English language Uncategorized

Infinitive wisdom

Q: I am a retired English teacher, and I have been tutoring a Korean boy.  His mother is also interested in learning English, and she asked me this question. In the sentence “I laughed when I saw her fall,” why is the verb “fall” and not “fell,” since “laughed” is in the past tense? I posted this question on a grammar forum, but no one has responded.  Can you enlighten us?

A: In the clause “I saw her fall,” the verb “fall” is in the infinitive: the simple, uninflected form of a verb. (A clause, as you know, is a group of words with its own subject and verb.)

In English, this is a very common pattern: one verb followed by a second in the infinitive. It’s often the case when the first verb is one involving sensory perception (“see,” “feel,” “hear”).  

Here are a few examples of the kinds of verbs that are often paired with infinitives (the infinitives are underlined):

“I helped her walk” … “They saw us go” … “We felt it move” … “He heard her cry” … “You need not worry” … “Dare we ask?” … “I would rather die” … “We will let it rest” … “Let there be light.”

In addition, the auxiliary “do” is often used with an infinitive to form a question: “Do you smoke?”  … “Did they drive?”

And the modal auxiliary verbs (“can,” “may,” “must,” etc.) take infinitives as their complements: “She may smoke” [or “May she smoke?”] … “We must leave” [or “Must we leave?”].

In all of these cases, the second verb is in the infinitive because it needs no inflection. (An inflected verb changes in form to indicate number, tense, and so on.)

Many people don’t recognize these verb forms as infinitives because they expect infinitives to be preceded by “to.” As you can see, that’s often not the case. 

Even when the “to” is present, it’s not actually part of the infinitive. It’s a prepositional marker indicating that the infinitive is coming up. So you can’t “split” an infinitive, no matter what anyone tells you. We’ve written before on the blog about the “split infinitive” myth.

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Inaugural issues

Q: All my life I’ve heard the word “inaugurate” pronounced with a “y” sound in the third syllable. Suddenly, I’m hearing on TV about politicians being in-AW-guh-rated. Is this part of Barack Obama’s “change” platform, or have I just not been listening carefully enough in the past?

A: The only pronunciations of “inaugurate,” “inauguration,” and “inaugural” we’ve ever heard have a “y” sound in the third syllable: in-AW-gyuh-rate … in-aw-gyuh-RAY-shun … in-AW-gyuh-rel.

But then, we don’t watch a lot of TV.

Those are also the only pronunciations given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes the non-“y” pronunciations as equal variants: in-AW-guh-rate … in-aw-guh-RAY-shun … in-AW-guh-rel. That last one sounds to us like “doggerel.”

The “y”-less pronunciations may be a relatively recent development, since my 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.), known as Web II, has only the “y” pronunciations.

American Heritage isn’t the only language authority that still doesn’t accept the“y”-less ones. The latest Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), published in 2009, notes that  the penultimate syllable of “inaugural” is pronounced with a “y” sound.

But since the “y”-less pronunciations are getting around so much that they’re already accepted without reservation by Merriam-Webster’s, they probably have a future.

If you don’t like ’em, don’t use ’em (We certainly won’t).

In case you’re interested, we had a blog entry last year about another aspect of “inaugurate” – whether a frying pan can be inaugurated by making latkes!

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Try and try again

Q: In your May 21, 2009, comments, you suggest that “try and” is as acceptable as “come and”  and “go and.” I see a big difference here. We link “come” and “go” with separate acts. For example: “Come and visit us” or “Go and see if it’s there.” But “try” is a synonym for “attempt,” and one wouldn’t say “Attempt and fix the situation.” Finally, “try and” may be older than “try to,” but that doesn’t make it correct today. Wasn’t “ain’t” once acceptable?

A: You’re right, insofar as there isn’t an exact parallel between “try and” and verbal expressions like “come and” and “go and.” The principal difference is that “try and” isn’t used in other verb forms or tenses.

One doesn’t say “tries and,” “tried and,” or “trying and”; here, one uses “to” instead of “and.” But there are no such restrictions on “go and” or “come and.” (Example: “I have no objection to going and seeing him.”)

However, we don’t buy your argument that “try and” isn’t legit because it’s synonymous with “attempt and.” We could make the same argument using synonyms for “come” and “go” (for example, “approach and visit us,” “leave and see if it’s there”).

In our opinion, at bottom all three expressions imply a single, blended act rather than two separate acts.

No, the fact that an expression is age-old doesn’t mean it’s acceptable usage today (as with “ain’t,” which is quite old but which has been strongly  disapproved since the mid- to late 19th century). 

But “try and” isn’t in the same category as “ain’t.” The fact that a construction has been in use continually for centuries AND the fact that it has been acceptable until recently make us skeptical of the disapproval. 

We see nothing wrong with using “try and” in conversation and informal writing, though we’d use “try to” in more formal writing.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “colloquial,” which means it’s more appropriate for speech than for formal writing.

Among its entries for the conjunction “and,” the OED has this: “Connecting two verbs, the second of which is logically dependent on the first, esp. where the first verb is come, go, send, or try.”

And among its entries for “try,” the OED has this: “Followed by and and a co-ordinated verb (instead of to with inf.) expressing the action attempted.”

The OED‘s citations for verbs joined by “and” begin with Old English, in a passage from the West Saxon Gospels: farenne & bebyrigean minne fæder (go and bury my father).

Here are some other citations:

“come & se” (come and see, 1325);

“trye and speik” (try and speak, 1599);

“try and express their love” (1686);

“mind and confine myself” (Swift, 1710);

“be sure and call” (Jane Austen, 1811);

“try and keep” (1878);

“send and let her know” (Hardy, 1887);

“go and buy” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925);

“write and thank you” (Flannery O’Connor, 1959);

“mind and get yourself one” (1985).

To us, “try and” feels comfortable, perhaps because “try” is used in other casual expressions. For example, the OED has citations for “try for” and “try at” dating from the 1500s.

It defines them this way: “try for, to attempt to obtain or find (an object), or to reach (a place),” and “try at, to make an attempt upon, endeavour to get at; to attempt to do or accomplish.”

We too were once irritated by “try and” instead of “try to.” But then we decided to stop and think!

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Mutually exclusive interests

Q: In common usage, “mutually exclusive” refers to things that are totally separate. But in statistics, it refers to characteristics that all converge. Example: 1) over six feet tall, 2) brown eyes, and 3) blond hair. Your thoughts?

