The Grammarphobia Blog

Making sense of mixing tenses

Q: I mixed tenses in two news items I wrote about a legal decision. In the original, I wrote, “the judge ruled such passenger fees are constitutional.” After a settlement months later, I wrote, “he said such fees were legal.” Both seem right, but I’m not sure why I used the present tense in the first and the past in the second.

A: Both seem right to us too, even though you combined the tenses differently. The first verb in each passage is in the past tense, but the tense of the second verb varies. As we’ll explain, this mixing of tenses is allowed.

The problem you raise—how to use tenses in a sequence—is particularly common among journalists, who are often required to use what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls “indirect reported speech.”

This construction is used to report what somebody said, but not in a direct quote. The principal verb in your examples is in the past tense (“the judge ruled” … “he said”), but then you’re faced with the problem of what tense to use in the verbs that follow.

As we wrote in a 2015 post, the following tenses need not necessarily be identical to the first; in some cases the choice is optional.

For instance, even when the second verb expresses something that is still true (those fees are still legal now), a writer may prefer to echo the past tense of the first verb. In fact, the default choice here is the past tense; the present tense may be used, but it’s not required.

In explaining how this works, the Cambridge Grammar begins with this quotation spoken by a woman named Jill: “I have too many commitments.”

Her “original speech,” the book says, may be reported indirectly as either “Jill said she has too many commitments” or “Jill said she had too many commitments.”

“The two reports do not have the same meaning,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, “but in many contexts the difference between them will be of no pragmatic significance.”

So when would the difference matter? One factor that might make a writer choose one tense over the other is the time elapsed between the original speech and the reporting of it. Did Jill say this last year or five minutes ago?

In a sentence like “Jill said she had/has a headache,” the authors say, “Jill’s utterance needs to have been quite recent for has to be appropriate.”

In the case you raise, the original version is closer in time to the judge’s ruling, and the present tense is reasonable: “ruled that such passenger fees are constitutional.” But your follow-up story came much later, which may be why the past tense seemed better to you: “he said such fees were legal.”

In a post that we wrote in 2012, we note that the simple past tense takes in a lot of territory—the very distant as well as the very recent past. A verb like “said” can imply a statement made moments, years, or centuries ago—about situations long dead or eternally true. So the verbs that follow can be challenging.

As the Cambridge Grammar explains, there are no “rules” for this. But in our opinion, if an experienced writer like you thinks the tense in a subordinate clause is reasonable and logical, it probably is.

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Whom again

Q: Here’s a sentence in the NY Times: “The white guitarist Jimmie Rodgers, who many consider the father of country music, built the genre on a foundation of the blues in the 1920s.” Is this use of “who” correct, and why?

A: It’s not technically correct, and it violates the latest edition of the Times stylebook.

Although it’s usually OK to use “who” for “whom” in conversation or informal writing, the Times holds itself to a higher standard. In fact, the online version of the sentence that caught your eye now conforms with Times style: the “who” is “whom.”

Here’s an excerpt from the “who, whom” entry in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed., 2015):

“Many dictionaries have relaxed the distinction between these words, abandoning whom unless it directly follows a preposition. But in deference to a grammar-conscious readership and a large classroom circulation, The Times observes the traditional standard:

“Use who in the sense of he, she or they: Pat L. Milori, who was appointed to fill the vacancy, resigned. (He was appointed.) Use whom in the sense of him, her or them: Pat L. Milori, whom the board recommended, finally got the job. (The board recommended him.)”

Our own Pat explains it this way in the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, her usage and grammar book:

“If you want to be absolutely correct, the most important thing to know is that who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him). You might even try mentally substituting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel).”

And as we said above, you can usually avoid using “whom” in conversation or informal writing. In “A Cure for the Whom-Sick,” a section in the book, Pat offers a few tips on “whom”-less writing:

“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing— personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.

“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”

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The death of a buddy in Vietnam

[Note: For Memorial Day, we’d like to share an article that Stewart wrote for United Press International in 1971 about the last day in the life of an American soldier in Vietnam.]

‘What Does It All Prove?’ Asks GI After Buddy’s Death


Camp Eagle, Vietnam (UPI)—At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of May 16, 1971, the lights were switched on in the wooden barracks and the dozen young men inside yawned, stretched and got ready for another day of war.

Stewart Kellerman, Vietnam, April 13, 1972

Four hours later, on a rugged ridge overlooking Vietnam’s emerald green A Shau Valley, Cpl. David R. Winkle, 20, of Bountiful, Utah, would be shot to death.

The Army listed him as one of 38 Americans killed in action during the week of May 16-28, raising combat deaths in the Indochina war from 45,145 to 45,183.

This is the story of how Winky died, as told by his Army buddies. It could be about any one of the GIs killed so far in Vietnam and the rest who’d die before the war was over.

It was cool out as Winky buttoned his camouflage fatigues and tied the laces of his worn combat boots, but the hot, heavy sun would soon be up, pasting the fatigues to his skin.

“He was scared that morning,” Cpl. Jeffrey Foley, 19, of Anchorage, Ky., said. “We were all scared. We’d been having it pretty easy for a few weeks and we figured it was time for one of us to get it.”

