English language Uncategorized

Scrabbled regs

Q: Why is the word “unhoned” not a word? For example, “unhoned skills”: that which is not yet refined or sharpened. I lost a game of Scrabble over this eight years ago and I am still bitter.

A: Of course “unhoned” is a word. It’s just not a word that’s considered kosher in Scrabble.

The negative prefix “un” can be added to adjectives (“unhappy”), participles acting as adjectives (“unhoned,” “unspoken”), some nouns (“unrest”), and some verbs (“unfasten”) to form new words that are essentially the opposite of the originals.

Much the same is true of other negative prefixes, like “in” (as in “ineligible”), “non” (“noncompliance”), “im” (“immutable”), and others. The resulting words are genuine words.

However, the fact that something is a word in the mind of the average reasonable person doesn’t necessarily make it a word in the competitive Scrabble community. These people have their own, very finely honed ideas about what makes a word.

I posed your question to John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association. As far as the use of prefixed (or suffixed) words is concerned, he said:

“There is no hard and fast rule. Get a copy of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (4th ed.) and check out the ‘un’ section. As you’ll see, it varies from word to word. ‘Unhoned’ is definitely a stretch. Also check out the lengthy ‘re’ section. Sadly, ‘rehone’ is not there.”

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (known to fans as OSPD4) is published by Merriam-Webster, Inc.

My condolences.

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Prepositional phases

Q: I grew up in the states and live in Puerto Rico now. My little girl is learning preposition usage at school, but there seems to be some confusion with “on” and “in.” I believe the proper usage is “I live on James Street,” but the teacher insists “I live in James Street” is correct. He won’t give in and has given the class a test with the wrong answers as right. I would appreciate your comments.

A: This may be a wild guess, but I’ll bet that your daughter’s teacher is British, or at least that he was brought up speaking British English (perhaps in one of the British Virgin Islands).

The correct answer – “in James Street” versus “on James Street” – depends on where you live (or come from). A Briton would say, “I live in James Street” and “My house is in James Street.” But an American would say “I live on James Street” and “My house is on James Street.”

You’ve hit on an area where British and American English part company. The two branches of the language use prepositions differently.

For example, both British and American speakers say “on” or “over” or “during the weekend,” but the British also use (and tend to prefer) “at the weekend.”

British speakers say “near to the river” when talking about physical distances, while Americans simply say “near the river.” On the other hand, Brits use the verb “agree” with no preposition, as in “they agreed a deal”; an American would say “they agreed to [or “on”] a deal.”

British speakers have a different way of saying something encircles something else. They would speak of “a fence about the house,” for example, while Americans would say “around the house.”

In London restaurants, servers wait “at tables”; in New York, servers wait “on tables.”

Neither branch of the language – British English or American English – is right or wrong in how it deals with prepositions. Each has its own set of idioms, and you follow the crowd.

American English is the language of the United States Virgin Islands and British English is the language of the British Virgin Islands. Where does Puerto Rico stand? Here’s a quote from a book called The Other Tongue: English Across Cultures, by Braj B. Kachru:

“Already by the time of the American War of Independence a form of English was current in America that was identifiably, almost proudly, American and not British. This was the beginning of the process by which types of English have proliferated. The British-American differentiation is of particular consequence, since every subsequent form of English has affinities with one of the main branches, BE or AE, rather than the other. In practice this means that English in Canada, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and American Samoa is recognizably related to American English.”

That being the case, your daughter’s teacher should think again. And if you’d like to read more about American versus British English, check out the April 29, 2008, and Oct. 27, 2008, items on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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Shifty vowels

Q: When my son was at the University of Rochester, he noticed that the natives in upstate New York pronounced the word “Rochester” as RAH-ches-ta. That reminded me of the flat-sounding “a” in the words of an old friend who lives near Chicago. Any idea why or how the upstate New York speech pattern developed?

A: It’s not surprising that you should notice a similarity between the speech patterns of Rochester and Chicago. Residents in both areas speak what linguists and phonologists call the Northern Cities dialect.

Characteristically, these speakers swap their vowels in what is called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. For example, most of us pronounce the vowel in the first syllable of “Rochester” and the second syllable of “Chicago” as we would the “o” in “cot.” But characteristically, local residents pronounce it more like the “a” in “cat.”

They aren’t the only ones. James M. Hillenbrand, writing in 2003 in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, cites the linguist William Labov in describing the geographical area involved:

“According to Labov, the Northern Cities dialect cuts an irregular swath through a chain of cities in the inland northeast extending, roughly, from upstate New York (e.g. Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo), through northern Ohio (e.g. Cleveland, Toledo), southern Michigan (e.g. Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids), northwest Indiana (e.g. Gary, Hammond), northeast Illinois (e.g. Chicago, Rockford) and south-central Wisconsin (e.g. Milwaukee, Madison).”

Hillenbrand adds that speakers “from neighboring regions such as northwest Vermont, northwest Pennsylvania, and north-central/northeast Indiana appear to show some features of the dialect.”

Labov, an expert on the vowel shift, has contended that the “shifts that characterize the Northern Cities dialect are observed in their most advanced forms in the largest urban areas of the region, such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Rochester,” according to the journal article.

How did this vowel-swapping come about? Labov says the trend may have begun in the late 1800s when large populations moved from east to west to work on the Erie Canal.

The vowels that are being swapped for one another involve those in the words “caught,” “cot,” “cat,” “bit”, “bet,” and “but.” Here’s what happens.

The vowel in “caught” becomes like the one in “cot” … “cot” becomes more like “cat” … “cat” becomes more like “kit” or “kee-at” … “bit” becomes more like “bet” or “but” … “bet” becomes more like “bat” or “but” … and finally the vowel in “but” becomes like the one in “caught.”

