of 2012.

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English via Facebook

Q: Does Facebook use “via” incorrectly when your friend A forwards a link to you from his friend B? Facebook describes this as “From A via B,” but surely it should be the other way around, “From B via A.”

A: You’re right—“via” has meant “by way of” since it came into English in the 1700s.  A newer sense of the word, “by means of” or “with the aid of,” came into use in the 1930s and is also accepted as standard English in modern dictionaries.

So Facebook has things turned around. In fact, the message is coming from friend B (the original source) by way of (or “via”) friend A, the intermediary who forwards it.

These two examples from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) illustrate the standard uses of “via”:

  • by way of: “She flew to Los Angeles via Chicago.”
  • by means of: “I’ll let her know via one of our friends.”

The English preposition “via” was taken directly from the Latin noun via, meaning “way” or “road.”

Despite its classical origins, the English word is relatively new as these things go, since it dates back only to the 18th century. This is why it’s sometimes printed in italics in older writing.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from a letter written by James Lovell, a delegate to the Continental Congress, to John Adams on June 13, 1779:

“This night is the fourteenth since we first had the news of his victory, via New Providence.” (The reference is to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln in a battle against the British.)

Here’s another example that clearly displays the original usage: “Lord Weybridge … is on his way to London viâ Paris.” (From Theodore Edward Hook’s novel The Parson’s Daughter, 1833.)

The newer sense of the word (“by means of”) is nicely illustrated by this 1977 citation from the OED:

“It would in theory be possible to provide five more services with national coverage via satellite.” (From a British government report on the future of broadcasting.)

But no matter which usage you subscribe to—and current dictionaries accept both—“via” always refers to whoever or whatever is in between, not to the origin.

Think of the word “viaduct,” a long high bridge that’s an elevated go-between.

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When words change their spots

Q: I see that the online Merriam-Webster has caved to the misuse of “peruse,” which is now apparently an antonym to itself. It means, or so the dictionary says, to examine or read “in a very careful way” (the traditional usage) as well as “in an informal or relaxed way.” Are linguists creating a new type of word?

A: Often a simple question calls for a complicated answer, and this is one of them.

Linguists and lexicographers don’t create new meanings for words. They merely catalog what they perceive as shifts in common usage—shifts that naturally occur as a language develops.

As for the verb “peruse,” it’s been used to mean “both careful and cursory reading” since the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Take a look at a post about “peruse” that we wrote in 2006 and later updated to reflect recent dictionary definitions. As you can see, the usage you object to is well established.

It’s unfortunate that a language commentator in the early 1900s took a dislike to the word’s “cursory” sense, and that other usage guides unthinkingly followed.

But in the end, the general public took no notice and continued to use “peruse” in the old familiar way.

The truth is that common usage determines what’s “correct.” This is why alterations in meaning, spelling, and pronunciation are normal as a language develops.

Even Classical Latin, when it was a living, spoken language, underwent regular shifts and changes. It only became frozen when it died.

And once Latin words were absorbed into English and the Romance languages, those words continued to shape themselves to their new surroundings and came to reflect common usage in those societies.

For example, we’ve written on our blog about the assimilation of Latin words into English and the consequent shifts in pluralization.

Many words derived from Latin plurals have become accepted over the years as singular nouns in English: “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data.”

What’s more, the word “media” now has both singular and plural usages in English, as we wrote in a post four years ago.

This naturalization process is normal and expected. Similarly, we should expect words to change their meanings. As this happens, they can even take on meanings that are opposed.

Sometimes these words retain both opposing senses, as with “cleave” and “sanction.” Such words are often called “contronyms,” and the reader has to judge the writer’s intent by the context.

(Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, feels that “literally” has joined this group and can be taken to mean “in effect.” However, we aren’t yet recommending that our readers adopt this looser usage.)

We’ve written about words with opposing meanings many times on our blog, including posts in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

At times a word’s earlier meaning is discarded and becomes obsolete. This process can move an originally affirmative word (like “pedant”) in a derogatory direction.

But just as often the reverse happens, and a derogatory word (like “terrific”) takes on a positive meaning.