Winky and his buddies were Pathfinders, the guides who lead soldiers into tough combat areas. They go in first, help the rest of the GIs get into position and then return to their home base.

“He didn’t talk too much about the war,” Cpl. David Webb, 21, of Peoria, Ill., said. “He thought it was wrong. But he didn’t like the idea of guys burning draft cards as long as we’re fighting.”

The Pathfinders had been briefed the night before on their mission. They were to lead a South Vietnamese battalion to a jungle ridge overlooking the A Shau Valley. The landing was part of an allied drive against Communist troops massed in and around the valley.

“He enlisted in the Army and he volunteered to be a Pathfinder,” Foley said. “He knew it was a dangerous job. He figured he’d fight as long as someone had to do it.”

Winky was busy packing his rucksack and didn’t have time for morning chow. He and the other Pathfinders jumped aboard three-quarter-ton trucks and bounced along the bumpy dirt road leading out of Camp Eagle.

“He was a pretty quiet guy,” Sgt. Daniel Coynes, 21, of Picayune, Miss., said. “He wasn’t the war hero type. He did his job and he didn’t give anybody trouble. He was real squared away.”

Winky chain-smoked filter-tip cigarettes on the truck and fingered his lucky pendant—two bullets hanging from a silver chain around his neck.

“He was an intellectual type,” Webb said. “He went to college for a while and he figured on going back when he got out.”

Winky and the others were covered with dust as the trucks wound up a dirt trail to artillery base Birmingham, where the Pathfinders would link up with South Vietnamese troops.

When the truck stopped, Winky jumped off and dropped his rucksack to the ground. He stood off by himself smoking while the other GIs kidded one other as they waited for helicopters to take them into battle.

“He never talked much,” Coynes said. “He only opened his mouth when he had something important to say.”

After a half-hour of waiting, the Pathfinders and South Vietnamese soldiers jumped aboard UH1 Huey helicopters, sat down on the steel floors and lifted off. Winky and Foley were on the third chopper to take off. Wind whooshed through the open doorways during the flight.

“He must have had that same funny feeling we all have when we ride a helicopter into a battle area,” Foley said. “You think about stupid things. Like what would the fall be like if the chopper were hit and it was certain you’d die in the crash. Would you cry? Would you scream? Would you pray?”

It was 8:30 a.m. when the helicopter reached a tiny dirt landing pad blasted out of the side of the ridge by American jets a few hours before.

“We took small arms fire as soon as we landed,” Foley said. “An RPG [rocket propelled grenade] hit the LZ [landing zone] just as the bird pulled away. The fire was so bad the other helicopters turned back and landed farther up the hill. We were all alone, three Americans and 10 South Vietnamese.”

Winky was shot in the ankle as he ran across the dirt LZ for cover in the surrounding jungle. He fell, clutched his M16 rifle with his right hand, and dragged himself across the dirt into the thick brush.

Foley ran to the other side of the LZ, dropped down behind a thick tree, and began blasting into the woods with his rifle.

An American lieutenant alongside Winky was shot in the head and blinded. Minutes later the lieutenant was hit in both legs and the stomach. He bled to death and Winky couldn’t do anything to help him.

“It must have been hell lying there beside the lieutenant, knowing the same thing could happen to you any second,” Foley said. “We left Eagle, figuring we’d be back by lunch. But we were soon wondering whether we’d be back at all.”

Winky fired away into the jungle despite the blood gushing from his ankle. He kept firing. He snapped clip after clip into the M16, firing as the empty shells bounced against each other on the dirt beside him.

“At times like that you think about your family and pray and hope to God you’ll see them again,” Webb said. “You wonder what’s the sense of it all. You ask yourself why you had to come here and what good it’ll do if you get killed.”

Winky’s right shoulder must have ached by then from the kicks of the rifle butt. His trigger finger must have been stiff. He was dirty and tired and alone.

“He probably started praying then,” Foley said. “He was a Catholic. He hardly ever went to Mass here. None of us went to church much. But he was definitely a Catholic. He believed in Jesus Christ.”

At 9:30 a.m. Foley ran across the landing zone to find out why Winky had stopped shooting. He found him sprawled dead beside a stump, his blood soaking into the earth. He apparently died instantly when hit in the head by a rifle round.

“Winky never wanted to kill anybody,” Webb said. “He was on that LZ because the Army sent him there.”

Foley ran back across the LZ to his radio to tell of Winky’s death and call in air strikes. From his side, he could see a South Vietnamese soldier crawl up and steal Winky’s rucksack.

“You wonder who’s going to be the next one,” Coynes said. “We’ve lost a lot of people up here and what does it all prove?”

Foley got a Silver Star for his actions; Winky got a Bronze Star posthumously.

“I’m not convinced the war is worthwhile, and l’m not convinced it isn’t,” Foley said. “It’ll be a long time before we can tell whether all these deaths accomplished anything.”