A: “Mutually exclusive” has two garden-variety definitions in standard dictionaries.

It can mean simply incompatible (as in “their interests were mutually exclusive”). Or it can mean related in such a way that one excludes or precludes the other (as in “mutually exclusive choices”). 

But “mutually exclusive” also has specialized meanings in logic as well as in probability and statistics.

In logic, two mutually exclusive propositions cannot both be true.

In probability and statistics, two mutually exclusive events (also called “disjoint events”) can’t happen at the same time. The occurrence of one means the other cannot occur, so the probability that both will happen is zero.

In addition, statistical categories are said to be mutually exclusive if an individual or object can be included in only one of them.

In the example you give, the three categories (over six feet tall, brown eyes, blond hair) are not mutually exclusive, since a single individual could theoretically be counted in all three.

Mutually exclusive categories would be, for example, over six feet tall and under six feet tall, or male and female. One individual can’t be counted in both. 

Here’s a citation from the Oxford English Dictionary that illustrates the technical use of “mutually exclusive.” It comes from Douglas Chalmers Hague’s book Managerial Economics (1969):

“To be drawn up correctly, our list of probabilities must be such that if any one event occurs, this automatically rules out the possibility that any other event in the same list could also occur. The events will then be mutually exclusive.”

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Who are immediate next of kin?

Q: I work for a medical examiner in Iowa and have a question about “immediate next of kin.” Specifically, can it apply to someone who is researching her ancestry and wants records concerning a deceased great-great-grandparent?

A: Ordinarily, “immediate next of kin” means spouse, children, parents, or siblings. In the case of a long-dead person who is of genealogical interest, no “immediate” next of kin may still be alive.

But what you need is a legal definition, not a general one. (We assume that the medical examiner you work for has had a request for records of a distant death.) Here is some of the information we’ve been able to gather.

A US Defense Department document, Glossary of Working Definitions, describes a deceased employee’s immediate next of kin as “usually the spouse, child(ren), parents, and siblings under special circumstances.” (The italics are in the document.)

Section 22.7 of the Iowa Code deals with public records that “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court, by the lawful custodian of the records, or by another person duly authorized to release such information.”

The section lists “medical examiner records and reports” as confidential, it but says “autopsy reports shall be released to the decedent’s immediate next of kin” unless disclosure “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”

Unfortunately there’s no definition of “immediate next of kin” in the section, at least none that we can find.

A website called Iowa Cold Cases says the only relatives entitled to an autopsy report are “the immediate and legal next of kin of the deceased (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, grandparent, guardian).”

This website, however, doesn’t appear to be an official government site so we don’t know how authoritative it is.

What you need to find out is whether Iowa has a legal definition of “immediate next of kin.” We can’t find one. We’d suggest that you ask your county attorney to find out for you.

Logically, a great-great-grandparent might be too old to have any “immediate next of kin” living. In a case like that – one so old that it’s unlikely to jeopardize an investigation or endanger the public – perhaps a simple “next of kin” would do.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “next of kin” as the “person or persons most closely related by blood” to the decedent.

Still, for genealogical purposes, a death certificate is a public record, and that would show the cause and manner of death.

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Results oriented

Q: I’m curious about this sentence: “When the two ingredients were mixed, the resultant material was extremely valuable.” Is it correct to use “resultant” here in place of “resulting”?

A: The adjective “resultant” and the participial adjective “resulting” have pretty much the same meaning: following as a consequence or a result of something.

Both are correct, and we can’t see that one is preferred over another for a particular use.

The first to come along was “resultant,” whose original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “issuing or shining by reflection.”

This now obscure sense of the word was first recorded in print in Thomas Adams’s The Spirituall Navigator (1615): “Seeing the resultant light of the starres shining in the water about him.”

The modern sense of “resultant” (meaning “that results, resulting; consequent”) first appeared in writing not long afterward, in a letter of Lord Digby (1639):

“Accepting alike the Faith resultant from the dark mists of the Ignorant, and from the clearest intelligence of the Learned.”

It was also recorded in an essay by the scientist Robert Boyle (1672): “By reason of the figure of the resultant corpuscles.”

But Boyle used “resulting” as well, which the OED defines as “arising, produced, or obtained as a result; resultant, consequent.” Here are two citations:

“The resulting Qualities and Attributes of the small particles of Matter” (1666); and “By putting a much greater, or a much lesser, quantity of Galls, into … the Mineral Water, the resulting colour may be more or less intense” (1684-85).

Like Boyle, you can take your pick, though we think “resulting” sounds more natural and idiomatic.

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Our two Left Coasts?

Q: I often hear the East Coast of the US referred to as the “Eastern Seaboard,” but I can’t recall ever hearing the West Coast called the “Western Seaboard.” Why do you think that is? Similarly, I hear the mocking term “Left Coast,” but I never hear “Right Coast.” Do you think that’s because both coasts are associated with the Left politically? Just wondering.

A: Although “Eastern Seaboard” is far more popular, “Western Seaboard” is not unknown. We googled both phrases and got more than 1.1 million hits for the eastern term compared with about 91,000 for the western one.

Interestingly, most of the “Western Seaboard” hits refer not to the Pacific shore of the United States but to the West Coasts of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, and other countries.

We did find some 19th-century references in the New York Times archive to both the Eastern and Western Seaboards of the US, but the western version is rarely seen today.

Why? Beats us. There are a few theories that attempt to explain this, but none of them are very convincing. We can, however, tell you a bit about the history of the word “seaboard.”

Back in Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “board” meant “the border or side of anything; a hem; an edge; a coast.”

This sense of the word is now considered obsolete except in the word “seaboard,” which entered English around 1400 and had several early nautical meanings.

It eventually took on its coastline sense, first as an adjective in the 16th century and then as a noun in the 18th century. (We discussed “seaboard” at greater length a while ago in another blog entry.)

As for the “Left Coast” business, William Safire wrote an On Language column about it in the Oct. 1, 2000, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

He credited Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, with tracking down the earliest “Left Coast” citation – in the title of a 1977 Rolling Stone record review: “Wet Willie Left Coast Live.”

Three years later, a New York Times writer explained the term this way: “If you’re standing in Texas looking north, as Texans frequently do, the Left Coast is where Hollywood is.”

These early usages, Safire wrote, “had no political connotation,” but in the mid-’90s, “a liberal coloration emerged.” The Denver Post, for example, noted that President Clinton “swayed to the left coast and invited gays into the military.”

