English English language Etymology Linguistics Usage

A “media” event

Q: My college professor took points off my term paper because I used “media” as a singular noun in the phrase “the impact media has on society.” He insists that “media” is plural. I disagree and I hope you can help me with my predicament.

A: Your professor hasn’t kept up with current usage.

The word “media” has been in transition in recent years. Lexicographers (that is, dictionary editors) now accept its use as a singular collective noun that can be accompanied by either a singular or a plural verb, depending on the context.

It’s singular when “media” refers to the communications industry as a whole. But it’s plural when “media” refers to communications outlets or forms of expression (that is, radio, TV, print, and so on).

That might be a good rule of thumb for you to use. If you mean “media” in the sense of “industry,” use it with a singular verb; if you mean “media” in the sense of “outlets,” use it with a plural verb.

Here’s how Pat explains this in the new third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“As for media, it’s singular when you mean the world of mass communications, which is most of the time. The media was in a frenzy. But it’s occasionally used as a plural to refer to the individual kinds of communication. The media present were TV, radio, newspapers, and the blogosphere. The singular in that sense is medium. The liveliest medium of all is the blogosphere.”

And here’s a passage from Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

“The term ‘media,’ incidentally, can be either singular or plural. Any purists who claim it’s only plural should take a look at an up-to-date dictionary. ‘Media’ is singular when it refers to the world of mass communication as a whole (‘The media is obsessed with celebrity trials’). It’s plural for the people in this world (‘The media are packed into the courtroom like sardines’) or for the types of communication (‘The media at the trial include radio, TV, and the blogosphere’). Who are the holdouts who insist that ‘media’ is strictly plural? Ironically, many of them are members of the media who haven’t heard the news.”

We might add that the evolution of “media” is similar to that of other words derived from Latin plurals. Among the words that were considered plural when they entered English but have become accepted over the years as singular nouns are “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data” (as we noted in a post two years ago). 

Now “media” has joined the club. So “media has” is correct in the context of that sentence from your term paper.

As we wrote on our blog three years ago, “Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognize that ‘media’ can be treated as either singular or plural.”

We’ve checked more recent versions of each dictionary—the fifth edition of American Heritage and a later printing of Merriam-Webster’s.

Merriam-Webster’s says that “media” is plural when it means “members of the mass media,” but that it can be either singular or plural in construction when it means “mass media.” It says the singular usage has been around since the 1920s and originated in the field of advertising. 

American Heritage has this usage note about “the media” as a singular noun:

Media also occurs with the definite article as a collective term that refers to the communities and institutions behind the various forms of communication. In this sense, the media means something like ‘the press.’ Like other collective nouns, it may take a singular or plural verb depending on the intended meaning. If the point is to emphasize the multifaceted nature of the press, a plural verb may be more appropriate: The media have covered the trial in a variety of formats. Quite frequently, however, media stands as a singular noun for the aggregate of journalists and broadcasters: The media has not shown much interest in covering the trial.”

Nevertheless, the dictionary adds, “many people still think of media predominantly as a plural form,” and consequently “it will be some time before the singular use of media begins to crowd out the plural use in the manner of similar Latin plurals, such as agenda and data.”

Your professor is among those who still regard “media” as exclusively plural. But in fact, usage has changed.

We’re not sure, though, that we can help you with your predicament. By all means, show him our answer. But sticklers tend to stickle, never mind evidence to the contrary.

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“Other” wise

Q: A colleague and I are arguing over this quote: “An 88-year-old man was killed and three others injured.” I say “others,” as a pronoun, must refer to 88-year-old men in this construction. My colleague says it effectively means three other people. The injured were not all 88-year-old men. Which of us is right?

A: Your colleague is right. In cases like this, “others” doesn’t mirror its exact antecedent (“88-year-old men”). Here the plural pronoun simply means additional people.

Among its various functions, the word “other” can be an adjective. Examples: “other charges” … “other drivers” … “other 88-year-old men.” As an adjective, “other” modifies the noun that follows.

But “other” can also be a pronoun, in which case it stands alone instead of modifying a noun. Examples: “Who is the other?” (singular) … “Let’s wait for the others” (plural) … “Others were injured” (plural).

The Oxford English Dictionary says that as a pronoun, “other” (or “others” in the plural) can mean “another person, someone else, anyone else” as well as another person “of a kind specified or understood contextually.”

In the example you mention (“An 88-year-old man was killed and three others injured”), the writer is obviously using “others” in the looser sense of other people.

The OED has written examples of this usage going back to early Old English, but here are a few more recent ones:

“Others indeed may talk.” (From the philosopher George Berkeley’s Alciphron, 1732.)

“If one has too much in consequence of others being wronged, it seems to me that the divine voice which tells us to set that wrong right, must be obeyed.” (From George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, 1872.)

“He had always worked in places where others had established the English corner before he came.” (From Graham Greene’s novel England Made Me, 1935.)

Your question points up a possible usage problem. If “others” can refer to people in general as well as people of a specific kind, it can sometimes be misunderstood.

If all the victims in your example are indeed 88 years old, the writer should be more precise in the wording: “Four 88-year-old men were victims—one was killed and the others were injured.”

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The tip of my fingers?

Q: I remember hearing the country song “The Tip of My Fingers” when I was a young’un in Upstate South Carolina 50 years ago. I’m old enough to know by now, but shouldn’t that be “Tips”? Thank y’all very much.

A: As we’ve written before on the blog, song writers are allowed a lot of leeway in the way they use English.

Bill Anderson wrote “The Tip of My Fingers” and released it as a single under that title in 1960. And we won’t fault him for it, even though most people would say “tips of my fingers.”

But the original title has apparently bothered some of the artists who’ve recorded the tune over the years.

It’s been recorded by Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, Jean Shepard, and others—sometimes under the original title and sometimes as “The Tips of My Fingers.”

In fact, singers haven’t always pronounced the title the way it reads on the record label or album cover.

For instance, on the album Roy Clark Sings The Tip of My Fingers (1963), Clark very distinctly says “tips,” and so do his backup singers.

So you’re in good company if the original title bugs you.

Here’s an excerpt from Teresa Brewer’s 1966 recording of the song (she says “tip”):

I reached out my arms and I touched you
With soft words I whispered your name.
I held you right on the tip of my fingers
But that was as close as I came.

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A loaded question

Q: I recently came across this quote from the Mormon lawman Porter Rockwell: “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot! He’s still alive, ain’t he?” That got me to thinking. You shoot an arrow, not the bow, but you shoot a gun, not the bullet. A friend of mine says he shoots targets. I’m confused.

A: The verb “shoot” has a lot of flexibility. It can be used intransitively—that is, without a direct object. Example: “He likes to go into the woods and shoot.”

But “shoot” can also be used transitively—with a direct object. When we’re talking about weapons, the transitive verb “shoot” can mean to discharge, to let fly, or to hit.