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That sinking feeling

Q: I’ve noticed that when the verb “sink” is used transitively, the past participle “sunk” is often used as the past tense in place of “sank.” Are you familiar with a change in the use of “sunk”?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are standard past tenses for “sink” in American English, though “sank” is more common. This is true whether the verb is used transitively (with an object) or intransitively (without one).

All the current American dictionaries we’ve checked (Merriam-Webster, M-W Unabridged, American Heritage, and Webster’s New World) include “sank” and “sunk” as standard past tenses. Most British dictionaries consider “sank” the past tense and “sunk” an American variant past tense.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both sank and sunk are used for the past tense of sink. Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

The usage guide gives this “sunk” example from a July 8, 1935, letter by Robert Frost: “Then I sunk back never again to blaze perhaps.”

However, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), a more conservative usage guide, considers “sank” the only legitimate past tense and “sunk” the past participle (as in “had sunk,” “have sunk”). The author, Bryan A. Garner, writes, “The past participle often ousts the simple-past form from its rightful place.”

Jeremy Butterfield doesn’t go quite so far in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), but he says, “The past tense is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.”

As for us, we use “sank” for the simple past tense and that’s what we’d recommend. Incidentally, it’s also closer to the original past tense.

When the verb first appeared in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150), to “sink” was sincan, “it sinks” was hit sinceþ, and “it sank” was hit sanc. The “sink” and “sank” spellings showed up in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, while “sunk” appeared in the 16th century, in the early days of modern English.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lists both “sank” and “sunk” as past tenses. “The use of sunk as the past tense has been extremely common,” the dictionary adds, noting that Samuel Johnson considered “sunk” the preterit, or past tense, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755): “pret. I sunk, anciently sank.”

Oxford Dictionaries, an online standard dictionary, has a usage note in both its US and UK editions that says “sank” and “sunk” have a history, but “sank” is the usual past tense today:

“Historically, the past tense of sink has been both sank and sunk (the boat sank; the boat sunk), and the past participle has been both sunk and sunken (the boat had already sunk; the boat had already sunken). In modern English, the past is generally sank and the past participle is sunk, with the form sunken now surviving only as an adjective, as in a sunken garden or sunken cheeks.

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How ‘emergency’ emerged

Q: Is there a historical connection between “emerge” and “emergency”?

A: Yes, the two words are related. Etymologically, an “emergency” is the emerging of something unexpected.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ll expand here, is from a sermon given by John Donne on Jan. 29, 1625, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

“The Psalmes are the Manna of the Church. As Manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so doe the Psalmes minister Instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion.”

The OED defines this sense of “emergency” as “a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action,” and describes it as the “ordinary modern use.”

However, the dictionary also notes a related sense, now rare, that appeared around the same time and reflected the word’s classical origins: “The rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.”

Oxford cites an example from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 1646 reference work in which the English polymath Thomas Browne debunks various myths and superstitions, including the belief in “a Tyrant, who to prevent the emergencie of murdered bodies did use to cut off their lungs.”

The nouns “emergency” and “emergence,” as well as the verb “emerge,” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin ēmergere (to rise out or up). The Latin verb is a compound of the prefix ē- (out) and mergere (to dive or sink).

If you’re wondering, mergere is the source of the English verb “merge.” As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “merge” meant to immerse or submerge in the 17th century, and “the modern meaning ‘combine into one’ did not emerge fully until as recently as the 20th century.”

“It arose,” Ayto writes, “from the notion of one thing ‘sinking’ into another and losing its identity; in the 1920s this was applied to two business companies amalgamating, and the general sense ‘combine’ followed from it.”

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Soak the rich? Or dry them out?

Q: News reports often refer to progressive proposals to tax the wealthy as “soak the rich” taxes. But why “soak”? If the rich are drenched in wealth, shouldn’t their bank accounts be dried out, not soaked?

A: The use of “soak” in the expression “soak the rich” comes from the slang use of the verb “soak” in the late 19th century to mean overcharge, tax heavily, or extort money.

When the verb showed up in Anglo-Saxon times as socian, it meant (as it does now) to “lie immersed in a liquid for a considerable time, so as to be saturated or permeated with it; to become thoroughly wet or soft in this manner,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED example is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies from around 1000: “Dweorge dwostlan weorp on weallende wæter, læt socian on lange” (“Throw pennyroyal in boiling water, letting it soak a long time”).

The verb “soak” has had several other meanings over the years, but we’ll just discuss the relevant ones.

Near the end of the 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “soak” took on the slang sense of to “impose upon (a person, etc.) by an extortionate charge or price; to charge or tax heavily; to borrow or extort money from; to cost a high price.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the New York Dramatic News, Nov. 23, 1895: “This little scheme sometimes … enables the photographer to ‘soak’ them.”

The OED says this sense of “soak” led to the use of “soak-the-rich” as an attributive, or adjectival, phrase “applied to a policy of progressive taxation.” The first citation is from Hell Bent for Election (1935), a critique of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, by James Warburg:

“He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long’s thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.” The author, a member of the Warburg banking family, had been a financial adviser to Roosevelt before breaking with him over policy disagreements. He rejoined the government when the US went to war in 1941.