“The combination of geographical and political direction was irresistible,” Safire added.

Why isn’t the East Coast called the “Right Coast”? We think you’re right that it has something to do with the East Coast’s – or at least the Northeast’s – reputation for liberalism.

In fact, the Safire column cited this quotation attributed to Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater: “We ought to saw off the Eastern Seaboard and float it out to sea.”

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The “Adam” family

Q: I read your recent blog post about “don’t know X from Y” and immediately thought of “don’t know so-and-so from Adam.” Where did that one come from?

A: The various sayings about not knowing someone from Adam refer to the biblical Adam, and mean the someone mentioned isn’t recognized.

The expression, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first appeared in print in the trial court proceedings of the London Sessions (1784): “Some man stopped me, I do not know him from Adam.”

Charles Dickens also used the expression, in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840): “He called to see my Governor this morning … and beyond that I don’t know him from Adam.”

Adam makes appearances in other, lesser-known phrases as well, including “as old as Adam,” which means very old, and “since Adam was a boy,” meaning a long time ago. Here are some OED citations:

“As great races … as have ever been run since Adam was a yearling” (1840, from a New York sporting weekly, The Spirit of the Times). 

Though old as Adam, love is still the theme that interests all hearts in all countries” (1867, from an Australian publication).

“You hunt up that pen you’ve had since Adam was a boy” (1918, from one of Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy novels).

But Adam wasn’t supposed to appear in the expression “up and at  ’em.” We wrote about that one in a recent blog entry.

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Home school, home-school, or homeschool?

Q: Which one of these is correct: “home school” or “home-school” or “homeschool”?  Also, is “homeschooler” one word, two, or hyphenated?

 A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English  Language (4th ed.) lists both “homeschool” and “home-school,” in that order, for both the noun and the verb. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives only the closed version, “homeschool,” as well as “homeschooler” and “homeschooled.” (M-W says a “homeschooler” is a parent who homeschools or a child who’s homeschooled.)

We’d vote for one word, no hyphen, in all these cases, and we’d add “homeschool” as an adjective as well as a noun and a verb. (Over the years, familiar compounds tend to begin as separate words, then become hyphenated, and finally merge into one.) 

The verb “homeschool,” the adjective “homeschooled,” and the noun “homeschooler” are relatively recent terms, dating from the 1980s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the noun “homeschool” (which was written as two words at first) is much older, going back to the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a school located in a private home; the fact of educating children, esp. one’s own, in the home.”

The first citation for the noun in the OED is from Margaret Percival in America, an 1850 novel by Edward Everett Hale and Lucretia Peabody Hale: “Margaret saw that she had interrupted a sort of home school. She begged them to go on, saying that she was used to that duty herself, at home.”

Although the adjective “homeschool” (which was hyphenated at first) is also quite old, dating from the early 1900s, it initially referred to the relationship between what a child learned at home and what he learned at school.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the adjective “homeschool” (as well as the newer “homeschooled”) was used to refer to educating a child at home.

The first OED citation for “homeschool” used this way is from a 1981 article in the New York Times: “A few parents appear to be thriving on the home-school arrangement. One mother said she ‘learned as much as her children did.’ ”

And the first cite for “homeschooled” used like this is from a 1985 Times article: “He cited several cases of home-schooled students being admitted to good colleges at early ages.” (The term is hyphenated in most of the OED citations).

One other old term, “homeschooling,” dates from the end of the 19th century. The OED’s first citation (in two words) is from an 1899 article in the Fort Wayne (Indiana) News: “After his home schooling Judge Dawson entered Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg.”

Again, my advice is to use a single word, without a hyphen, for all these terms, but this is a matter of style, not grammar, and some dictionaries may disagree.

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When to sic ’em

Q: When does one sic the errors of another writer? I’ve had an exchange with an online writer that began with my scolding him for too few sics. He did sic some errors, but not others. His response was along the lines of “I sic ’em when the errors are major but not when they’re minor and the sics would make me look pedantic.” Do you have a rule? Does the NYT?

A: Sic is Latin for “so” or “thus,” and it’s used in quoted material – printed in italics and inside brackets – to indicate that the preceding word or phrase is being quoted as it appears in the original.

A good definition of sic is the one given in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “intentionally so written.”

The purpose of sic is not to call attention to a mistake. The purpose is to let the reader know that the material is being reproduced as it originally appeared.

This can be useful, for instance, when it helps to clarify a possibly confusing usage, or when a reader might otherwise think he’s seeing a misprint.

If the New York Times has a policy on sic, we don’t know what it is. There’s nothing about this in the paper’s style manual.

But often the use of sic can make the sic-er look nasty and pedantic, as if he has ferreted out an error and is saying “Gotcha!”

We generally don’t use sic on the blog, where we’re often quoting Old English and Middle English citations that are chock full of odd spellings and usages. Readers know these are being quoted “as is.”

You didn’t ask about the use of the verb “sic” in the sense of chase or attack (“sic ’em, Fang”), but we’ll answer anyway.

The first citation for this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), a collection of fictional sketches by Johnson Jones Hooper: “Si-c-k, Pomp – sick, sick,      si-c-k him, Bull.” (We’ve edited the quotation based on texts available online.)

So is it “sic” or “sick” in this sense? The two US dictionaries we use the most – Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – list the “sic” spelling first.

Where does this usage come from? The lexicographers at the OED describe it as a dialectal variation of the verb “seek.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin race Usage Word origin Writing

Black (or African) American?

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “Black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most Black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a Black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a Black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both Whites and Blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “Black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “Black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “Black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, Blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Sept. 5, 2021: American Heritage dropped the usage note from later editions. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “Black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Black” has now become widely established.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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Word counts

Q: My wife is from the Czech Republic and she says her native language has more words than English. I’ve always thought that English had more words than any other language. Who’s right?

A: We don’t know much about the Czech language, but from what we’ve read it does indeed have a lot of words. We suspect, however, that English may have more, including a few borrowed from Czech, like “howitzer,” “robot,” “pistol,” and “polka.”

The Czech version of the Oxford English Dictionary is P?íru?ní slovník jazyka ?eskéhoa, a nine-volume work known in English as the Compendious Dictionary of the Czech Language. It’s said to contain about 250,000 entries.

The 20-volume second edition of the OED, on the other hand, has full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words, as well as subsidiary entries for about 9,500 derivative words.