The theory is that as each vowel changes, another fills its place in a connected chain of shifts. The linguist Matthew J. Gordon explained it this way on the PBS series “Do You Talk American?”:

“When these changes are plotted according to the positioning of the tongue, the connections among them are clear and the shift resembles a clockwise rotation of the vowels in the mouth.”

So there you have it. That’s why people in Rochester and Chicago sound so much alike.

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And all the men and women merely players

Q: You should stop encouraging genderless appellations. Carol Channing is a “comedienne,” not a “comedian.” And Meryl Streep is an “actress,” not an “actor.” Do you want to call the “Duchess of Devonshire” the “Duke of Devonshire”? What about “executrix”? Or “dominatrix,” for that matter? Too much is lost!

A: I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll lose the term “dominatrix”! And, personally, I think that one would be a real loss.

But as I’ve said before on the blog, I do feel that a woman who acts has a right to call herself an “actor” if she wants. In fact, the word “actor” was initially used for both sexes, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a unisex “actor” from a Dec. 27, 1666, entry in Pepys’s Diary: “Doll Common doing Abigail most excellently, & Knipp the widow very well, & will be an excellent actor, I think.”

The same is true for “comedian.” It was unisex for hundreds of years until “comedienne” made its debut (initially with a French accent) in the mid-19th century.

Here’s a unisex “comedian” from Daniel Defoe’s last novel, Roxana (1724): “Why, says I to her, … your Lady was some French Comedian, that is to say, a Stage Amazon.”

I, for one, prefer to think of myself as an author, not an authoress, though I concede that female writers have been referred to as “authoresses” (originally “aucteuresses”) since the 15th century.

Why tack on an unnecessary “ess” ending? “All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare tells us, “And all the men and women merely players.”

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An awful mess

Q: I’m curious about why “awesome” means amazing, but “awful” means horrible. One would think that if something was awful, it would be full of awe, right? I’m going on the assumption that “awesome” and “awful” have different roots, but it would be nice to have a little more insight.

A: Actually, both “awesome” and “awful” have the same root: the noun “awe,” a very, very old word that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days.

When “awe” appeared in the Old English Chronicles around the year 855, it meant fear, terror, or dread, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As “awe” came to be used in reference to God, the OED says, its meaning evolved: “Dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; the attitude of mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.”

Interestingly, the adjective “awful” is a lot older than “awesome.” When “awful” was first used by Alfred the Great around the year 885, it meant terrible, dreadful, appalling. If you remember, that was back when “awe” itself meant fear, terror, or dread.

When “awesome” made its initial appearance in the late 16th century, it meant profoundly reverential. By then, of course, “awe” had evolved too.

But I don’t want to mislead you. Language is a messy business. For hundreds of years, both “awful” and “awesome” were used in positive as well as negative senses.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that “awesome” lost much of its awe and settled down to its usual modern meanings of remarkable, overwhelming, marvelous, and great.

By then, as you know, “awful” meant awful. But even now “awful” is sometimes used in a more positive way – as an intensifier. Example: “I made an awful lot of money in the market before stocks headed south.”

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Slanguage arts

Q: I write young adult fiction. I’m fiddling with something that takes place in he 1930s and I’m looking for a good way to find slang from the time. I need to know whether words like “copper,” “flatfoot,” “swell,” “beat it,” and “scram” were used in that period. Any ideas?

A: The best source for US slang is the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, by Jonathan E. Lighter. Unfortunately, only the first two volumes ( A-G and H-O) have been published so far. I discussed several other references last summer in a blog item that you might find helpful.

Since then, I’ve stumbled across a website that purports to do what you’re looking for: the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. You put in a word and out pops the date when it was first used.

Unfortunately, the results are spotty. The dictionary did OK on “copper” (1846), “swell” (1926), and “scram” (1928), but it slipped up on “flatfoot” (1912) and “beat it” (1691), according to Random House and other reliable references.

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Nother wise

Q: I heard you on WNYC the other day via the Web. (I’m in the Midwest – fairly close to your Iowa roots – not in New York City.) Anyway, here’s my question: Can you comment on “nother,” as in “That’s a whole nother ball game.” There is no such word, right?

A: My theory is that the phrase “whole nother” is a conflation of “whole other” and “another.” It has also been suggested that “nother” reflects a misunderstanding of the word “another” as two words: “a … nother.”

But this may be not such a “misunderstanding” after all. “Another” was originally two words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “an other (often a nother).”

Recorded usages go back to the early 1200s. Here’s a quotation from Chaucer’s poem Anelyda and Arcyte (about 1374): “And sawe a nothere ladye proude and nuwe.”

Until long into the 17th century, “nother” was a common pronoun and adjective meaning “a second or other; a different one,” the OED says. Here’s a quotation from 1608: “To establish true religion in one kingdome, to confirme it in a nother.”

This use of “nother,” according to the OED, is largely obsolete today and survives only as a colloquialism in the United States, where it’s commonly used with “whole.”

The dictionary lists these citations: “I have to grade a whole nother set of themes” (1963); “I’m in a whole nother space” (1977); and “But ‘tekkies’? It seems too much like ‘Trekkies,’ which invokes a whole ‘nother set of connotations” (1993).

Thanks for an interesting (or “a ninteresting”?) question!

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The unchurchly church key

Q: A friend asked me if I knew the source of the term “church key” to describe the opener used for beer and soda cans. I told him I didn’t know, but I was sure you would. Thanks for your help.

A: In this world of pop-top cans and twist-off bottle caps, some readers of the blog may not have had the pleasure of puncturing a beer can or uncapping a bottle of brew with a church key.

For anyone unfamiliar with the gadget, a typical church key has a triangular thingie for piercing cans and a slotted or hooked part for prying off bottle caps. (Pull tabs for cans weren’t invented until the early 1960s.)

