The Grammarphobia Blog

Pay attention!

Q: Have you done a piece on the blog about why we “pay attention” rather than “give attention” or, as the French say, “do attention”?

A: No, we haven’t explored this yet, so thanks for the suggestion.

You’re right that the verb phrase “pay attention” is more common and idiomatic than “give attention” when the speaker means “be attentive.” However, we can “give” someone our attention as well as “pay” attention to someone.

But getting back to your question, “paying” doesn’t always imply money changing hands.

The verb “pay,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has long meant “to render, bestow, or give,” and what’s bestowed can be attention, a compliment, even one’s allegiance or homage, to mention just a few examples.

For instance, you can “pay your respects,” “pay a compliment,” “pay heed” to advice, and “pay a visit.” In times gone by, a suitor would “pay his addresses” to a young lady. And she might either “pay attention” or “pay him no mind.”

These citations from the OED illustrate how “pay” has been used in this way over the centuries.

1600: “Not paying mee a welcome” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

1667: “You deserve wonder, and they pay but praise” (from a poem by the Earl of Orrery).

1711: “After having paid their Respects to Sir Roger” (Joseph Addison in the Spectator).

1711: “Let us pay Visits, but never see one another” (Richard Steele in the Spectator).

1724: “many Honours were paid to the worst of Princes” (from a translation of an epistle by Pliny the Younger).

1766: “Farmer Williams … had paid her his addresses” (Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield).

1792: “the privileges of friendship, or the momentary homage which the heart pays to virtue.” (Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

1796: “The Gentlemen paid her many compliments” (Eliza Parsons’s novel The Mysterious Warning).

1847: “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls” (Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey).

1866: “Too little attention being paid to the progress of opinion” (The Reign of Law, by the Duke of Argyll).

1882: “They paid little heed to the sermon” (The Revolt of Man, by Walter Besant).

1939: “ ‘Pay her no mind, Moses,’ Jethro said, dropping into the vernacular” (Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain).

English acquired the verb “pay” in the early 1200s by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French (it was paiier or paier in Old French), according to the OED.

The Old French verb meant, among other things, “to be reconciled to someone,” Oxford says, reflecting its classical Latin ancestor pacare (to appease or pacify), derived from pax (peace).

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, “The meaning in Latin of pacify or satisfy developed through Medieval Latin into that of pay a creditor, and so to pay, generally, in the Romance languages.”

Some of the earliest meanings of “pay” in English are obsolete today—including to pacify, or to be pleasing or satisfactory to someone.

But senses relating to handing over money—or whatever is figuratively owed to someone—are just as old, and of course they’re still with us.

In modern English, “pay” is also used with adverbs in such phrasal verbs as “pay up,” “pay over,” “pay down,” “pay in,” and “pay out” (in speaking of a line or rope as well as money).

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