However, those OED figures don’t include all the different senses for the different parts of speech. A word like “trick,” for example, can be a noun as well as a verb. The same goes for “tricks.” And a trick can be a prank, a feat of magic, an act of prostitution, and so on.

If distinct senses are included, according to the OED‘s lexicographers, the total number of English words would probably approach about 750,000. And that’s not including a gazillion or so scientific, medical, and technical terms.

Does English have more words than any other modern language? Ask Oxford, the website of the Oxford dictionaries, says “it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.”

“This does, of course, assume,” Ask Oxford adds, “that you ignore ‘agglutinative’ languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of ‘words.’ ”

In case you’d like to read more, we’ve written a blog item about whether English is growing or shrinking, and another about the myth that it has reached a million words.

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An issue of ownership

Q: I struggle to understand why we can’t delete “own” from a sentences like this: “He worked hard to remember his own name.” Any guidance you can offer would be helpful.

A: Since early Anglo-Saxon days, the pronoun “own” has been used after possessive adjectives or nouns to emphasize possession or ownership.

The first recorded use in writing dates back to the 700s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which has a reference to his agen sunu (“his own son”).

This emphatic “own” has been in use steadily ever since. The OED‘s latest citation is from Kate Atkinson’s novel Human Croquet (1997): “How could a mother leave her own children?”

You’re right technically; a sentence like “Eliza abandoned her children” is grammatically correct and states the facts. But it doesn’t convey the same feeling as “Eliza abandoned her own children.”

The addition of  the emphatic “own” adds a value judgment that colors the entire sentence.

Similarly, “He worked hard to remember his name” doesn’t convey the same sense as “He worked hard to remember his own name.”

For one thing, the first sentence might be taken literally, as if the person has a serious case of amnesia. The second sounds like a slight exaggeration, as the speaker surely intends.

We have many other ways of using “own,” as both a pronoun and an adjective.

For example, we use it to express affection or respect, as in “my own dear Erin.”

We use it to show that we’re in full command of ourselves, as in “He’s his own man.”

We use it to underscore a previously mentioned person, as in “I prefer to do my own cooking” or “She likes to toot her own horn.”

We use it in dozens of other ways too: “My darling, my own!” … “We managed to hold our own in the fighting” … “I want a dog of my own” … “Do you live here on your own?” … “He did it on his own” … “Ralph has finally come into his own.”

It’s a versatile little word, and useful for conveying shades of meaning.

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Why a duct?

Q: As a writer for language publications, I enjoyed Origins of the Specious. But I wonder whether you should have included “duck tape” in your bit about the sound confusions known as eggcorns. I’ve heard that such tape was originally called “duck tape,” for its waterproofing qualities, and “duct tape” emerged only after it began to be used for sealing ducts. Care to weigh in?

A: We’ve poked around and poked around, and the result is that we’re not convinced that this is true – that “duct tape” was originally called “duck tape.” We’ve examined what evidence exists for both arguments and the results seem inconclusive.

One thing that muddies the waters is that strips of fabric – linen, silk, cotton, and cotton duck (a heavy, canvas-like cotton that often was called simply “duck”) – were referred to as “tape” from approximately the year 1000 until the early 20th century. This was nonadhesive tape, simply strips of cloth used to tie bundles of papers and such.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “tape” in this sense, which is the oldest definition of the word: “A narrow woven strip of stout linen, cotton, silk, or other textile, used as a string for tying garments, and for other purposes for which flat strings are suited, also for measuring lines, etc.”

Therefore, some early references to “duck tape” are not the heavy, multi-layered, adhesive tape we’re interested in, but merely the old cotton tape. 

“Duct tape,” on the other hand, is defined  by the OED as “a strong cloth-backed waterproof adhesive tape, originally used for sealing joints in heating and ventilation ducts, and (later) for holding electrical cables securely in place, now in widespread general use esp. to repair, secure, or connect a range of appliances, fixtures, and equipment.”

In quotations specifically referring to the thick, rubbery World War II invention we’re talking about, the OED‘s only citation calling it “duck tape” dates from 1996, but two earlier citations, from 1965 and 1973, call it “duct tape.”

Still, the OED also seems uncertain whether there’s a connection. It notes that “duct tape” is “perhaps an alteration of earlier duck tape.

Meanwhile, another wrench in the works is the fact that there’s a brand of duct tape called “Duck Tape.” As if there weren’t enough confusion already. 

Until there’s better evidence, we have to go along with the conclusions of Michael Quinion, who says on his Word Wide Words website that he isn’t convinced the duck came first: 

“My view is that the original name was duct tape, given informally to it by heating engineers post-war, and that the duck tape version is elision in rapid speech, later capitalised on by a manufacturer. But, as things stand, nobody knows for sure.”

By the way, we’ve written several blog items that discuss those misbegotten words or phrases known as eggcorns, including one that appeared last January.

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And by the way …

Q: My boyfriend and I both love to say “by the way” when we want to change the subject in a relevant way. However, we are curious about the etymology of this phrase. Can you enlighten us?

A: This is a nifty question and the answer requires an etymological journey that takes us back to the earliest days of English and the language’s even earlier Germanic roots.

The word “way” has been used to mean a road or path since Old English, and it’s descended from Germanic roots that go back to prehistory.

When “by the way” (or “by way”) first appeared in the 900s, its meaning was literal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “along or near the road by which one travels; by the road-side.”

Around the year 1000, the phrase was first used to mean “while going along, in the course of one’s walk or journey.”

This is how Shakespeare used the expression in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590): “Lets follow him, and by the way let us recount our dreames.”

In the mid-16th century, “by the way” developed another meaning, a figurative one used in conversation and discourse: “incidentally, in passing, as a side-topic.”

Shakespeare used this one as well, in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598): “Shee is pretty, and honest, and gentle, and one that is your friend, I can tell you that by the way.”

Now we arrive at the modern-day meaning, which the OED says is “used parenthetically to apologize for introducing a new topic, a casual remark, or the like.” This usage was introduced in 1614.

Here’s an example, from Edward Burt’s Letters From a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (circa 1730): “By the Way, altho’ the Weather was not warm, he was without Shoes, Stockings, or Breeches.”

And here’s one from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “This, by the way, was another bit of diplomacy.”

In case you’re wondering, a similar phrase, “by the by” (or “by the bye”), came along from a different route.

