English English language Etymology Religion Usage Word origin

Hallowe’en be thy name

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Mostly, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“Body” or “bodily” fluids?

Q: With all the attention on Ebola, there is increased use of the term “bodily fluids.” I keep muttering at the TV screen whenever I hear this pretentious phrase. My gut says it should be “body fluids.” What is your opinion?

A: Both phrases are OK, so use whichever one sounds best to your ear—or to your gut.

The word “bodily” has been used as an adjective since the 1200s, and the noun “body” has been used adjectivally nearly as long.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bodily” used as an adjective is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1300.

We’ll skip the OED citation, since most of our readers will probably find this different example from the same poem somewhat easier to read: Of bodili substance if þu wil witt, Manis saule þat es it. (The letter thorn, þ, here was pronounced like “th.”)

The earliest Oxford example of “body” used adjectivally is from King Horn, a Middle English poem written around 1225: Þu art kniȝt … of grete strengþe & fair o bodie lengþe. (The letter yogh, ȝ, was pronounced like a “y.”)

Standard dictionaries now list “bodily” as either an adjective or an adverb.

The adverb, which dates from the 14th century, has to do with the body as a physical entity, and is seen in phrases like “they were bodily present” and “thrown bodily from the room.”

As an adjective, however, “bodily” usually concerns the inner workings of the body.

Oxford Dictionaries online gives this example of “bodily” used as an adjective: “children learn to control their bodily functions.”

As for the phrases “bodily fluids” and “body fluids,” the “bodily” version appears to be older, with examples in Google Books dating from the 1700s.

Here’s an example of “bodily fluids” from Mammuth, or Human Nature Displayed on a Grand Scale, a 1789 travel book by the Scottish writer William Thomson:

“A revulsion in the bodily fluids, occasioned by sea sickness, or some other cause, often effects the most surprising bodily cures.”

And here’s an example of “body fluids” from an 1891 issue of the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society: “The germicidal action of human blood and other body-fluids was effectually removed by heating it for half an hour up to 60 degrees.”

As for the word “body,” it’s something of an etymological mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“For a word so central to people’s perception of themselves,” Ayto writes, “body is remarkably isolated linguistically.”

The noun, spelled bodæi in early Old English, has a cousin in Old High German (botah, potah, etc.), “but otherwise it is without known relatives in any other Indo-European language,” Ayto says.

Finally, you may wonder why “Ebola” is always capitalized. The virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an outbreak occurred in 1976.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’s on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

English English language Grammar Usage

The compleat dangler

Q: I searched your website for info on dangling participles, but nothing came up. Am I doing something wrong, or has no one yet asked about this?

A: Aside from a couple of passing mentions, we haven’t gone into this topic on our blog, so what better time?

Here’s what a dangling participle looks like: “Peeing nonchalantly on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

The participle here is the word “peeing” (note the “-ing”), which is part of the larger participial phrase “peeing nonchalantly on the rug.”

We call this a “dangling participle” because it’s not securely attached to what it’s supposed to modify—the incontinent Chihuahua. As the sentence is arranged, Paris is the culprit, not the dog.

Another “-ing” word that’s often left to dangle is the gerund, an “-ing” word that acts like a noun and that can be the object of a preposition. Here’s an example of a dangling gerund: “After peeing on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she uses that howler as an example of the kind of error that your grammar checker won’t catch.

We can usually fix this by properly attaching the modifying phrase: “After peeing on the rug, Paris’s Chihuahua got a scolding.” Better yet: “Paris scolded her Chihuahua for peeing on the rug.”

In a nutshell, a participle or gerund (or a participial or gerund phrase) will attach itself to the closest noun (or noun phrase). All you have to do to avoid a dangler—a modifier that’s badly attached—is place it closer to what it modifies.

To be fair, a reader or listener usually makes the mental adjustment and won’t misunderstand you. But if you don’t want to be inadvertently funny, it’s best to avoid danglers.

Some readers have very literal minds, so don’t make them smile unless you mean to!

Of course, not all danglers are as obvious as the ones about Paris and her dog.