Words change not only in meaning but in grammatical function. This kind of change, as when a noun becomes a verb, often upsets people, but it’s a natural way in which new words are formed.

As we’ve said before, this process is called conversion, and it’s given us a considerable portion of our modern English words.

Thanks for your question, and we hope we’ve shed a little light here.

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The times they are a changin’

Q: I increasingly hear sentences with two nouns competing to be the subject. Some recent examples, all from local newscasts: “Our producer, she is going to New Hampshire” … “My aunt and uncle, they died of diabetes” … “That guy, he can play on Sunday.” I was told years ago by an English professor that this was incorrect. Have the rules changed?

A: In all of those examples, the pronoun duplicates the subject: “our producer, she” … “my aunt and uncle, they” … “that guy, he.”

The pronoun in all these cases isn’t technically necessary. It’s sometimes called a “pleonastic subject pronoun” (pleonastic means redundant or superfluous).

Although such a pleonasm is sometimes used as a literary device in poems and songs, the Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is “now chiefly regional and nonstandard.”

We’d add that speakers of standard English use pleonastic subject pronouns for emphasis in casual conversation, though rarely in prose writing, especially in formal prose.

For centuries, poets and balladeers have used this device to force a pause in the meter of a line and give it a songlike air.

Consider, for example, this line from the 13th-century poem Amis and Amiloun, the Middle English version of an old French legend: “Mine hert, it breketh.” How much duller it would be without that superfluous pronoun!

Modern poets, too, have employed this usage. Here’s a line from A Shropshire Lad (1896), by A. E. Housman: “I tell the tale that I heard told. / Mithridates, he died old.”

The OED has many examples, dating back to Old English. Here’s a sampling: 

“My sister, shee the jewell is” (from an anonymous Elizabethan play, Common Conditions, 1576).

“ ‘Fair and softly,’ John he cried, / But John he cried in vain” (William Cowper, 1782).

“The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out” (the novelist Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1795).

“The skipper he stood beside the helm” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1839).

“My wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard” (Rudyard Kipling, 1892).

“The times they are a changin’ ” (Bob Dylan, 1964).

We’ve found many nonstandard uses of pleonastic subject pronouns in speech or dialogue from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): “The king he spread his arms, and Mary Jane she jumped for them.”

In recent decades, as you’ve noticed, speakers of standard English have been using the device for emphasis in conversation.

Here’s a quote from Bruce Springsteen in the Feb. 5, 1981, issue of Rolling Stone: “My mother and father, they’ve got a very deep love because they know and understand each other in a very realistic way.”

Is the usage legit? Well, the OED doesn’t consider it standard English. But we see nothing wrong with its emphatic use in casual speech.

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Is “close proximity” redundant?

Q: I would love to hear your perspective on “close proximity.” If “in proximity to” means “close to,” what does “in close proximity to” mean? Including “close” seems redundant to me, but it feels odd to leave it out.

A: Well, the phrase “in close proximity” isn’t very graceful (we’d prefer “near” or “close to”), but we don’t consider it redundant, as we’ll explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “proximity” as “nearness” or “the fact, condition, or position of being near or close by in space.”

So theoretically the noun “proximity” should need no help from an adjective like “close.”

But theory is one thing and fact is another. In reality, there are degrees of nearness, so it’s reasonable to indicate how near with the use of an adjective like “close,” “closer,” or “closest.”

Used by itself, “proximity” sometimes seems inadequate, which may be why the naked word feels odd to you.  A statement like “There’s no restaurant in proximity to my apartment” could mean within a city block or a ten-minute drive.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Of course there are degrees of proximity, and close proximity simply emphasizes the closeness.” The usage guide gives many examples, including these:

“Swallow means porch-bird, and for centuries and centuries their nests have been placed in the closest proximity to man” (from Richard Jefferies’s book The Open Air, 1885).

“Mr. Beard and Miss Compton disagreed on the distance of meat from heat, probably because Mr. Beard had in mind a smaller fire-bed to which the steak could  be in closer proximity” (from the New York Times, 1954).

“The herb [tansy] works only on plants in very close proximity” (from the New York Times Magazine, 1980).

