English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Participle physics

Q: What parts of speech are the present participles in these sentences? (1) “He saw his sister walking along the road.” (2) “I go running once a week.”

A: First, a little background. A present participle, the “-ing” form of a verb, can play many different roles in a sentence—verb, adjective, adverb, and noun.

As verbs, present participles are used in the progressive tenses: “is walking,” “were running,” “will be driving,” and so on. We ran posts about the progressive tenses in 2015 and 2016.

Present participles can also be modifiers. They’re used as adjectives (“walking stick,” “running shoes”) and as adverbs (“Weeping, she walked along,” “He injured himself running”). We wrote about participial modifiers in a post earlier this year.

Finally, these “-ing” words can function as nouns (“She prefers walking,” “Running is his passion”), in which case they’re called gerunds. We wrote a post about participles and gerunds in 2012.

Now, on to your questions.

In your first sentence, “He saw his sister walking along the road,” the “-ing” word is a participial adjective.

It introduces a participial phrase (“walking along the road”) that functions adjectivally, since it modifies “his sister.”

In a simpler sentence with no phrases, this is easier to see: “He saw Phoebe walking.”

In sentence #2, “I go running once a week,” the “-ing” word complements, or completes, the verb. But what is it?

Traditionally, many authorities would have called this a gerund; some others would have said a participle.

But linguists these days are less definite. They prefer terms like “gerund-participle” or “participle construction” or just “-ing form.”

The waffling is understandable, since these forms have something in common with both nouns and verbs.

Like a noun, “running” functions here as the object of the verb “go.” But unlike a noun, “running” can itself have an object (“he goes running his legs off,” “don’t go running the company into the ground”), which is a characteristic of verbs.

Whatever they are, these “-ing” terms are often seen with the verb “go.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say that “go” can be used transitively (that is, with an object) to mean “to engage in.” The examples given include “went skiing” and “don’t go telling everyone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary regards these “-ing” words sometimes as participles and sometimes as gerunds.

The verb “go,” the OED says, is commonly used with a “participle indicating a concomitant action or activity.”

Oxford’s examples include “go walkyng” (1493); “go begging their bread and singing” (1615); “went looking” (1658), and “went sprawling” (1988).

Elsewhere in its entry for “go,” however, the OED says the verb is complemented by gerunds, and its examples include “go listening,” “go analysing,” and “go asking too much.”

The dictionary also says that in a now archaic usage, “go” was followed by the old preposition “a” (as in “go a courting,” “goes a begging,” “went a hunting”). In those usages, the “-ing” term is a gerund or “verbal noun,” the OED says.

But in modern usages without the prepositional “a,” Oxford considers the “-ing” term a participle.

Other verbs besides “go” are commonly accompanied by “-ing” terms. They include “sit” (“sat knitting”); “stand” (“stood watching”); “lie” (“lay dying”); “stop” (“stopped working”); “continue” (“continue eating”); “come” (“came pouring”); “keep” (“keep moving”); “begin” (“begin writing”); and “start” (“start ringing”).

The OED mentions the use of “-ing” terms with only four of those verbs. It says that in the phrases “came pouring” and “keep moving,” the “-ing” terms are present participles. But in the phrases “begin writing” and “start ringing” it says that the “-ing” words are “verbal nouns”—that is, gerunds.

It’s true that in those examples “writing” and “ringing” are noun-like because they could be replaced by nouns. But they’re also verb-like because, like verbs, they can have objects themselves: “begin writing a novel,” “start ringing the bell.”

We can see why many linguists believe that in some usages it’s impossible to make a clear or useful distinction between a gerund and a participle.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

Q: When I was a law student at Columbia, Prof. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she used “gender” in Supreme Court briefs because the (all male) justices might be uncomfortable hearing a woman lawyer use “sex.” Is she responsible for this usage shift?

A: No, she’s not responsible for the shift from “sex” to “gender” in referring to someone’s sexual identity, though she may have helped it along.

As we noted in a 2007 post, both “sex” and “gender” have been used for hundreds of years in reference to maleness and femaleness.

Interestingly, the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse is a relatively recent phenomenon that didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the increasing use of “sex” for intercourse over the last century has led many to prefer the use of “gender” for maleness and femaleness. We’ll have more on this later.

Although Ginsburg isn’t responsible for the shift, she may have helped popularize this use of “gender” when she was a law professor and argued cases before the Supreme Court.

In 1993, a few months after becoming an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spoke about the usage on a visit to Columbia Law School to receive an award and take part in a panel discussion.

During the discussion, she said her decision to use “gender” for “sex” in Supreme Court briefs was the result of advice from her secretary at Columbia, where she taught from 1972 to 1980.

“I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School, who said, ‘I’m typing all these briefs and articles for you and the word sex, sex, sex is on every page. Don’t you know that those nine men—they hear that word, and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking? Why don’t you use the word gender? It is a grammatical term and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ”

It’s true that “gender” began life as a grammatical term, but it’s been used since as far back as the 15th century in reference to sexual identity.

The earliest example in the OED is from the 1474 will of Thomas Stonor: “His heyres of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begoten.”

Oxford defines this sense of “gender” as “males or females viewed as a group” as well as “the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.”