Consequently, it can have a variety of objects. You can “shoot” (that is, discharge) a gun, bow, slingshot, or catapult. You can “shoot” (let fly) a bullet, arrow, spear, javelin, or similar projectile. And finally, you can “shoot” a target.

All of these senses of the verb are recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and have been around for hundreds of years.

By the way, that last sense of the word—to “shoot” a target—implies that the target was hit. But “shoot at” means only to fire in a particular direction.

We’ll have something to say later about Orrin Porter Rockwell, a colorful and controversial Mormon figure from the Wild West.

But first let’s look at the life of “shoot,” a verb with an interesting history, and not just in weaponry.

Its ancestors were old Germanic words that meant to go swiftly or suddenly, to rush or fly—yes, like an arrow from a bow.

It was first recorded in Old English in the ninth century in reference to the shooting of arrows, according to citations in the OED.

But other Old English examples use the term in a wider sense that reflects its earlier Germanic roots—to dart swiftly from one place to another.

So at the root of the word is the sense of moving quickly, and this ancestry explains the many ways in which “shoot” is used today.

For example, meteors “shoot” across the night sky, rafters “shoot” the rapids, and a toboggan “shoots” down a slope. A racehorse “shoots” from the gate, then “shoots” ahead of the pack.

A golfer “shoots” a birdie,” while a basketball player “shoots” a basket. Grownups “shoot” pool or dice, and children “shoot” marbles. If the kids are growing fast, they’re said to “shoot” up.

Plants in spring send out new “shoots” (a noun usage). Rays of the sun “shoot” through the clouds, and on a more prosaic note, product sales “shoot” up.

An indiscreet person “shoots off” his mouth or “shoots” himself in the foot, while an ambitious colleague “shoots” for success.

To lock a door a night, we “shoot” a bolt into its fastening. And if we don’t look where we’re going, our feet “shoot” out from under us (after which we experience “shooting” pains).

With that, we’ve “shot our bolt.” In case you’re curious (even if you’re not), the “bolt” in this old proverb is a thousand-year-old word for a short, blunt arrow fired from a cross-bow.

In olden days, there was a similar expression, “a fool’s bolt is soon shot.” The lesson: conserve your ammunition.

In case any readers are wondering about that quote you mention, Porter Rockwell was, among other things, a gunfighter, a deputy US marshal, and a bodyguard to the Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr.

Rockwell was arrested in St. Louis in March of 1843 in connection with an attempt to kill Lilburn Boggs, a former governor of Missouri, the year before. (In 1838, as governor, Boggs issued an executive order evicting Mormons from the state.)

A grand jury found that there wasn’t enough evidence for an indictment on the charge of attempted murder, but Rockwell was tried in December of 1843 for trying to escape.

He supposedly made his comments at that trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to five minutes in jail, according to Enemy of the Saints, a biography of Boggs by Robert Nelson.

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Theories of relativity

Q: Is a group of people a ”which” or a “who”? Here’s the sentence I have in mind:  “It has only been studied in chronic alcoholics, which [or who] have reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis.” Please help!

A: In modern English the relative pronoun “which” isn’t generally used in reference to people. This wasn’t always so, however. Depending on when you lived, the use of “which” has been relative.

Until the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “which” was used in relative constructions to refer to a person or people already mentioned.

(A relative pronoun introduces a subordinate clause: “I finally found my keys, which I’m always losing,” or “He’s the man that got away.”)

Here are two 19th-century examples from the OED:

“Dugald Stewart, one of the greatest men which Scotland has produced”—1836, from James Grant’s Random Recollections of the House of Lords. (Today, “that” or “whom” would be used instead.) 

“The wounded, which were carried past, … never failed to salute the Emperor”—1841, from Archibald Alison’s History of Europe, From 1789 to 1815. (Today, “who” would be used.)

But here’s a much older and more familiar example. In the original 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our father, whyche art in heauen ….”

In the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, however, “who” was substituted for “which” to reflect modern usage.

Contrary to popular opinion, the relative pronoun “that” can often be used in place of “who.”

As we wrote on the blog in 2007 and 2006, “that” can properly refer to either a person or a thing, despite a common misconception that it’s only for things.

We could stop here, but your question touches on another problem: “that” versus “which,” and the kinds of relative clauses they introduce. We’ve discussed this subject on the blog too, in 2010 and 2008.

In modern American usage, the preference is to use “which” and “that” to introduce different kinds of relative clauses—“which” for inessential information (set off within commas), and “that” for essential information.

This means that in general, American writers use “which” for clauses whose information could be plucked out and still leave behind a sensible sentence (they’re called nonrestrictive or nondefining clauses).

And “that” is generally used for clauses whose information is essential and can’t be dropped (these are restrictive or defining clauses).

Many British writers use “which” for both kinds of clauses.

In the example you mention, the clause is nonrestrictive and would call for “which” if it didn’t refer to people: “It has only been studied in computer simulations, which [not that] show reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis.”

But since it does refer to people, you’ll want to use “who” instead: “It has only been studied in chronic alcoholics, who [not which] have reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis.”

In a restrictive clause, you could use either “that” or “who,” as in this sentence: “It has only been studied in patients who [or that] have reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis.”

By the way, we’re not saying “which” can never used to refer to humans—just not, for the most part, as a relative pronoun.

As The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says, “which” can be used an as ordinary pronoun in place of “any of the things, events, or people designated or implied.”

Examples would be “Which of you is going?” … “Even after viewing the lineup, he couldn’t say which was the perpetrator.” … “Which is the better candidate, John or Mary?”

“Which” can also be used as an adjective in reference to people: “Which guy did she end up marrying?”

Finally, in case you’d like to brush up on “who” versus “whom,” we recently ran a roundup on how to use the two pronouns.

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Earth angles

Q: I love your blog, but I just want to point out an easily fixed typo in your posting about why English is a Germanic language. In the seventh paragraph of your answer, you refer to “the earth’s population.” The word “Earth” requires capitalization.

A: We’re glad you like the blog, but this isn’t a mistake. We properly used “earth” as a common noun.

As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, “In nontechnical contexts the word earth, in the sense of our planet, is usually lowercased when preceded by the or in such idioms as ‘down to earth’ or ‘move heaven or earth.’ ”

“When used as the proper name of our planet, especially in context with other planets,” the Chicago Manual adds, “it is capitalized and the is usually omitted.”  

Other standard references agree.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says the word is often capitalized when it stands alone and refers to “the third planet from the sun.” Otherwise, it’s lowercased.

So unless you’re using it in a strictly astronomical sense (as in “the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth”), the word is lowercased. In fact, it’s sometimes lowercased even when used in reference to the planet.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “The names of planets other than our own are invariably capitalized, but earth is more often than not lowercased.”

