The Grammarphobia Blog

Punctuating a series of questions

Q: I saw this sentence in an article about a court ruling on the Affordable Care Act: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?—may be in the cards.” Is it kosher to have two question marks within dashes?

A: Yes, a series of questions in the middle of a sentence, surrounded by dashes or parentheses, is punctuated in just that way. Each question begins with a lowercase letter and ends with a question mark, according to language  guides.

But if the series is at the end, and if the questions are complete clauses, you have a choice.

You can introduce the series with a dash and use lowercase letters: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Or you can introduce the series with a colon and capitalize each question, which is a good idea if the individual questions are longer: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards: To whom does it apply? Can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Questions in a series aren’t always complete clauses; they can be phrases or single words.

Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (4th ed.) cites this sentence: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?” And since the sentence as a whole is a question, you can use commas in the series and a question mark at the end: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer, toothbrush, swimsuit?”

If we rephrased the sentence to put the questions in the middle, it would be punctuated like this: “Tina wondered what she’d have to buy—new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?—if her luggage didn’t turn up.”

The Modern Language Association, which publishes a stylebook that’s widely used by academic and scholarly writers, has this advice on its website: “Use lowercase letters to begin questions incorporated in series in a sentence.”

The MLA gives this example: “Should I punctuate a question contained in a sentence with a comma? with a colon? with a dash?” And again, we could rephrase it and put the questions in the middle: “He wondered what to use—a comma? a colon? a dash?—to punctuate a question in a sentence.”

Such mid-sentence questions can occur in a series or one at a time, and they can be found within sentences that are or are not questions in themselves. For instance, your example is a declarative sentence, not interrogative, though it has questions within it.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls these “medial questions” since they “occur medially, internally within a sentence.” The book adds: “Medial questions and exclamations do not normally begin with a capital letter except in the case of quotation.”

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples with single parenthetical questions enclosed within dashes and parentheses:

“She had finally decided—and who can blame her?—to go her own way.”

“Her son (you remember him, don’t you?) has just been arrested.”

And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) has these examples:

“Without further warning—but what could we have done to dissuade her?—she left the plant, determined to stop the union in its tracks.”

“The man in the gray flannel suit (had we met before?) winked at me.”

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Amn’t I a smart smartypants

Q: When our son was about three, he jokingly said, “Amn’t I a smart smartypants.” (Statement, not question.) Obviously, he figured out how to make a negative of “I am a smart smartypants.” Amn’t I right?

A: Your son’s use of “amn’t” was very precocious. He discovered for himself a word that makes perfect grammatical sense.

But you’ll be surprised to learn that “amn’t” already exists, though most English speakers don’t use it today.

It’s a contraction of “am not,” and it’s formed along the lines of many similar contractions: “isn’t” (for “is not”), “wasn’t” (“was not”), “weren’t” (“were not”), “didn’t” (“did not”), “can’t” (“cannot”), and so on.

Like many other English contractions, it was first recorded in the 1600s.  This is the first known example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here” (the Athenian Gazette, May 11, 1691).

Unlike those other contractions, “amn’t” is not common today. It’s heard mostly in Scottish and Irish English, according to Merriam-Webster online. In the United States it’s “nonstandard,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The reason “amn’t” is not widely used is that it’s ungainly and awkward to pronounce. The contraction forces together the consonants “m” and “n,” an unnatural combination.

What most English speakers have done is drop the troublesome “m” from “am,” resulting in contractions for “am” + “not” that are easier to pronounce.

The earliest of these was “an’t,” first recorded in the 1660s (several decades before “amn’t), and sometimes written as “a’n’t.” More than a century later, in the late 1700s, came the two we’re familiar with today: first “ain’t,” then “aren’t” (used only in questions).

These are the earliest OED citations for each:

“Now, ain’t I an old chaunter?” (1785, from Peeping Tom of Coventry, a comic opera by John O’Keeffe) … “Aren’t I made already?” (1798, from Rose-Mount Castle, a novel by Mary Julia Young).

It’s likely, etymologists have suggested, that as contractions for “am” + “not,” the words written “ain’t” and “aren’t” originally represented how “an’t” sounded to different English speakers.