The dictionary says it means the same as the word “sex” used for “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”

The earliest OED example for “sex” used this way is from the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382:

“Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex & female: lyuen with þe.” (“Of all things having soul of any flesh, you shall bring into the ark that of the male sex and female living with that male.”)

As we’ve said, the noun “sex” (from the Latin sexus) wasn’t used in the sense of sexual intercourse until the early 20th century. The first example in the OED is from Love and Mr. Lewisham, a 1900 novel by H. G. Wells:

“We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.”

The next example is from “Pansies,” a satirical 1929 poem by D. H. Lawrence: “If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust / At the core of your heart, the other creature.”

And this more recent example is from the Oct. 16, 1971, issue of the Spectator: “Not for nothing is the youth culture characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

Getting back to “gender,” the OED says its sense of sexual identity comes from its grammatical use to describe how some languages categorize words (masculine, feminine, neuter, common).

The noun “gender” in its original, grammatical sense dates from the late 1300s, according to the dictionary, and is ultimately derived from genus, classical Latin for race, kind, or grammatical gender.

The dictionary notes that the use of “gender” for sexual identity grew in popularity over the last century as the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse became more common.

“In the 20th cent.,” the OED says, “as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse, gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females.”

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English English language Etymology Linguistics Usage Word origin

“Word” is a word is a word

Q:  “Word” is a word, so it’s an instance of itself. And “noun” is a noun. Since “noun phrase” is itself a noun phrase, it’s a third example. Can you think of any other terms like these? And is there a name for the phenomenon?

A: You’re talking about terms that describe themselves. Like the word “short,” which itself is short. And “unhyphenated,” which has no hyphen. Also “adjectival,” an adjective that’s accordingly adjectival. And “prefixed,” with “pre-” as its own prefix.

Words like these are called “autological” or, less commonly, “homological.”

Most words aren’t, as you put it, instances of themselves. The word “fat,” for instance, isn’t fat; as words go, it’s on the lean side. The word “big” isn’t big; it’s small. And the word “shrinking” isn’t shrinking; it’s the same size as always.

So, to use your examples, “word” is autological because it’s a word; “noun” is autological because it’s a noun; and “noun phrase” is autological because it’s a noun phrase.

The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”

As we suggested above, most words are heterological—their meanings don’t apply to them. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1940: “‘Long’ is heterological because it is not a long word.”

Because autological words are rarer, they’re more interesting, and it follows that they have a devoted fan base. Just google “autological words” and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.

The linguist Arika Okrent has written about them on the Mental Floss website. In an article published on Sept. 27, 2013, she notes that most words “have a rather abstract connection to the things they describe. The word ‘yellow’ is not actually yellow. The word ‘square’ is not a square.”

“But some words do embody the properties they denote,” she writes. “We call them autological words, and they are a self-centered, self-referential bunch.” (We’ve used many of her examples here.)

For some reason, it’s difficult to come up with many autological nouns. The noun “buzzword” is sometimes called autological, since it’s an instance of a buzzword—but we aren’t hearing it much lately, so perhaps it’s losing its buzz and someday will no longer qualify.

Autological adjectives are more plentiful. For example, the word “terse” is terse, “erudite” (scholarly) is erudite, and “twee” (sickeningly sweet) has itself become twee.

Along these same lines, “magniloquent” (highfalutin) is magniloquent, “readable” is readable, “recherché” (affected) is recherché.

Similarly, “sesquipedalian” (which describes a long word) is sesquipedalian; “polysyllabic” is polysyllabic; “descriptive” is descriptive, and “common” is common.

Finally, “useful” is useful, which is how we hope you find this post.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A slave named Smith

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US (according to the 2010 census) as well as in the UK. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c.1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a personal “byname” before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English. (Bynames or nicknames, used to identify individuals and to distinguish one John or Alfred from another, were the precursors of the inherited family names that developed after the Norman Conquest.)

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example of such a byname.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a byname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a nickname or byname here. As we noted, such names weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

A midwife’s tale

Q: As my wife was telling me about a study of midwives in the early Dutch Reform Church, it dawned on me that the term “midwife” has always seemed an odd descriptor for what a midwife does.

A: The word “midwife” is deceptive because its parts are survivals from the Middle Ages, when the word was midwif.

In Old English, mid meant “with” and wif meant “woman.” So when midwif came along in the Middle English period (1100-1500), its literal meaning was “with-woman”—someone (usually a woman, but not always) who was “with” a mother giving birth.

Today we think of “mid” as middle point. But in Old English and Middle English, “mid had approximately the same range of senses as modern English with,” says the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the end of the 1300s, the old preposition mid had been displaced by “with,” the OED says, though the old usage “probably survives as the first element of the compound midwife.”

A good example of an old use of “mid” that disappeared is the Old English mid ealle (literally “with all”), which later became “withal” (meaning “altogether” or “entirely”).

Another example is the Old English term for pregnancy, mid childe. Over the course of the 1300s, mid childe was superseded by “with child.”

The OED’s last citation for the older term is dated 1340: “Þe wyfman grat myd childe” (“The woman great with child”), from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English translation of a French treatise on morality.

In modern English, “mid” has lost its “with” sense and now is mainly used as an adjective or prefix meaning middle, halfway, and so on. The only prepositional use that survives is the poetic “mid” that’s short for “amid” or “in the midst of” (as in “mid storm and strife”).