Here’s a less noticeable one: “Walking to work, my hat blew off.” What’s wrong here is that as the sentence is worded, the hat was walking to work.

This is easily fixed: “As I was walking to work, my hat blew off.”  Or, “My hat blew off as I was walking to work.”

Dangling participles and gerunds aren’t the only kinds of danglers. A dangler, as Pat writes in Woe Is I, is simply any word or phrase that inadvertently describes the wrong thing.

Here, for instance, is a dangling prepositional phrase: “As a den mother, Ms. Basset’s station wagon was always full of Cub Scouts.”

The phrase “as a den mother” is attached not to Ms. Basset but to her car. The solution is to make the phrase modify her: “As a den mother, Ms. Basset always had her station wagon full of Cub Scouts.”

And here’s a dangling adjectival phrase: “Dumpy and overweight, the vet says our dog needs more exercise.”

The phrase “dumpy and overweight” should be pinned on the dog, not the vet: “Dumpy and overweight, our dog needs more exercise, according to the vet.”

A more graceful solution would be to rewrite the sentence: “The vet says our dog needs more exercise because she’s dumpy and overweight.”

A final word, from the “The Compleat Dangler” chapter in Woe Is I:

“Danglers show up in newspapers and bestsellers, on the network news and highway billboards, and they can be endlessly entertaining—as long as they’re perpetrated by someone else.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Grammar Linguistics Usage

The imperative’s new clothes?

Q: I’ve searched all over the Internet for an explanation of the third-person imperative, but everybody seems to have a different opinion. I’m thoroughly confused. If you can help, I’ll be forever thankful.

A: Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the “third-person imperative.” But there are second-person imperatives that are addressed to third-person subjects, as we’ll explain.

The imperative mood is used for expressing commands, requests, and so on. So by its very nature an imperative is directly addressed to someone, and an imperative sentence typically has the second-person “you” as its implied subject.

This “you” is generally omitted, as in “Have a drink” … “Hurry up!” … “Look!” … “Be a pal.” But sometimes it’s present: “You be careful” … “Go away, you!”

At times, the implied “you” is represented by “someone” or “somebody” or some other subject that’s grammatically in the third person. Examples: “Someone please make coffee” …  “Dim the lights, somebody” … “Those with tickets form a line to the right” … “Passengers please remain seated.”

Those are examples of imperatives in which the people being addressed are expressed in the third person and not as “you.” But nevertheless, these are all second-person constructions, because the speaker directly addresses the subject.

As Otto Jespersen writes in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933), “Any imperative is virtually in the second person, even if seemingly addressed to a ‘third person.’ ”

Jespersen uses these examples: “Oh, please, someone go in and tell her” … “And bring out my hat, somebody, will you.”  He says that in such sentences, words like “someone” or “somebody” mean “one of you present.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains that when an imperative is addressed to “somebody” or “all those in the front row,” the subjects “are also interpreted as ‘somebody among you,’ ‘all those of you in the front row.’ ”

So don’t be misled by imperatives addressed to subjects expressed in the third-person. These are still second-person constructions.

We found another explanation in A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of the English Imperative (2012), by Hidemitsu Takahashi.

The author says “an inherent feature of the imperative” is “the second person of the understood subject.”

This is true, Takahashi says, even when an imperative has an apparently third-person subject, as in (a) “Someone get the barf bag!” (b) “Everyone stand up!” and (c ) “All the boys come forward.”

As the author writes, “The form of imperative subjects such as someone and all the boys is clearly in the third person but their referent is in the second person.”

Those subjects, Takahashi says, are “only superficially in the third person” and “are conceptually in the second person, where the imperative is directed at non-individuated addressees”—that is, to no one in particular.

Even when you’re mentally speaking to yourself (“Where did I put my keys? Let me see. Stop and think now”), you’re addressing yourself from the outside, as if you were speaking to a second-person “you.”

In fact, the addressee doesn’t have to be a person at all—you could be swearing at your car: “Start, dammit!” The car may not be a person, but you’re addressing it as if it were—in the second person.