If the vowel in “an’t” sounded like a long “a” (as in “hay”), then “ain’t” would have been a reasonable spelling. And if the vowel in “an’t” sounded like “ah,” then “aren’t” (with the “r” silent in British speech) would have represented that pronunciation.

However they developed, “ain’t” today is widely regarded as nonstandard English, while “aren’t” is the recognized “am” + “not” contraction used in questions or question-like statements (as in “Aren’t I the clever one!”).

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And then there were none

Q: I keep hearing from “educated” sources statements such as “none of us are going tonight.” It affects my ears like chalk scraping on the chalkboard. Do my old teachers’ rules no longer apply?

A: The belief that “none” is always singular is a common misconception. If you’re skeptical, check any dictionary.

“There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view,” says Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), adding that the pronoun “has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.”

The truth is that “none” has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon times. In general, it’s construed as singular if it means “none of it” and plural if it means “none of them.”

In the fourth edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she says that “generations of us were taught (incorrectly) as schoolchildren that none is always singular because it means ‘not one.’ ” In fact, she explains, “none” has been “closer in meaning to ‘not any.’ ”

Consequently, Pat adds, “most authorities agree it usually means ‘not any of them’ and is plural.”

She gives these examples (with the verbs underlined): “None of the cheese puffs were eaten. None of the buffalo wings were touched.”

None is singular,” she says, “only when it means ‘none of it’ (that is to say, ‘no amount’),” and gives the example “However, none of the beer was wasted.”

(We’ve also written about “none” several times on our blog, most recently in 2012.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says that since the days of Old English, “none” has been used as both a singular and a plural pronoun. However, “singular agreement,” the dictionary says, “has generally been less common than plural agreement, especially between the 17th and 19th centuries.”

The dictionary says that “none,” when it means “not any (one) of a number of people or things,” is used “commonly with plural agreement.”

In this way, the OED suggests, it’s similar to another definition of “none”—that is, “no people”—a definition that also dates from Old English and is construed as plural (“Now the commoner usage, the singular being expressed by no one”).

So how did generations of English teachers come to believe otherwise? As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “The notion that it [none] is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century.”

Where did the notion come from? The answer probably lies in the word’s etymology. “None” is derived from Old English words for “not” and “one,” which seems to have led to a belief it can only mean “not one.”

Merriam-Webster’s comments: “The Old English nan ‘none’ was in fact formed from ne ‘not’ and an ‘one,’ but Old English nan was inflected for both singular and plural. Hence it never has existed in the singular only; King Alfred the Great used it as a plural as long ago as A.D. 888.”

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Ouija talk

Q: I’ve read that the word “Ouija,” as in “Ouija board,” comes from an ancient Egyptian term for good luck. Is this true? If not, what’s the real story?

A: As far as we can tell, no Egyptian term like that existed. At least we couldn’t find one in searching transliterations of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and cursive terms. You can blame the guy who patented the Ouija board for linking the name to Egypt and luck, presumably as a marketing ploy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which says “Ouija” is of uncertain origin, notes three theories: it’s (1) a combination of oui and ja, the French and German words for “yes”; (2) “an ancient Egyptian word for ‘good luck’ (although apparently no such word exists),” and (3) from Oujda, the name of a city in Morocco.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the word is from a May 28, 1890, patent application for a “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” that’s described as “a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions and having them answered by the device.”

The patent application was signed by Elijah J. Bond, identified as the inventor, and assigned to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin, two owners of the Kennard Novelty Company, the first manufacturer of the Ouija board.

The patent was registered on Feb. 10, 1891, a week after a trademark for “Ouija” was registered with the US Patent Office. The patent and trademark are now held by Hasbro, the toy and board game company.

Although the name “Ouija” is usually capitalized when referring to the trademarked board game, it’s often lowercased in referring to other so-called talking boards used by spiritualists and others trying to communicate with the world beyond. As for the pronunciation, you can find both WEE-juh and WEE-jee in standard dictionaries.

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It’s Emma Woodhouse, you know

Q: In rereading Emma, I’ve noticed that several of Jane Austen’s characters, including Emma herself, repeatedly use the phrase “you know.” I would have thought that this was a modern verbal tic. When did people begin you-knowing each other?