The usage guide goes on to say that the name is more likely to be capitalized when it appears with the names of the other planets, as in “the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Earth.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says, “In reference to the planet we live on, earth is usually preceded by the and is not capitalized. The sun and the moon are treated the same way.”

Garner’s gives this example: “a full moon occurs when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth.”

But “when Earth is referred to as a proper noun,” the usage guide says, “it is capitalized and usually stands alone.”

Garner’s gives this example from an article about the dwarf planet Quaoar: “It’s about one-tenth the size of Earth and orbits the sun every 288 years.”

The Old English word eorthe, which first showed up in in Beowulf around 725, could refer to the ground, the soil, or the earth, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The modern spelling appeared in the last half of the 1500s.

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A matter of course

Q: In texting me, my daughter used the phrase “of course” (spelling it “of coarse,” naturally), which got me to thinking. How is it that we use “course” to refer to something in a positive manner (as in “of course”) as well as to a path, a route, or a plan—from a “concourse” to an “obstacle course” to a “course of study”?

A: The phrase “of course” means something akin to “naturally” or “it goes without saying.” When we say something occurred “of course,” we mean it was only to be expected, or that it was in the normal course of events.

And that last phrase, “in the normal course of events,” is a clue to the etymology of the phrase “of course.”

Our word “course” came into English in the late 13th century, and for several hundred years it was spelled without an “e” at the end, like the French word it came from (cours).

The French got it from Latin, in which cursus means a race, a journey, a march, or a direction. The Latin noun comes from the verb currere, to run.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that a wide range of English words is derived from currere, including “current,” “courier,” and “occur.”

In English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “course” originally meant an onward movement in a particular path, or the action of running or moving onward.

Consequently, “course” has long been used to mean a customary or habitual succession of things, or a part of such a series.

It has also been used for hundreds of years to mean the place or time where the series has its “run,” as well as the natural order or the ordinary manner of proceeding.

This notion—of a habitual path or a prescribed series of things—explains a great many uses of “course” in English.

To mention a few, it explains why the parts of a meal are “courses,” why a flowing stream is a “watercourse,” why a normal event happens “in due course,” why an orderly ship maintains a certain “course,” why we let nature or the law “take its course,” and why colleges offer “courses” of study and doctors prescribe “courses” of treatment.

It also explains how “racecourse” and “golf course” got their names. And it explains why women in the 16th through the 19th centuries called their menstrual periods their “courses.”

The phrase we’re getting to, “of course,” came along in the mid-16th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the early 1540s it was used both as an adjective to mean “natural” or  “to be expected” (as in the phrase “a matter of course”) and as an adverb to mean “ordinarily” or “as an everyday occurrence” (as in “the cake was of course homemade”).

By the early 19th century, “of course” was being used to qualify entire sentences or clauses, according to OED citations.  And that’s how we generally use it today.

Oxford’s earliest example of this usage is from John Dunn Hunter’s Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America (1823):

“She made some very particular inquiries about my people, which, of course, I was unable to answer.”

This later example is from a bit of dialogue in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist (1838): “ ‘You will tell her I am here?’ … ‘Of course.’ ”

We now take the phrase “of course” for granted, but it had some competition over the centuries.

It’s proved more durable than several variants with the same meaning—“upon course,” which was first recorded in this sense in 1619, “on course” (1677), and “in course” (1722).

In other words, its survival was not necessarily a matter of course.

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Program notes

Q: Why do fund raisers on public radio ask for help with the “programming,” rather than the “programs”? I’ve always thought of broadcast programming as the act of scheduling or arranging programs. What are your thoughts?

A: We checked a half-dozen British and American dictionaries about the use of the word “programming” in its broadcasting sense. The results? The trend seems to be toward using “programming” broadly to mean the programs as well as the arranging of the programs.

For example, the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “programming” in the broadcast sense as the “designing, scheduling, or planning of a program, as in broadcasting.”

But the new fifth edition of American Heritage adds another sense: “Broadcast programs considered as a group: the network’s Thursday night programming.

The other American dictionary we consult the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), has this definition: “the planning, scheduling, or performing of a program.”

Among British references, the Collins English Dictionary has only one definition—the one you’re peeved about: “television programmes collectively.”

But another British source, the Macmillan English Dictionary, defines it more broadly as both “the planning and development of television or radio programmes” as well as “the programmes that a particular television or radio station broadcasts.”

What do we think? We feel it’s OK to use either “programming” or “programs” to refer collectively to shows on radio or TV.

The use of the word “programming” in the broadcast sense first showed up in the mid-1920s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the term has been used since the 1890s for the writing of program notes and the scheduling of programs for events or performances.

You may be surprised that the noun “program” has been around since the 1600s, according to written examples in the OED.

At first, it meant a notice displayed in public, then a written preface or commentary, and later a planned series of activities or events.

The OED’s first example of “program” used in the sense of a broadcast presentation is from the March 10, 1922, issue of Variety:

“Among the theatres which will provide acts exclusively for the ‘Star’s’ radio programs are the Shubert, Orpheum … Royal and 12th streets.”

English adopted the word from programma, late Latin for a proclamation or edict, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is the classical Greek word for a written public notice.

Why is the word spelled “program” in the US and “programme” in the UK? You can blame the French—or, rather Francophile Brits—for the UK spelling.

The word used to be spelled “program” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the OED, but in Britain the “influence of French programme led to the predominance of this spelling in the 19th cent.”

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Is “go viral” going viral?

Q: Why are so many things going viral? Pictures of cute puppies or kittens or kids may be widely seen on YouTube, but “viral”? An ugly image, and it’s wildly overused. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. And now you can move on to your next complainer.

A: The verbal phrase “go viral” may be going viral these days, but we kind of like the imagery: the rapid spread of a YouTube video likened to a virus running amok.

The noun “virus” has been around in one sense or another since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from a classical Latin term for a poisonous secretion, a malignant quality, and animal semen, among other things.

When it entered English sometime before 1398, the OED says, the noun referred to either semen or pus, but it later came to mean any infectious substance in the body.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century, though, that the term was used in its modern medical sense, which Oxford defines this way:

“An infectious, often pathogenic agent or biological entity which is typically smaller than a bacterium, which is able to function only within the living cells of a host animal, plant, or microorganism, and which consists of a nucleic acid molecule (either DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat, often with an outer lipid membrane.”

In the 1970s, according to published references in the OED, the word “virus” took on its familiar figurative sense in computing:

“A program or piece of code which when executed causes itself to be copied into other locations, and which is therefore capable of propagating itself within the memory of a computer or across a network, usually with deleterious results.”

OED citations indicate that the adjective “viral” first showed up in the late 1940s and the verbal phrase “go viral” in the late 1980s.

The adjective was used at first in the medical sense. A 1948 citation from a medical work, for example, refers to “viral agents.”

By the late 1980s, the OED says, the adjective was being used in the marketing sense to describe the “rapid spread of information (esp. about a product or service) amongst customers by word of mouth, e-mail, etc.”