In short, there is no “third-person imperative.”

Many grammarians, however, recognize another kind of imperative. The Cambridge Grammar calls this the “1st person inclusive let-imperative”—as in the examples “Let’s open the window” and “Let’s borrow Kim’s car.”

Don’t misunderstand us here. This is not the same “let” as the one used to mean “allow,” as in “Let them go” or “Just let the baby cry.” Those are second-person imperatives addressed to an assumed “you.”

This “1st person inclusive let-imperative,” sometimes called the “let’s imperative,” has an implied “we” as its subject. The command, request, or whatever is addressed to the speaker plus one or more others, so it’s in the first-person plural. (Some grammarians, in fact, call it the “first-person plural imperative.”)

As Cambridge says, the verb “let” in sentences like “Let’s open the window” and “Let’s borrow Kim’s car” has been “bleached” of the old meaning (“allow”), and now “serves as a marker of this special type of imperative construction.”

Although all of this may seem complicated, the imperative form itself couldn’t be simpler—it’s always identical to the bare (that is, the “to”-less) infinitive. And it can be complete in itself, since an imperative sentence can consist of only a single word: “Eat!”

Imperatives are probably among the most primitive grammatical constructions, and they’re an indispensable feature of language. What would we do without them?

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage

The genitive wars

Q: I question the use of an apostrophe in “Seven Years’ War.” I assume that “Seven Years” is simply an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “War.” However, your “Sui Genitive!” post supports the apostrophe. I have a book on the subject due for publication next year, and I want the correct punctuation on the cover!

A: In our 2010 post, we say expressions like “a three weeks’ holiday” and “in three weeks’ time” have traditionally taken apostrophes.

If you used the noun phrase “a three-week holiday,” no apostrophe would be used; in that case, “three-week” is simply an adjectival phrase.

But “a three weeks’ holiday” is a different animal. Here “three weeks” is a what’s called a genitive construction—the equivalent of “a holiday OF three weeks.”

Similarly, note the apostrophe in such constructions as “he has five years’ experience,” which is equivalent to “experience OF five years, and “a four days’ journey,” which is equivalent to “a journey OF four days” (alternatively, you could use “a four-day journey”).

We’ll quote the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 356) on the use of the apostrophe with genitives:

“Analogous to possessives, and formed like them, are certain expressions based on the old genitive case. The genitive here implies of: in three days’ time; an hour’s delay (or a one-hour delay); six months’ leave of absence (or a six-month leave of absence).”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., p. 647), has the same information. Periods of time and statements of worth are expressed with apostrophes. Garner’s gives these examples: “30 days’ notice (i.e., notice of 30 days), three days’ time, 20 dollars’ worth, and several years’ experience.”

Getting back to your question, “Seven Years’ War” generally takes an apostrophe for the same reason, though it’s sometimes seen without one. Ditto “Hundred Years’ War” and “Thirty Years’ War.”

It would be grammatically correct, of course, to refer to the three conflicts as the “Seven-Year War,” the “Hundred-Year War,” and the “Thirty-Year War,” but those aren’t their traditional names.

However, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War is often referred to as the “Six-Day War,” using an adjectival rather than a genitive construction.

In a 2013 post on our blog, we describe the difference between an adjectival phrase like “two-dollar word” and a genitive phrase like “Thirty Years’ War.”

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

In a genitive version of such a construction, the phrase becomes plural, loses its hyphen, and gains an apostrophe.

Our 2013 post includes a note about historical names, including the names of wars, which “develop through common usage, and not according to grammatical rules.”

“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),” we write.

If you need a big gun as your authority, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the subject of your book this way: “Seven Years’ War, the third Silesian war (1756–1763), in which Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden were allied against Frederick II of Prussia.”

The OED also has this citation, from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, an 1837 book in which the phrase “seven years” is used in the genitive case (though Carlyle uses a hyphen): “In that seven-years’ sleep of his, so much has changed.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

The “worse” case

Q: I’m puzzled by the grammar of this sentence: “Worse, the huge sums spent on subsidizing kerosene make a mockery of government health spending.” What part of speech is the word “worse” here?

