English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

What is ‘which’ doing here?

Q: I’m puzzled by this use of “which” on Yahoo Finance: “Oceana Group has seen a flattish net income growth over the past five years, which is not saying much.” Is “which” correct? If so, what is it doing here?

A: The word “which” here is a relative pronoun that introduces a clause referring to an earlier statement. The usage dates back to the 14th century and is standard English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “which” here is “introducing a clause describing or stating something additional about the antecedent.”

The OED adds that the sense of the main clause is “complete without the relative clause,” so “which” is “sometimes equivalent to ‘and he, she, it, they, etc.’ ”

The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of a Middle French treatise on morality:

“He [þe messagyer of dyaþe] ansuereþ, he ne may naȝt zigge bote yef þer by heȝliche clom. Huych y-graunted, þus he begynþ. Ich am drede and beþenchinge of dyaþe.”

(“He [the messenger of death] answers, he may not say anything until he climbs higher. Which is granted. Thus he begins: ‘I am dread and a reminder of death’ ”).

The passage, written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English, is from Ayenbyte of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, by Dan Michel of Northgate, a Benedictine monk. (“Dan” was an honorific for a monk in medieval England.)

Here’s one of many examples we’ve found in Shakespeare: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” (All’s Well That Ends Well, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s).

And the OED cites this modern modern example from James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance: “While I was talking I looked him in the eyes, which was surprisingly easy to do.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include this sense of “which.” Here, for example, is an excerpt from an American Heritage usage note:

“The relative pronoun which can sometimes refer to a clause or sentence, as opposed to a noun phrase: She ignored him, which proved to be unwiseThey swept the council elections, which could never have happened under the old rules.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that some language writers once criticized the usage, arguing that “which” should refer to a specific antecedent. But M-W adds that “almost all modern commentators find it acceptable.”

In fact, as shown in one of the examples above, this “which” sometimes introduces a new sentence rather than a clause.

Here’s Pat’s nontechnical explanation of the usage in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English:

Which Craft

Sometimes we start a statement with which to make a comment on the previous sentence. Which is perfectly all right, if the ideas are connected.

Orson saw himself as larger than life. Which was true, after he gained all that weight.

But which is often used in casual conversation to introduce an afterthought that comes out of nowhere.

He was a great Othello. Which reminds me, where’s that twenty dollars you borrowed?

Conversation is one thing and written English is another. When you write a sentence starting with which, make sure there’s a connection. Which is a rule that bears repeating!

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

You’re doing what?

Q: TV and movie characters are turning the question on its head. “Why is the sky blue?” is now “The sky is blue, why?” My theory is that this linguistic atrocity began with Friends. Your thoughts?

A: The usual way to ask a question in English is to put the wh- word (“why,” “what,” “when,” “where,” etc.) or another interrogative at the beginning: “Why is the sky blue?”

However, the interrogative is sometimes put at or near the end of a sentence or clause to express surprise, ask for clarification, quiz someone, or refer to more than one interrogative. Here are examples:

(1) “You said what?” (2) “They’re coming from exactly where?” (3) “The first quarto of Hamlet was published when?” (4) “Who did what to whom?” All of these uses are standard English.

The words “what” in #1 and #4 and “whom” in #4 are interrogative pronouns that function as objects, while “where” in #2 and “when” in #3 are interrogative adverbs that modify verbs.

Linguists describe the use of an interrogative before a verb (the usual position of a subject in a declarative sentence) as “wh– fronting,” and one after a verb (the usual position of an object or adverb) as “wh– in situ.”

Here’s an example of a declarative sentence that answers the fronted and in-situ questions that follow:

“I [subject] am writing [verb] a short story [object].”

“What [object] are you writing?” (Here, “what” is fronted.) … “You’re writing what [object]?” (Here, “what” is in situ.)

Interrogatives that express surprise or ask for clarification often echo earlier statements. Here are examples:

“I’ll treat you” … “You’ll do what?”

“I just met her” … “You met her where?”

Although wh– interrogatives are usually fronted in English, they’re in situ in some other languages, like Chinese and Japanese. (Linguists use wh– to mean an interrogative even in referring to languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet.)