However, the old English preposition that meant “with” is still alive in the other Germanic languages: met in Dutch, mit in German, með in Icelandic, and med in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.

As for “wife,” which we’ve written about on our blog, it meant a woman, not necessarily a married one, in Old English.

“The Old English general sense of woman,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “survives in fishwife, midwife, and old wives’ tales.”

In its etymological notes on “midwife,” the OED says “the original sense seems to have been ‘woman who is with the mother at childbirth.’ ”

While the “midwife” was usually a woman, this wasn’t always the case. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition of the word: “A woman (or, rarely, a man) who assists women in childbirth.”

In more recent times, the OED notes, the word has come to mean “a nurse trained and qualified to do this and to give antenatal and post-natal care.”

This is Oxford’s earliest citation, from a Lives of the Saints composed around 1300: “Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”).

And this much less dramatic example illustrates the modern usage: “The doctor or midwife will issue the woman with Form MATB1 at about the 26th week of pregnancy.” (From Ian Hunter’s book The Which? Guide to Employment, 1998.)

Of course we use “midwife” figuratively, too, to mean one who helps bring something into being.

The OED’s earliest example of the figurative usage is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, thought to have been written about 1595: “So Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe, / And Bullingbrooke my sorowes dismall heire.”

The most recent figurative example in Oxford is from a 1998 issue of the British music magazine Record Collector: “Brian had retired to his Hollywood mansion, only emerging sporadically when Carl acted as midwife to one of his new compositions.”

Finally, as big fans of amphibians in general, we can’t pass up a chance to mention the “midwife toad,” so named because the male carries the fertilized eggs around on his back legs.

When the eggs are ready to hatch, he enters the water and releases the new tadpoles.  This toad’s taxonomic name: Alytes obstetricans.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Are two hoods better than one?

Q: Does the “hood” in “neighborhood,” “falsehood,” “childhood,” “hoody,” and Little Red Riding Hood come from the same source?

A: No, these words are derived from two distinctly different sources. One gave us the word for a head covering while the other gave us the suffix for a quality of being.

Two “hoods” may not be better than one, but they make for a more interesting post. Let’s begin with the “hood” that one wears.

The clothing sense of “hood” was first recorded sometime before the year 700, the Oxford English Dictionary says, when it appeared in The Epinal Glossary as a Latin translation: “Capitium, hood.”

The ultimate source is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kadh-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This kadh– meant to shelter or cover, and it’s also the source of the English verb “heed” and the noun “hat,” as well as words for “hat” in other Germanic languages.

The oldest English sense of “hood” is still alive today. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition: “A covering for the head and neck (sometimes extending to the shoulders) of soft or flexible material, either forming part of a larger garment (as the hood of a cowl or cloak) or separate.”

In later years this noun took on many related senses. It came to mean the helmet for a suit of armor (before 1200); various kinds of caps (circa 1430); a leather head cover for a bird used in falconry (c.1575); and finally other kinds of protective coverings or projections, whether on plants and animals (18th to 19th centuries), or on inanimate things like chimneys (1750), baby buggies (1866), and cars (1904 to mean the roof, 1929 for the engine covering).

In reference to automobiles, by the way, Americans now use “hood” for the engine cover, but the British still use “hood” to mean the roof or top of the car. (For the engine covering, since 1902 the British have used another old word for a head-covering, “bonnet.”)

The clothing word “hoody,” sometimes spelled “hoodie,” has been used to mean a hooded garment like a jacket or sweatshirt since 1990, according to OED citations. Oxford says the word is derived from the adjective “hooded.”

A related word for a juvenile delinquent in colloquial British and Irish English is “hoodie,” which the OED dates from 1991, and defines as “a young person who wears a hoodie and is typically regarded as socially disruptive. Hence also: a hooligan, a thug.”

However, two similar-sounding words meaning a violent criminal or troublemaker are entirely unrelated to the garment: “hoodlum” and its slang abbreviation, “hood.” These got their start in the US and later made their way into British English.

The OED says “hoodlum” originated in San Francisco in the early 1870s. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an article  in a Cincinnati weekly newspaper that refers to rowdies in San Francisco:

“Surely he is far enough away here in this hideous wild of swamp, to escape the bullying of the San Francisco ‘hoodlums’ ” (Cincinnati Commercial, Sept. 6, 1871).

Oxford notes that “hoodlum” began to excite attention in the late 1870s “by which time its origin was lost, and many fictitious stories, concocted to account for it, were current in the newspapers.”

(Prominent slang authorities like H. L. Mencken and Peter Tamony made a case that it comes from a Bavarian dialect of German, where a word spelled hodalum or huddellump means “hoodlum.” Germans were the largest foreign-language group in San Francisco in 1870.)

The “hood” that’s short for “hoodlum” first appeared, according to Oxford, in the December 1930 issue of the American Mercury: “None of those St. Louie hoods are going to cut in here, see?”

Another American slang use of “hood,” this time as a short form of “neighborhood,” was first recorded in the 1960s, according to the OED. The abbreviation sometimes appears with an apostrophe: “the ’hood.”

In Oxford’s words, “the ’hood” (generally used with the article) means “a neighbourhood or community, usually one’s own; esp. an inner-city area inhabited predominantly by non-whites.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which appears complete with definition, is from the February 1969 issue of an American publication, Trans-action: Social Science and the Community: “He come back over to the hood (neighborhood).”