A: “Worse” has many functions in English—it can be an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. When it introduces a sentence or a clause, it’s an adverb.

In such a construction, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adverb introduces “an additional clause or sentence containing a further and stronger instance of action which incurs reprobation.”

In other words, when the adverb introduces a sentence or clause, it presents something regarded as worse than what was mentioned before.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 18th century, but we’ll cite a couple of the more recent ones for purposes of illustration:

“He had denied the gods; worse, he had denounced the doings of the gods as evil” (from Gilbert Murray’s Euripides and His Age, 1913). Here, “worse” introduces a clause—a group of words containing a verb and its subject.

“Worse still, he has omitted one leaf” (from Hyder E. Rollins’s anthology of Tudor poems, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, 1926). Here, “worse” introduces a sentence.

When the adverb “worse” isn’t making introductions, it modifies a single verb or adjective, as in “You could do worse” … “Don’t think worse [or ‘the worse’] of him” … “He writes worse than I” … “Back then, girls were worse educated” … “She is worse off.”

As we said, “worse” is also a noun, as in these examples: “for better or worse” … “from bad to worse” … “there was worse to come” … “a change for the worse.”

And it’s an adjective, as in these: “he is bad but she is worse” … “a worse situation” … “there are worse things.” (As an adjective, “worse” is the comparative form of “bad,” and the opposite of “better.”)

There’s even a verb form, “worsen,” meaning to make worse or become worse (that is, deteriorate). It’s been part of English since around 1200 and comes from an earlier, now defunct verb, “worse.”

All four words—the adverb, the noun, the adjective, and the old verb “worse”—were recorded in writing in the 800s, according to OED citations.

All of the forms have ancient roots. Etymologists have traced them to a prehistoric Germanic root reconstructed as werz- or wers-, meaning to entangle, confuse, or bring into discord.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that this root is the ancestor not only of “worse” and the superlative form “worst,” but also of the English noun “war” and the German verb wirren (confuse).

If you’d like to read more, we had a post in 2008 about “worse” versus “worst,” as well as the various versions of the expression “if worse comes to worse.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.­

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Ongoing concerns

Q: I may be wrong, but I am irked by people saying “the investigation is ongoing.” I would say “there is an ongoing investigation” or “the investigation is going on,” but not “the investigation is ongoing.” Am I just plain wrong?

A: “Ongoing” is a legitimate adjective, and typically adjectives can be used either before or after the nouns they modify.

When “ongoing” precedes the noun (as in “an ongoing investigation”) it’s used as an attributive adjective. When it follows the noun (“the investigation is ongoing”), it’s a predicate adjective.

The second usage sounds like bureaucratese to us, and “continuing” or “in progress” would sound less stuffy than “ongoing.” But we can’t find any legitimate argument against this usage.

The adjective “ongoing” has this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “that goes on or is going on; continuing, continuous; that is in progress; current; proceeding, developing.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from an 1841 issue of the Dublin University Magazine: “Nothing better for the ongoing expenses of an establishment, than an attorney’s bills of cost.”

In Oxford’s entry for “ongoing,” all the citations are attributive uses: “this ongoing age” (1851), “a steady on-going thing” (1877), “his on-going cases” (1960), “prior or ongoing … infection” (1984), and others.

But elsewhere in the OED, in unrelated entries, we found examples of “was ongoing” (1991) and “is ongoing” (2003). In fact, “ongoing” is quite often used as a predicate adjective, appearing directly after a linking verb (like “be” or “seem”).

The vast majority of adjectives can be used either way—before a noun (as in “a surprising/unfortunate/historic verdict”) or after (“the verdict was surprising/unfortunate/historic” … “a verdict surprising/unfortunate/historic in its implications”).

There are exceptions, of course. Some adjectives always precede the nouns they modify (like “mere,” “utter,” “former,” “principal”). And a handful of adjectives invariably follow nouns, either directly or with a linking verb in between (like “asleep,” “galore,” “afraid,” “aware”).

