English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Fits and starts

Q: My pet peeve is “in fits and starts.” Both “fits” and “starts” denote motion, while my choice, “in spurts and stops,” really conveys what should be said, with the added advantage of alliteration.

A: We rather like “in fits and starts.” It has a jerky quality that seems to capture its meaning very neatly. And as we’ll show, English speakers generally agree with us.

The expression has an interesting history. In fact, it evolved by fits and starts. The story begins back in the 1500s when a “fit” was a paroxysm and a “start” was a sudden burst of activity.

By the late 1500s, the words showed up in two separate adverbial phrases, “by fits” (irregularly or fitfully) and “by starts” (intermittently).

The earliest example of “by fits” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1583 English translation of a sermon by the French theologian John Calvin:

“He doth not thinges by fittes as Creatures doe but he continueth alwayes in one will.”

The first appearance of “by starts” in the OED is from a 1587 edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The authors—Raphael Holinshed, William Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, and John Hooker—write that the Scottish and Irish “performed by starts (as their manner is) the dutie of good subiects.”

In the early 1600s, the two adverbial phrases came together as “by fits and starts,” which the OED defines as “by irregular impulses or periods of action, at varying intervals, fitfully, spasmodically.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from an Oct. 3, 1620, sermon by the English theologian Robert Sanderson, who says that if one lives a godly life “only by fits and starts,” one can save one’s soul through prayer and repentance.

The OED cites several rare, obsolete, dialectal, or uncommon variations of the expression, including “fits and girds,” “fits and spasms,” “fits and turns,” and “halves and fits.”

Oxford says the expression “fits and starts” has at times begun with “by,” “at,” and “upon,” but it doesn’t mention “in.”

Our own searches in databases of recent English usage indicate that “in fits and starts” is overwhelmingly more popular today than “by fits and starts.” Expressions with the other two prepositions drew a blank.

As for “in spurts and stops,” it’s not in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, or in any of the standard dictionaries we usually consult.

The earliest mention we’ve seen of “in spurts and stops” is from the Nov. 18, 1922, issue of the American Gas Journal:

“Nothing more has been said relative to starting work on the extension of the pipe line, but that is hardly practicable before spring, except in spurts and stops, a very costly method.”

This later example, from the winter 1972 issue of Dissent, describes the operation of computers:

“Reels of tape activating the takes, in spurts and stops, rock back and forth; small squares of light — red, yellow, green, blue — have their own character, some gleam, some brood, others flicker off and on.”

“In spurts and stops” isn’t very popular today. It barely registers in a search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time. Your pet peeve is preferred more than 700 to 1.

Why is “fits and starts” so much more popular? Because English speakers generally find it more fitting. It has appeared in writing steadily for nearly four centuries—not at all in fits and starts. But if you don’t like it, by all means don’t use it.

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