Getting back to your question, it’s possible that what you hear as “The sky is blue, why?” is actually a declarative sentence followed by a one-word interrogative sentence: “The sky is blue. Why?”

That’s standard English. It’s a more emphatic though less common way of saying, “Why is the sky blue?”

It’s also possible that the use of wh– in situ (putting the wh– word after the verb and at the end of a sentence) may be more common now, especially in movies and on television, where dialogue predominates.

We’ve found quite a few examples in searching the scripts of recent movies. Most of the ones we’ve seen express surprise or ask for clarification.

Here are a few from film scripts that studios posted for 2023 Oscar contenders:

The Banshees of Inisherin. Padraic: “I knocked on ColmSonnyLarry and he’s just sitting there.” Siobhan: “Sitting there doing what?”

Master. Gail (to Jasmine): “So you go back home and then what? Transfer to another college hoping it’ll somehow be different?”

The Fabelmans. Burt: “You already won, Mitts. I surrendered. I’m not taking the bait.” Mitzi: “Who’s baiting who? I said I’d take him for his polio shot the first five times you asked me. Didn’t I?”

Finally, use of interrogatives at the end of a sentence didn’t begin with Friends, the TV sitcom that ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004. It dates back at least to the 19th century and perhaps a lot earlier.

We’ll end with a 19th-century example from Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1857)Septimus Harding is speaking here to his widowed daughter Eleanor about Obadiah Slope’s unwanted proposal:

“ ‘But you’ll tell the archdeacon?’ asked Mr. Harding.

“ ‘Tell him what?’ said she sharply.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘one’ sounds like ‘won’

Q: Can you enlighten me about the origin of the (for me at least) strange “w” sound that begins the words “one” and “once”?

A: The short answer is that a regional pronunciation of “one” began spreading across England in the early 1400s and changed the way the term and some of its derivatives would normally have sounded.

In Old and Middle English, spellings generally reflected the way words were pronounced, but the spellings varied widely, depending on the practices of individual scribes.

To keep things simple, we’ll use the most common spellings in discussing the evolution of “one” and its derivative “once,” and we won’t differentiate between their various grammatical forms.

In Old English (spoken from roughly 450 to 1150), “one” was usually written as an, with the letter a pronounced like the “a” in the Modern English word “father.”

Here’s an Oxford English Dictionary example from the Wessex Gospels, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English and dating back to the late 10th century:

“Hu ne becypað hig twegen spearwan to peninge, & an of ðam ne befylð on eorðan butan eowrun fæder” (“Are not two sparrows sold for a pening [an old coin], and not one of them falls to earth without your Father [knowing]?”). Matthew 10:19.

In Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450), “one” was usually written as on, with the letter o pronounced like the long “o” in the Modern English “hope.”

An OED example from a Middle English poem written around 1250 refers to the bigamist Lamech in Genesis this way:

“For ai was rigt and kire bi-forn, / On man, on wif, til he was boren” (“For always it was right and pure before / One man, one wife, till he was born”). The Middle English Genesis and Exodus (1968), edited by Olof Arngart

The Middle English on was originally pronounced like the Modern English “own.” That old pronunciation has survived in several words derived from “one,” including “only” and “alone.”

But in the 1400s, a dialectal pronunciation of “one” appeared in southwestern and western England, with the “o” and “w” sounds reversed, resulting in a pronunciation like the Modern English “won.”

Technically, the long vowel o in the Middle English on acted like a diphthong. Emphasizing the beginning gave on an “own” pronunciation while emphasizing the end, as in the dialectal version, produced a sound like “won.

Historical linguists cite the use of won for on in late Middle English manuscripts as evidence of the dialectal pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest won example, which we’ve expanded, was written sometime before 1450 in the dialect of Wiltshire in southwest England:

“won of hem þouȝt þat he nolde not spare for no fere to wete wherre þat maydenus body leyȝe hole ȝet þore” (“one of them thought that he would spare no fear to find out where the maiden’s body lay hidden”).

The passage is from a life of Ethelreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint, in Altenglische Legenden (1881), edited by Carl Horstmann.

