The Grammarphobia Blog

Fancy that

Q: In Grantchester, a detective series on British TV, a woman was recently asked, “Is that your husband or your fancy man?” The Brits seem to use “fancy” in ways that never caught on in America—to “fancy” someone, for example, or a “fancy dress ball.” Of course my Jewish grandmother used “fancy-schmancy” as a mild put-down.

A: For centuries, the word “fancy”—noun, verb, and adjective—has been associated with imagination, fantasy, and desire. And you’re right in thinking that in some of its senses “fancy” is more widely used today in Britain than in the US.

The verb in particular is used more broadly and more flexibly by British speakers. Some standard dictionaries label “fancy” as a British usage when it means to want (“Do you fancy fish and chips tonight?”), to like or have a crush on (“She obviously fancies him”), to favor (“What team do you fancy in the finals?”), or when used imperatively to express surprise (“Fancy her winning the lottery!”).

The adjective, too, is used differently. To the British “fancy dress” doesn’t mean formal evening wear; it means a costume, as for a masquerade ball. The linguist Lynne Murphy, on her blog Separated by a Common Language, passes along this anecdote from an article in the Spectator:

“There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress.” The writer of the article, who’s Canadian, says she has “experienced the cultural flip side.” Invited to a “fancy dress party” in London, she arrived wearing a silk cocktail dress and heels, only to find that her fellow party-goers were got up as Nazis, drag queens, and tarts.

The phrase you heard in Grantchester, “fancy man,” has had many meanings in both varieties of English. We’ll get to those later. First, some etymological background.

When “fancy” entered English in the late 1400s, it was a contraction of “fantasy,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earlier noun, dating from around 1325, had occasionally appeared in abbreviated spellings (like “fantsy,” 1462).

“Fantasy” was borrowed from the Old French fantasie, which can be traced to phantasia, a word that in medieval Latin and Greek (ϕαντασία) had several meanings, including an appearance, a spectral apparition or phantom, and the faculty of imagining.

When the short form “fancy” was first recorded in writing (spelled “fansey”), it was a noun for a preference, a personal taste, an inclination, or a liking, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1465 entry in a collection known as The Paston Letters and Papers: “I haue non fansey wyth soume of þe felechipp [the fellowship].”

The expression “to have no fancy with” is now obsolete, the dictionary says, but similar uses of the noun survive in phrases like “to have a fancy for,” “take a fancy to,” “catch the fancy of,” etc.

Around the same time, “fancy” was also used to mean something very different, “a supposition resting on no solid grounds” or “an arbitrary notion,” Oxford says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Compound of Alchymy (1471), by George Ripley: “To know the truth, and fancies to eschew.”

Over the next three hundred years, the noun acquired other meanings having to do with the human imagination—a whim or caprice (1579), a hallucination or delusion (1597), a mental image (1663), an invention (1665), or, collectively, connoisseurs—that is, fanciers—of a particular pastime (1735).

In the mid-1500s, “fancy” also came to mean love or an amorous inclination, a meaning that’s now obsolete. But the usage has survived in the phrase “fancy free” (1600), which originally meant free of any fond attachment, or not in love. (Today standard dictionaries also accept another meaning, carefree.)

The verb “fancy” didn’t come along—at least in writing—until the mid-1500s, and from the start it had two branches of meanings. One had to do with imagining, conceiving, or believing, with OED examples dating from 1551. The other had to do with liking or being fond of (that is, “taking a fancy to”), with examples dating from 1545. And as we said above, some standard dictionaries regard many of these usages as more British than American.

Finally we come to the adjective, which is widely used in both varieties of English. It developed in the mid-1600s, the OED says, as an attributive use of the noun, and it originally described an action resulting from a fancy, whim, or caprice.

“Fancy” in the decorative sense emerged in the 1700s, when the adjective came to mean “of a design varied according to the fancy,” Oxford says, or “ ‘fine, ornamental,’ in opposition to ‘plain.’ ”

So merchants used “fancy” to describe merchandise, foods, and apparel that were showier than ordinary staples. “Fancy” goods included millinery, candies, cakes, jewelry, stationery, wallpaper, haberdashery and other items designed with an eye to adornment rather than necessity.

In the 1800s, “fancy dogs,” “fancy pigeons,” and “fancy fish” meant animals deliberately bred to appeal to a certain fancy—that is, having particular ornamental characteristics. (Earlier, as we mentioned above, “the fancy” was a collective term for specialists or hobbyists of a particular bent, and phrases like “the dog fancy” are still used today.)

Finally we come to “fancy man,” a phrase that’s not often heard today. Since it first showed up in the early 19th century, it’s had several meanings, reputable and otherwise.

In Grantchester, set in a 1950s English village, it probably means “a male lover, not always adulterous,” but usually in a relationship with a “married or older woman” (definition from Green’s Dictionary of Slang).