The first “by” in the expression is a preposition, but the second is actually an obscure noun, one that once meant “a secondary or subsidiary object, course, or undertaking; a side issue; something of minor importance.”

That obscure noun lives on in “by the by,” which was introduced in the 1600s and which means, the OED says, “by a side way, on a side issue; as a matter of secondary or subsidiary importance, incidentally, casually, in passing.”

George Eliot used the phrase this way in her novel Middlemarch (1872): “All these matters were by the by.”

In the 1700s “by the by” acquired its modern meaning, which is more or less a parenthetical “by the way.”

Jonathan Swift is credited with the first use in print, writing as the pseudonymous Isaac Bickerstaff (1708): “I hear my wife’s voice, (which by the by, is pretty distinguishable).”

And here’s another citation, from Charles Kingsley’s novel Hereward the Wake (1866): “By-the-by, Martin … any message from my lady mother?”

Finally, we can’t ignore the word “byway,” which combines the two nouns “by” and “way” and means a side road or a path that’s off the beaten track.

It dates back to Middle English, to Robert Manning of Brunne’s Chronicle (1330). In this passage, Cador takes a byway to Totness:  “By a bywey to Totenes lay, Cador & hyse toke that way.”

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Thank you notes

Q: So often a radio host will thank a guest for appearing and the guest will respond, “Thank you for having me.” What do you think of that response? It annoys me, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it feels like an incomplete sentence. PS: I really enjoy listening to Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show. Informative, and fun!

A: If this is a crime, then Pat must be guilty of it. She often thanks Leonard when he thanks her for being on the show. We don’t see anything wrong with it, though.

It’s as if someone had invited us to dinner, then afterward thanked us for coming. We would naturally say, “Thank you for inviting us.”

If we simply said, “You’re welcome,” we would be implying that we had done him a favor. In fact, he is doing us a favor by having us for dinner. 

As for those radio guests, “Thank you for having me” is an elliptical way of saying “Thank you for having me as a guest.” So you’re right in one sense: it’s a condensed way of expressing the thought.

Now, does it still bother you? We hope not. And thank you for enjoying Pat as a guest!

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Let’s scare up an etymology

Q: Do you know the origin of  the term “scare up,” meaning to find something not easily available?

A: The verb phrase “scare up” had its origins in 19th-century America and was once a hunting term. To “scare up” or “scare out” was to frighten game out of cover. 

Hence, “scare up” was later used figuratively to mean “to bring to light, to discover; to procure, obtain, ‘rustle up,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED labels the expression colloquial, which means it’s more appropriate for speech than for writing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees, describing it as “informal,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without qualification.

The first recorded example in the OED is from a New York sporting weekly called Spirit of  the Times (1846): “He is also to send us the rattles of the biggest snake ever scared up in ‘Old Norf Caline.’ ”

Here’s another hunting example, using “scare out,” from Joseph W. Long’s book American Wild-fowl Shooting (1874): “We probably won’t scare out any very large batches of ducks.”

Now for an example of the figurative use of “scare up,” from John Galsworthy’s play Loyalties (1922): “I can scare up the money for that.”

And here’s another figurative citation, from a British mystery by Helen Nielsen, The Brink of Murder (1976): “Why don’t you relax … and then we’ll scare up some dinner.”

As you might guess, the word “scare” (to frighten or terrify) is very old. It dates back to the 1200s and came from an Old Norse word with the same meaning: skirra.

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Medal play

Q: Since the Winter Olympics, I’ve been hearing sportscasters use “medal” as a verb. For example, “Emily Cook medaled in freestyle skiing.” Although my spellchecker thinks “medaled” is a word, it sounds horrible to my ear. What do you think?

A: You’re not the only person who has emailed us about this. We wouldn’t use “medal” as a verb (it sounds too jargony to us), but dictionaries accept the usage, and it has a history.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes this verbal use as “informal,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary list it without comment – that is, as standard English. (The past tense can be spelled with one “l” or two.)

The verb, meaning to win a medal in a sport, entered English by way of American sports writing in 1966. The Valley News in Van Nuys, California, used both “medaled” and “gold-medaled” in an article about a diving competition.

The OED defines this meaning of the verb “medal” as “to come first, second, or third in a sporting event or competition.”

But there’s an older sense of the verb, “to decorate or honour with a medal,” according to the OED. This usage, which is generally seen in the passive¸ has been around since the early 19th century. 

The earliest example cited in the OED is from an 1822 letter written by Lord Byron: “He was medalled.” And Thackeray used it in 1860 in his Roundabout Papers: “Irving went home medalled by the King.”

We’ve also noticed “podium” used as a verb in Olympic-speak, meaning essentially the same thing as “medal.” It’s a figurative reference to the three-step platform where Olympians appear to cheering crowds.

This one isn’t in dictionaries yet, but if it sticks around long enough, lexicographers will notice it.

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Environmental standards

Q: I work in the environmental arena where we frequently clean up ground water or groundwater? I’ve seen it both ways in the same document. Even the EPA can’t make up its mind! So is it “ground water” or “groundwater,” “storm water” or “stormwater,” “rain water” or “rainwater,” “waste water” or “wastewater,” “rinse water” or “rinsewater”? (My spell-check choked on that last one!)

A: The one-word versions are acceptable for “groundwater,” “rainwater,” and “wastewater,” but the two-word versions are generally used for “storm water” and “rinse water.”

This is according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, we’ve found that “stormwater” is often written as one word in land-use documents and publications.

We know this because of our volunteer work. Pat is a member of our New England town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, and Stewart serves on the Zoning Commission (he’s also the assistant wetlands enforcement officer).

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An accidental tourist

Q: I began hearing “on accident” as a substitute for “accidentally” when my children were in school. Lately, I hear it on television and cringe every time. I actually get a mental flash of someone standing on top of a car wreck. Am I being too picky or is the phrase as unacceptable as I feel that it is?

A: The last person to ask us about “on accident” was a New Zealander who said it was a common expression in her country. She wondered whether the usage had been inherited from New Zealand’s colonial forebears.

From what we’ve been able to find out, “on accident” isn’t likely to have come from Britain, where it’s quite uncommon. Many Americans also use “on accident,” though the traditional expression in the US is “by accident” (or “accidentally”). 

We found no citations for “on accident” in the Oxford English Dictionary. But there are many for “by accident.” The expression was first recorded in 1490 as “by accydente”; later, Shakespeare used “by accident” in Cymbeline (circa 1611). 