A Sept. 31,1989, article in PC User, for example, describes the “viral marketing” of Macintosh computers.

The OED’s earliest citation for “go viral,” the usage you’ve asked about, is from How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (2004), a collection of accounts by young people who influenced elections:

“Their petition also went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks.”

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Yeah, no

Q: We North Queenslanders are considered rednecks even by Australian standards. I thought I’d pass on an example of English usage in this part of the world: Yeah, no, as in “Yeah, no, they should’ve won in the last quarter.”

A: We’ve written on the blog about “yeah,” but we haven’t looked into “yeah, no” until now.

Others, however, have studied this conversational response, which is used by both Americans and Australians.

In fact, Australians may use it, more—at least there’s been more written about “yeah, no” by language scholars in Australia.

A 2004 article in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, quoted the Australian linguist Kate Burridge as saying, “It’s not going to disappear. It’s always hard to predict with language change, but it looks like its use is on the increase.”

The author of the Melbourne article, Bridie Smith, pointed out that English speakers aren’t alone in this usage, since “Germans use a similar ‘ja nein’ and the South Africans ‘ya nay.’ ”

“In Australia,” Smith wrote in 2004, “where the phrase has become entrenched in the past six years, ‘yeah no’ can mean anything from ‘yes, I see that, but can we go back to the earlier topic’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes, I can’t reinforce that point enough.’ ”

The meaning of “yeah, no” depends on its context, Smith says. She quotes Dr. Burridge, the linguist, as saying: “It can emphasise agreement, it can downplay disagreement or compliments, and it can soften refusals.”

Burridge and a colleague, Margaret Florey, published a paper in the Australian Journal of Linguistics in 2002 entitled “ ‘Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English.”

An abstract of the paper said that as of 2002, “Yeah, no” was relatively new in Australian English and served many functions. It kept a conversation rolling, helped with “hedging and face-saving,” and indicated agreement or disagreement.

Since then, American linguists and language watchers have taken note of “yeah, no” in the US.

Linguists have discussed it on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. And articles have been written by Stephen Dodson for Language Hat, by Mark Liberman for the Language Log, and by Ben Yagoda for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Even presidents of the United States aren’t immune. When a radio interviewer in 2011 asked Bill Clinton how he felt about being spoofed on TV comedy shows, Yagoda writes, “The former president replied, ‘Oh yeah, no I thought a lot of the Saturday Night Live guys were great.’ ” 

Liberman surveyed the speech databases in the Linguistic Data Consortium, and found that “in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms.”

In one comment on the ADS list, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter quoted a former New York City police detective as saying on CNN: “Yeah, no, you’re right!”

Lighter added: “There it seems to mean, ‘Yes indeed, and no, I wouldn’t think of contradicting you.’ ” 

But it can also mean disagreement, as in this tweet a few months ago about horror movies: “yeah no i hate blood and guns and stuff like that.”

PS: Readers of the blog have reported sightings (or, rather, hearings) of the usage in New Zealand, in South African English as well as Afrikaans, and in Danish.

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Between times

Q: On the morning news the other day, a reporter said a fire was “between 30 to 50  feet” from something, instead of “between 30 and 50” or “from 30 to 50.” This usage is very common now, but incorrect unless the rules have changed since I was in school.

A: No, English usage hasn’t changed for constructions like these. The word “between” here is accompanied by the conjunction “and” (as in “between X and Y”), while “from” requires the preposition “to” (“from X to Y”).

You’re right, though, that many people confuse these two constructions, so “between” ends up with “to” while “from” ends up with “and.”

We found many examples of the mangled constructions by googling “between 30 to 50” and “from 30 and 50.”

Here’s an example from a Cleveland Clinic tweet: “Why are men between 30 to 50 years of age at the highest rate of suffering from an Achilles tendon rupture?”  

And here’s one from the website of the Flagstaff Cruisers Car Club: “Our membership ranges from 30 and 50 proud and dedicated members each year.”

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat writes about another problem with “between” and “from”—whether they introduce singular nouns or plural ones. Here’s what she wrote:

“OK, it’s not something that’s been keeping you awake nights. But it comes up all the time. The question: When a noun follows between or from, is it singular or plural? The elevator stalled between the ninth and tenth [floor or floors], stranding the boss from the first to the third [week or weeks] in August. See what I mean? A small problem, perhaps, but a common one.

“The answer: Between is followed by a plural noun, and from is followed by a singular one: The elevator stalled between the ninth and tenth floors, stranding the boss from the first to the third week in August.”

The book also offers these examples of the proper way to use “between” and “from” in the constructions you’ve asked about:

“Veronica said she lost her charm bracelet somewhere between Thirty-third and Thirty-seventh streets. Archie searched every inch of pavement from Thirty-third to Thirty-seventh Street before realizing that she had been in a cab at the time.”

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Let’s rustle up an answer

Q: The other day, I asked my office manager  to order me new business cards. Her answer: “Sure, I’ll rustle up some for you.” So where in the world does “rustle up” come from?

A: The verb “rustle” dates back at least as far as the 14th century, and it may have its roots in the early days of Old English.

It originally meant—and still means—to move about with a rustling sound, or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to make a soft, muffled crackling sound when moving.”

The OED says the origin of the word is uncertain, but it’s probably imitative—that is, “rustle” probably imitates the sound it describes.

The dictionary suggests that it may possibly be related to a “small group of very poorly attested Old English words” that refer to making noises: hristan, for example, meant to make a noise, and hrisian meant to shake or rattle.

Over the years, the verb “rustle” took on many different meanings in connection with making noises while moving around. People as well as things noisily rustled “about,” “in,” “through,” “to,” “up,” and so on.

In the 19th century, however, “rustle” took on several colloquial senses in the United States, including the one you’re asking about. Here are the new meanings and their first citations in the OED:

● to stir or rouse oneself into action: “Get up, rouse and rustle about, and get away from these scores” (1835, The Partisan, a novel by William Gilmore Simms).

● to search for food, forage: “Cattle and horses rustled in the neighbouring cane-brake” (1835, The Rambler in North America, a travel book by Charles Joseph Latrobe).

● to acquire, gather, provide something: “He nailed my thumb in his jaws, and rostled up a handful of dirt & throwed it in my eyes” (1844, Spirit of the Times, a weekly newspaper in New York City).

● to move quickly: “ ‘Rustle the things off that table,’ means clear the table in a hurry” (1882, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine).

● to gather people or animals: “I just told Billy … that it wasn’t any use for me to take her through … and he could rustle up some one to finish my drive” (1883, Our Deseret Home, by W. M. Eagan).

● to round up and steal cattle, horses, etc.: “He and Turner … went to Coppinger’s pasture, intending to kill the negro Frank, and ‘rustle’ six head of fat cattle, then in Coppinger’s pasture” (1886, Texas Court of Appeals Reports).