But we see no good reason why “ongoing” can’t be used either way. Some similarly constructed adjectives (“forthcoming,” “outstanding,” “outgoing”) can be used either before or after a noun. We can say “She was an outgoing child” or “As a child, she was outgoing.”

The only complaint we can come up with against “ongoing” as a predicate adjective is that it’s not very elegant in our opinion.

Since you’re irked by this usage, you’ll probably be even more irked by two words derived from “ongoing.”

The OED has citations for the use of an adverb, “ongoingly,” and a noun, “ongoingness,” both recorded in the mid-20th century and mercifully uncommon. Here are the OED’s most recent citations for each of them:

Adverb: “I wonder what it must be like to be part of something ongoingly huge like a number-one sitcom” (from Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, 2009).

Noun: “Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness” (from an essay by the poet Mark Strand in the New York Review of Books, 1995).

If you’re being semi-humorous, like Nicholson Baker, or writing art criticism, as Mark Strand was doing, you can get away with “ongoingly” and “ongoingness.” Otherwise, we don’t recommend them.

But to be fair, “ongoing” was a noun before it was anything else. The word was first recorded as a noun in the 1630s, according to the OED, when it meant “the action of proceeding, developing or happening,” or a “continuing or continuous movement or action.”

Oxford’s earliest recorded usage is from a letter written by the Scottish clergyman Samuel Rutherford in 1637: “The Lord, who hath … stopped the on-going of that lawless process.”

There’s a plural form too. “Ongoings” is defined in the OED as meaning the same thing as “goings-on”—that is, “noteworthy actions, proceedings, or doings.”

The earliest use, as far as we know, is from 1673, when local records show that members of a school council in Paisley, Scotland, passed an ordinance because they were “moved by certain ongoings in their midst.” (The “ongoings” involved the sale of alcohol to students.)

This usage is still occasionally found; the OED has a 1999 reference to “ongoings at the eye clinic.”

But we’re partial to “goings-on,” which dates from the late 18th century. As Oxford notes, it “usually” implies censure of some kind. It can mean “questionable proceedings, extravagances, frolics.” We think that’s what the Paisley school council had in mind.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Spelling Style Usage Word origin

The rise and fall of capital letters

Q: In rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m impressed by her use of midline capitals. Can you shed some light on the capitalization of common nouns in 19th-century America? Is it intended for emphasis?

A: When William Caxton introduced printing to England in the 15th century, “great uncertainty” surrounded the use of capital letters, according to the linguist David Crystal.

In The Stories of English (2004), Crystal writes that capital letters were “first used for proper names as well as for sentence and verse-line openings.”

Later, he says, capitals “were extended to any words thought to be important (such as titles, terms of address, and personification) as well as to words receiving special emphasis.”

“During the seventeenth century, virtually any word might be capitalized, if it were felt to be significant, and compositors—to be on the safe side—tended to over-capitalize,” he writes.

In the 19th century, he adds, “a reaction set in against excessive capitalization … and we find the present-day system emerging.”

“Then as now there were heavy and light capitalizers, as well as heavy and light punctuators,” Crystal says. “Indeed, this is one of the areas where standard English is still most unstable, as a glance at the ‘sometimes capitalized’ note in modern dictionaries suggests.”

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Crystal expands on some of these points, noting efforts by John Hart, a 16th-century grammarian and spelling reformer, to bring some order to the language.

“Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun,” he writes. “By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature).  Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital.”

By the beginning of the 18th century, Crystal writes, “the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.”

“Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German)— perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all,” he writes.

Crystal says the use of capitals “was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals.”

“However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language,” he says. “In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.”

We’ll end with “This Is My Letter to the World,” a poem in which Emily Dickinson uses capital letters liberally:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The product in your hair

Q: I had my hair cut the other day and as usual the stylist asked me whether I wanted her to use any product. When did “product” enter our vocabulary as something you buy at a salon?

A: The noun “product,” which first showed up in English in the 15th century as a mathematical term, has taken on many other meanings since then.