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the term “church key” originated in the US in the 1950s. The dictionary suggests that the implement was called a “church key” because the can-opening part resembled an old-fashioned key.

But Cassell’s seems to have gotten the beer cart ahead of the draft horses.

The expression apparently originated earlier in the 20th century, perhaps as far back as the late 1930s when beer was first sold in cans, according to the word sleuth Michael Quinion.

Quinion, who used to run a museum of cider-making and now runs an online museum of words, says the name actually comes from the shape of the old-fashioned bottle openers that preceded church keys.

The round or oval ends of these bottle openers “reminded people of the often ornate handles to big, old-fashioned door keys,” Quinion writes on his website World Wide Words.

Why church keys? In the experience of most people, he says, “such big keys opened church doors.”

“It’s also more than probable that an irreverent joke was attached as well, in that drinking beer was an unchurchly thing to do,” Quinion adds.

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Accent piece

Q: I am a professional storyteller, a lover of the English language with a particular penchant for preserving regional accents. Do you feel there is a rising prejudice driving away regional accents? I lament the waning of America’s accents. They enrich our culture. Accents are authentic and colorful. Please speak out for our varied voices!

A: I’m on your side! I too relish and appreciate America’s many accents. And I speak out in favor of them whenever I can.

But I’m not so sure there’s a “rising” prejudice against them. The old prejudice may in fact be waning. Increasingly, local and even national television outlets are not only tolerating but welcoming regional accents on the part of their news anchors and reporters.

An article in the New York Times a couple of years ago reported: “Broadcasters seem to have realized that opening up the tent to accents could attract new audiences at a time when networks are bleeding viewers.”

Let’s hope the trend keeps up!

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Perfect pitch

Q: Can you address the use of the word “perfect”? It makes me cringe when people say “MORE perfect.” Is this correct? As I understand it, something is either perfect or it’s not.

A: “Perfect” is one of several adjectives that some usage writers call “absolute” – that is, adjectives that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“more perfect”), the superlative (“most perfect”), or with other qualifiers (“really perfect”).

Other adjectives that are sometimes described as absolute include “unique,” “correct,” “complete,” “pregnant,” and “dead.”

In a broad sense, I agree with these usage writers. For instance, I wrote a blog entry a couple of years ago about the incessant use of qualifiers with the word “unique.”

At the same time, I think it’s legitimate to use qualifiers in some cases. Perhaps you mean that X has more of the qualities that make up perfection (or uniqueness or completeness) than Y. In other words, X comes closer to the absolute than Y.

You aren’t saying that X is perfect (or unique or complete) in itself, just that it comes closer than Y. So you say that X is “more unique” or whatever.

I think this is what the Founders had in mind when they used the phrase “a more perfect Union” in the Preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I wrote a blog item about this earlier in the year. The conclusion? A qualified endorsement. The Founders were justified in using “more perfect.” But that doesn’t mean we should overdo this usage. Absolutely not!

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Now bear with me

Q: I recently used “bring to bear” in an email and ended up staring at the phrase for a considerable time, wondering if it should be “bear” or “bare.” After googling it, I find that “bear” is the correct spelling, but now I’m wondering if the noun and the verb “bear” are related?

A: No, the verb “bear” is entirely unrelated to the noun for the big furry animal.

The two words come from prehistoric Indo-European roots that are spelled alike (bher), but the roots are unrelated etymologically and mean different things.

In ancient times, the verb “bear” had two meanings: to carry a burden or to give birth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The verb gained new senses as it was passed down to Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the Germanic and Indo-Iranian languages.

Today it has 20 or more meanings in English, including to carry (“A burro can bear 200 pounds”); to endure (“He couldn’t bear the grief”); to support (“The beam will bear two tons”); to proceed (“Please bear to the left”); to give birth (“She hopes to bear a child”); to produce (“Those trees will bear fruit”), and so on.

The expression “bring to bear,” which originally meant to bring about, has been around since the 18th century, when Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Clarissa (1748): “Your cousin … had with difficulty brought this meeting to bear.”

The expression now means to exert, apply, or put to use, as in “Let’s bring pressure to bear on the mayor.”

Interestingly, “bear” has two past participles, depending on the meaning you want. We use “borne” for most meanings, but “born” for passive constructions referring to birth. So we say, “The weight was borne upon his back,” and “She has borne three children,” but “The children were born in Cincinnati.”

And by the way, the noun for the furry creature comes from a primitive root bher meaning “brown” or “bright.” This root gave us the words “brown,” “bear” (the animal), “bruin” (the poetic name for a bear), “beaver” (another brown animal), “brunet,” and “burnish.”

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Pat on WNYC

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

English language Uncategorized

The ins and outs of country

Q: I’ve been out of the country for a while (in beautiful Cape Town), so I’m catching up on the blog. The “on premises” entry made me think of the US military use of “in country.” Where did this come from? Is it a Britishism? A militarism?

A: You asked about “in country,” an expression for being in Vietnam during US military operations in the 1960s and ’70s. But a civilian sense was in use in Scotland as far back as the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In its earlier Scottish incarnation, the expression meant “the inland country, the interior; the mainland as opposed to the outlying isles; the country within reach of the capital and centre of civilization, as distinguished from outlying districts,” the OED says.

The dictionary has citations for “the In-cuntre” (1565), “the Inne cuntrey” (1596), and this one from Archbishop Spottiswood’s The History of the Church of Scotland (1639): “In the Isles and High-lands were likewise great Troubles: nor was In-country more quiet.”

This construction sounds a little odd to us now, but in earlier days people used many such “in” compounds to describe something near the center: “in-parish,” “in-shore,” the now familiar “inland,” and “in-field” (which was originally a reference to farmland around or near a homestead, not to a baseball infield).

The OED says “in country” (spelled various ways) was first used to mean “in the country” or “in a contextually specified country” in the 20th century.