The sense that you’ve asked about (to acquire, gather, provide something) is defined more fully in the OED:

“To acquire or gather, typically as a result of searching or employing effort or initiative, and in response to a particular need; to provide (a person) with something urgently required; to hunt out; (freq. in later use) to put together (a dish or meal). Now usu. with up.”

Now, it’s time for us to take a break and rustle up some grub!

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Problems, problems

Q: Many people use “problematic” to mean “posing a problem,” as Frank Luntz did when he told a group of college students that Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio were “problematic” for the Republican Party. Isn’t this usage problematic?

A: Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster, made his comment on April 22, 2013, to students at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

He said Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and other conservative radio personalities were “problematic” for Republicans and “destroying” their ability to connect with more voters.

Is this usage problematic—that is, questionable? We don’t think so.

Luntz was using “problematic” as an adjective meaning “presenting a problem or difficulty,” a usage that’s been around since the early 1600s.

In addition, “problematic” (or “problematics”) has been used as a noun since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s how the OED defines the adjective: “Of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty; difficult to resolve; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.”

And this is how the dictionary defines the noun: “A thing that constitutes a problem or an area of difficulty, esp. in a particular field of study.”

English adopted the adjective “problematic” from the French problématique, which was derived via Latin from the Greek problematikos (pertaining to a problem).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that problema, the Greek word for “problem,” combines the prefix pro, or forward, with the verb ballein, or throw (source of the English word “ballistic”).

“Things that are ‘thrown out’ project and can get in the way and hinder one,” Ayto says, “and so problema came to be used for an ‘obstacle’ or ‘problem’—senses carried through into the English problem.”

If you’d like to read more, we discussed “problematic” and the older adjective “problematical” in a posting five years ago.

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Death, the great intensifier

Q: I find the death imagery in a sentence like “I love her to death” to be inappropriate and grotesque. I’d be thrilled (though not to death) if you would write something about this on the blog.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t be thrilled by our answer. We don’t find the usage inappropriate or grotesque.

In fact, it has a long history, going back to the 1300s, though it’s often used negatively, not positively as in your example.

We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them list the use of “to death” in this sense as standard English for excessively or extremely.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “to death” (or “to dead”) has been used since the Middle Ages to intensify verbs of feeling or adjectives.

The OED defines the phrase in this sense as “to the last extremity, to the uttermost, to the point of physical or nervous exhaustion, beyond endurance.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1400: “Herodias him hated to ded.”

And here’s an example from John Dryden’s 1672 play The Conquest of Granada: “I’m sad to death, that I must be your Foe.”

The common verbal phrase “to do something to death” showed up in Victorian times, according to published references in the OED.

Oxford’s earliest written example is from Recaptured Rhymes (1882), a collection of verse from the Saturday Review by the British writer Henry Duff Traill: “I am also called Played-out and Done-to-death, / And It-will-wash-no-more.”

The most recent citation is from an April 16, 1965, article in the New Statesman that describes a tune as “mercilessly done to death by countless performers.”

Although all the OED citations for the intensifier use it in a negative sense, we often see “to death” used positively and see nothing wrong with using the phrase for doing something intensely positive—like loving someone to death!

In case you’re wondering, the word “death” first showed up in Old English around 725 in Beowulf, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It ultimately comes from reconstructed Proto-Germanic and Indo-European words for the act of dying.

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The singularity of Mother’s Day

Q: Which is correct, Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day? I have a customer who wants to use the name as an imprint on promotional gifts for the holiday. I think of Mother’s Day as singular possessive, my mother, but in this case is it correct?

A: We also think it’s Mother’s Day, and so do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult—five American and five British.

More to the point, Anna Jarvis, the woman primarily responsible for the modern holiday honoring mothers, thought so as well, according to a dissertation by the historian Katharine Antolini.

In “Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother’s Day,” Antolini says Jarvis wanted the singular possessive to emphasize that the day was to honor one’s own mother, not mothers in general.

As for common usage, “Mother’s Day” is the overwhelming favorite, according to our searches of online databases, though you’ll find many examples of the plural-possessive “Mothers’ Day” and the apostrophe-free “Mothers Day.”

Although the modern holiday originated in the US in the early 20th century, people have been celebrating mothers in one way or another since ancient times.

The specific term “Mother’s Day,” however, didn’t show up in print until the 19th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 3, 1874, issue of the New York Times:

“ ‘Mother’s Day,’ which was inaugurated in this City on the 2d of June, 1872, by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, was celebrated last night at Plimpton Hall by a mother’s peace meeting.” (We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on the citation.)

The OED points out that Howe saw Mother’s Day not as a day to honor mothers (the modern sense) but as a “day on which mothers met to advocate peace, as by the dissolution of a standing army, etc.”

Howe, an abolitionist and social activist, is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (The music is from the song “John Brown’s Body.”)

Like Howe, Anna Jarvis’s mother—Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis—was an activist who organized women for various social causes.

After the death of her mother on May 9, 1905, Anna Jarvis organized several “Mother’s Day” services and began a campaign, with the help of the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, to make Mother’s Day a national holiday.

The first two services—on May 12, 1907, and May 10, 1908—were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Jarvis’s mother had taught Sunday school.

The national campaign got off to a bumpy start. On May 9, 1908, Senator Elmer Burkett, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a resolution to recognize the following day as Mother’s Day.

But as an article in the May 10, 1908, issue of the New York Times reports, the resolution inspired “a number of witty sallies” in the Senate and was referred to the Judiciary Committee where “it will be permitted to sleep peacefully.”

Interestingly, Burkett’s resolution used the plural possessive, according to an OED citation from the Congressional Record for May 9, 1908: “Resolved, That Sunday, May 10, 1908, be recognized as Mothers’ Day.”

Jarvis pressed ahead with her Mother’s Day campaign, writing letters and sending pamphlets to public officials. Two years after the Burkett resolution was put to rest, she had her first victory.

In 1910, William Glasscock, the Governor of West Virginia, proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and soon the holiday spread to other states.

In 1912, Jarvis trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May,” and established the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the holiday around the world.

On May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day.

The American holiday inspired Mother’s Day observances around the world, but the date of the celebration varied from country to country.

In Britain, for example, where the holiday is also called Mothering Sunday (a name with roots in a religious ceremony dating back to the 16th century), it’s celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

A final note: Anna Jarvis, who was childless, began campaigning in the 1920s against the commercialization of Mother’s Day. She denounced confectioners, florists, and other commercial interests that she accused of gouging the public.

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Is “offshore of” off-putting?

Q: Several times recently I’ve come across the usage “offshore of” in copy I’m editing. It sounds dead wrong to my ears, but I’m having difficulty explaining why to my client. Can you clarify?

A: You’re right in thinking that the “of” is unnecessary in a phrase like “offshore of Cuba.”