This slang word from the 20th century brings us to the rest of the words in your question, and to a usage that that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

In “neighborhood,” “childhood,” “falsehood,” and many other words, as we’ve said, the suffix “-hood” refers to a state or quality of being.

This suffix, the OED tells us, was –hád in Old English and –hod in Middle English, as well as –hêd in Old Saxon and –heit in Old High German.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots gives an older prehistoric source, (s)kai- (“bright,” “shining”), which in ancient Germanic came to mean “bright appearance,” “quality,” or “condition.”

In English, the OED says, the suffix originally was a separate noun with the general meaning “person,” “personality,” “sex,” “condition,” “quality,” or “rank.”

This noun was “freely combined” with others, Oxford says, as in cild-hád (“child-condition”), mægð-hád (“maiden state”), and pápan hád (“papal dignity”).

Eventually it stopped being a separate noun and became a suffix, spelled “-hood.” Here are some of the more familiar formations, spelled the modern way and in the order of appearance:

“childhood” (around 715);  “widowhood” (c. 897); “priesthood” (900s); “maidenhood” (perhaps late 900s); “manhood” (c. 1225); “falsehood” (c. 1290); neighborhood” (late 1300s); “likelihood” (1398 to mean similarity, c. 1449 for probability); “womanhood” (c. 1405); “boyhood” (possibly 1577, but rare before the 1700s); “girlhood” (1748); “adulthood” (1850).

In modern English, “-hood” is what’s called a “living suffix,” meaning that people are still using it to make new words.

It can be “affixed at will to almost any word denoting a person or concrete thing,” Oxford says, as well as to “many adjectives, to express condition or state.” Consequently, “the number of these derivatives is indefinite.”

Sometimes they’re also humorous, as in this 19th-century OED citation: “Believing in the white Aylesburys … as the final expression of duckhood” (from the Daily News, London, 1883).

A historical aside: The OED notes that “-hood” once had a parallel suffix, “-head,” from the same root (Old English hád) and with the same meaning (condition, rank, person, etc.).

So we once had “childhead,” “falsehead,” “priesthead,” and “widowhead” in addition to the “-hood” versions. The “-head” in most of these old words has been displaced by “-hood,” though we’ve kept “godhead” and lost “godhood.”

We still sometimes see the archaic “maidenhead.” This originally meant the same as “maidenhood” (the condition of being a virgin), and was applied to women and occasionally to men.

But in later centuries, according to the OED, “maidenhead” was also used to mean the hymen, “esp. considered as the mark of a woman’s chastity.”

We don’t hear either “maidenhead” or “maidenhood” much these days, though you can find both in standard dictionaries.

In general, “maidenhead” now refers to either virginity or the hymen, while “maidenhood” refers to either virginity or the state of being unmarried.

[Note: This post was updated on June 14, 2020.]

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English English language Grammar Usage

Passive resistance

Q: I’m puzzled by these two sentences: “The robbers broke into the bank” and “The bank was broken into.” In the active sentence, “bank” isn’t a direct object. Why then is it possible to make it a subject in the passive sentence?

A. Normally, a sentence in the active voice can be made passive by turning the object of the verb into the subject. So “A pickpocket stole his wallet” becomes “His wallet was stolen.” (You can add “by a pickpocket” if you want to say whodunit.)

But you’re right that “bank” in the first sentence isn’t the object of the verb. The word “bank” here is the object of a preposition. And the object of a preposition can be turned into the subject of a passive sentence.

What confuses you here is the word “into.” It’s actually a compound that combines the adverb “in” and the preposition “to.” For purposes of illustration, let’s divide it—“in” (adverb) + “to” (preposition)—to show how its parts function.

Why do this? Because the verb here is not “break.” It’s “break in,” a phrasal verb that incorporates the adverb “in.” And the following “to” introduces the prepositional phrase “to the bank.”

So, with “into” separated, our sentence now looks like this: “The robbers broke in + to the bank.”

In its felonious sense, the phrasal verb “break in” is intransitive—that is, it doesn’t need a direct object. All it needs is a subject to be complete: “Robbers broke in.”

We can’t add a direct object here, because robbers can’t “break in the bank.” If we want to mention the bank, we have to add a prepositional phrase: “break in + to the bank.”

This is true of many phrasal verbs that are intransitive. They don’t have direct objects, so if there’s a complement at all it’s likely to be a prepositional phrase. A few examples of such verbs:

● “look in” (to make a short visit). We don’t “look in the baby” (direct object); we “look in on the baby” (prepositional phrase).

● “make up” (to reconcile). We don’t “make up Gerald”; we “make up with Gerald.”

● “speak out” (to talk forcefully). We don’t “speak out injustice”; we “speak out against injustice.”

● “check in” (to register at a hotel). We don’t “check in the hotel”; we “check in + to [or at] the hotel.”

Usually the adverbial part of a phrasal verb isn’t combined with the following preposition. We don’t “look inon the baby” or “make upwith Gerald.”

But when the parts are “in” and “to,” they’re often combined. (This isn’t always the case, as we’ve written on our blog: “We went in to dinner” … “They tuned in to the program.”)