In the earliest known use of the phrase, such a lover was a kept man. Here’s the definition: “FANCY MAN: A man kept by a lady for secret services” (the entry, cited in Green’s, is from Lexicon Balatronicum, an 1811 slang dictionary by Francis Grose).

Similarly, as early as 1819 the phrase “fancy woman” was used to describe a “kept mistress,” according to the OED.

Sometimes “fancy man” had a more corrupt meaning—a pimp. In this sense, the phrase is defined in Green’s as “a man who lives upon the earnings of a prostitute.”

Green’s earliest citation is from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821), a fictional chronicle of urban low life that uses the term several times. In a typical passage, Egan describes one prostitute who accuses another of “seducing her fancy-man from her.” In a footnote to that passage, Egan discusses “men who exist entirely on the prostitution of women” and calls them “fancy-men.”

And the OED has this late 19th-century example: “They will bear from the ‘fancy-man’ any usage, however brutal” (the Spectator, Dec. 6, 1890).

However, “fancy man” also had a quite innocent meaning in the mid-19th century, simply “a man who is fancied” or “a sweetheart,” according to the dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest use in writing is from an 1834 novel, Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful: “One day the sergeant was the fancy man, and the next day it was Tom.”

Finally, there’s the phrase your grandmother used, “fancy-schmancy,” a characteristic Yiddish construction. The OED describes it as a colloquial phrase, originating in the US, that means “extremely fancy, esp. in a pretentious or ostentatious way.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Now alluva sudden is fency-shmency with forks” (from Arthur Kober’s Thunder Over the Bronx, a 1935 collection of his stories from the New Yorker).

And here’s the most recent: “Currently, even fancy-schmancy multisport watches can only do so much” (from the July 2015 issue of the British magazine Forever Sports).

As the OED says, “schm-” is a combining element, borrowed from the Yiddish shm-, added to or replacing the first part of a word “so as to form a nonsense word.” This nonsense word then echoes the original word “to convey disparagement, dismissal, or derision.”

Oxford examples include “Crisis, schmisis!” (1929); “Child, schmild” (1963); “Oedipus, Schmoedipus!” (1969); and “Love-schmove!” (1996).

As we wrote in 2012, many scholars of Yiddish believe this rhyming-doublet pattern has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.

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A ‘heartwarming story’ of love, friendship, and growing old

See the Compulsive Reader review of Swan Song, Stewart Kellerman’s humorous novel about the Three Musketeers—Selma, Kitty, and Rose: “Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life.”

A review of Swan Song by Stewart Kellerman
Reviewed by Ruth Latta, Aug. 26, 2019

Swan Song
by Stewart Kellerman
Paperback, 280 pp, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-9801532-8-6

Stewart Kellerman’s Swan Song is an entertaining story about a couple who retire to Florida in the 1980s. Through the witty first person narration of the protagonist, Selma Waxler, the author shows the concerns of older adults, which are pretty much the same in the 21st century as they were in the 1980s.

When Selma’s husband Sid retires from his teaching position in Yonkers, New York, in 1981, they move to a retirement development, Pelican Pond, on the “space coast” of Florida. In their mid-sixties, these “young” seniors, still in relatively good health, are able to enjoy many activities. Selma participates in fitness and music programs and charitable organizations, but Sid’s favourite activity is “pull-ups.” “He’d pull on the lever of his La-Z-Boy to make the back go down and the footrest go up,” says Selma.

When Sid wants to attend a talk on money management, she is elated that he’s tearing himself away from the TV. “Little did I realize,” she says, “once the genie was out I wouldn’t be able to get him back in the bottle.”

Selma’s best friends’ husbands are also at loose ends without their jobs. Kitty’s husband, Leo, has his mind on the hardware business he left behind in New York in the hands of their daughter. Rose’s husband, Sol, eats. Kitty, Rose and Selma still have their work as homemakers and are better than their spouses at socializing.

The heartwarming story of the three women friends is a unifying thread in the novel. They met as children living on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, and became inseparable. Kitty, “the brave one,” introduced the other two to Chinese food, and pursued her love of dance into a career at Radio City Music Hall. Rose and Selma had more prosaic jobs, Rose in the garment industry and Selma in a shoe store. Several times she tells the reader that she did not merely sell shoes, but did accounts, and that her high school teachers all wanted her to go on to college. Higher education, however, was beyond her parents’ means.

Through flashbacks, readers learn about Selma’s parents’ generation. One of the most inspiring characters is Zissel, Selma’s mother, who immigrated to America in 1907 and worked in sweatshop conditions until the International Ladies Garment Workers Union improved things. Though she married a carpenter from her home village in Russia who earned a living in America, she always worked outside the home, progressing in her craft to embroidering designer dresses and making wedding gowns. She mothered Selma’s friend Kitty and offered her money for her dance lessons.

