The Grammarphobia Blog

A forbidden usage?

Q: ​I have an ongoing dispute with the blogger Eugene Volokh​ over his use of “forbid from,” as in “You are forbidden from selling marijuana.” To me, the acceptable formulation is “You are forbidden to sell marijuana.” That seems to concord with the KJV Bible.

A: In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.), Pat takes your side. But usage here is shifting, and she intends to reconsider it in any further editions of the book.

Writers have been using “forbid” with “from” plus a gerund since the early 1500s, though the use of an infinitive construction has been much more common, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first example of the “from” usage in the OED is in The Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by the English monk William Bonde: “I forbede all singular persons from the studyeng of this treatise.”

(For what it’s worth, Bonde’s Pylgrimage was written nearly a century before the King James Version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.)

And here’s an Oxford example from Edward William Lane’s 1841 translation from Arabic of One Thousand and One Nights: “He forbade both men and women from entering them.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English cites several 20th-century examples of the usage, including this one from a February 1971 paper published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions:

“The Vatican issued an order forbidding all Catholic clergy from participating in Illich’s Center.” (The reference here is to a research center set up by Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest and social critic.)

Finally, we found this more recent example in the July 23, 2015, issue of Newsweek: “Surely no one really thought the Iranians were going to agree to a deal that would forbid them from enriching uranium indefinitely.”

OK, the usage has a history, but is it legit?

Henry W. Fowler, writing in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), called it “an unidiomatic construction,” perhaps influenced by “prevent from” or “prohibit from,” two standard usages.

Ernest Gowers, who edited the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s usage guide, agreed. But R. W. Burchfield, editor of the revised third edition (2004), said “the tide seems to turning in favor” of using “forbid” in a “construction with from + verbal form in –ing.”

“While the matter is unresolved, however, it is probably sensible to use alternative constructions or the verb prohibit instead,” Burchfield recommended.

We think the tide has turned even more in favor of the “forbid from” construction since Burchfield (who died in 2004) published the revised third edition.

Although “forbid to” is still more popular, “forbid from” seems to be closing the gap. Here are the results of two Google searches: “forbid you to,” 347,000 hits, versus “forbid you from,” 175,000.

Of the seven standard dictionaries we’ve checked, four include examples of the “forbid from” construction without comment, indicating it’s considered a standard usage.

In fact, Oxford Dictionaries online uses this construction in all but one of the five examples it gives for “forbid” in the sense of prohibit. Here’s an example: “I was forbidden from leaving Russia.”

What do we think? Well, we generally use the infinitive construction, but who are we to forbid someone from using a construction accepted by so many standard dictionaries?

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