Which brings us—in a roundabout way—back to your question about how an intransitive verb becomes passive.

With an intransitive verb, as we’ve said, the object of the preposition, not the object of the verb, becomes the passive subject.

You were confused by the phrasal verb “break in.” This is easier to see with an ordinary intransitive verb, like “shout.” It too needs only a subject (“They shouted”), and requires no direct object.

But if there’s a complement in the form of a prepositional phrase (“They shouted at the dog”), we can construct a passive version.

The object of the preposition (“the dog”) now becomes the subject, and the preposition is retained at the end (“The dog was shouted at”).

Sometimes passives derived from intransitive verbs are not idiomatic English: “Gerald was made up with” … “The hotel was checked in at.”

But others are normal and acceptable, like “The baby was looked in on.”

These are sometimes called  “prepositional passives.” And as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “they are not admissible in all cases.”

Cambridge gives these examples of acceptable ones: “This bed has been slept in” … “Her book was referred to” … “These matters must be seen to.”

And it gives these as unacceptable: “Boston was flown to next” … “Such principles were stood for” … “Some old letters were come across.”

This is not a new concept. Nearly two centuries ago, the American grammarian Goold Brown wrote about passive forms of intransitive verbs in his book The Institutes of English Grammar (1823):

“An active-intransitive verb, followed by a preposition and its object, will sometimes admit of being put into the passive form.” The object of the preposition becomes the subject, he wrote, and the preposition is “retained with the verb, as an adverb.”

His example: “They laughed at him” (active) becomes “He was laughed at” (passive).

As we said on our blog in 2014, a verb can be both transitive and intransitive. In fact, the phrasal verb “break in” can be both. Sometimes it’s transitive and requires an object; sometimes it’s intransitive and doesn’t.

For example, “break in” is transitive when it means to tame or train something like a horse. A direct object is required, as in “He broke in the colt.” In the passive, this becomes “The colt was broken in.”

But “break in” is intransitive when it means to forcibly intrude or to interrupt, as in “When the conversation got heated, Suzanne broke in.” No object is required.

If we add a prepositional phrase—“When things got heated, Suzanne broke in + to the conversation”—then we can make a passive sentence, though an awkward one: “When things got heated, the conversation was broken in + to.”

We’ll leave it to the reader to mentally rejoin “into.”

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He should’ve stood in bed

Q: The principal at the school where I teach disagrees with me about this sentence: “I was too sick to go to the party, so I just stood home.” I think it’s flat-out wrong. “Stood” is the past tense of “stand,” not “stay.” But she defends it as a regional usage. Does she stand corrected?

A: The verbs “stand” and “stay” have many meanings in common, and “stood,” the past tense of “stand,” is sometimes used in the same way we use “stayed,” the past tense of “stay.” (Example: “And so things stood for many years.”)

But the specific usage you’re asking about (“I just stood home”) is not considered standard English.

In fact, it’s not mentioned at all (not as standard, nonstandard, regional, or dialectal) in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the Oxford English Dictionary, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked, or our other language resources.

Nevertheless, the usage is out there, as you’ve observed, and it’s close in meaning to several standard usages, including some that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the verb “stand” showed up in the mid-900s, according to the OED, it meant to “assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.).”

The first Oxford citation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that the OED dates from about 950 (some scholars date it from around 700): “gesæh ðone hælend stondende” (“Jesus Christ the Savior standing”).

The erect sense of “stand” is the most common meaning today, but over the years the verb has taken on several senses in which “stay” could replace “stand,” including these: to stand fast (circa 888), to stand still (c. 888), to  stand about (1390), to stand apart (1538), and to stand pat (1882).

Although DARE doesn’t have an entry for “stood” used as the past tense of “stay,” we suspect the usage may have originated as a New York regionalism. The earliest examples we’ve found are in New York State court transcripts from the 1920s

The first example is from testimony filed in a 1921 case before the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court: “Several times she came, and a few times she stood home.”

And this is from a 1924 appeal before the court: “The reason why she stood home a couple of days every week, you know, I told him because I have to report when the girls go in and out. He wanted to know why she was home. I says, ‘I think her knee is hurted.’ ”

Here’s an example from the transcript of a 1941 case tried before the New York State Court of Appeals: “Q. Dilla remained home doing the cleaning, isn’t that correct? A. Yes, sir. Yes, she stood home.”

Finally, this is from the questioning of a witness in a 1955 wrongful-death case tried before the New York Supreme Court: “Q. As far as you know, did he go to work steadily? A. Well, he stood home— Q. Outside of a cold, he worked steadily? A. Yes.”

The lexicographer Robert W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a couple of dialectal usages in England that are somewhat similar to the one you’re interested in.

Burchfield says “stood” has been used in parts of England as a present participle to mean “standing,” but the usage “seems to have gone unrecorded in the OED.”

He cites a few examples, including this one from Yorkshire: “She was stood in front of the mantelpiece trying to think of the name for the clock.”

“Its existence in modern regional use is not in question,” Burchfield adds, “but its precise distribution has not been established.”

However, he says the distribution is presumably similar to that of “sat” used in the sense of “sitting,” a dialectical usage heard in northern and western England.

Burchfield gives this example from Difficulties With Girls, a 1988 novel by Kingsley Amis: “I can’t help thinking of that Tim sat there juddering his leg up and down.”