But we don’t think this redundancy is a hanging offense, since the use of “offshore” as a preposition is relatively new, and many people seem to be uncomfortable with it.

When “offshore” is used as a preposition, it means “off the shore or coast of,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So the “of” is already built in.

As we’ve written before on our blog, “offshore” has been used as both an adverb and an adjective since the great seafaring days of the 18th century.

The use of the word as a preposition, however, dates from only the 1960s, according to published examples in the OED.

Here are Oxford’s citations, and note that “offshore” is not accompanied by “of” in any of them.

1967: “Atlantic refining and Phillips Petroleum have announced the first discovery of natural gas in the Gulf of Sirte offshore Libya.” (From the journal Ocean Industry.)

1988: This year’s Fireball Nationals … were held offshore Durban over Easter.” (From a South African journal, Sailing Inland & Offshore.)

1995: A ground ice ridge or stamukha off-shore Sakhalin Island.” (From the Lamp, a magazine for Exxon shareholders.)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the first known use of the preposition is from 1965, but it doesn’t give the source. M-W similarly defines the preposition “offshore” as meaning “off the shore of.”

Although “of” is unnecessary with the preposition “offshore,” many people prefer to tack it on anyway.

A Google search turned up hundreds of thousands of such usages—“offshore of San Diego,” “offshore of Nome,” “offshore of Captiva Island,” “offshore of Plymouth, MA.,” “offshore of the Bahamas,” and so on.

This isn’t surprising. To many ears, the use of “offshore” as a freestanding preposition— “The plane crashed offshore Nantucket”—may seem uncomfortably abrupt.

English speakers are more used to a construction like “off the coast of Nantucket” or “off the shore of Nantucket.”

Perhaps that’s why “offshore of Nantucket” feels more natural to many speakers.

Update [May 22, 2013]: After we posted this entry, the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported several earlier uses of “offshore” as a preposition, including one that beats the OED and Merriam-Webster’s sightings by a decade.

Writing on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list, Zimmer reported this finding, from the December 1955 issue of Gas Age:   “… the company has filed an application with the FPC for a certificate of necessity to build a submarine gas pipe line offshore the Coast of Louisiana from the Sabine River to the coast of  the state of Mississippi.”

Then another contributor to the ADS list, Garson O’Toole, unearthed this World War II usage from a June 1942 issue of the State Times in Baton Rouge, La: “Lt. (j. g.) Robert Connel Taylor son of Mr. and Mrs. D. H. Taylor of this city, is recuperating at the naval hospital at Pearl Harbor from wounds received during the bombing of Midway preceding the great air-naval battle offshore the island, a letter received by his parents today disclosed.”

Thanks, Ben and Garson!

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Why “stereo” in “stereotypical”?

Q: Can you tell me what’s “stereo” about the adjective “stereotypical”?

A: The combining form “stereo-” that shows up in such words as “stereotype” and “stereophonic” is derived from stereos, a classical Greek word meaning solid.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the first English compound noun formed from this word element, “stereometry,” showed up in the 16th century as a mathematical term for the measurement of solid or three-dimensional objects.

English borrowed “stereotype” in the late 18th century from French, where it was an adjective that meant printed by means of a solid plate of type.

In English, the word began life as a noun for a method of printing in which a solid plate (originally of metal and later of paper or plastic) is formed from a mold of composed type, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the mid-19th century, “stereotype” took on the figurative sense of something fixed or perpetuated without change.

And in the early 20th century, the word took on the familiar, modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of this usage is from a 1922 essay by Walter Lippmann in the journal Public Opinion:

“A stereotype may be so consistently and authoritatively transmitted in each generation from parent to child that it seems almost like a biological fact.”

Interestingly, the adjective you’ve asked about, “stereotypical,” didn’t show up until the mid-20th century, according to published references in the OED.

The earliest citation is from the July 1949 issue of Commentary: The stereotypical Negro, the unstinting giver.”

But Oxford has entries for two earlier adjectives: “stereotypic,” which first showed up in print in 1801, and “stereotyped,” which appeared in 1849. These two words initially referred to the printing process, but later took on figurative meanings.

You didn’t ask, but we’ll tell you what “stereo-” is doing in “stereophonic,” an adjective that appeared in the 1920s.

Remember, the combining form originally meant solid or three-dimensional when it showed up in the 16th century.

In “stereophonic,” it refers to the lifelike or three-dimensional sound created by having two or more speakers.

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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. Today’s topic: the language of Mother’s Day. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

English English language Grammar Usage

Genitively speaking

Q: I’m confused by a passage in your “Sui genitive!” post about when to use a singular noun and when to use a plural in adjectival phrases: “two-dollar word” vs. “Thirty Years’ War.”

A: Here’s the relevant passage from our Aug. 10, 2010, post about adjectival phrases (we’ll set it off in italics).

Normally, nouns used with numbers to form adjectival phrases are singular, as in “two-inch rain,” “three-year-old boy,” “two-dollar word,” “eight-volume biography,” and “four-star restaurant.”

However, where a plural noun is used by tradition to form such a phrase, it’s generally followed by an apostrophe, as in “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Hundred Years’ War.”

What we mean is that adjectival phrases consisting of a number plus a noun (like “thirty-year” and “two-dollar”) are normally formed with a singular noun (“year,” “dollar”).

This is true whether the noun being modified by the adjectival phrase is singular or plural.

Hence expressions like “thirty-year mortgages” and “two-dollar words.” We don’t say “thirty-years mortgages” and “two-dollars words.” The noun that’s part of the adjectival phrase stays singular.

Now for the “however” exception we mention in our earlier post.

Sometimes a phrase like this becomes plural, loses its hyphen, and gains an apostrophe. An example is “six dollars’ worth” (instead of “six-dollar worth”).

Here the phrase is being used in the genitive case. (If the genitive seems possessive, that’s because the possessive is one of its forms.)

The genitive is used in a handful of expressions, many of them involving numbers, that have developed by tradition or convention.

The genitive is used, for instance, when the noun “worth” is modified by a numerical phrase, as in “five cents’ worth” or “three days’ worth” or “two cups’ worth.”

Ask yourself, How much worth? The worth “of five cents” or “of three days” or “of two cups.” The apostrophe signifies that an unspoken “of” is involved here.

The genitive is also used when the noun “experience” is modified with a numerical phrase, as in “20 years’ experience.” How much experience? The experience “of 20 years.” Again, the apostrophe signifies an unspoken “of.” 

The “of” (whether present or not) is also characteristic of possessives. Possession is sometimes indicated with an apostrophe and sometimes with “of.” Examples: “the boy’s feet” … “the feet of the boy.” 

As we said, one function of the genitive is to denote possession. However, the definition of “possession” is sometimes hazy, as with “the river’s edge” (or “the edge of the river”). This is why “genitive” is a wider term than “possessive” alone.