The earliest such citation is from a collection of stories and writings by Dylan Thomas, A Prospect of the Sea (1953): “Between the incountry fields and the incoming sea.”

The military sense of the phrase first appeared in the New York Times in May 1966: “In South Vietnam, in what is called in Saigon the ‘in-country’ war, development efforts have been concentrated upon types of weapons best utilized in jungles and rice paddies.”

The next OED citation is from the Daily Telegraph in 1969: “This will reduce America’s ‘in-country’ military strength to 484,000 troops.”

The quotation marks soon fell off, as in this line from the Daily Telegraph in 1973: “American in-country troop strength [in Vietnam] stands at 7,170 men.”

Thus the expression “in country” became associated with military service in Vietnam (it was also the title of a popular novel about the war and its aftermath by Bobbie Ann Mason). By extension, it has become a common phrase in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

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Hear Pat today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to discuss the English language and to take questions from callers.

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His High Mightiness

Q: If the chief executive of a country is addressed as “Mr. (or “Madam”) President,” and the chief executive of a city is addressed as “Mr. Mayor,” why is the chief executive of a state addressed as “Governor” and not “Mr. Governor”?

A: This is a good question, and I’ve spent several days trying to find an answer – all to no avail. If you ever find out why, I hope you’ll let me in on the secret. I can tell you how, though, even if I can’t tell you why.

When we’re speaking to senators, governors, generals, judges, and justices and chief justices of the United States Supreme Court, we use their titles without “Mr.” or “Madam,” whether we use their names or not.

That’s why we address Dianne Feinstein, for example, as “Senator” or “Senator Feinstein” and not “Madam Senator,” and why Colin Powell is “General” or “General Powell” and not “Mr. General.” For the same reason, Arnold Schwarzenegger is properly addressed as “Governor” or “Governor Schwarzenegger” and not “Mr. Governor.”

In speaking to some other high-ranking government officials, on the other hand, we always use “Mr.” or “Madam” when we address them by their titles alone – that is, without their names. This is true for the titles President; Vice President; Attorney General; Secretary (for other Cabinet members); Under Secretary; Speaker (of the House); Ambassador, and Mayor.

A mayor, by the way, can be addressed in person in several ways: “Mayor Bloomberg,” “Mr. Mayor,” or “Your Honor.” A lower-court judge can be “Judge,” “Judge Crater,” or “Your Honor.”

There’s some disagreement about how to use the title of a chief justice or associate justice of the Supreme Court in conversation. It seems that many reference guides are out of date.

Here I’m following the recommendations of a book called Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage (25th ed.), by Mary Jane McCaffree, Pauline B. Innis, and Richard M. Sand.

The authors say that the etiquette changed when Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the Court. Today a chief justice should be addressed in conversation as “Chief Justice” or “Chief Justice Roberts,” and an associate justice as “Justice” or “Justice Ginsburg.”

Many reference guides can tell you which salutations to use when you write to government officials. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has a section at the back called “Forms of Address.” It’s a handy way to find out how (or whether) to preface a title when you’re sending a letter.

Unfortunately, not many reference guides tell you how to be correct when you speak to these people. The book I mentioned, Protocol, does both.

By the way, the first “Mr. President,” George Washington, narrowly missed being addressed as “Your Highness.”

In 1789, just before Washington took office, the Senate proposed that his official title should be “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties.”

John Adams, the vice president-elect, favored “His Majesty, the President.” Washington himself originally leaned toward “His High Mightiness,” but later thought better of it.

In the end, to Washington’s relief, the more democratic-minded House of Representatives prevailed, and Congress settled on the simple “Mr. President.”

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An apostrophe? A catastrophe?

Q: I teach English at a college that sponsors a writers’ workshop. Last year, someone designed a logo for us and forgot the apostrophe. Some of us decided to drop the apostrophe, but the organizer overruled us and the designer refused to change the logo. So now we are without our cool logo and there has been so much strife that some big supporters have withdrawn their backing for the event. All this over one little apostrophe. What do you think?

A: The question is whether the word “writers” here is being used as a possessive (you need an apostrophe) or as an adjective (you don’t need an apostrophe). I vote for the latter.

The word “workshop” in this case doesn’t seem to me to indicate something belonging to or possessed by writers. Rather, the word “writers” describes what kind of workshop this is. And that’s the hallmark of an adjective.

Singular nouns have long been used as adjectives, positioned directly in front of the words they modify. And in recent generations, plural nouns have been used the same way (for example, “singles bar” or “honors program”). So my inclination would be to drop the apostrophe and use “writers workshop.”

However, I should note that reasonable people can disagree. The folks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for example, like the apostrophe. Those at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop do not.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says, “In some cases, the distinction between attributive [that is, descriptive] and possessive is subtle.” But it adds that the apostrophe in the name of a group should be dropped “only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one.”

The manual gives these examples with apostrophes: “consumers’ group … taxpayers’ associations … boys’ clubs.” It gives these examples without apostrophes: “Publishers Weekly … Diners Club … Department of Veterans Affairs.” (See section 7.27.)

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage also points out that many names of organizations don’t use the apostrophe. It gives the examples “Citizens Union; Doctors Hospital; Teachers College; etc.”

I might add the name of an organization I belong to myself: the Authors Guild.

[NOTE: This post was updated on March 24, 2018, to reflect new wording in a later edition of the Chicago Manual.]

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Debut appearance

Q: This is the first time that I’m writing you, which makes my question an appropriate one: How do you feel about the use of “debut” as a verb?

A: Back when I was an editor on the culture desk at the New York Times, I used to hate seeing “debut” used as a verb. I (and other editors at the paper) preferred it as a noun: “So-and-so made his debut last night” rather than “So and so debuted last night.”