Dr. Leslie Barratt, a professor of linguistics at Indiana State University, has done research into the use of “on accident” versus “by accident,” and she was kind enough to send us a copy of her study, published in 2006.

As she told Pat in an email, “What I found was an age gradation – that as age increased from elementary school children to adults, the likelihood of ‘on’ increased. Since this study was run a while ago (most data collected 1997-1998), you can add about 12 years to the ages.”

Dr. Barratt surveyed people in different parts of the country, ranging widely in age and coming from a variety of economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds. But no factors apart from age made any difference in their responses.

Her findings: “For both male and female respondents, ‘on’ is more prevalent under age 10, both ‘on’ and ‘by’ are common between the ages of 10 and 35, and ‘by’ is overwhelmingly preferred by those over 35.” 

Assuming those preferences have held up in the intervening 12 years, then “on accident” is now preferred  by people under 22, “by accident” by people over 47, and both expressions are common among those in between (22-47).

Where is this happening? Everywhere in the US, it would seem.

Dr. Barratt’s survey was done in Indiana, Michigan, California, and Georgia. And she says that linguists on the American Dialect Society mailing list have reported instances of “on accident” in 17 other states: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

When did this start? “When ‘on accident’  first appeared is not answered in the present study,” she says, “but there are several indications that the form is at least 25 years old (i.e. dates back to at least the late 1970s).”

And why did it start? Some commentators have suggested that “on accident” is a conflation of the expressions “by accident”  and “on purpose.” This sounds plausible, but there’s a catch.

As Dr. Barratt writes, “In many cases, younger speakers were even unaware of the existence of ‘by accident.’ ”  

Another theory we’ve come across is that “on accident” is a mishearing of “an accident,” as in: “I didn’t do it on purpose! It was an accident!” Well, it’s an idea, but we may never know for sure.

“The reasons for particular language changes are rarely one dimensional, and this is no exception,” Dr. Barratt writes. “Although it happened right before our eyes, it seems to have merely happened ‘on accident.’ ”

Are you being too picky? Well, this does seem to be a case of English changing before our very eyes – and ears. Check back in a few years.

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Passing the buck

Q: What is the origin of “pass the buck” and Harry Truman’s riff on it, “the buck stops here”?

A: This buck-passing and buck-stopping business can be traced back to the poker tables of the 19th century.

The term “buck,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), once referred to a marker “passed from one poker player to another to indicate an obligation, especially one’s turn to deal.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has three 19th-century citations for the usage, including this one from Roughing It, Mark Twain’s 1872 book about his travels through the West: “I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”

In the early 20th century, the expression “pass the buck” took on the figurative meaning of to shift responsibility to someone else.

The OED‘s first published reference for this sense is from The Red Button, a 1912 novel by Will Irwin:

“The Big Commissioner will get roasted by the papers and hand it to the Deputy Comish, and the Deputy will pass the buck down to me, and I’ll have to report how it happened.”

As for the plaque on Harry Truman’s desk, it of course meant that responsibility stopped with the president and couldn’t be passed on to anyone else.

Here’s how Truman describes it in his Public Papers, 1952-53: “When the decision is up before you  – and on my desk I have a motto which says ‘The buck stops here’  – the decision has to be made.”

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Hic transit gloria

Q: Why did “hiccup” become “hiccough” even though the two words are pronounced the same?

A: When the word first appeared in English in the 16th century, it was written every which way – “hicket,” “hickot,” “hickop,” “hikup,” and so on – all onomatopoeic spellings of the sound itself.

“Hiccup” and “hiccough” showed up in the 17th century, but etymologists say the second spelling was apparently the result of a mistaken idea that hiccupping had something to do with coughing.

You might call this a hiccup in the history of English.

Note that I didn’t spell the word “hiccough” in the previous sentence, though many dictionaries now list that as an acceptable variant of the more common “hiccup.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says the variant “ought to be abandoned as a mere error.” I’m with the OED on this.

There’s a section about “hiccup” vs. “hiccough” in Origins of the Specious, the book about language myths that we wrote.

Check it out and learn about a guy from Pat’s home state of Iowa who had the longest hiccup attack on record­­ – from 1922 until 1990. Whoa, 68 years!

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Is this English ready for prime time?

Q: I saw the following sentence in the New York Times: “But it works because the critical mass of viewers gathers before TVs in prime time.” Is it proper English? I’m thinking it should be “at prime time.”

A: We usually use “at” when referring to a specific time (“at 3 o’clock” or “at 7 PM”) and “in” or “during” when referring to a more general period of time (“in the afternoon” or “during the evening”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “prime time” this way: “The evening hours, generally between 7 and 11 P.M., when the largest television audience is available.”

Since “prime time” refers to a period of time, not a specific hour, an English speaker would generally use “in” or “during” with it. So yes, the author of that Times article was indeed using proper English.

By the way, you may find it interesting that the noun phrase “prime time” is very old, hundreds of years older than television, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But when it entered English in the 1400s, it referred to the time of prime, the early-morning canonical hour of prayer. In the 1500s, the term also came to mean springtime and the early period of youth, life, and so on, according to the OED.

The first published reference in the OED to “prime time” used in the broadcasting sense is from a 1947 issue of the Wall Street Journal: “Columbia Broadcasting System, for instance, has an unsold hour of prime time on Tuesday nights, beginning at 9:30.”

By the late 1970s, the phrase was being used in a negative expression (“not ready for prime time”) to mean not yet ready for the task or not quite capable of success.

The latest citation in the OED for this usage, from a 2002 article in Science, refers to cell lines that “are not ready for prime time.”

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In unison and out of it

Q: My wife and I were watching a broadcast of the pairs figure skating in Vancouver when I caught what I consider two misuses of the word “unison”: “They were completely unison” and “They were out of unison.” Do you agree?

A: In music, the noun “unison” refers to two or more notes of the same pitch (or, loosely, one or more octaves apart). The word, which entered English in the 16th century, ultimately comes from the Latin unus (one) and sonus (sound), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the word ”unison” has been used figuratively since the 17th century to refer to perfect agreement or concord or harmony, especially in the phrase “in unison.”

So is “unison” being used correctly in the two sentences you mention?

In the first one (“They were completely unison”) the word is an adjective. Although “unison” has been used adjectivally at times, the OED says this usage is now considered obsolete. The correct sentence: “They were in unison” or (with a bit of redundancy for emphasis) “They were in perfect unison.”