A: English speakers have been using “you know” colloquially for emphasis since the Middle Ages. It’s short for “as you know,” “as you may know,” “as you should know,” and so on.

The parenthetical expression is so common that it’s also used as a conversational filler while a speaker considers what to say next. And, as you say, it’s often merely a verbal tic, one we ourselves have struggled to suppress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the emphatic usage, which we’ll expand here, is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), an anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale written around 1200:

“He is my lege man, lelly þou knowes, for holly þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“He is my liege man, truly you know, for wholly the land he has he holds for myself”). In feudal law, a liege man was a vassal.

As for Emma, “you know” is generally used for emphasis and (we assume) to add a conversational tone to the dialogue.

For example, Emma uses the phrase emphatically to remind Mr. Knightly that she arranged (or so she thinks) the marriage between Miss Taylor, her former governess, and Mr. Weston.

“I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.”

Emma’s father uses it for emphasis here: “Whenever James goes over to see his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us.” James is the Woodhouse coachman, and his daughter Hannah is a housemaid for the Westons.

Harriet Smith uses it similarly while talking to Emma about Robert Martin: “I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time.”

The linguist Chi Luu, in a Dec. 12, 2018, article in JSTOR Daily, notes that Harriet overuses “you know” when she’s nervous. Luu considers it a verbal tic in this passage describing a chance encounter with Mr. Martin:

“I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how; and then I took courage, and said it did not rain, and I must go.”

Luu, who has degrees in literature and theoretical linguistics, adds that Austen uses “very,” another intensifier, “so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental.” She cites a study of the language in Emma by the linguist Janine Barchas.

In “Very Austen: Accounting for the Language of Emma,” Barchas includes figures showing that Austen uses “very” 1,212 times in Emma as opposed to 758 in the runner-up, Mansfield Park (from the December 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

We’ll end with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma, in which he playfully notes Austen’s use of intensifiers: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

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Fixing the damn roads

Q: Gretchen Whitmer, our new governor in Michigan, ran at least in part on a pledge to “fix the damn roads.” She hauls out that line on a regular basis. When did “damned” shrink to “damn”? And for that matter when did “waxed paper” and “popped corn” become “wax paper” and “popcorn”?

A: Both “damn” and “damned” as well as “wax” and “waxed” have been used adjectivally for hundreds of years, while the movie munchie has been written variously as “popped corn,” “pop corn,” and “popcorn” over the last century and a half.

The loss of the “-ed” in these terms isn’t at all surprising. The “-ed” ending can be difficult to pronounce before a consonant. As a result, it’s often dropped in speech, or not heard when pronounced. This can lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

The use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation, which uses the word in both senses, is from The Taming of the Shrew, a Shakespeare comedy believed written in the early 1590s: “Where is that damned villaine Tranio?”

The earliest Oxford example for “damn” used similarly, which we’ll expand a bit, appeared in the late 18th century: “a man that was in Company there the evening before that cut up a caper and was noted for a damn cuss” (from a March 12, 1775, entry in the Narragansett [R.I.] Historical Register).

Although you can find this use of both “damn” and “damned” in standard dictionaries, the shorter version is more popular now in newspapers, magazines, and books.

A search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, indicates that the expression your governor used, “damn roads,” is 20 times as popular as “damned roads.” A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows the unsuffixed version is more than twice as popular.

The earliest OED example for “wax” used adjectivally is from Anglo-Saxon times: “Funalia, cerei, waex-condel” (an entry for “wax candle” in the Corpus Glossary, circa 725, a Latin-Old English glossary preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). The Old English waex in the compound waex-condel is an attributive noun—a noun used adjectivally.

The dictionary’s first example for “waxed” used as a participial adjective is from a Middle English account of St. Augustine’s life, written sometime before 1380. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Sammlung Altenglische Legenden, an 1878 collection of medieval English legends edited by Carl Horstmann:

“Þe ache for þe tyme was so stronge / þat he lafte þe speche of his tonge. / Þerfore in a waxed table / he wrot þat alle men, wiþouten fable, / for him schulde preize God witerly” (“The ache was so strong that he was speechless for the time being. Therefore he wrote on a waxed tablet that all honest men should praise God truly”).