The next Oxford example is from a Dec. 14, 1935, article in the Literary Digest by Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary: “Soak the Rich (Antonym, Soak the Poor)—Newspaperese for a system of taxation founded upon the absurd and revolutionary theory that a man should be assessed taxes in proportion to his ability to pay.” (Ickes was satirizing criticism of the New Deal.)

We suspect that this usage may have been influenced by the use of “soak” a bit earlier in the 19th century to mean punish, especially in the phrase “soak it to (someone),” a variation on “sock it to (someone).”

The first OED citation for “soak” used in the punish sense is from the Columbus (Ohio) Evening Dispatch, July 29, 1892: “To-day’s Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House who were so rallied in 1885 in their support of the bill making an appropriation to the New Orleans Exposition, but are now opposed to a similar appropriation for the World’s Fair.”

When “sock it to (someone)” showed up in print 15 years earlier, Oxford says, it meant “to strike, deal a blow to (that person),” as in this entry in an 1877 edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “Two loafers are fighting; one of the crowd cries out, ‘Sock it to him.’ ”

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Do puns change word history?

Q: Can you say something about how wordplay—intentional, often whimsical linguistic innovation—affects etymology?

A: English speakers have been playing with words since Anglo-Saxon days, as we noted in a recent post about the word “play,” but we don’t see evidence that wordplay has significantly influenced English etymology. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case: the evolution of the language has made possible much of the wordplay in English.

Language change, especially change in spelling and pronunciation, has given rise to many puns that use homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings, origins, or spellings) and homographs (words that look alike but differ in meaning, origin, or pronunciation).

For example, Lewis Carroll plays with the homophones “axis” and “axes” in Alice in Wonderland (1865). When Alice tries to show off her knowledge, the Duchess interrupts her: “ ‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis—’ / ‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!’ ”

However, this wordplay wouldn’t have worked back in King Ælfred’s day. In Old English, “axis” was eax and “axes” was aexan. The two words didn’t become homophones until the early 17th century.

Shakespeare plays with the homophones “son” and “sun” at the beginning of Richard III, believed written in the early 1590s: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

That play on words might perhaps have squeaked by in Old English, but it wouldn’t have worked quite as well. In the epic poem Beowulf, for example, “son” is sunu and “sun” is sunne. And, no, the anonymous author didn’t play with them.

As for homographic wordplay, Dickens has Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations (1860-61), use “point” as both a verb and a noun: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me.”

Again, this play on words wouldn’t have worked in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150). The verb and noun “point” appeared in the Middle English period (roughly 1150-1500), largely borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

And here’s a homographic example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) that combines two meanings of “grave”—the adjective’s serious sense, which appeared in the mid-1500s, and the noun’s burial sense, which showed up sometime before 1000.

When Mercutio is fatally stabbed in a sword fight, Romeo tries to comfort him by saying, “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.” The dying Mercutio responds: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Although language change has given us many puns, it has also taken many back. Because of pronunciation changes since Elizabethan times, for instance, much of Shakespeare’s wordplay doesn’t play well with modern audiences.

Consider this comment by Thersites in Troilus and Cressida about Ajax on the eve of a battle with Hector: “Ajax goes up and down the field, asking for himself.”

In Elizabethan times, “Ajax” was pronounced “a jakes”— the same as a now obsolete term for an outhouse. So Thersites was suggesting that Ajax was so afraid of fighting Hector that he couldn’t control his bowels.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the wonders of adjectives, and to take questions from callers.

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Can a woman be a chap?

Q: What’s the origin of the word “chap”? The British seem to use it the way Americans use “guy.” Does it apply only to men? Or could a Brit say a woman is “one of the chaps” as we’d say she’s “one of the guys”?

A: The noun “chap” has been used since the early 18th century to mean a man or boy. The usage is primarily British and began life as a shortening of “chapman,” an obsolete term for a merchant that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. (We’ll have more on “chapman” later.)

“Chap” is used once in a while for a woman, but not all that much. One of the few examples we’ve seen is from the first episode of The Vicar of Dibley, a British sitcom that began airing on Nov. 10, 1994.

After the Rev. Geraldine Granger arrives at St. Barnabas as vicar, one of the villagers says, “She seemed a decent chap to me,” while another replies, “That’s the point. She’s not a chap.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has this early example for the term “humorously applied” to a woman:

“Nought would do / But I maun gang [must go], that bonny chap to woo.” From Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess (1768), the major work of the Scottish poet Alexander Ross.

Feminized versions of “chap” are sometimes used humorously now, especially in the phrases “chaps and chapesses” and “chaps and chapettes,” but this usage isn’t all that common either, according to our searches of news databases.

We haven’t found any standard American or British dictionary that accepts the use of “chap” as a gender-neutral term. All the ones we’ve consulted define it in this sense as a chiefly British noun for a man or boy. Some label it informal.

None of the dictionaries have an entry for “chapette,” but one, Collins, includes “chapess” and defines it as an “informal, humorous” British noun for a woman.

The collaborative Wiktionary, which defines “chap” as a man or fellow, has entries for “chapess” and “chapette.” Both are defined as informal British terms for a “female chap; a woman.” Usage notes add that they’re generally found in the two plural phrases cited earlier.