This OED has dozens of examples of the usage, dating back to the early 1800s. Here’s one from an 1872 travel guide to the English Lake District: “Owing to the close proximity to the sea.”

Elsewhere in the same guide, we found this example in a description of the city of Carlisle: “It dates back to the time of the Romans, and was in close proximity to the wall of Hadrian.”

The word “proximity” came into English from the French proximité (near relationship), the OED says. It was derived from the Latin noun proximitas (nearness or kinship), which came from the adjective proximus (nearest, next).    

When first recorded in English, in 1480, “proximity” referred to blood relationship or kinship (as in the phrase “proximity of blood,” first recorded in the 16th century and still occasionally used).

The noun was soon being used to refer to other kinds of nearness—time, space, distance, and so on. Today, “proximity” in relation to distance is the dominant usage.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Latin proximus (nearest) was the superlative form of an “unrecorded” Latin word that’s been reconstructed as proque (near).

This reconstructed word, Ayto adds, was “a variant of prope, from which English gets approach and propinquity.”

Another English relative, Ayto says, is “approximate,” which ultimately comes from the Latin verb proximare (“come near”).

We’ll close with another example from the M-W usage guide. It’s from Iolanthe (1882), by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.

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Paralinguistically speaking

Q: My wife and I were alone in our car and having a general discussion when she lowered her voice and said, “Everyone knows her husband is having an affair.” Has anyone studied this strange behavior in mentioning a sensitive topic?

A: Yes, language scholars have indeed looked into this behavior. The study of pitch, loudness, speed, hesitation, and similar qualities of speech is referred to as “paralinguistics,” and this aspect of communication is called “paralanguage.”

In his 1975 paper “Paralinguistics,” the linguist David Crystal says the “para-” prefix (meaning “beyond” or “outside of”) “was originally chosen to reflect a view that such features as speed and loudness of speaking were marginal to the linguistic system.”

However, Crystal writes, studies in social psychology, psychiatry, sociolinguistics, and other areas “suggest that the vocal effects called paralinguistic may be rather more central to the study of communication than was previously thought.”

“Certainly, observations of people’s everyday reactions to language suggest that paralinguistic phenomena, far from being marginal, are frequently the primary determinants of behaviour in an interaction,” he says.

Although “the most widely recognized function” of paralanguage is for emotional expression, he adds, a “far more important and pervasive” function “is the use of paralinguistic features as markers of an utterance’s grammatical structure.”

In other words, the use of paralanguage in speech replaces the punctuation and spacing that’s so important in making written language intelligible.

Crystal discusses several kinds of paralanguage. An extended low pitch, for example, may be used “as a marker of parenthesis (e.g. ‘My cousin—you know, the one who lives in Liverpool—he’s just got a new job’).”

A rise in loudness may be used “as a marker of increased emphasis (‘I want the red one, not the green one’).”

An increase is speed may indicate “that the speaker wishes to forestall an interruption, or to suggest that what he is saying need not be given careful attention.”

A sentence spoken with a noticeable metrical beat may “suggest irritation, e.g. ‘I really think that John and Mary should have asked.’ ”

The kind of voice-lowering you’re asking about could be considered a marker of parenthesis. Crystal doesn’t cite an example like yours, but other language researchers say a whispered or lowered voice may accompany confidential or embarrassing comments.

In Principles of Phonetics (1994), for example, the linguist John Laver writes that the paralinguistic use of whisper may “signal secrecy and confidentiality.”

And in Simultaneous Structure in Phonology (2014), the linguist D. Robert Ladd writes, “A speaker’s voice may be raised in anger or lowered to convey something confidential.”

The linguist Carlos Gussenhoven, writing in The Phonology of Tone and Intonation (2004), says people may raise their pitch “to express surprised indignation” and “lower it to suggest confidentiality.”

And in a study entitled “The Roles of Breathy/Whispery Voice Qualities in Dialogue Speech” (2008), Carlos Toshinori Ishi, Hiroshi Ishiguro, and Norihiro Hagita say that a “more whispered and low-powered voice quality” may reflect embarrassment.

(The three authors, who specialize in robotics, attempt to apply paralinguistics to synthesized speech.)