As for paper treated with wax, the phrase “waxed paper” showed up in the mid-18th century, while “wax paper” appeared in the early 19th, according to our searches of digitized books. Here are the earliest examples we’ve seen for each phrase:

“The merchant now thinks it necessary to enclose all his country despatches in oiled or waxed paper cases, as he is aware that the rivers will soon be flooded, and that the Tapall [postman] must swim over with the post-bags on his head” (from Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

“The pattern must first be cut out, and afterwards traced on the wax paper with a pencil, and again cut out with a sharp pair of scissors” (from The Wreath, Or Ornamental Artist, 1835, written anonymously by “A Lady”). The passage is from instructions for making a decorative light fixture out of wax paper.

You can find both “wax paper” and “waxed paper” in standard dictionaries. The shorter version is nearly twice as popular in the NOW database of online newspapers and magazines, but the two phrases are equally popular in the digitized books searched by Ngram Viewer.

Finally, we get to “popcorn,” which was “pop corn” when it first appeared in writing in the 19th century as the corn grown for popping.

The earliest example in the OED is from a newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio: “We believe, if the pop corn was not flinty, it would be a better crop, and certainly a more productive one, than the large eared corn” (from the Huron [County] Reflector, May 15, 1838).

It’s “popped corn” in the dictionary’s first citation for corn that’s been popped: “I have been popping corn to-night, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a greater than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonias” (from a Jan. 3, 1842, entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal).

We’ve found several 19th-century examples of the snack written as “popcorn,” the only version now in standard dictionaries. This one is from the October 1879 issue of Potter’s American Monthly: “PopCorn balls and cider, that’s the bill of fare; popcorn and cider. There is something in a five-cent popcorn ball that just knocks a butter-brown country girl off her pins.”

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example with the usual spelling: “He purchased a large bag of popcorn” (Just William, 1922, a collection of short stories by the English writer Richmal Crompton).

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Virile Viagra vs. wimpy sildenafil

Q: The brand names of drugs are often memorable while the generics can be tongue twisters. Where do generic names come from?

A: Yes, the brand names of drugs can indeed be catchy, while the generics are usually forgettable. The proprietary name “Viagra,” for example, suggests vigor and virility, while the generic name, “sildenafil,” is wimpy and hard to pronounce.

The names of modern generic drugs are made up of fragments, called “stems,” that are generally based on Latin and denote the drug’s medical function.

The US National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, maintains a list of these stems, and every generic drug has to have one somewhere in its name.

The stem is usually at the end, as with “sildenafil.” The “afil” stem means the drug increases blood flow to the penis and enhances erectile function (technically, it’s a phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitor with vasodilator action).

At least nine other generic drugs have “afil” in their names, including “vardenafil” (Levitra) and “tadalafil” (Cialis). In Latin, the “a-” prefix can mean “off” or “away,” while “filum” is a “thread” or “filament.”

The more familiar stems “micin” and “mycin (as in generic names like “gentamicin” and “lincomycin”) are for antibiotic drugs; the different spellings mean they treat different strains of bacteria.

Those stems were created in the mid-20th century from –myces, a suffix in scientific Latin that’s used in genus names and that comes from the ancient Greek μύκης (mukēs, fungus), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And the stem “vastatin” (as in “simvastatin,” “lovastatin,” “pravastatin”) is for antihyperlipidemics—that is, drugs that help reduce lipid levels in the blood and thus treat high cholesterol.

The “vas” in such names, the OED says, is “perhaps” modeled on physiological terms that include “vaso-” (from the Latin vās for “vessel,” the source of “vascular”). And the “statin” part is modeled on scientific terms that include “stato-” (from ancient Greek στατός or statós, for a standing still).

To use a more recent example, generic names for so-called “medical marijuana” drugs include the stem “nab” (as in “nabazenil” and “dronabinol”). The stem means the drugs are derivatives of cannabinol, a substance found in cannabis, a word found in classical Latin (cannabis means hemp), from the ancient Greek κάνναβις (kánnabis).