But my dislike of a usage doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, we got the word in the 18th century from the French verb débuter, which meant “to make the first stroke in billiards, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the word entered English, however, it was initially used as a noun meaning “entry into society; first appearance in public of an actor, actress, or other performer.”

The OED‘s first citation for “debut” as a noun is from 1751, when Lord Chesterfield used it in a letter: “I find that your début at Paris has been a good one.”

Another lordly person, the poet Byron, used it in a rhyme in 1806: “To-night you throng to witness the début / Of embryo actors, to the Drama new.”

It didn’t take long for the word to be used as a verb in English. The first published reference, according to the OED, appeared in 1830 in Fraser’s Magazine: “He debuted at Naples, about five years ago, and has since performed … in the principal theatres of Italy.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accept “debut” as a verb for a first appearance, but the Times apparently still has misgivings.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has this entry: “debut. Use it as a noun (made a debut) or a modifier (debut recital), never as a verb (debuted).”

By the way, you can skip the accent when using “debut” in English. Although Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage list the accented version as an acceptable variant, both say the unaccented one is more frequently used.

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Orange aid

Q: I am a great admirer of your sessions on WNYC, but I was bothered by a seeming lack of historical knowledge on your part when you were asked last month about the word “orange” (for the fruit, the color, and the House of Orange).

A: It’s often difficult to come up with instant answers on the air, with the seconds ticking away, even for subjects I’ve researched previously. As you know the questions are unrehearsed, and the program is broadcast live.

Of course that’s no excuse for conveying misinformation – better to admit that one doesn’t know or doesn’t remember.

The word “orange” is very, very old, and is thought to go back to a family of Indian languages called Dravidian. I discussed its origins last year in a blog item about which “orange” came first – the color or the fruit.

As for how the ancient Dravidians got the word, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The native home of the orange may have been south-east Asia, and the name may have originated there.”

As for the “Orange” with a capital O, that’s a different story. “Orange” is the name of a French town that was the capital of a medieval Provençal principality also called “Orange.”

In the 1500s, the principality came into possession of the Dutch royal family. Dutch princes continued to use the title “Orange” even after the principality was returned to the French in the 1700s. For example, William III of England had been a Prince of Orange and was often called William of Orange.

The OED says the origin of the dynastic name “Orange” is “somewhat obscure” but its similarity with the name of the color is mere chance: “The accidental coincidence of the appellation with the name of the colour … made the wearing of orange ribbons, scarfs, cockades, orange-lilies, etc., a symbol of attachment to William III” and to Protestantism.

The Orange Free State, one of the original provinces of South Africa, was named for the Orange River, which in turn was named after the Dutch royal house.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes, and keep listening!

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Forever young

Q: I’ve heard that the word “young’un” (used to define young children by black people in the South) actually comes from a Dutch word for young boys. Is this true? Did we get the term from Dutch slave traders?

A: The term “young’un” (also written as “young ‘un” or “youngun”) is a colloquial way of saying “young one,” and it’s been used to refer to a young person since the early 19th century. It has no particular connection with African-Americans and doesn’t come from Dutch.

Similar expressions began appearing in English in the 14th century, sometimes referring to offspring (both human and animal), and sometimes to any young person.

Here are some of the forms cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, with their early spellings: “yong oon” (1382); “yongones” (1535); “yong one” (1542); “yong ones” (1605); “Young-Ones” (1653); “young Ones” (1693); and “young’un” (1810).

The word “young” is believed to have its origins in a prehistoric Indo-European root, juwnkos, which was passed down into Sanskrit, Latin, the ancient Germanic and Celtic languages, and others. It entered Old English as geong, and was first recorded in Beowulf around the year 725.

Much the same can be said of “one.” It has its origins in a prehistoric Indo-European root, oi-no, that was passed down to Greek, Latin, the ancient Germanic and Celtic languages, and others. It entered Old English as an sometime before 725.

Oi-no? Oy, yes!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why “one-off” is one of a kind

Q: The term “one-off” is often used to denote something that’s one of a kind, but it seems to me that it should be called a “one of.” That’s what it’s describing – something unique. What’s your opinion?

A: The phrase “one-off” (it’s used as both an adjective and a noun) originated in Britain in the 1930s and appears to be gaining popularity here. It refers to something that is one of a kind or is occurring or being produced only once.

Why “off” rather than “of”? Because it was common practice in Britain when the expression originated to use the word “off” with a preceding numeral to describe the number of units of an item being produced or manufactured (“600 off,” or “12 dozen off,” or the like). Picture something coming off a conveyor belt or an assembly line.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “one-off” as both an adjective (meaning “made or done as the only one of its kind; unique, not repeated”), and as a noun for such a product.

The OEDs first published reference is to the adjective, which appeared in an industrial trade journal in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.”

Like you, were not used to the phrase yet, but we imagine we’ll get accustomed to it if it persists in American usage.

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Headline shorthand

Q: I’m using Woe is I in a writing class I’m taking, which made me think of asking you about a question I’m keen on solving. The New York Times recently published an op-ed article by Warren Buffett about the advantages of buying American stocks despite the economic turmoil. I take issue with the headline: “Buy American. I Am.” I believe the second part should be “I did” or “I will” or even “I do.” However, no one in my class agrees. Am I wrong in thinking there’s a grammatical error here?

A: When Times editors headlined Warren Buffett’s opinion piece “Buy American. I Am,” they were using a kind of shorthand, being elliptical rather than completing the second verb phrase. They didn’t need to [that is, to complete the verb phrase].

Did you notice something just now? If you ignore the bracketed remark above, you’ll see that I didn’t complete my second verb phrase either: “They didn’t need to … ”

When you’re using the same verb in subsequent clauses or sentences, it’s all right to be elliptical (to omit part of a sentence’s structure), even if the form of the verb changes.