We can’t end this without mentioning a book that we came across while researching your question.

In Playing With My Dog Katie: An Ethnomethodological Study of Dog-Human Interaction (2007), the sociologist David Goode discusses his embarrassing “over-reliance on paralinguistic features of vocalization” in relating to his pet.

As the owners of two young golden retrievers, we know what’s he’s ethnomethodologically talking about.

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Why not “one headquarter”?

Q: To my ear, “one headquarter” sounds better than “one headquarters.” Why is the plural “headquarters” used for both the singular and the plural?

A: When the term first showed up in English in the early 1600s, it was “headquarter” (or, rather, “head quarter”), but the “s”-less singular is rarely seen now except in South Asian English.

We’ll have more to say later about the history of “headquarter”/“headquarters,” but first let’s look at how the word is generally used in contemporary English.

Today, “headquarters” is a noun that’s plural in form but can be used with either a singular or a plural verb.

As Pat writes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd. ed.), “headquarters” is one of those words, like “series” and “species,” that ends in “s” but can mean either one thing or more—a base or bases.

She gives this example: “Gizmo’s headquarters was designed by Rube Goldberg. The two rival companies’ headquarters were on opposite sides of town.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has these modern examples of “headquarters” used in each way:

singular: “Hundreds of Home Office staff should be moved out of London because a new headquarters is too small to accommodate them.” (From the Daily Telegraph, 2004.)

plural: “He set up two headquarters, one to control Japan … and the other to command U.S. forces in the Far east.” (From Richard B. Finn’s book Winners in Peace, 1992.)

Now let’s look at the history of “headquarter” and “headquarters.”

Both of these forms showed up in written English in the first half of the 17th century, with “headquarter” used in the singular sense and “headquarters” used initially in the plural sense.

But within a few years, “headquarters” was being used in both singular and plural contexts —or, as the OED puts it, the plural form “headquarters” was being used “with pl. or sing. concord.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “headquarter” used in the singular sense is from a 1622 issue of the Continental Newes that refers to military forces “about to draw away their Ordnance into their head quarter.”

The OED’s earliest example of “headquarters” used as a plural is in a 1639 issue of a newsletter, Curranto This Weeke From Holland: “This Campe is divided into 2 Head-quarters, on one side commandeth Monsieur de Lambert, and on th’other side Colonell Gassion.”

And the first example of the plural form used in a singular sense is from a 1644 issue of the Weekly Account: “The Hoptonian Forces are as yet at their head quarters at Winchester.”

In the 1500s and 1600s, the dictionary points out, other Germanic languages had singular forms for the singular sense: German Hauptquartier (1588 or earlier), Swedish huvudkvarter (1658), Dutch hoofdkwartier (1688 or earlier).

Why did the plural form “headquarters” come to be used in English for both singular and plural senses?

Perhaps because the plural “quarters” was being used around the same time for a singular place of residence, as in this example from Every Man in His Humor, a 1616 play by Ben Jonson: “Turnebull, White-chappell, Shore-ditch, which were then my quarters.”

As we’ve said earlier, the singular “headquarter” is rarely seen now except in South Asian English. Here are some recent examples from military and corporate writing:

“My headquarter was at Chandhi Mandir which is easily the best laid out military cantonment in the country.” (From S. K. Sinha’s book A Soldier Recalls, 1992.)

“Another network was established by National Informatics Centre … whose headquarter is at Delhi.” (From Computer Technology for Higher Education, 1993, by Sarla Achuthan and others.)

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When the subject is a dummy

Q: I’ve read your recent post on deconstructing “it” and I have one additional question. What does “it” refer to in sentences like “It is raining” and “It is snowing”? I’ve heard various explanations of this usage, but I’d appreciate your take on it.

A: English speakers have been using the pronoun “it” to talk about the weather since Anglo-Saxon days. The “it” that we use to denote weather conditions (“it was drizzling” … “it’s hot”) is often called a “dummy” or “empty” or “artificial” subject.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the “it” here has no semantic meaning and serves “the purely syntactic function of filling the obligatory subject position.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this “it” as “a semantically empty or non-referential subject” that dates back to Old English, where it was frequently used in statements about the weather.