The procedures for assigning names to new drugs are quite complicated. Every drug that comes to market must have a generic name as well as a brand name, and there are separate sets of agencies and regulations involved in the approval of each, but we’ll concern ourselves only with generics.

In the US, manufacturers suggest possible generic names (each including the appropriate stem) to the United States Adopted Names Council. The council then submits its top three choices to the World Health Organization’s International Nonproprietary Names program, which chooses a single generic name by which that drug will be known worldwide.

The rules for all this are stringent. Because generic names are used in many different languages, for example, the letters “h,” “j,” “k,” and “w” are ruled out since they might create confusion. And names are carefully vetted to make sure they don’t have obscene or profane connotations in any of the World Health Organization’s member countries.

For more detail, there are interesting articles on the websites of the American Medical Association and Chemical & Engineering News.

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A pasta noodle maker?

Q: A friend of mine refers to his pasta maker as a “pasta noodle maker.” Since “pasta” by definition is a “noodle,” is that not redundant?

A: A noodle is a type of pasta, but not every type of pasta is a noodle.

Standard dictionaries define “noodle” as a long, narrow strip of dough, and most dictionaries say it’s usually made with flour, water, and eggs. However, “pasta” comes in many shapes (elbows, bow ties, tubes, shells, alphabet letters, etc.), and it’s often made without eggs.

We agree with you that “pasta noodle maker” is redundant, though we’re not particularly bothered by it. And some people might find it a colorful way of referring to a pasta machine that’s primarily used to make noodles. However, we’d refer to such a machine as either a “pasta maker” or a “noodle maker.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “noodle” as “a narrow, ribbonlike strip of dough, usually made of flour, eggs, and water.” It defines “pasta” as “unleavened dough, made with wheat or other flour, water, and sometimes eggs, that is molded into any of a variety of shapes and boiled.”

As for the history of these two words, English borrowed “noodle” from German in the 18th century and “pasta” from Italian in the 19th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED says “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is “probably a variant of knödel dumpling.” In medieval German, knödel could mean a small knot.

The dictionary’s first example for “noodle” in the pasta sense is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup—this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

An unrelated “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person,” had appeared half a century earlier, as we note in a 2009 post about the various “noodle” terms in English.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an even earlier word, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

As for “pasta,” the Italian word is derived from the medieval Latin pasta (pastry cake), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It’s related to our words “paste” (originally a cooking term) and “pastry.”

The first OED citation for “pasta” is from an early 19th-century travel book: “Maccaroni, like vermicelli, is only one of the forms into which the Italians make what they call ‘pasta’ or paste. It requires a particular sort of wheat, a brittle, flinty grain, to make this pasta” (from Journal of a Tour in Italy, 1830, by James Paul Cobbett).

The OED also has a somewhat earlier example in which “pasta” is used in an Italian phrase: “The Italians prefer that [macaroni] which is fresh made, and made at home, and called pasta di casa, household paste” (from A Journey in Carniola, Italy, and France, 1820, by William Archibald Cadell; Carniola, ruled by the Austrian Empire at the time, was part of what is now Slovenia).

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Affirm or confirm?

Q: To affirm or confirm? That is my question.

A: The verb “confirm” has more meanings and is more widely used than “affirm,” though there’s some overlap in the use of these words.

Standard dictionaries say either can be used to mean validate or ratify. For example, these are among the definitions that Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) lists for the two:

Affirm: “to make valid; confirm; uphold; ratify (a law, decision, or judgment).”

Confirm: “to make valid by formal approval; ratify.”

Even though the verbs do overlap, we’re more likely to use “affirm” for a judicial action (as when a court “affirms” a lower court’s ruling) and “confirm” for a legislative action (as when the Senate “confirms” an appointee).

Apart from that sense of validating or ratifying, the two verbs differ in their meanings.

“Affirm” has only one other sense, and again we’ll use the definition in Webster’s New World: “to say positively; declare firmly; assert to be true: opposed to deny.”

“Confirm” has two other general senses: (1) “to make firm; strengthen; establish; encourage”; and (2) “to prove the truth, validity, or authenticity of; verify.” (In addition, “confirm” has a religious sense: to administer the rite of confirmation.)