Readers and listeners will make the connection for themselves, mentally finishing the sentence: “I am [buying American].” So you can leave the second verb phrase unfinished, and no one will assume that it has to take the same form as the first: “I do [buy American].”

The sentences would have been parallel if the headline had read: “Buy American. I do,” but that wasn’t Buffett’s point. He meant that he’s buying American stocks NOW, not that he does this as a general rule. Same with “I will” or “I did” – those don’t convey his meaning.

We speak and write this way all the time, even in the best English. In the following examples, the omitted parts of the verb phrases are in brackets: “Have you gone yet? I soon will [go]” … “He says he’ll study but so far he hasn’t [studied]” … “Let’s visit Spain unless you already have [visited Spain]” … “We never paid because we didn’t need to [pay]” … “She hasn’t written but she plans to [write]” … “I told you, didn’t I [tell you]?”

Notice that many of the omissions happen when auxiliary verbs (“have,” “will,” “be,” “do”) or infinitives are involved. Are the omissions legit? Yes, indeed. As The Oxford English Grammar points out, “Elliptical sentences are incomplete sentences, but they are perfectly normal and acceptable.”

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Metaphors be with you

Q: My question is about metaphors/similes. When someone says, “He’s strong as an ox,” it’s a simile. When someone says, “He’s an ox,” it’s a metaphor. When my teenage cousin says, “He’s, like, an ox,” which is it?

A: It’s correct that “He’s an ox” is a metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which something that normally designates one thing is used to designate another.

It’s also correct that “He’s as strong as an ox” (or “He’s like an ox”) is a simile. A simile is a figure of speech in which “like” or “as” is used to compare dissimilar things.

Your teenage cousin’s sentence, “He’s, like, an ox,” is a metaphor. Here, the word “like” isn’t used as a preposition for purposes of comparison, so we don’t have a simile. Critics see this form of “like” as merely a verbal tic, but linguists argue that it serves a purpose.

As I once wrote in an article for The New York Times Magazine, this “like” is used “to emphasize something (‘I was, like, exhausted!’) or to hedge a statement (‘We had, like, six hours of homework!’).”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) categorize “like” as an adverb when used in this way. AH calls the usage “nonstandard,” but M-W notes that it’s “used interjectionally in informal speech.”

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Does Homer walk like a duck?

Q: As a former newspaper editor, I can’t help noticing when English goes astray, which brings me to the Woe Is I Jr. page on your website. Is the following sentence correct? “Just like Woe Is I, her national bestseller for adults, the junior version uses simple language and entertaining examples to make good English fun.” It seems to me there should be an “as,” not a “like,” construction here.

A: That bit of promotion on our website is, I’m glad to say, perfectly good English.

First, let’s simplify the sentence somewhat: “Like book X, book Y uses simple language.” (Or, rephrased: “Book Y, like book X, uses simple language” … “Book Y uses simple language, like book X.”)

Here “like” is being used not as a conjunction but as a preposition meaning “in the same way as” or “in the manner of.” This kind of construction is recognized as standard English. (See the entries for “like” in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

The phrase “like book X” is considered an elliptical clause of comparison, minus a verb. If a verb were included, you could legitimately choose the conjunction “as” and write “as book X does.”

The grammarian George O. Curme has this to say in A Grammar of the English Language. Vol. II: Syntax: “The clause of comparison is often elliptical. … Where there is no finite verb expressed or understood, and there is present a noun or pronoun, like is not opposed by grammarians; it is indeed the usual form even in the best literary style, here felt as a preposition, forming with its object a prepositional phrase: ‘He treats his wife like a child.’ ‘His coat fits him like a glove.’ ‘He laughs like her.’ “

I hope this clarifies things a bit. In general, especially in more formal writing and speeches, “as” should introduce a clause – a group of words with both a subject and a verb.Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “Homer tripped, as anyone would.” If no verb follows, “like” is correct: “Homer walks like a duck.” I discussed this once before in a posting to the blog.

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Horsing around

Q: I’ve heard the expression “come a cropper” many times, but when a commentator used it the other night to describe one of the economic plans floated recently, I decided it was time to call on the maven. Enlightenment, if you please.

A: The phrase “come a cropper” originated in the late 1850s when it meant to fall heavily, according to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.).

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang explains that the expression came from fox-hunting and referred to a rider’s being thrown from a horse.

The word “cropper” here, Cassell’s says, may refer either to the rider’s tendency to be tossed over the horse’s crop (that is, neck), or to an earlier phrase, “neck and crop,” which means “bodily” or “totally.”

(No reliable sources mention any connection with the riding crop, the small whip that’s a familiar piece of equestrian equipment.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, which leans toward “neck and crop” as the probable source of “come a cropper,” cites a 1791 poem with these lines: “The startish beast took fright, and flop / The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!”

The word sleuth Michael Quinion notes that the “crop” in “neck and crop” might refer to the horse’s other end (its rump). On his website World Wide Words, he writes:

“It could be that crop is a variant of croup, suggesting that a horse that fell neck and crop collapsed all of a heap, with both head and backside hitting the ground together. Or perhaps crop had its then normal meaning, so the expression was an intensified version of neck, perhaps linked to an older expression neck and heels that’s similar to head over heels.”

However it came into being, the phrase “come a cropper” has appeared in other forms too, including “get a cropper” and “go a cropper.” In fact, the first published reference in the OED for the expression is of the “get” variety.

Here’s an expanded version of the OED citation, from a comic novel by Robert S. Surtees, Ask Mamma (1858): “Gameboy Green, thinking to show off, rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

Gameboy, h-m-m.

Soon the expression was being used figuratively for situations other than horsemanship. Anthony Trollope used it in his 1874 novel The Way We Live Now to describe a matrimonial disaster: “He would ‘be coming a cropper rather,’ were he to marry Melmotte’s daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none.”