The OED’s earliest recorded usage in reference to weather is from an Old English translation, possibly written around the 10th century, of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which he probably completed in Latin in 731.

In the relevant passage, “hit rine & sniwe & styrme ute” (“it rain & snow & storm out”), the verbs are in the subjunctive.

We’ll expand the OED citation and give a modern English translation: “as if you at feasting should sit with your lords and subjects in winter-time, and a fire be lit and your hall warmed, and it should rain and snow and storm outside.”

This Middle English example from around 1300 needs no translating: “Hor-frost cometh whan hit is cold.”

The  “it” we use in statements about the weather, according to the OED, is part of a broader category of usages in which the pronoun is “the subject of an impersonal verb or impersonal statement, expressing action or a condition of things simply, without reference to any agent.”

These usages would include statements about the time or the season (“it was about noon” … “it was winter”); about space, distance, or time (“it was long ago” … “it’s too far”); and about other kinds of conditions (“how is it going?” … “it was awkward” … “if it weren’t for the inconvenience”).

The Cambridge Grammar wouldn’t use the term “dummy subject” to describe most of these non-weather usages. In its view, a dummy subject “cannot be replaced by any other NP [noun phrase].”

So Cambridge regards the “it” in a sentence like “It is five o’clock” or “It is July 1” as a predicative complement rather than a dummy subject, because “it” could be replaced by “the time” or “the date.”

Some linguists, however, might argue that none of the “it” usages we’ve discussed are true dummy subjects, but we’ll stop here.

To quote Shakespeare (Macbeth, around 1606), “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, / It were done quickly.”

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How “colonel” became KER-nel

Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn?

A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other.

The word was actually “coronel” when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the messy story of how a word once spelled “coronel” in English came to be spelled “colonel” and pronounced KER-nel.

English acquired the original “coronel” from the Middle French coronnel, which came from colonello, the Italian word for the commander of a regiment, the OED says.

Colonello is derived from colonna, Italian for a column, which in turn comes from columna, Latin for a pillar.

Oxford cites the English philologist Walter William Skeat as saying the colonello got his name because he led “the little column or company at the head of the regiment.”

The first company of the regiment—the colonel’s company—was called la compagnia colonnella in Italian and la compagnie colonelle in French, according to the OED.

The confusion began when the Italian colonello entered Middle French in the 16th century. The two “l” sounds apparently didn’t sit well with French speakers, so the first “l” changed to “r” and the word briefly became coronel.

The process by which two neighboring “l” sounds were “dissimulated” (or rendered dissimilar) was common in the Romance languages, the OED says.

However, the French coronel “was supplanted in literary use, late in 16th cent., by the more etymological colonnel,” according to the dictionary. (The word is now colonel in modern French.)

But meanwhile both English and Spanish had borrowed coronel, the dissimilated version of the word, from Middle French in the mid-1500s.

When it entered English, in 1548, it was spelled “coronel,” with a three-syllable pronunciation (kor-uh-NEL) similar to that of the Middle French word.

Although it’s still spelled coronel in Spanish, English speakers soon followed the French and returned to the more etymologically correct spelling.

As the OED explains, “under this influence [the French spelling change] and that of translations of Italian military treatises colonel also appeared in English c1580.”

By the mid-1600s, the OED says, “colonel” was the accepted English spelling and “coronel” had fallen by the wayside.

But the word’s pronunciation took much longer to get settled.

The two competing pronunciations (kor-uh-NEL, kol-uh-NEL) existed until the early 19th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, along with a popular variation, KER-uh-nel.

In the early 1800s, Chambers says, the KER-uh-nel pronunciation was shortened to KER-nel. (The awkward KOL-nel, a shortened version of kol-uh-NEL, was recorded in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, but it eventually fell out of use.)

Although the KER-nel pronunciation became universally accepted, Chambers says, “the familiar literary form colonel remained firmly established in printing.”

So you might say that the word’s spelling today reflects its Italian heritage while the pronunciation reflects its French side—that is, its brief period of dissimilation in French.

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A message from Pat and Stewart

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