“The hardest work in life is to be idle, Selma,” she said in her old age. Selma carries on her mother’s tradition of kindness to others, hard work and caution with money. Listening to real estate developer Arlee Sparlow talk about “wealth management,” her suspicions are aroused. He’s too friendly—“a false front like the town in a cowboy movie.” Dismissive of conservative investments, he warns his audience that if they do nothing with their money they’ll outlive their savings.

Sid’s involvement with Arlee Sparlow’s mortgage and real estate schemes is the spine of the novel, providing the dramatic tension, but Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life. When she raises objections to Sid investing their money, he dismisses her, saying “Women just don’t understand these things.” When she asks, “Why can’t we stop when we’re ahead?” he replies: “If it were up to you the human race would still be crawling on all fours.”

After Sid’s financial adventures bring the novel to a climax, the rest of the story shows the sadder aspects of old age. Even so, we see the characters savouring everyday pleasures and blessings, and staying connected to friends who come through for each other in crises.

While the back cover blurb of Swan Song has a condescending tone, the front cover is delightful. A photograph shows three smiling young women in 1930s finery, out on the town, smile at the camera. In her Foreword, Kellerman’s wife, author Patricia T. O’Conner, says that it’s a family photo of Kellerman’s mother Edith, flanked by her two best friends. Both of Kellerman’s parents, now deceased, gave him information about growing up in New York City in the early 20th century. Swan Song’s appeal lies in the characters, who, in O’Conner’s words, “are universal and at the same time so utterly individual.”

For more information on Ruth Latta’s upcoming novel, Votes, Love and War, about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement and World War I, visit her blog.

To buy Swan Song, visit your local bookstore or Read Chapter 1 on, the website of the language writers Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman.

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Toilet talk

Q: The restrooms in my last two office buildings are labeled “Mens” and “Ladies.” Is this common? The “Ladies” sign makes sense—it’s the plural of “Lady.” But “Men” is already plural, so why the extra “s”? Did the sign maker intend the possessive, but leave out the apostrophe? Or is it an attempt to be symmetrical?

A: You can see all sorts of signs for public toilets, some designated for either men or women, others welcoming everybody. Some use words, others use symbols, and still others use both.

In the US, a public toilet for men is usually referred to as a “men’s room,” and verbal signs typically say “Men.” If an “s” is added, it should be accompanied by an apostrophe (“Men’s”) to indicate that the term is short for a “men’s room.”

A public toilet for women in the US is usually called a “women’s room” or “ladies’ room,” with verbal signs reading “Women” or “Ladies.” (In the UK, people often call a gendered loo “the ladies” or “the gents.”)

We haven’t noticed any “Mens” signs on bathroom doors, and our online searches suggest that the usage isn’t all that common. The no-apostrophe version barely registers in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.

However, we’ve seen many examples of “mens and ladies” used in marketing clothing. Here are a few: “Mens and Ladies Tops” … “Mens and Ladies Performance T-shirts” … “Mens and Ladies Red Polo” … “Mens and Ladies Sweater Coats” … “Mens and Ladies Sweatshirts & Hoodies” … “Mens and Ladies Cotton Gloves” …  “Mens and Ladies Pants and Bibs.”

We suspect, as you do, that this use of “mens” may be influenced by “ladies.” In those examples, the plural noun “ladies” is being used attributively—that is adjectivally—to modify another noun.

A plural noun ending in “s” can often be used attributively without an apostrophe, but a plural noun that doesn’t end in “s” (like “men” or “women”) needs an apostrophe plus “s” to modify another noun (“men’s sweatshirts” or “women’s T-shirts”).

Speaking of “men” and “women,” let’s end with an etymological excursion. You may be surprised to hear this, but the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated. Here’s how we explain it in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:

“In Anglo-Saxon times, when words were bubbling away in the stewpot of Old English, there were several ways to refer to men and women. For a few hundred years, manna and other early versions of our modern word ‘man’ referred merely to a person regardless of sex—that is, a human being. So how did the Anglo-Saxons tell one sex from the other? A single or married man was a wer or a waepman (literally a ‘weapon-person’). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman.

“By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word ‘woman.’ Meanwhile, wif, which had its own share of spellings before becoming ‘wife’ in the 1400s, led a double life. It could mean a married woman, as it does today, but also a woman, married or single, in a humble trade—an archaic usage that survives in the quaint terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife.’

“Speaking of quaint terms, whatever happened to the weapon-people? Around the year 1000, the various versions of manna began to mean an adult male as well as a human being. By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word ‘man,’ while the old macho terms wer and waepman had fallen out of use.”

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Hunger pangs or pains?

Q: What is the difference between a “hunger pang” and a “hunger pain”? I see both terms, but I can’t find them in my dictionary.