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Stative seeking

Q: Are the stative passive and the participial adjective the same construction? Examples: “He was born”  … “I am surprised.” Is this a question of the existence (or mention) of the agent?

A: The general answer to both of your questions is a qualified yes: the constructions are similar, though not necessarily identical, and the presence of an “agent” does makes a difference.

But let me back up a bit and explain some of those terms for readers of The Grammarphobia Blog who may not be acquainted with them.

The issue you bring up has to do with the passive voice, something most of us are familiar with.

When a verb is in the active voice, the subject is the agent who does the acting (“John walks the dog regularly”).

But when the verb is in the passive voice, the agent who does the acting is not the subject of the sentence (“The dog is walked by John regularly”). There, the former object has become the subject.

And the agent may even be omitted if the dog walker is irrelevant or unknown (“The dog is walked regularly”).

Notice that a sentence in the passive voice generally uses a form of the verb “be” as an auxiliary (in this case, “is”), and the verb is a past participle (“walked”).

Now, there are two kinds of passive voice, and this is where your question comes in. There’s the “dynamic” (also called actional) passive, and the “stative” (also called statal) passive.

The dynamic passive describes an event (“The dog was walked”), while the stative passive describes a state (“The dog was exhausted”). You might say that one denotes an act (expressed as a verb) and the other denotes the result of an act (expressed as a participial adjective).

Sometimes the difference between the two is very subtle. In his book A Grammar of the English Language. Vol. II: Syntax, George O. Curme gives this example: “The door was shut at six when I went by, but I don’t know when it was shut.”

The first “was shut” is a stative passive (denoting a state), and the second is a dynamic passive (denoting an act). Curme adds: “Thus the one form is employed to denote two quite different things.”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, make a similar point when they discuss what they call “verbal passives” versus “adjectival passives.”

They use the example of “The vase was broken,” a sentence that could qualify for either definition. It could be interpreted as denoting either an event or the resulting state. In the first interpretation, “broken” is a verb, and in the second, “broken” is a participial adjective.

Elsewhere, Huddleston and Pullum note that there’s “a large-scale overlap between adjectives and the past participle forms of verbs, and since the verb be can take complements headed by either of these categories we find a significant resemblance, and often an ambiguity” between adjectives and past participles.

You ask whether the existence of an agent makes a difference. Generally, yes.

If an agent is mentioned (“I was surprised by Susan,” the passive form of the sentence “Susan surprised me”), then “surprised” can only be interpreted as a dynamic passive because it describes an event.

If no agent is mentioned (“I was surprised”), then “surprised” could be interpreted either as a passive verb or as an adjective describing a state.

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Seize the day

Q: We’re being subjected to a lot more Wall Street lingo than usual. One example that bothers me is “seize up.” I can’t count the number of times pundits have said the credit market markets are seizing up. Is it the same as freezing up? This usage is a new one to me. Have I missed something?

A: Yes, you apparently have missed something here. The term “seize up” (meaning to freeze or lock fast) has been around for more than a century.

When the verb “seize” entered English in the late 1200s, it had two different meanings: (1) to put in possession, or (2) to take possession.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, to “seize of” or “seize with” or “seize in” meant “to put (a person) in legal possession of a feudal holding; to invest or endow with property; to establish in a holding or an office or dignity.” At the same time, to “seize” simply meant to take possession or confiscate.

This sense of grabbing and holding on led to another usage centuries later. In the 1870s, the terms “seize” and “seize up” were used in reference to machines or mechanisms. Thus, the OED says, to “seize up” meant “to stick, jam, or lock fast; to become unworkable, as by reason of undue heat or friction.”

This meaning led to a figurative usage of the term beginning in the 1950s. The OED gives these citations:

1955, from a book on social work: “When the social service system was primitive it could do without case-work: the more elaborate modern machine would seize up.”

1960, from The Buried Day, an autobiography by Cecil Day Lewis: “I read the book; then, for hour after hour, I sat trying to think of something to say about it. I could not…. My brain had seized up.”

1976, from Testkill, a novel by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins: “Any exercise … might make me seize up.”

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All well and good

Q: If you’re tip-top and someone asks “How are you?” do you say “I’m well” or “I’m good”? Or, for that matter, “I feel well” or “I feel good”? I can never get these straight. Thanks, and I hope you’re feeling … um … super-terrific.

A: Some people who say “How are you?” object to hearing “I’m good” or “I feel good” in reply. But you can correctly say either “I’m well” or “I’m good,” and “I feel well” or “I feel good,” depending on your meaning.

Most usage guides will tell you that “well,” when applied to a person, means “healthy.” So if you said, “I’m well” or “I feel well,” you’d be talking about your state of health.

If you said “I’m good” or “I feel good,” according to these usage guides, you’d be talking about your state of being (how you felt in general). A dying person might say on his deathbed, “I feel good, knowing my affairs are in order.” He wouldn’t mean that he felt well.

Here’s the reasoning.

When health isn’t involved, adjectives (like “good”) are used instead of adverbs (like “well”) to modify linking verbs (like “is” or “feel” or “smells”). A linking verb is one that describes a state or condition rather than an action. That’s why we say “He smells good,” “It tastes good,” “He looks good,” and so on.

But adverbs (like “well”) are used to modify verbs showing activity (such as “skate” or “tango”). That’s why we say “He skates well” and “She tangos well.”

One way to remember this is to recall the song lyric “I feel pretty.” With a linking verb like “feel,” you use an adjective (“pretty”), not an adverb (“prettily”). Same with “is” and “smells” and “seems” and other linking verbs: “He is nice” … “They seem nice” … “That smells nice.”

In theory, you can “feel badly” when your sense of touch is awry, or “smell badly” when your nose is stuffed, but I’ve never actually heard anyone use those expressions in real life. (“Feel” and “smell” are action verbs here: they refer to the acts of feeling and smelling, not the conditions.)