He says the usage “was once standard but has gradually become regionally restricted over the centuries.”

In “English Worldwide,” a 1989 paper by the linguists Jenny Cheshire, Viv Edwards, and Pam Whittle, the authors suggest that the uses of “stood” for “standing” and “sat” for “sitting” are evolving and “are now becoming characteristic of a general non-standard or semi-standard variety of English.”

“Their occurrence in written English points once again to the difficulty of identifying clearly the features that are characteristic of non-standard English rather than standard English,” the authors add.

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Follows the subject

Q: While I was watching TV with my wife, a commercial came on for the movie When Calls the Heart. It reminded me of another corny title, Comes a Horseman. What makes an author choose this syntax?

A: Authors use unusual wording because it’s often more effective and attention-getting than the routine syntax one would expect.

The wording “when calls the heart,” with its poetic and archaic flavor, stands out more than “when the heart calls.”

And “comes a horseman” is more noticeable than “a horseman comes” or “a horseman is coming.”

But a usage that some readers find catchy may seem corny or pretentious to others.

What’s attention-getting about these constructions is the word order—verb before subject instead of the other way around.

In some English sentences, a verb-before-subject arrangement is so common that we don’t even notice it. For instance, verbs routinely come first in questions, in statements starting with “here” or “there,” and in others that we’ll mention later.

But in more straightforward declarative sentences, we expect to find the subject before the verb. Reversing them can make a sentence sound literary, even stirring (or pretentious if overdone).

For effectiveness, you can’t beat the verb-before-subject placement in these examples:

“Male and female created he them” (King James Bible) … “So have I a noble father lost” (Shakespeare) … “Into the Valley of Death / Rode the six hundred” (Tennyson) … “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’ ” (Poe).

Today we associate subject-verb inversions with poetry and with the writings of an older time, though even now we may find them used for effect: “What care I for fame and fortune?” … “Then sings my soul” … “In a hollow lived three little pigs” … “Come Sunday, you’ll be a married man.”

But as we said before, inverted word order goes unremarked in some kinds of sentences, like these (again, we’ll underline verb and subject).

● Sentences starting with “there,” “here,” and “then”: “There comes a time when one must face facts” … “Here lurked the answer we’d been waiting for” …“Then came the startling news.”

● Questions: “Am I right?” … “When is the party?” … “Finished, are you?” … “How goes it?” … “Where were you?” … “Pretty, aren’t they?”

● Questions with auxiliary verbs only: “May I?” “Do you?” “Shall we?” (We aren’t including sentences in which the subject follows the auxiliary but comes before the main verb, as in “Never have I seen such a day,”  “Had I known … ” and so on.)

● With “neither” and “nor”: “We aren’t going, nor is Sally” … “He isn’t upset and neither am I.”

● With “say” and other quoting verbs: “ ‘Holy cow!’ said Pete” … “ ‘The butler didn’t do it,’ concluded the detective” … “ ‘Call me Ishmael,’ wrote Melville.”

● With “do” as an auxiliary: “We own a dog, as do our neighbors” … “He went to the movie, as did Mom.”

● With “so”: “And so say all of us” … “She has seen Venice and so have you.”

● In lists of subjects headed by one verb (common in news reporting): “Injured were the bus driver, eight passengers, and the driver of the car” … “In the lineup were eight felons, none of whom were identified as the perpetrator.”

● After adverbs or adverbial phrases: “Steadily onward plodded the wagon train” … “Just inside the door stood a hat-rack.”

● After adjectives or adjectival phrases: “Happy was the man who won her hand” … “Great was his respect for my father” … “Gone forever was the day” … “Many were the times ….”

● After a participial phrase: “Taking home the trophy in the pie-baking contest was a seven-year-old boy” … “Lying in a pool of blood was Colonel Mustard.”

● After a prepositional phrase: “In the threatened wetland are three species of rare orchid” … “Through the mist shone an eerie light.”

Saving the subject for last can almost make it a punch line. But sometimes it’s placed at the end because it’s less urgent. This is a common practice in sports broadcasting, as we wrote on our blog a couple of years ago.

The linguist Georgia M. Green discusses this kind of inversion in her paper “Some Wherefores of English Inversions.”

“Perhaps the most striking demonstration of this pragmatic exploitation of syntax,” she writes, “is the use of inversions in the play-by-play broadcast of sports events.” (From the journal Language, September 1980.)

Some of her examples, taken from TV and radio: “Underneath the basket is Barbian” … “High in the air to get the ball was Jim Brady” … “Now way out front with the ball is Brenner” … “At the line will be Skowronski” … “Stealing it and then losing it was Dave Bonko” … “Coming back into the game for New Trier West will be Kevin Jones.”

As she notes, inversion lets the speaker mention the action first, followed by the player’s name.

Finally, a historical note about why subject-verb inversions like “comes a horseman” carry a whiff of antiquity.

The regular word order in a typical declarative sentence today is subject-verb-object, as in “I lost it.”

Old English had both patterns—verb first as well as verb second. However, verb-before-subject constructions were more common in Old English than they are today.

Placement of the object, as well as the subject and verb, added to the complexity of Old English.