A: “Pain” is an older, broader term than “pang,” but people use “hunger pains” and “hunger pangs” pretty much the same way—for the feeling of discomfort that comes from being hungry. (The two phrases usually appear in the plural.)

Although the two of us use “hunger pains” to describe what we feel when dieting gets out of hand, “hunger pangs” is apparently the more common term, according to our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases.

For example, “hunger pangs” appears more than eight times as often as “hunger pains” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. And as of 2008 it was more than two and a half times as popular in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books.

Both phrases are acceptable. We haven’t found any usage guide that objects to either of them. Here are a few recent examples in which the two phrases seem to be used the same way:

“Think of it as a cold soup in a tall glass, your morning smoothie regreened, with no sugar rush and subsequent hunger pangs” (the Guardian, July 17, 2019).

“If you do feel a few hunger pangs, you may need a light snack” (the Seattle Times, June 27, 2019).

“Or maybe you reliably experience hunger pangs and an energy crash a few hours after your morning pastry” (Self, June 27, 2019).

“Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to hear the Gospel if there is the roar of hunger pains from their belly” (National Catholic Register, July 7, 2019).

“So how do we keep these hunger pains away when we are trying to be healthy and follow a diet program, restricting food?” (the Valley Patriot, North Andover, Mass., June 2019).

“The last hours can be excruciating and that is when you start feeling hunger pains, which give you a real perspective on how a hungry person feels year-round” (Idaho Statesman, June 17, 2019).

When used by itself, “pain” usually refers to physical or emotional suffering in general, while “pang” means sudden, sharp, and brief physical or emotional suffering, according to standard dictionaries.

English borrowed “pain” from French in the late 13th century (it was peine, paine, paigne, etc., in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French). The word ultimately comes from poena, classical Latin for “penalty” or “punishment.”

When “pain” first appeared in Middle English, it referred to “physical or bodily suffering” as well as “mental distress or suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s earliest example for bodily pain is from Of Arthour and of Merlin, an anonymous Arthurian romance believed written in the late 1200s:

“What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”). The passage refers to Belisent, who’s beaten, whipped, and dragged by the hair as King Taurus tries to kidnap her. Sir Gawain kills Taurus and rescues her.

The dictionary’s earliest mental example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance believed written sometime before 1300:

“Tristrem is went oway / Wiþ outen coming ogain, / And sikeþ, for soþe to sain, / Wiþ sorwe and michel pain” (“Tristan leaves without turning back, sighs forsooth and crosses himself, with sorrow and much pain”). The passage refers to Tristan’s emotional suffering as he parts with Iseult.

The noun “pang,” which is “of uncertain origin,” first appeared in the late 15th century and meant “a sudden sharp spasm of pain which grips the body or a part of it,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 29, 1482, letter by William Cely, a member of a merchant family, about the death and burial of a family member:

“Margere ys dowghter ys past to Godd. Hytt was berydd thys same daye, on whoys sowle Jhesu hawe marsy. Syr, I vnderstond hytt hadd a grett pang: what sycknesse hytt was I cannott saye” (“Margaret, his daughter, is gone to God. She was buried this same day, on whose soul Jesus have mercy. Sir, I understand she had a great pang: what sickness it was I cannot say”).

In the early 16th century, “pang” took on the sense of “a sudden sharp feeling of mental anguish or intense emotional pain.” The earliest example in the OED is from A Play of Loue (1534), by John Heywood:

“One pang of dyspayre, or one pang of desyre / One pang of one dyspleasaunt loke of her eye / One pang of one worde of her mouth as in yre / Or in restraynt of her loue which I requyre.”

As we’ve said, “pain” is a broader term than “pang.” In addition to its usual sense of physical and emotional discomfort, “pain” can refer to the trouble taken to accomplish something (“He took great pains to file the taxes on time”), an annoyance (“Those robocalls are a pain”), a  troublesome person (“He’s a pain in the butt”), and a penalty for disobedience (“Mom ordered me to be home by eleven on pain of death”).

We’ll end with a more serious example of that last sense. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from the South-English Legendary (circa 1300), which chronicles the lives of church figures. In an account of Thomas Becket’s life, King Henry II orders bishops to Clarendon Palace in the 12th century to confirm laws that weakened the authority of the church and its ties to Rome:

“ich hote ov euerechone  þat ȝe beon þat ilke dai at mi maner at Clarindone with-outen ani de-lai for-to confermi þis lawes. ope peyne þat i schal ou sette, ich hote þat ȝe beon þare ech-one” (“I order every one of you to be that same day at my palace at Clarendon, without any delay, to confirm these laws. I command that you be there, each of you, upon pain that I shall set on you”).

Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did show up at Clarendon, but he ultimately defied the laws and was killed at Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170, by four of the king’s knights.

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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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How are generic drugs named?

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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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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