In looking into your question, we came across a Dec. 27, 2017, article in the Times (London) about gender-neutral guidelines at a military training base in England for future officers.

The two-page document, written by the Joint Equality Diversity and Inclusion unit at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, suggests that “chaps” and other gendered words be replaced by such terms as “people, folks, friends or you all.”

So the British military (at least the unit nicknamed JEDI) considers “chaps” a gendered word—unlike the non-gendered plural “guys,” which appears in both US and UK standard dictionaries.

Some British dictionaries describe the use of “guys” for men and women as American, though Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the usage both in its US and UK editions as “People of either sex,” and gives this example: “you guys want some coffee?”

(We’ve published several posts about “guy,” including one in 2007 about the non-gendered usage and one in 2008 about the origin of the term.)

Interestingly, English has four distinct “chap” words. Here are the senses: (1) a man or boy, (2) cut or roughened, as in chapped lips, (3) the jaws or cheeks, and (4) cowboy leggings.

As we said earlier, the use of “chap” in sense #1 is a shortening of “chapman,” an old term for a trader or dealer. The word was céapmann in Old English, where céapian meant to buy and sell, and céap meant bargaining. Yes, those Anglo-Saxon words are ancestors of our adjective “cheap,” which as you know may describe something that’s a bargain.

The earliest OED example for “chap” used to mean a man or boy is from A Complete History of Algiers (1728), by Joseph Morgan: “ ‘Prithee!’ returned my scornful, choleric Chap; ‘Don’t compare Me to any of your scoundrel Barbarians!’ ”

As for sense #2, “chap” first appeared in Middle English as a verb meaning to “remove by chopping,” according to the OED, which cites this example:

“Anon her [their] hedes wer off chappyd.” From Richard Coer de Lyon, a poem believed written in the early 1300s about the storied exploits of King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade.

(The verb “chop” showed up in the mid-1300s as simply another form of “chap,” the OED notes. Although there were similar words in other Germanic languages, the ultimate source for the cutting sense of “chap” and “chop” is uncertain.)

By the late 14th century, Oxford says, “chap” was being used as a noun meaning a “painful fissure or crack in the skin, descending to the flesh: chiefly caused by exposure of hands, lips, etc., to frost or cold wind.”

The first OED citation is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus:

“Lepra … makyth chappes, chynnes and clyftes” (“Leprosy … maketh chaps, chinks and clefts”).

Early in the next century, the OED says, the verb “chap” came to mean to “crack, cause to crack in fissures.” The earliest citation is from a translation, dated around 1420, of a Latin book about agriculture:

“And yf thai [“they,” the roots of a flowering tree] chappe, a stoone under the heed Roote is to doo.” From a Middle English translation of Opus Agriculturae, also known as De Re Rustica, written by Palladius in the late 4th or early 5th century.

The participial adjective “chapped” showed up in the mid-15th century. The first Oxford example is from the The Towneley Plays, a series of mystery plays (dramas based on biblical stories) believed written sometime before 1460: “My fyngers ar chappyd.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for “chapped lips” is from an April 11, 1823, letter by Francis Hall from Soatá, Colombia: “at the expiration of five hours we gained the summit of the Paramo without any other inconvenience than chapped lips.”

(The Páramo is an ecosystem in the Colombian Andes. Hall, a retired British army officer, joined Simón Bolívar’s independence movement in South America and later became a hydrographer for the Colombian government.)

The use of “chaps” to mean the jaws or cheeks (sense #3) showed up in the mid-16th century, and is now primarily used for the cheeks, or jowls, of a pig. The first OED citation is from a 1555 translation of a Latin history of Spain’s explorations in the New World:

“The hooke ouerthwarteth and catcheth hold of his [a shark’s] chappes” (from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s translation of an early 16th-century work by the Italian historian Peter Martyr of Angleria).

The use of “chops” to mean the jaws or mouth appeared a few decades later, as we wrote in a recent post about musical “chops,” or skill. A singular use of “chop” (spelled “choip”) to mean jaw showed up in the early 1500s.

Finally, sense #4, the use of “chaps” for the leggings worn by cowboys, appeared in the late 19th century. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the term “is short for Mexican Spanish chaparreras, a derivative of Spanish chaparro ‘evergreen oak.’ ”

Ayto adds that “they were named from their use in protecting the legs of riders from the low thick scrub that grows in Mexico and Texas (named with another derivative of chaparro, chaparral). Chaparro itself probably comes from Basque txapar, a diminutive of saphar ‘thicket.’ ”

The earliest OED example for this sense of “chaps,” which we’ve expanded, is from Baled Hay (1884), a collection of sketches by the American humorist Bill Nye:

“ ‘Chaps,’ as they are vulgarly called, deserve more than passing notice. They are made of leather with fronts of dogskin with the hair on. … ‘Chaps’ are rather attractive while the wearer is on horseback, or walking toward you, but … the seat of the garment has been postponed.”

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Why “granary,” not “grainery”?

Q: In a report, I mistakenly referred to a building that holds grain as a “grainery” rather than a “granary.” Why isn’t it spelled “grainery”?