We see nothing wrong with the second sentence (“They were out of unison”). We can’t find any published references to “out of unison” in the OED , but it strikes us as an acceptable way of describing the opposite of “in unison.”

For what it’s worth, we got 296,000 hits when we googled “out of unison.”

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Confused, until now

[A May 30, 2022, post discusses ” ’til,” “till,” and “until.”]

Q: I’m an American who teaches at a university in Germany. Some of my students have asked me about the phrase “until now,” which is commonly used in German to signify what in English would be the present perfect progressive. They want to know if it’s acceptable in a sentence like this: “I have not been able to reach the client until now.” Adding “until now” seems terribly redundant to me, but I want to check with an expert before telling them it’s wrong.

A: “Until now” is quite common and perfectly acceptable in English. It’s not only acceptable in the sentence you mention, but deleting it could change the meaning.

The original sentence (“I have not been able to reach the client until now”) implies that the speaker has only now succeeded in reaching the client.

But the stripped-down version you prefer (“I have not been able to reach the client”) implies that the speaker has failed to reach the client.

The form used in the sentence you cited is the present perfect, not the present perfect progressive: “I have [not] been.” It implies action begun in the past and continuing into the present. (An example of the present perfect progressive, using the verb “forget,” would be “I have [not] been forgetting.”)

As for “until now,” yes it’s correct English. There are dozens of examples in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest one (using “til” instead of “until”) is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382, the first English version of the Bible.

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Deadpan, part 2

Q: I’m a theater person who, incidentally, has gotten “panned” quite a few times, but I never gave the term much thought till I saw your recent posting about “deadpan.” Could there be a connection?

A: No, I don’t think there’s a connection between a “deadpan” expression and the verb “pan” in the sense of to criticize severely.

In fact, I haven’t been able to find a solid explanation of why the verb “pan” took on its critical meaning, though I did come across one theory and I have another of my own.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “pan” as a verb is from the late 15th century, when it meant to fit or put up horizontal beams to support joists in a timber-framed house.

Back then, such a beam was referred to as a “pan” (from panna, post-classical Latin for squared timber).

Although this meaning is now considered obsolete, the idea of fitting beams in place led in the 16th century to several positive figurative senses of the verb “pan”: to fit, agree, suit, or show an aptitude for something.

In the 19th century, the use of pans (that is, containers) to separate gold from gravel gave us the positive verbal phrase “pan out,” meaning to get good results or turn out well.

The first citation in the OED for the verb “pan” used in its negative sense is from Kenneth McGaffey’s 1908 novel The Sorrows of a Showgirl: “There is nothing I hate worse than to hear one lady pan another behind her back.”

The OED also has a few references to the verb “pan” used in the sense of to hit, punch, or knock sense into someone. The first citation is from a 1942 book of theatrical slang.

So how did we get the severely critical sense of the word that you ask about?

Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, speculates that the critical sense may “may well be connected to the use of ‘pan’ meaning ‘to hit or strike’ (presumably originally literally with a pan), which has been found in print as of the 1940s but probably was in spoken use long before then.”

Well, perhaps, but I’m skeptical. Could a usage that first appeared in print in 1942 really beget one that made its debut in 1908?

I’m just speculating here too, but maybe this critical sense has something to do with the frequent use of “pan out” in negative statements. I got 16 million hits on Google for “didn’t pan out” and only 283,000 for “panned out.”

Sorry I can’t give you a more definitive answer.

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Dos and don’ts

Q: I have a question about this sentence: “Projects always beget projects, don’t they?” When someone says, “don’t they?” to solicit agreement, is it short for saying, “do they not?” That certainly sounds better than “do not they?” But maybe “do not they?” was OK at one time.

A: “Don’t” is a contraction of “do not,” as you know. Contractions can also be formed with pronouns, like “they,” as in “they’re,” a contraction of “they are.”

With “they are not,” we have two possible contractions: “they’re not” and “they aren’t.”

But with “do they not?” and “they do not,” the only possible contraction is between “do” and “not,” which yields “don’t they?” and “they don’t.” There’s no legitimate contraction of “they” and “do.”

The interrogative “do they not?” is standard English. It may sound rather antiquated now, but it was once quite common and is still heard today in more formal English.

At one time, however, English speakers also used “do not they?” Here are some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Why do not they immediately clear themselves from it?” (1769);

“… do not they Pillage him of his Divinity?” (1643);

“Do not they ever want to go back to Russia?” (1876).

Whether you have “do they not?” or “do not they?” in mind, the only possible contraction, as I said, is “don’t they?”

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Why is an “h” called an “aitch”?

Q: Why is there a difference in the way consonants are named in English? The consonants “b,” “c,“ “d,” and others start with the sound of the letter and then add a vowel, while “l,” “m,” “n,” etc. begin with a vowel and then add the sound of the letter. And, of course, there’s the irregular “h.”

A: Good question. The answer is that nobody planned all this. The words we use today are pronunciations of the letters’ names handed down over many centuries.

The name of the letter “b,” for example, is explained this way in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The second letter of the Roman alphabet, ancient and modern, corresponding, in position and power, to the Greek Beta, and Phoenician and Hebrew Beth, whence also its form is derived.”

So the ancients pronounced the name of the letter beginning with the consonant sound, and that’s probably why we say it today as “bee” instead of “eb.”

The name of the letter “m,” on the other hand, historically corresponds to the letter called mu in Greek and mem in Semitic languages.

So why do we pronounce it “em” in English? Because it was pronounced “em” in post-classical Latin from at least the fourth century, and English has adopted that pronunciation. The earlier Latin pronunciation is uncertain.

And the name “aitch” for “h,” the OED says, goes back through the Middle English ache to the Old French and Spanish ache, then probably to the late Latin accha, ahha, or aha. The earlier Latin name was ha and the Greek name was heta.

We won’t go through the whole alphabet, but you get the picture.

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Way down yonder in etymology

Q: I’ve always used the expression “away too much,” as in “I ate away too much potato salad.” Whenever I heard people say “way too much,” I assumed they were contracting it incorrectly. Today, someone told me I was wrong. This is upsetting, given that I’m a writer. What’s your take on it?

A: Sorry, but you are wrong. The common expression is “way too much.”

Here the word “way” plays the role of adverb, a usage that once irritated early 20th-century commentators. But the adverbial use of “way” is several hundred years old, and nobody has objected lately.