With genitive phrases, whether they include numbers or not, you can usually picture an imaginary “of,” as in these examples:

“two weeks’ pay” … the pay of two weeks

“six hours’ time” … the time of six hours

“for convenience’ sake” … for the sake of convenience

“three days’ work” … the work of three days

“a summer’s day” … a day of summer

“for old times’ sake” … for the sake of old times

“in harm’s way” … in the way of harm

“at wits’ end” … at the end of one’s wits

These genitive constructions are different from simple adjectival phrases. They have a different kind of relationship with the noun they modify (as we discussed in that blog entry).

A special note about names of wars. The names for historical events are handed down by tradition—sometimes you’ll see a hyphen and sometimes not.

That accounts for why we see both “the Thirty Years’ War” (a genitive usage for “a war of thirty years”), and “the Six-Day War” (a simple adjectival phrase).

Historical names like these develop through common usage, and not according to grammatical rules.

To sum up, when numbers are used in modifying phrases, MOST of the modifiers will be singular and hyphenated: “Senators serve six-year terms” (note the singular “year”).

But when the phrase isn’t merely adjectival, but functions as a genitive—as if it owns, or possesses, the noun it modifies—then drop the hyphen and use an apostrophe:

“He has six years’ experience in the Senate.” (Imagine it as “the experience OF six years.”)

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The “poke” in “slowpoke”

Q:  In Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, a father tells his son that “slow coaches” get left behind. He uses “slow coach” the way I’d use “slowpoke.” Which term is more popular? And where does “slowpoke” come from?

A: Both terms refer to a slow or idle person, and both showed up in the 19th century—“slow coach” first in the UK and “slowpoke” soon after in the US.

So it’s not surprising to find “slow coach” used in Mistry’s novel about four people thrust together in a cramped apartment in India. The author himself was born and brought up in India, where English is of the British variety.

Which term is more popular? “Slowpoke” (or “slow poke”) by far, with 2.2 million hits on Google compared with 443,000 for “slowcoach” (or “slow coach”).

But a lot depends on where you live. “Slowcoach” shows up more often in the UK and Commonwealth countries. “Slowpoke” is seen more often in the US. (Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked prefer the single-word versions of these terms.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “slowpoke” as “colloq., chiefly U.S.” However, most of the OED’s citations for the term are from British writers.

The earliest Oxford citation for “slowpoke” is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “ ‘What a slow poke you are!’ A woman’s word.”

But the next citation is from an 1877 British glossary of words used in East Yorkshire: “Slaw-pooak … a dunce; a driveller.” (In Old English, slaw means obtuse or dull.)

The most recent OED example is from Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children: “Come on, slowpoke, you don’t want to be late.”

The OED’s earliest citation for “slowcoach” is from Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837):

“What does this allusion to the slow coach mean? … It may be a reference to Pickwick himself, who has … been a criminally slow coach during the whole of this transaction.”

The term “slowcoach” is clearly a figurative use of a literal phrase for a slow-moving vehicle. So where does “slowpoke” come from?

The OED raises the possibility that the second half of the compound may be derived from apooke, a Virginia Algonquian term for tobacco that literally means “thing for smoking.”

The dictionary says the English word “poke” used in this sense referred to “a plant (of uncertain identity) used by North American Indians for smoking; the dried leaves of this plant.”

“Plants with which poke has been identified,” Oxford adds, “include a lobelia (Lobelia inflata), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), all also called Indian tobacco.”

The dictionary, in its “slowpoke” entry, points the reader to its entry for the tobacco sense of “poke,” but it doesn’t speculate about any connection between the two words.

If there is a connection, perhaps the term for a slow-burning or slow-igniting wild tobacco may have been used figuratively to mean a slow-moving person.

A more likely etymology, we think, is that “poke” here is derived from “poky” and “poking,” adjectives meaning, among other things, slow or dawdling.

Those two adjectives are derived in turn from the verb “poke,” which can mean to potter about or dawdle away.

The OED’s first citation for “poke” used in this sense is from one of our favorite books, Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “Lord bless me! how do you think I can live poking by myself?”

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Parsing the Preamble

Q: I’m puzzled by this phrase from the Preamble: “in order to form a more perfect union.” What part of speech is “in order to”? It looks like a preposition. But how can the verb “form” be an object of a preposition? I struggle with this.

 A: You’ve raised an interesting Constitutional question. The short answer is that “in order to” is an idiomatic phrase that might be translated “so as to” and is followed by a verb.

As to what parts of speech are in play here, we think you can regard “in order to form” and similar constructions in two different ways:

(1) “In order to” is a compound preposition that has a bare infinitive (“form”) as its object.

(2) “In order” is a compound preposition that has a “to” infinitive (“to form”) as its object. The “to” here isn’t actually part of the infinitive, as we’ve written before on the blog.

In our opinion, arguing for one view over the other would be splitting hairs.

“In order” may not look like a preposition, but it functions like one, resembling “so as.” And as we’ll explain later, an infinitive can indeed be the object of a preposition.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an explanation that agrees with our option #2 above. Cambridge describes “in order” as a preposition followed by either a “to” infinitive or by a clause starting with “that.”

The “in order that” construction, according to Cambridge, “is somewhat more formal and considerably less frequent” than one with the “to” infinitive. 

And “in order that” requires the use of more words. As Cambridge notes, it often calls for “a modal auxiliary,” such as “might” or “can.”

Take a sentence like “I left work early in order that I might go to the gym.” It’s much wordier than “I left work early in order to go to the gym.” (In fact, as we’ve written before on the blog, you can often drop “in order” and be even less wordy!)

The Cambridge Grammar adds that the subjunctive mood is sometimes used with “in order that,” giving this example: “The administration had to show resolve in order that he not be considered a lame-duck president.” (Note the subjunctive “be.”)

But getting back to “in order to,” we were surprised to find only one standard dictionary that analyzes how the phrase functions as a part of speech.

The Collins English Dictionary calls “in order to” a preposition that is followed by an infinitive. Collins defines the phrase as meaning “so that it is possible to.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language (5th ed.) simply say the phrase means “for the purpose of.”

But that definition is problematic on a literal level, since you can’t swap one expression for the other.

“For the purpose of” is followed by a gerund, like “forming,” while “in order to” is followed by an infinitive, like “form.” (A gerund ends in “-ing” and acts like a noun.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says “in order to” is used “with infinitive expressing purpose.” It defines the phrase as meaning “so as to do or achieve (some end or outcome).”

The OED’s first example of the usage is from the 1609 Douay translation of the Bible: “These are they that speak to Pharao, king of Egypt, in order to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.”

A less lofty example is this caption from a 1994 issue of Food and Wine magazine: “True risotto must be stirred continuously in order to develop its unique texture.”

You expressed some doubt as to whether a verb can be the object of a preposition.