A: Yes, the storehouse for threshed grain is a “granary,” though the spellings “grainary” and “grainery” often crop up, influenced by the noun “grain.”

The ultimate source of both “grain” and “granary” is the Proto-Indo-European root gr̥ə-no-, which has also given English such words as “corn,” “kernel,” “gram,” “granule,” “grange,” “granite,” and “grenade,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says the ancient root meant “worn-down particle” (think of grain being ground into flour). Proto-Indo-European is the reconstructed prehistoric language that gave birth to a family of languages now spoken in much of Europe and parts of Asia.

English borrowed “grain” in the early 1300s from the Old French grain, which in turn comes from the classical Latin term for a seed, grānum. The noun was written various ways in Middle English (greyn, grein, greyne, etc.) before the French spelling prevailed in the early 1600s.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “grain” as a collective noun: “Jesus seyth the vygne be hys, / And eke the greyn of wete” (“Jesus sayeth the vine be his, / And also the grain of wheat”). From a poem, written around 1315, by William of Shoreham, a vicar in northern England.

How did the Anglo-Saxons refer to wheat, oats, rye, and other cereal crops before the word “grain” showed up? In Old English, they used “corn,” a word that still means grain in modern British English, as we’ve written on our blog. In American English, “corn” is what the British call maize.

As for “granary,” English adapted the word in the 16th century from grānārium, classical Latin for a place where grain is stored. And as you’d expect, grānārium comes from grānum, the Latin source of “grain.”

Not surprisingly, the two earliest OED examples use different spellings, “granarie” and “granary.” Here are the quotations:

“A Granarie, granarium” (from Manipulus Vocabulorum, an English-Latin dictionary compiled in 1570 by the English lexicographer Peter Levens).

“Fruits of godliness to be bestowed and laid up in the barn and granary of the kingdom of heaven” (a figurative example from the English writer and lawyer Thomas Norton’s 1570 translation of a French catechism).

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In the loss of your father

Q: I received a puzzling example of condolence-card-speak the other day: “With Sympathy / In The Loss Of Your Father.” The use of “in” here sounds awkward. Is it grammatically correct? Or just a misprint of “in” for “on”? I’m getting sympathy. I just don’t know how.

A: The preposition “in” has been used since medieval times to mean “in regard to”—the sense it has in the sympathy card you received. We think “on” would be more natural, but versions with “in” appear to be more popular now.

Perhaps card companies believe “in” is somehow more sympathetic than “on.” American Greetings, on a web page entitled “What to write in a sympathy card,” has this model condolence message: “Sharing your sadness in the loss of sweet [Debra] and sending you comfort during this difficult time.” We’ve found similar examples on websites offering “thoughtful,” “meaningful,” and “heartfelt” condolence messages.

Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books, indicates that “in the loss of your” was slightly more popular than “on the loss of your” as of 2008, the latest searchable year. The News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, has the “in” expression appearing more than twice as often as the “on” version.

In the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “in” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Expressing reference or relation to something: In reference or regard to; in the case of, in the matter, affair, or province of.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200: “dealen in his pinen” (“to share in his pain”).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “in the loss of your” is from The Life of the Apostle St Paul, a 1653 English translation of a work by Antoine Godeau, a 17th-century French bishop, theologian, and poet.

In advising widows, Paul is quoted as saying, “you are deprived of a great support, in the loss of your husbands; but god is called the husband of Widdows, and if you put your trust in him, you will not be forsaken.”

Finally, here’s an example from a June 30, 1855, condolence letter by Charles Dickens to Mrs. Henry Winter: “I am truly grieved to hear of your affliction in the loss of your darling baby. But if you be not, even already, so reconciled to the parting from that innocent child for a little while, as to bear it gently and with a softened sorrow, I know that that not unhappy state of mind must soon arise.”

Twenty-five years earlier, Dickens had had a brief romance with Maria Beadnell, the future Mrs. Winter, but her family objected and sent her to school in Paris. Dickens is believed to have used Maria as a model for Dora, David Copperfield’s first wife.

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Furbish or refurbish?

Q: I’m curious about the verbs “furbish” and “refurbish.” My dictionary includes both, and says either can mean to renovate. So why do we usually use “refurbish” in that sense when “furbish” would do nicely?

A: Both “furbish” and “refurbish” have meant to polish or renovate for hundreds of years, but “refurbish” is far more popular today. Up until the 1930s, though, “furbish” was more popular, and it’s made somewhat of a comeback in recent years.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “ ‘Furbish’ was borrowed into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French furbiss-, a distant relative of an Old High German word meaning ‘to polish.’

“In its earliest uses, ‘furbish’ also meant ‘to polish,’ but it developed an extended sense of ‘renovate’ shortly before English speakers created ‘refurbish’ with the same meaning in the 17th century. These days ‘refurbish’ is the more common of the two words, although ‘furbish’ does continue to be used.”

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “refurbish” rose sharply in the second half of the 20th century as the use of “furbish” fell. However, “furbish” rose a bit in popularity in the early 21st century while “refurbish” fell.

Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using “refurbish.” The verb “furbish” is likely to raise eyebrows these days and send readers to their dictionaries.

As for the etymology, the verb “furbish” originally meant to “remove rust from (a weapon, armour, etc.); to brighten by rubbing, polish, burnish,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example is from the Wyclife Bible of 1382: “The swerd is whettid and furbishid” (Ezekiel 21:9).

Two centuries later, Oxford says, “furbish” came to mean “to brush or clean up (anything faded or soiled); to give a new look to (an object either material or immaterial); to do or get up afresh, renovate, revive.”

Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “The Soule, which must be fayne to be, as it were, newfurbished” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

When “refurbish” showed up in the early 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “to brighten or clean up” and then “to restore to good condition, to renovate; (now esp.) to repair and redecorate (a building, room, etc.).”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Refourbir, to refurbish, repolish.” The next example is more substantial:

“She made up but one Suit of Cloaths in a Year, and even that one she would get so neatly refurbished, that it would sometimes last her eighteen Months” (from Eliza Stanley’s 1736 translation of Histoire du Prince Titi, a novel by Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, pseudonym of the French freethinker Hyacinthe Cordonnier).

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Are you down on “up”?

Q: How did “heat up” replace “heat” in referring to heating food? And why has the equally awful “early on” become so popular?

A: “Heat up” hasn’t replaced “heat” in the kitchen, but the use of the phrasal verb in this sense has apparently increased in popularity in recent years while the use of the simple verb has decreased.

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that “heat the soup” was still more popular than “heat up the soup” as of 2008 (the latest searchable date), though the gap between them narrowed dramatically after the mid-1980s.

However, we haven’t found any standard dictionary or usage guide that considers “heat up” any less standard than “heat” in the cooking sense.

Merriam-Webster online defines the phrasal verb as “to cause (something) to become warm or hot,” and gives this example: “Could you heat up the vegetables, please?”

You seem to think that “heat up” is redundant. We disagree.

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition. In the phrasal verb “heat up,” it’s an adverb that reinforces the meaning of the verb. (A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus one or more linguistic elements, usually an adverb or a preposition.)

In a 2012 post entitled “Uppity Language,” we quote the Oxford English Dictionary as saying the adverb “up” in a phrasal verb can express “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “to emphasize the import of the verb.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention “heat up” in that sense, but it cites “eat up,” “swallow up,” “boil up,” “beat up,” “dry up,” “finish up,” “heal up,” and many other phrasal verbs in which “up” is used to express bringing something to fruition, especially for emphasis.

Our impression is that people may also feel that it’s more informal to “heat up” food than simply “heat” it, though dictionaries don’t make that distinction. The phrasal verb “hot up” is used similarly in British English as well as in the American South and South Midland, and dictionaries generally regard that usage as informal, colloquial, or slang.

We also feel that people may tend to use “heat up” for reheating food that’s already cooked, and “heat” by itself for heating food that’s prepared from scratch. An Ngram search got well over a hundred hits for “heat up the leftovers,” but none for “heat the leftovers.” However, we haven’t found any dictionaries that make this distinction either.

In addition to its food sense, “heat up” can also mean “to become more active, intense, or angry,” according to Merriam-Webster online, which cites these examples: “Their conversation started to heat up” …. “Competition between the two companies is heating up.”

And the adverb “up” can have many other meanings in phrasal verbs: from a lower level (“pick up,” “lift up”), out of the ground (“dig up,” “sprout up”), on one’s feet (“get up,” “stand up”), separate or sever (“break up,” “tear up”), and so on.

When the verb “heat” appeared in Old English (spelled hǽtan, haten, hatten, etc.), it was intransitive (without an object) and meant to become hot. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English entry in the Epinal Glossary, which the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.”

The first OED citation for the verb used transitively (with an object) to mean make (something) hot is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies dating from around 1000: “hæt scenc fulne wines” (“heat a cup full of wine”).

As far as we can tell, the phrasal verb “heat up” appeared in the second half of the 19th century, though not in its cooking sense. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an April 9, 1878, report by the US Patent Office about an invention in which a system of pipes “is employed to heat up the feedwater of a steam-boiler.”

A lecture in London a few years later touches on cooking: “Now a Bunsen burner will roast meat very well, provided that the products of combustion are not poured straight on to whatever is being cooked; the flame must be used to heat up the walls of the roaster, and the radiant heat from the walls must roast the meat.” (The talk on the use of coal gas was given on Dec. 15, 1884, and published in the Journal of the Society of Arts, Jan. 9, 1885.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for “heat up” used in the precise sense you’re asking about is from a recipe for shrimp puree in Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book (1898), by Mrs. Charles Roundell (Julia Anne Elizabeth Roundell):

“bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that may rise, then cool, and pass all through the sieve into another stewpan, stir in the shrimps that were reserved for garnish and heat up.”

As for the adverbial phrase “early on,” it’s been used regularly since the mid-18th century to mean “at an initial or early stage,” according to the OED. The dictionary also cites examples of the variant “earlier on” from the mid-19th century.