“Old English had many SVO [subject-verb-object] word orders like those in Modern English, but at least as many SOV word orders, or orders that seem to be a mix” of those, according to The Syntax of Early English (2000).

The authors—Olga Fischer, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff—note that a number of changes in word order came about over the course of the Middle English period (about 1150-1500).

That was when the relative position of the verb and the direct object shifted in English.

More relevant to our discussion, the use of verbs before subjects in declarative clauses “rapidly declined in the course of the last part of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth century, and saw a revival in the literary language in the sixteenth century,” write the authors.

[Update, May 9, 2016: Several readers have pointed out that odd syntax is what  makes Yoda’s speech so odd. The great Jedi master of the Star Wars series favors such constructions as “Do it you must.” The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote about Yoda talk on the Language Log in 2005.]

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Unimagined and unimaginable

Q: I edit writing about crime and justice. I recently scrubbed a piece that used the word “unimagined” instead of “unimaginable” to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison. Is the former term acceptable in this case?

A: The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary gives “unimaginable” as one of the definitions of “unimagined,” but three other standard dictionaries that include the two terms define them somewhat differently.

The entries in the online versions of Oxford Dictionaries, Collins, and Macmillan indicate that “unimagined” refers to something that hasn’t been imagined, while “unimaginable” refers to something that’s hard or impossible to imagine.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines “unimaginable” as “difficult or impossible to imagine or comprehend,” and offers this example: “lives of almost unimaginable deprivation.”

The dictionary defines “unimagined” as “not having been imagined or thought of as possible,” and gives this example: “a previously unimagined degree of economic and social freedom.”

Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary and a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries) defines “unimaginable” as incapable of being imagined, and “unimagined” as not imagined.

The examples for the two words in the OED suggest that they have been used differently since “unimaginable” showed up in the early 1600s and “unimagined” in the mid-1500s.

The earliest citation for “unimaginable” is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: “Inimaginable, vnimaginable, vnconceiuable.”

The OED’s first example for “unimagined” is from The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall: “A thyng discended from heauen, of theim vnsought, vnimagined and not deuised.”

Getting back to your question, we think either word would be acceptable to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison, but the meanings would differ.

The term “unimagined” would describe abuse that hadn’t been imagined before, while “unimaginable” would describe abuse that’s difficult or impossible to imagine.

As Angelica sings in the musical Hamilton, “We push away what we can never understand / We push away the unimaginable.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Scales get in your eyes

Q: When “the scales fall from one’s eyes” to suddenly reveal the truth, are they the scales of justice?

A: No, the “scales” here are etymologically related to the ones on fish, reptiles, and insects.

The Oxford English Dictionary has three major meanings for the noun “scale,” with many related senses: (1) a device for weighing things; (2) one of the thin, overlapping plates protecting the skin of animals; (3) a graduated system of measurement.

When English borrowed “scale” from Old Norse in the 1100s, it meant a bowl or cup to drink from. The Old Norse skál is also the ultimate source of the drinking toast “skoal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED’s earliest example for “scale” is from Layamon’s Brut, written sometime before 1200: “Heo fulde hir scale of wine” (“He filled her cup with wine”).

In the early 1400s, this cup-like sense of “scale” evolved to mean a device for weighing—that is, “the pan, or each of the pans, of a balance,” according to Oxford.

The earliest example in the OED for “scale” used in the weighing sense is from An Alphabet of Tales (circa 1440), a collection of moral stories:

“And when it was put In þe to skale it weyed more þan all þat evur þai cuthe put in þe toder skale” (“And when it was put into the scale, it weighed more than all that ever they could put in the other scale”). We’ve expanded the OED citation for clarity.

The dictionary’s first citation for “scales” used in the justice sense is from Christ’s Victory and Triumph (1610), an allegorical poem by Giles Fletcher: “In one hand a paire of euen scoals [even scales] she weares.”

The amphibian sense of “scale” is ultimately derived from skaljō, the ancient German source for the word “shell.” The earliest OED citation is a reference to the scales on a dragon, from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Þe smallest scale þat on him is No wepen no may atame” (“No weapon may cut into the smallest scale that’s on him”).

And here’s a piscine example from the Chaucer poem Parlement of Foules (circa 1381): “Smale fischis lite / With fynnys rede & skalis syluyr bryȝt” (“Skinny little fishes / With red fins and bright scales”).

The OED’s earliest example for the expression you’ve asked about is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “And anon ther felden from his yȝen as scalis, and he receyuede siȝt” (“And anon there fell scales from his eyes, and he received sight”).

Think of the expression as a metaphorical way of describing something akin to the sudden clearing of the cloudy layer on the lens of someone with cataracts.

The measurement sense of “scale” is derived from the classical Latin scāla (ladder) and scālae (flight of stairs). In the late 1300s and early 1400s, “scale” was used literally for a ladder and figuratively for a stair-like series of gradations for measuring things, according to OED citations.

It’s used literally in John Lydgate’s poem Troy Book (1412-20), where Diomedes says the Trojans fortified their walls while the Greeks delayed attacking “and ageyn oure skalis … made gret ordinaunce” (“and against our ladders … assembled a great defense”).

in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a 1391 how-to manual about the astrological instrument, Chaucer uses the word figuratively: “Next the forseide cercle of the A. b. c., vnder the cros-lyne, is Marked the skale, in Maner of 2 Squyres or elles in Manere of laddres.”