The sense you’re asking about (“any commercial preparation used to style the hair”) appeared in the late 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from the April 27, 1989, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The key to making mascara work is ‘to make sure that there is not too much product on it.’ ”

The dictionary notes that the term “product” is occasionally used to mean a cosmetic, which may be how it’s being used in that first example.

Here’s a clearly hairy example from the June 25, 2001, issue of New York Magazine: “I don’t wash my hair or even rinse it after the beach—I just put a lot of product in to make it shiny.”

When the noun “product” first showed up in English, according to the OED, it was far removed from the hair salon. It referred to “the quantity obtained by multiplying two or more quantities together.”

The dictionary’s first citation, written around 1450, is from the Art of Nombryng, a translation of De Arte Numerandi, a 13th-century treatise sometimes attributed to the monk Johannes de Sacrobosco.

The anonymous Middle English translator of the Latin treatise refers to the “product or provenient, of takyng out of one fro another, as twyes 5 is 10.”

Over the years, the OED notes, this sense of “product” has been widely used to mean “any of various other entities (as matrices, permutations, sets, tensors, vectors, etc.) obtained by certain defined processes of combination of two or more entities.”

Other senses of “product” include someone or something produced by a natural process (1600), the value of goods produced (1793), something produced for sale (1825), creative work considered marketable (1974), and illicit drugs (1983).

In other words, “product” has had a very productive life.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A hydra-headed question

Q: Why do so many people say “I can’t get my head around” a problem? I always thought the expression was “I can’t get my arms around” it. You’d have to be a Hydra to get your head around a problem.

A: For dozens of years, people have been trying to get or wrap their heads, minds, brains, or arms around problems (often unsuccessfully, as in the example you mention).

The older of these expressions appears to be to “get one’s head around” something, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary has been tracking since the 1920s.

The OED defines the expression and its variants as “to master or fully comprehend (a subject or fact), esp. despite initial difficulty or reluctance” or “to come to terms with (a situation).”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from the July 15, 1922, issue of Gem: “Wait a minute, my boy. Let me get my head round it.”

The most recent citation is from a July 26, 2010, post on the Spitalfields Life blog: “So many have pegged out. I can’t get my head round it. I suppose I’m next for the chop.”

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2d ed.) describes the “get your head” version of the expression as informal and defines it as “to be able to understand something (usually negative).”

Cambridge gives this example of the usage: “He’s tried to explain the rules of the game dozens of times but I just can’t get my head around them.”

The OED doesn’t have separate entries for the other versions of the expression, but Cambridge defines “get your mind around something” as “to succeed in understanding something difficult or strange (usually negative).”

Here’s the example in Cambridge: “I still can’t get my mind around the strange things she said that night.”

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “get your arms around something,” but the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says it means “to feel confident that you have a good understanding of something that is complicated.”

The dictionary gives this example of what its editors apparently consider an American idiom: “There are so many different aspects of the energy situation that it’s hard to get your arms around it.”

The use of “wrap” instead of “get” in the expression seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In a search of Google Books, we found this example in Wild Harvest, a 1987 novel by Eleanor Gustafson: “I can’t wrap my mind around the stuff I should believe.”

As for the hydra-headed business, relax. Idioms don’t have to make literal sense. So don’t worry your head about them.

[Update, Jan. 6, 2015. A reader of the blog sent in this interesting comment: “Given the 1920s early citation of ‘get one’s head around’ something, I’m wondering if it’s a humorous inversion of getting something into one’s head, parallel to P. G. Wodehouse’s frequent use of ‘getting outside’ something (or similar words) to mean consuming food or drink. For instance, ‘The Oldest Member, who had been meditatively putting himself outside a cup of tea and a slice of seed-cake, raised his white eyebrows.’ (From a short story, ‘The Long Hole,’ published in The Strand, August 1921.) And this even earlier example: ‘You were in bed. Remember? You got outside your breakfast, while I sat on the chest of drawers and asked you questions.’ (From ‘How Kid Brady Joined the Press,’ published in Pearsons, May 1906.)”]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Grammar Linguistics Usage

Grammar term limits

Q: What part of speech is “here” in the sentence “It is here”? In your post about “Here it is,” you say “here” is an adverb. But my understanding is that “to be” is a linking verb that takes an adjective or a noun as a complement, not an adverb. Yours confusedly.