As we wrote on the blog in 2010, an infinitive as well as a gerund can be a direct object. We’ve also written about bare versus “to” infinitives several times, including posts in 2009 and 2013

We’ll add here that it’s not unusual for an infinitive—bare or not—to be the object of a preposition. For example, in all of these sentences, infinitives (both bare and with “to”) are the objects of prepositions:

“He can do everything but cook” … “She had no choice except to lie” … “I’d rather starve instead of steal” …  “We have better things to do than to argue” …”They were about to leave” … “He opened his mouth as if to speak.” (When used in this way, “as if” has a prepositional function, according to Cambridge.)

Finally, a Constitutional footnote. In case you’re bothered by the Founders’ use of  “more perfect” in that passage from the Preamble, take a look at our post on the subject.

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English English language Grammar Usage


Q: Could you provide 100 examples of the correct use of “who” vs. “whom”?  Most authorities explain the principles, but don’t provide enough examples. Also, is it “First  … Second … Third” or “Firstly … Secondly … Thirdly” in a prose list of things?

A: First (or firstly), we’ll answer your second question. As we explained in a posting a few years ago, both versions are OK.

Now for “who” versus “whom,” a subject we’ve often discussed on the blog.

We won’t give you 100 examples, just a handful of typical sentences in which “who” and “whom” are used correctly, followed by the relevant rules, plus links to the posts in which we discuss them.

 (1) “Nathan wouldn’t tell Miss Adelaide whom he invited to his crap game.”

Rule: If it’s an object, it’s “whom.” Don’t be misled by extraneous information—strip the sentence down mentally and rearrange to find the subject, verb, and object of the relevant clause: “he invited whom.” (May 12, 2012)

(2) “Nathan invited only guys who he thought played for high stakes.”

Rule: If it’s a subject, it’s “who.” Don’t be misled by extraneous information—strip the clause down to “who played for high stakes.” (May 12, 2012)

(3) “It involves all girls, of all races and backgrounds, many of whom are held back by societal barriers.”

Rule: Don’t be confused by “of whom” in phrases like “many of whom,” “several of whom,” “most of whom,” “all of whom,” “few of whom,” “one of whom,” and so on. The subject in such a phrase is what precedes “of.” (Aug. 5, 2012)

(4) “Who does the manager think will be the most efficient employee, she or he?”  … “This is the friend who I said wanted to meet you.”

Rule: Don’t be misled by information that comes between subject and verb. In the examples, “who” is the subject of the verbs “will” and “wanted.” (May 12, 2012)

(5) “Give it to whoever needs it.”

Rule:  When the pronoun is the subject of a verb (“needs” in this case), it’s “who” (or “whoever”), even when it directly follows a preposition. The object of the preposition isn’t the pronoun; it’s a clause in which the pronoun is the subject. (Sept. 1, 2008)

(6) “Who else was there for me to talk to?”

Rule: The main clause in this sentence—“Who else was there”—is an interrogative clause with “who” as its subject. The additional information afterward doesn’t change that. (April 18, 2013)

Now for some wiggle room:

(7) “Who [or Whom] did you go to the movies with?”  … “Who’s [or Whom is] the letter from?” In these sentences, “whom” is grammatically correct but “who” may be used informally.

Rule: At the beginning of a phrase or clause, “whom” can be grammatically correct but unnatural in everyday usage. In such cases, “who” can be used. We don’t recommend this after a preposition, though, as in “That depends on whom you ask.” (Nov. 18, 2010)

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Alternating currents

Q: I’m an Australian television producer. I keep seeing “alternate” used instead of “alternative,” as in, “If you would like to choose an alternate date and time, please contact our office.” Is the battle lost? Is “alternate” now an alternative for “alternative”?

A: American dictionaries now consider the adjective “alternate” an acceptable substitute for “alternative.” So in the US it’s not incorrect to speak of an “alternate date and time.”

But British dictionaries generally observe the traditional distinction between these two words. We’ve checked four British dictionaries and only one (Collins) lists “alternative” without qualification among the definitions of “alternate.”

In the US, “alternate” has increasingly taken over territory once reserved for “alternative.” If you’ve noticed this in Australia too, it could mean that the tendency is drifting to other English-speaking countries as well.

The history of these two words, however, isn’t as clear-cut as some people think.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the adjective “alternative,” dating from 1540, uses the term to mean “alternate.” And the OED’s entry for the adjective “alternate” has citations going back to 1776 for the word used to mean “alternative.”

Oxford describes this “alternative” sense of “alternate” as “Chiefly N. Amer.” However, the dictionary’s three earliest citations are from British sources.

Despite the fuzzy origins of these two words, usage guides in both the US and the UK traditionally have recommended separate meanings for “alternate” and “alternative”—both as nouns and as adjectives.

Typically, “alternate” has been used to mean one after the other (or by turns), while “alternative” has been used to mean one instead of the other.

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat illustrates this with a couple of sentences: “Walking requires alternate use of the left foot and the right. The alternative is to take a taxi.”

And of course people in the US as well as the UK still commonly use “alternate” and “alternative” in those senses.

But some broader uses developed in the US during the 20th century, and they’re accepted today in American English.

A good example is the use of “alternate” as an adjective to mean something like “substitute,” as in “We took an alternate route to Plainfield.”

In discussing this use “of alternate where alternative might be expected,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites examples going back to the 1930s, and says the citations “begin to show up in some numbers in the 1940s and 1950s.”

In fact the Book-of-the-Month Club, with its “alternate selections,” has been routinely using the adjective this way for more than half a century.

And as a noun, too, “alternate” is commonly used in the US to mean a substitute, as in “He’s an alternate on the jury,” or “Rogers was sent into the game as an alternate,” or “The commission has five regular members and three alternates.”

“Alternative” has taken on some new roles too. As an adjective, for example, it’s often used to mean antiestablishment or out of the mainstream, as in “alternative school,” “alternative medicine,” “alternative newspaper,” and so on.

One meaning of “alternative,” however, hasn’t changed—the noun that means “other choice.” Think of sentences like “You leave me no alternative” (or Pat’s example, “The alternative is to take a taxi”).

Getting back to your original question, it appears that Americans are increasingly using “alternate” when they want an adjective and “alternative” when they want a noun.

As the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide explains, “alternative is becoming more and more a noun, and the adjective appears to be in the process of being replaced (at least in American English) by alternate.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield, makes a similar observation.

In American English during the 20th century, Burchfield notes, the adjective “alternate” has “usurped some of the territory of alternative in its ordinary sense” of one instead of another.

So, Burchfield says, “A route, a material, a lyric, etc., can be described as ‘alternate’ rather than (as in the UK) ‘alternative.’”

The usage you mention—“an alternate date and time”—is further evidence of the same trend.

But try not to think of this as a battle lost! Think of it as another step in the evolution of English usage. After all “usage” means exactly that—the way words are used.

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