Over the years, the noun “scale” has taken on many other meanings derived from the “ladder” sense of the word, including a “scale” in music (1597), doing something on a large or small “scale” (1785), a wage “scale” (1921), and economies of “scale” (1944).

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Is “based off” off base?

Q: As I read the papers of college freshmen, I am often stopped by usages that seem wrong to me. The latest example is the use of “based off” for “based on,” as in “based off the research of Albert Einstein.” Your thoughts?

A: You’re not the first to notice the use of “based off” (sometimes “based off of”) in place of “based on,” though college students aren’t the only perpetrators.

Linguists have been discussing the usage for at least 10 years, and it was the subject of an online article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2013.

The author of the article, Anne Curzan, wrote: “I have mentioned the construction to a few colleagues, and it’s clear at least some of them are circling it in student writing.”

The use is also found outside routine classroom writing. Curzan, a linguist and a professor of English at the University of Michigan, passed along this example from the academic journal Exceptional Children (March 2012):

“For our study, the parameters used in the simulation were based off of values derived from a large empirical data set.”

And we’ve found other recent examples of “based off” in academic journals, both American and British.

By the way, “based off of” is just a puffed up version of “based off.” Our suspicion is that people who use “based off of” may have the phrase “on the basis of” in mind.

We’ve written on the blog about “off of,” an extremely common redundancy. So we’ll confine these remarks to “based off.”

While “based off” may have become more popular recently, it’s not unseen in older writing. It’s been used occasionally since the early 1930s, mostly in trade journals.

The earliest example we’ve been able to confirm appeared in a May 1931 issue of National Petroleum News:

“To consumers: … discounts are based off tank wagon price, and affect purchases of 1,000 gallons or more per month” (this notation appeared several times in column listings).

Here it is again in 1952: “Based off 1951 figures, the proposed constitutional amendment would cut Federal revenues by $16,000,000,000 a year” (from the Bulletin of the Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor).

And this headline appeared on a cover story in the trade journal Automotive News in January 1997: “Bigger Honda SUV will be based off Accord, minivan.”

These 20th-century appearances cropped up so seldom that nobody seems to have minded.

The use of “based off” in the sense of “based on” isn’t discussed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. And while Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016) has a long discussion of “based on,” it makes no mention at all of “based off.”

Discussions of “based off” have come up periodically on the Linguist List, the online discussion group of the American Dialect Society, but only in the last 10 years.

Writing on the list in 2006, Seán Fitzpatrick commented: “My daughters were discussing a forthcoming movie, and the 21-year-old said you had to give the auteur credit for originality, since the movie was ‘not based off a book, not based off another movie, and not based off a TV show.’ ”

“ ‘Based off’ seemed to me to be a peculiar alteration of ‘based on,’ ” Fitzpatrick added. “The strange thing is that she denied having said ‘based off’ instead of ‘based on.’ ”

Another contributor, the linguist Arnold Zwicky, suggested that “based off” as a variation on “based on” or “based upon” may be relatively recent.

“In any case,” Zwicky wrote, “it’s now very widespread.” And it’s become even more widespread since 2006.

Writing on the list in 2014, the slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter reported a sighting of “based off” with another meaning: “as a result of; by reason of; from.”

The quotation, from Yahoo! news: “Hawking earned his scientific reputation back in the 1970’s based off his theory of black holes as cosmic vacuums.”

We won’t bother reporting the comparative frequency of “based off” versus “based on” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

Many of the supposed examples of “based off” turn out to be misreadings of “eased off” or another phrase. And many other examples don’t represent the sense we’re talking about (e.g., “based off the coast of Cadiz”).

Though “based off” in place of “based on” sounds foreign to our ears, the usage doesn’t surprise us.

We’ve often remarked that the use of prepositions in English is highly idiomatic and subject to changing usage.

(A newcomer to English recently wrote to us in confusion about the various prepositions used in reference to copying: “print out,” “print off,” and “print up.” We explained that they’re all acceptable idioms.)

As Curzan wrote in her article: “With ‘based on’ one could argue that because things are physically built on bases, it makes more sense to say ‘based on.’ ”

“I agree: That is perfectly logical,” she added. “But language isn’t always logical, and once ‘based on’ becomes as much or more metaphorical than literal, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that the preposition might shift—especially given that one can metaphorically ‘build off’ things.”

We would add that a reinterpretation of a work is often called a “takeoff,” which may have contributed to the use of  “based off.”

“Based” here is the past participle of the verb “base,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has no examples of its use with “off.”

The OED says the verb means “to place on (also upon) a foundation, fundamental principle, or underlying basis.” (Note the prepositions in italics.)

All of the dictionary’s citations for this sense the verb and adjective, between 1776 and 2009, show the accompanying preposition as either “on” or “upon.”

As far as we can tell, people seem to use “based off” in three general ways:

● as a verb, either active (“She based her novel off Pride and Prejudice”) or passive (“Her novel is based off Pride and Prejudice”);

● as an adjective (“Figures based off speculation aren’t reliable”);

● as an adverb (“The company pays based off the hours worked”).

Now, we aren’t advocating any of these or claiming they’re standard English usage. We’re merely reporting what’s out there, so hold those indignant emails and tweets.

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