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The long and the short of it

Q: Your posting on whether a legal document can “state” something reminded me of my days editing in a law office. The attorneys used to say they wrote such long-winded briefs because they got paid by the word.

A: Mark Twain was sometimes paid by the word too, but he came to a different conclusion. He had this to say in praise of short words and short-windedness:

“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents, because I can get the same money for ‘city.’ I never write ‘policeman,’ because I can get the same price for ‘cop.’”

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Oh, doggone it!

Q: I have a strange question. Do you know the etymology of the expression “doggone it”? Please help!

A: Strange? Not by a long shot. You should see some of the questions I get!

As for “doggone it,” the expression probably originated as a euphemism for “goddamn it.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “dog-gone” is “generally taken as a deformation of the profane God damn.”

In the 1800s, the exclamations “doggone!” and “doggone it!” (I’ll skip the hyphens when I’m not quoting a source) were used in the same way as “hang!/hang it!” and “damn!/damn it!” and even the old imprecation “pox on it!”

Where did “doggone!/doggone it!” originate? The OED says “dog-gone,” which in former times was also written as “dog-on,” is a 19th-century Americanism. But according to other sources, the expression may have gotten its start in Scotland.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “doggone” is an “alteration of the Scots dagone,” which is in turn an “alteration of goddamn.”

And the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, citing the Scottish National Dictionary, offers published references for “dog on it” dating to 1826 and 1828.

Within a few years of those early references, “dog gone” began appearing in writings about the American Old West.

A semi-fictional book called Life in the Far West, by the English writer George Frederick Ruxton, appeared in serial form in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1848. I found these quotations from the Ruxton work in Google Book Search: “‘Fire be dogged,’ says old Rube.” … “I’m dog-gone if it wasn’t.”

The OED‘s first print references for “dog-gone” are from a book by the Irish-American novelist Thomas Mayne Reid called The Scalp-Hunters: Or, Romantic Adventures in Northern Mexico (1851). Here are the OED citations: “‘I’m dog-gone, Jim’, replied the hunter.” … “Dog-gone it, man! make haste then!”

For most of the 19th century, the expression was found as both “dog gone” and “dog on” (with and without hyphens). An appearance in about 1860 in Southern Sketches has the “dog on” version: “No, says I, I won’t do no sich dog on thing.” Edward Eggleston’s novel The Hoosier School-Master (1871) has this: “She was so dog-on stuck up.”

Other versions appeared as well: “If there’s a dog-goned abolitionist aboard this boat, I should like to see him” (about 1860); “He looks the dogondest cuss” (1868); “I’ll be dog-oned” (1872, Eggleston again); “I’ll be dog-goned” (1879); and even “dagont” (1893).

In 1892 a writer in The Nation had this opinion: “I think ‘Dog gone it’ is simply ‘Dog on it.’”

I hope this helps.

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Separation anxiety

Q: I have a background in journalism and print media. At work, I use one space after a period. However, I was taught throughout school to use two. Which is correct?

A: The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) has this to say: “In typeset matter, one space, not two (in other words, a regular word space), follows any mark of punctuation that ends a sentence, whether a period, a colon, a question mark, an exclamation point, or closing quotation marks.” See section 6.11.

That’s good enough for me!

Interestingly, this whole idea of separating English sentences with periods and spaces evolved over hundreds of years. In the early days, punctuation was largely a rhetorical device, used as an aid to reading aloud.

Modern English punctuation – with points, marks, and spaces used primarily to separate grammatical rather than rhetorical units – evolved in fits and starts after the introduction of printing with movable type in the late Middle Ages.

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Could have went?

Q: I wonder if you can answer a question for me. I often hear people from eastern New Jersey say “I could have went” instead of “I could have gone.” Are they both correct? Or is one the more proper usage?

A: “I could have gone” is correct. “I could have went” is not. Here’s how to use the verb “go” in various tenses.

Simple tenses: I goI wentI will goI would (or could) go.

Perfect tenses: I have goneI had goneI will have goneI would have (or could have) gone.

Use “could” in the same way you’d use “would”:

Simple: I would (or could) go.

Perfect: I would have (or could have) gone.

I hope this helps.

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Kind of an answer

Q: I am a former English teacher and I am bothered by people who insert the indefinite article in front of a noun when it is not necessary. For example, I recently called a dentist to make an appointment, and the receptionist said, “What kind of an appointment do you want to make.”

A: Here’s the situation with “kind of” and company, at least in modern usage. When you use expressions like “kind of” or “sort of” or “type of” or “breed of” to refer to a member of a larger class, it isn’t necessary to use “a” or “an” afterward.

Although many people add the article in speech, common practice today is to omit it. The article “a” isn’t needed, for instance, in “This is an odd kind of word” … or … “What breed of dog is that?”

But when you use “kind of” or “sort of” as an adjectival phrase meaning “rather,” the article is commonly used if a noun follows (“Our assignment is kind of a drag” … or … “Jack is kind of a jerk”).

Naturally the article isn’t used when “kind of” is an adverbial phrase – that is, when it modifies an adjective or a verb – and it means “in a way” (as in, “Our assignment is kind of difficult” … or … “Our class kind of flunked”). These uses of “kind of” are frowned on by many purists, but they’re extremely widespread in informal English.

By the way, “kind” is an extremely old word, and has been part of English since at least as far back as the 800s when it meant a class or division of things. (The adjective originally meant natural or innate.)

Over the centuries, the noun “kind” has been used to refer to a person’s nature, origin, gender, sexual organs (in the case of men, their semen), race, kin, offspring, and many other things.

Since the 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve used twin constructions with “kind,” so that “all kinds of trees” is the equivalent of “trees of all kinds,” and “this kind of thing” is the same as “a thing of this kind.”

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