So we can make a couple of broad statements about the non-overlapping senses of these verbs. When you assert something originally, you “affirm” it. When you corroborate an assertion, you “confirm” it—that is, you remove doubt about something previously believed or suspected.

Here’s an example. Say that a character in a mystery novel is asked by police where he was on the night in question. He may “affirm” that he was at home all evening. Then he may be asked whether a witness can “confirm” his statement.

We can confirm, by the way, what you no doubt already know—these words are etymologically related. Both can be traced to the classical Latin adjective firmus (stable, strong, immovable). From firmus, the Romans derived firmāre (to strengthen or make fast), which in turn led to the classical Latin verbs confirmāre and affirmāre.

Those words had similar meanings in classical Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confirmāre as “to make firm, strengthen, establish, etc.,” and affirmāre as “to add strength or support to, to confirm, to ratify, to assert, to swear, to express emphasis.” Here the suffix con- means “together, altogether,” the OED says, while af– (a form of ad-) conveys the sense of the preposition “to.”

Middle English acquired “confirm” (circa 1290) directly from Old French, but “affirm” had dual origins. It entered Middle English sometime before 1325, borrowed partly from classical Latin and partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

Our word “firm” appeared around that same period, first as a verb (1303), then as an adverb (1330s or ’40s) and an adjective (1370s), all acquired through Old French or directly from Latin.

The noun “firm,” however, was a latecomer adopted from Italian. It was first recorded in 1574 when it had a meaning that’s now obsolete—“signature.” It was a borrowing of the Italian noun firma (signature), from the Italian verb firmare (to sign; a derivative of the Latin firmāre).

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun “firm” came to mean “the ‘style’ or name under which the business of a commercial house is transacted,” and hence a business partnership or a “commercial house.”

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The Grammarphobia Blog

Can not, cannot, and can’t

Q: Can you please dwell in some detail on why “can not” is now usually written as “cannot”? Is there a linguistic reason for this uncontracted form? Or is it just one of those irregularities that cannot be accounted for?

A: When the usage showed up in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was two words.

One of the oldest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, perhaps written as early as the 700s: “men ne cunnon” (“men can not”).

And here’s an expanded version that offers context as well as a sense of the Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“ac se æglæca etende wæs, / deorc deaþscua duguþe ond geogoþe, / seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold / mistige moras; men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað” (“all were in peril; warriors young and old were hunted down by that dark shadow of death that lurked night after night on the misty moors; men on their watches can not know where these fiends from hell will walk”).

The combined form “cannot” showed up in the Middle English period (1150 to 1450), along with various other spellings: cannat, cannatte, cannouȝt, connat, connott, conot, conott, cannote, connot, and cannott.

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at around 1280: “And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be” (“And thou that he [Jesus] died for cannot be sorrowful”).

In contemporary English, both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, though they’re generally used in different ways. The combined form, as you point out, is more common (Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online, says it’s three times as common in the Oxford English Corpus).

Here’s an excerpt from the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, on how the two terms, as well as the contraction “can’t,” are generally used today:

CAN NOT / CANNOT / CAN’T. Usually, you can’t go wrong with a one-word version—can’t in speech or casual writing, cannot in formal writing. The two-word version, can not, is for when you want to be emphatic (Maybe you can hit high C, but I certainly can not), or when not is part of another expression, like “not only . . . but also” (I can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it). Then there’s can’t not, as in The diva’s husband can’t not go to the opera.

Getting back to your question, why is “cannot” more popular than “can not”? We believe the compound is more common because the two-word phrase may be ambiguous.

Consider this sentence: “You can not go to the party.” It could mean either “You’re unable to go” or “You don’t have to go.” However, the sentence has only the first meaning if you replace “can not” with “cannot” (or the contraction “can’t”).

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “You can’t/cannot answer their letters” means “It is not possible or permitted for you to answer their letters,” while “You can not answer their letters” means “You are permitted not to answer their letters.”

In speech, Huddleston and Pullum write, any ambiguity is cleared up by emphasis and rhythm: “In this use, the not will characteristically be stressed and prosodically associated with answer rather than with can by means of a very slight break separating it from the unstressed can.” The authors add that “this construction is fairly rare, and sounds somewhat contrived.”

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