A: You’ve put your finger on an important problem, one that has prompted linguists and grammarians to rethink the way words have traditionally been categorized.

Your question refers to a 2011 blog post in which we wrote that “here” is an adverb when it means “in this place.” So in the sentences “Here is the key” and “Here it is,” we said, the verb “be” is complemented by the adverb “here.”

It’s not true that “be” must always be complemented by either a noun (as in “He is a man”) or an adjective (“He is tall”).

The complement can also be a “locative” adverb (an adverb of location), like “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” “outside,” “inside,” “in,” “out,” “away,” and so on.

All standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, classify this use of  “here” as adverbial.

Oxford’s earliest written examples of “here” used with “be” are “Nys he her” (Old English for “He isn’t here,” circa 1000), and “Here he is and honen he nys” (Middle English for “Here he is and hence he isn’t,” 1175).

In his paper “Retrospective on the Verb ‘To Be’ and the Concept of Being,” published in the book The Logic of Being (1986), Charles H. Kahn discusses “copula” (that is, linking) uses of the verb “be.”

“Among the copula uses of be in a broad sense,” Kahn explains, “are what we may call locative uses, where the complement or predicate expression is not a noun or adjective but a local adverb (here, there) or a prepositional phrase of place (at home, in the marketplace).”

The Collins English Dictionary has a similar explanation. The copula “be,” the editors write, can be “used with an adverbial complement to indicate a relationship of location in space or time (Bill is at the office; the dance is on Saturday).”

You’ll notice that the adverbial complements in those Collins examples are prepositional phrases. This is significant, because “here” and other locative adverbs can be replaced by prepositional phrases.

In fact, some linguists believe that “here” and other locative adverbs used with “be” should be reclassified as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is a good example.

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, depart from what they call “the practice of traditional grammar (as reflected, for example, in the classification of words in dictionaries),” and categorize “here,” “there,” “outside,” “indoors,” “away,” “downstairs,” “ashore,” “overseas,” and many more as prepositions.

On the other hand, some language authorities have suggested that the difficulty doesn’t lie in calling “here” an adverb. Instead, it lies in our thinking that “be” is always a mere linking verb that can’t have attributes.

In his book Understanding Grammar (1954), Paul Roberts writes that sometimes “be” is more like the verb “exist”:

“A difficulty in analysis is illustrated by the sentence ‘He is here.’ Linking verbs are usually followed by subjective complements (nouns and adjectives) rather than by adverbs. But is in ‘He is here’ is best considered not a linking verb but a predicating verb, like exists in ‘He exists.’ It is true that is needs a following word to complete its meaning; ‘he is’ is not a finished statement. … If then we consider the is in ‘He is here’ as not a linking verb but a predicating verb with existential meaning, here may be construed conventionally as an adverb modifying a verb.”

That’s the story—so far. The way linguists and lexicographers look at language is always evolving.

So if you’re puzzled about how to pigeonhole the words in “It is here,” you can either change your view of adverbs like “here” and think of them as prepositions, or you can change your thinking about the verb “be,” and think of it as a predicating verb, rather than a linking verb.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Getting involved

Q: Which preposition should follow “involve”—“in” or “with”? I must be using the “wrong” preposition in casual conversations, because I seem to use the two interchangeably. Is there an easy rule to follow?

A: We have a hunch that you’re mostly concerned with the use of “involve” in the passive (“to be involved”) or as a participial adjective ( “the suspects involved”).

When you need a preposition here, the choice depends on your meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is how the OED illustrates these passive or adjectival uses:

● “To be involved in” means “more generally, to be occupied, engrossed, or embroiled in.”

Oxford has the examples “deeply involved in smuggling” (1843), and “involved in a union dispute” (1940).

● “To be involved with” means “to be concerned or associated with” or “to commit (oneself) emotionally; spec. to have a sexual relationship with.”