Using the adverb “away” instead is way too fastidious. In fact, I’d call it an example of hypercorrectness (something I’ve written a blog entry about). But a little confusion is natural when dealing with “way” and “away.” These two words are so intimately connected etymologically that way back in history it was hard to tell them apart.

In simple terms, the adverb “away” started out as a long form of the noun “way.” And when “way” was used later as an adverb, it was a short form of “away.” By the way, we’re talking here about very old words.

“Way,” a noun recorded as early as the 700s, was weg in Old English, and it meant a road, path, or course of travel. It has roots in a prehistoric Germanic word, wegaz, which is descended from an ancient Indo-European root, wegh.

“Away” was originally a phrase, “on way,” which was written in Old English as on weg or a-weg. In later times, during the 900s, it became a single word. The original sense of the term, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, was “on one’s way” or “to another place.”

When people began using “way” as an adverb in the early 1200s, it was an aphetic form of “away.” This is a fancy way of saying that “way” resulted from the loss of a short, unaccented vowel. (Other aphetic forms include “lone,” from “alone,” and “cute,” from “acute.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded citation for this short form of “away” is from a Middle English poem (circa 1205) that has the phrase wei weorpen, meaning “cast away.”

Other citations of “way” as an adverb include “do way” (for “do away,” circa 1300 and onward); “The Kyng is way at Eltham” (1460); “carye hym waye” (for “carry him away,” 1533); and “Gae wa’,” (for “go away,” 1818).

In the 19th century, “’way” was also used for “away” in the sense of a great distance: “way towards Tupper’s Lake” (1849); “He sat ’way under the mantle” (1888); “way below cost” (1890); “mere specks, ’way down the road” (1927), and so on. (Note that some writers used an apostrophe to show the “a” had been dropped from “away.”)

In addition, since the 19th century both “away” and “way” have been used as adverbs to add emphasis. These usages are heard chiefly in the US, the OED notes, though it includes some British citations.

Here are some “away” citations: “away up in Canada” (1818); “away down east” (1825); “away back in 1840” (1882); “away up in price” (1903); “away behind” (1906); “I’m away wrong” (1910); and “away down in the list” (1858).

And here are some “way” citations: “way over yonder” (1850); “way down south” (1851); “way down East” (1854); “’way down amongst the roots” (1866); and “sick of it way through” (1908).

Finally, we come to the usage you’re talking about, and here’s where “way” and “away” part company. This is the adverbial use of “way” to mean “much” or “far.”

The OED labels this as an American usage, and it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Citations include “way too much for ordinary folks” (1941), “arrive way sooner” (1957), and “drank way too much” (1977).

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) also recognize this meaning for “way,” as in “way too expensive.”

Merriam-Webster’s mentions it without reservation, while the more conservative American Heritage labels it informal.

However, the OED has no entries for “away” used in this manner (meaning “much” or “far”), and neither do standard American dictionaries.

In case you’re wondering, there’s another adverbial use of “way,” meaning “extremely” or “very.” The OED labels this usage slang, as in “way fun” (1987) or “way cool” (1988).

American Heritage also calls this slang, while Merriam-Webster’s lists it without comment.

Is Merriam-Webster’s way too precipitous? Perhaps, but not away too precipitous.

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English language Uncategorized

Buster Keaton’s deadpan look

Q: What is the etymology of “deadpan”? My theory is that it has something to do with musketry, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. Do you know?

A: Your theory about musketry is interesting, but it misses the mark.

“Deadpan” (also spelled “dead pan” and “dead­-pan”) actually began life as a theatrical term, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The term, which refers to a blank, impassive expression¸ can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

The first published reference in Random House for the noun is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “A ‘poker-face’ or ‘dead-pan’ is a lifeless facial expression.”

The first citation for the adverb or adjective is from a 1928 issue of the New York Times: “Dead-Pan – Playing a rôle with expressionless face as, for instance, the work of Buster Keaton.”

The verb first shows up in a 1942 wartime issue of Life magazine: “A Jap press officer dead-pans the news that Singapore is fallen.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has this example from Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts:

“He practiced a trick used much by moving-picture comedians – the dead pan. No matter how fantastic or excited his speech, he never changed his expression.” (“Dead pan” here is a noun phrase.)

By the way, the second part of the term probably comes from the slang use of “pan” to mean face. The OED’s first citation for this usage is from a 1920 issue of the New York Tribune: “Some drops from it fell on her pan.”

Interestingly, the OED has references going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon days for “pan” used in reference to the head or skull, especially the flat, pan-like, upper part of the skull. Even today, the cranium is sometimes called the “brainpan.”

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English language Uncategorized

Is selflessness the objective?

[Note: An updated post about “myself” and other “-self” words appeared on Aug. 27, 2018.]

Q: The proliferation of reflexive pronouns demands that we address “me” versus “myself” again! You’ve discussed this on the blog, but I’m still confused. You say there are only two reasons to use a “self” word: (1) for emphasis (“I made it myself”) or (2) to refer back to the subject (“He beats up on himself”). What about if the subject is a group of which the pronoun is a member? For example: “Serious gardeners like me/myself use organic fertilizer.” Myself is confused.

A: I would prefer this version: “Serious gardeners like me use organic fertilizer.” But “like myself” is not a hanging offense, as I’ll explain later.

The subject of the sentence is “gardeners.” And the pronoun “me” is the object of the preposition “like.” Any pronoun in that position is in the objective (or accusative) case: “me,” “us,” and so on.

The fact that the speaker is by implication one of the “gardeners” makes no difference grammatically. As I said before, “me” is the object of a preposition; it’s not referring back to the subject.

In my opinion, it’s not a good idea to use “myself” and the other “-self” words (“herself,” “themselves,” etc.) to replace ordinary pronouns like “I” or “me,” “she” or “her,” “they” or “them,” “he” or “him,” and so on.

However, as I’ve written elsewhere, good writers often use “myself” or “himself” or “herself” deep into a sentence when the ordinary pronoun would almost seem to get lost.

And similarly, it’s not a grammatical crime to use “myself” to add a specific reference to a more general subject, as in “Avid golfers like myself” or “Dyslexic readers like myself”  or “Cranky grammar mavens like ourselves.”

But except in cases like those, here’s a good rule to keep in mind: If you can legitimately use “I” or “me” instead of “myself,” then do so. It’s usually better English.

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