Oxford’s earliest example of “early on” is from a 1759 book about tropical diseases by the English physician William Hillary: “When I am called so early on in the Disease … I can strictly pursue it” (from Observations on the Changes of the Air, and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbados).

And the first “earlier on” example is from the Manchester Guardian, April 21, 1841: “It took place earlier on in the year.”

You’re right that “early on” has grown in popularity lately, though “earlier on” has remained relatively stable, according to a comparison of the phrases in the Ngram Viewer.

However, we don’t see why the usage bothers you. The four online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted (Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Oxford, and Longman), list it without comment—that is, as standard English.

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A time for timeless verbs

Q: Why would someone write “approach” and “make” instead of “approaching” and “making” in the following sentence? “In the video, you can see a man and woman in a canoe approach the deck and make off with a fishing pole.”

A: Either infinitives (“approach,” “make off”) or gerunds (“approaching,” “making off”) would be correct in that sentence, which is on the website of KIII, the ABC television affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Here “you” is the subject, “can see” is the verb, and all the rest is the direct object (some grammarians would refer to “a man and woman” as the direct object and what follows as the object complement, predicative complement, or objective predicate).

A direct object, as you know, is what’s acted on by a verb. It can be a noun as well as a noun substitute, such as a pronoun, infinitive, gerund, or (in this case) a phrase.

As for the sentence you’re asking about (“In the video, you can see a man and woman in a canoe approach the deck and make off with a fishing pole”), the verbs “approach” and “make off” are bare, or “to”-less, infinitives.

Technically, an infinitive is a non-finite or unmarked verb form—that is, a verb without time, person, or number. In the sentence above, the two bare infinitives are being used to complement (or help complete) the object—“a man and woman in a canoe.”

The two gerunds you suggested (“approaching” and “making off”) are also unmarked verb forms, and could similarly be used to complement “a man and woman in a canoe.”

Both infinitives and gerunds are often used after verbs of perception like “see,” “hear,” and “feel”: “We saw them flee/fleeing” … “They heard the boy snicker/snickering” … “I felt the wasp sting/stinging me.”

We’ve published several posts on our blog, the latest three months ago, about why some verbs take gerunds as direct objects, others infinitives, and still others can take either one.

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Check out, check-out, checkout?

Q: This is probably too hair-splitting for your blog. BUT! At my local library, one takes out a book by touching “check-out” on a kiosk screen. Something as un-world-shaking as a hyphen is probably dwarfed by concerns like global warming, but for heaven’s sake it’s the library, one of the leaders of literacy. Shouldn’t this read either “checkout” or “check out”?

A: We consider no hair too tiny to split. This is the usual way “check” and “out” come together, according to the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we’ve consulted.

The phrasal verb is “check out,” two words. The noun and adjective are both “checkout,” one word. Nary a hyphen among them.

Although a few of the dictionaries list hyphenated versions of the verb, noun, or adjective as variants, we think the library should alter that screen.

If the verb is intended, then the screen should read “Check Out,”  as if the instruction were short for “Check Out Here.”

If the adjective is intended, the screen should read “Checkout”—as if short for “Checkout Option.”

And if the noun is intended, the screen should also read “Checkout”—as if short for “Book Checkout.”

Over time, as we’ve written before on our blog, hyphens tend to disappear from familiar compounds. This is especially true in the case of nouns and adjectives.

The early 20th-century formations that started out as “teen ager” and “teen age” are good examples. These two-word formations later gained hyphens (“teen-ager,” “teen-age”), but eventually the hyphens disappeared (“teenager,” “teenage”).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, shows that the verb “check out” has almost always been written that way—two words, no hyphen. Similar phrasal verbs include “check off,” “check over,” “check on,” “check up,” and “check up on.”

Since it first appeared in the early 1920s, the verb has had various meanings. Someone can “check out” at a hotel or store, “check out” (inspect or test) a new car, “check out” (investigate) a rumor, “check out” (appraise) a person, “check out” (withdraw) a book, or simply “check out” (die).

The earliest OED examples illustrate the first and last of those meanings, and they’re from the same year: “The singer person is checking out from the first floor suite next week” (Sewell Ford’s 1921 novel Inez and Trilby May) … “In the morning he was dead—he’d checked out in his dreams” (Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1921).

No hyphens there. But used as a noun or an adjective, the compound has sometimes been hyphenated in the past.

The noun “checkout,” which means the act or process of checking out, was a single word (no hyphen) when it first appeared in the 1940s.

This is Oxford’s earliest use: “Advancement to radio operator ‘A’ may be earned by … training that must include checkout on several types of multi-engine airplanes” (Plane Talk magazine, September 1944).

In later decades, hyphens were sometimes inserted, but they eventually fell away. OED citations include both “supermarket check-out” (1955) and “supermarket checkout” (2002).

As for the adjective, it too has occasionally been hyphenated. Oxford’s mid-20th-century examples include both “checkout systems” (1956) and “hotel check-out times” (1958). Nowadays, as we mentioned, standard dictionaries generally give the adjective as a single word, “checkout.”

If you haven’t had enough yet, we wrote a post in 2009 about the checkered history of the word “check,” which comes from Persian and is related to “chess.” Check it out.

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