Oxford has these examples: “one of those people one liked to know but not really be involved with” (1983), and “He had involved himself with Ellie” (1955).

Otherwise, when “involve” is used in ordinary constructions (not passively or adjectivally), the usual preposition, if one is needed at all, is “in.”

For example, if “involve” means to envelop or entangle in troubles, difficulties, crime, perplexities, or the like, then “in” is used, not “with.”

The OED has these examples: “to involve as many persons as they could in the charge” (1838) … “involved both kings and people in one common ruin” (1847) … “you will involve me in a contradiction” (1871).

As for its history, “involve” first entered written English, as far as we know, in the 1380s.

The OED says it comes from the Latin verb Latin involvere, meaning “to roll into or upon, to wrap up, envelop, surround, entangle, make obscure.” The Latin verb is formed from the prefix in- plus the verb volvere (to roll).

In its earliest English use, “involve” meant “to envelop within the folds of some condition or circumstance; to environ [surround], esp. so as to obscure or embarrass; to beset with difficulty or obscurity,” Oxford says.

OED citations indicate that this sense of “involve” was accompanied at first by “with” as well as “in.” Gradually the “in” uses became dominant.

You can see a progression in these examples from the dictionary: “ [a doctrine] involved with absurdities, and inexplicable contradictions” (1635) … “[a passage] involved in great obscurity” (1790) … “the numerous difficulties in which this question is involved” (1871).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do fish have tongues?

Q: I recently returned from a vacation in Newfoundland, where I enjoyed the regional dish of “cod tongue.” Or should it be “cod’s tongue”? Or maybe “cods’ tongues”? I suspect that “cod” in “cod tongue” is an adjective (telling us what kind of tongue), not a noun (telling us whose tongue).

A: The word “cod” in “cod tongue” is an attributive noun, a noun that acts as an adjective. It’s attributive because the attributes associated with “cod” are applied to “tongue.”

All three of the versions you mention—“cod tongue,” “cod’s tongue,” and “cods’ tongues”—are legitimate, though “cod tongues” appears to be the most common way of referring to the dish, according to online searches.

Your question led us to ask one of our own: Do fish have tongues?

Yes, we’ve learned, most fish do have tongues. The tongue of a fish is formed from a fold in the floor of the mouth, according to an FAQ on the website of the Australian Museum.

However, fish tongues aren’t much like ours. Fish use their tongue muscles to thrust food backward while mammals use the tongue to position food for grinding, according to a study by researchers at Brown University.

We couldn’t find the term “cod tongues” (or its variants) in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.

A Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines the term as “the tongue or hyoid apparatus of the cod-fish, much prized for its glutinous jelly-like consistency and delicate flavour when lightly fried.” (The hyoid bone anchors the tongue.)

The term “cod tongues” has been around since at least the 18th century. The earliest citation in the Newfoundland dictionary is from a 1771 entry in the journal of George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer in Newfoundland and Labrador:

“In the morning Condon came up and brought some cod tongues and sounds.” (The dictionary defines “sound” as the “’swimming bladder of certain fish.”)

In its entry for “tongue,” the dictionary has several examples of the word used in the sense we’re talking about, including this one from the September 1975 issue of The Rounder, a Newfoundland magazine:

“Best known is the tongue, much prized in certain circles for its jellylike consistency. Young children in many fishing communities make extra pocket money by cutting out the tongues and selling them by the dozen, door to door.”

In case you’re interested, we came across a video on a Norwegian website that shows young fishermen cutting the tongues out of cod.

The noun “cod” first showed up in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the origin of the word is uncertain.

Interestingly, it doesn’t appear in any other language and it’s not related to the name for the fish in classical Greek (gados) or zoological Latin (gadus).

The OED says it’s been suggested that the name might come from cod, an Old English term for a pouch, perhaps because of the baglike appearance of the fish. (John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this theory is not all that convincing.)

We’ll end with an excerpt from a Nov. 14, 1825, letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge, who was living in Boston:

“We should be very glad occasionally to get small supplies of the fine dumb cod-fish to be had at Boston, and also of the tongues and sounds of the cod.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.