The English theologian William Tyndale, who was born in Gloucestershire in the Southwest, also uses “won” for “one” in his early Modern English translation of the Bible in 1526:

“Alas Alas that gret cite Babilon that myghty cite: For at won houre is her iudgment come” (Revelation, 18:10).

The “won” pronunciation of on influenced the pronunciation of ones, the usual Middle English version of “once” and a few other words derived from the Middle English on, like “oneness,” “oneself,” and “onetime.”

Here’s an example of “once” spelled “wonce” in early Modern English. It’s from a 1599 report by Sir John Harington to Queen Elizabeth about a military campaign by the Earl of Essex against rebels in Ireland:

“The rebell wonce in Rorie O More shewed himselfe, withe about 500 foote and 40 horse, 2 myles from our campe.” From Nugæ Antiquæ (Ancient Nuggets), a 1775 collection of Harington’s papers, edited by Henry Harington, a descendant.

The “one” spelling appeared occasionally in Middle English, as in this expanded OED example from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“nule nout ure louerd he seið þe prophete: Þet o mon beo uor one þinge twien i demed” (“the prophet says Our Lord does not wish that a man be judged twice for one thing”).

However, a search of OED citations for the term suggests that “one” didn’t become common until the early Modern English of the 16th century.

Here’s an example from Richard Taverner’s 1539 translation of Erasmus’s annotated Latin proverbs: “One man no man. One man lefte alone and forsaken of all the rest, can do lyttell good.”

As for “once,” the earliest example for this spelling in the OED is from Tyndale’s 1526 Bible: “Five hondred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6).

But the dictionary’s citations indicate that the “once” spelling wasn’t common until the 17th century, as in this example from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a 1651 treatise on society and the state:

“The object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire.”

We suspect that the arrival of the printing press in England in the late 15th century and the spread of printing in the 16th and 17th helped lock in the “one” and “once” spellings before the “won” pronunciation was fully accepted.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

‘Ask, and it shall be given you’

Q: I direct my Philosophy of Ethics students to your page about the distinction between morals and ethics. I was wondering about Matthew 7:7, specifically the object: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Why isn’t it “given to you”?

A: It depends on which translation of Matthew 7:7 you’re looking at. Some do say “given to you.” However, the passage in the earliest Old English translation of the Gospels doesn’t use either “given you” or “given to you.”

This is the wording in the Wessex Gospels, copied around 1175 in a West Saxon dialect of Old English and believed to date from the late 10th century: “Byddeð. & eow beoð ge-seald” (“Biddeth, and you shall be given”).

And here’s an archaic spelling of “given to you” in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the 1380s under the direction of the theologian John Wycliffe:

“Axe ȝe, and it ſhal be ȝouen to ȝou” (“Ask ye, and it shall be given to you”). From Maþeu, Capitulum VII (Matthew, Chapter 7).

The King James Version of 1611 has an early Modern English form of the passage you’re familiar with (“Aske, and it shalbe giuen you”), while the New King James Version of 1982 has a contemporary update (“Ask, and it will be given to you”).

The two clauses, “it shall be given you” and “it shall be given to you” mean the same thing semantically but differ grammatically. In the first clause, “you” is an indirect object; in the second, “to you” is a prepositional phrase that serves a similar purpose.

As we’ve said many times before on the blog, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic in English and has varied widely over the years. At times, one form or another may be more common in American than in British usage, or vice versa.

In contemporary English, for example, one would usually say “give it to you” or “give you it.” However, “give it you” is often heard in British English, though the usage is sometimes described as informal or nonstandard.

In a 2009 post, we discuss the use of prepositional phrases and objects with “give,” “write,” “pass,” and several other verbs.

These verbs are now commonly used without prepositional phrases when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” in “give me the book” or “write me a letter”).

But if a direct object (“the book” or “a letter”) comes first, a prepositional phrase is used (“Give the book to me” or “Write a letter to me”).

The use of the verb “write” differs in the US and the UK when the only object is an indirect object, as in “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me.” That usage, once standard on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though still fine in the US.

Only when both objects are present and the indirect object comes first (as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter”) do British speakers omit the preposition now.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Can a chatbot hallucinate?

Q: Why do some writers say ChatGPT is “hallucinating” when it makes stuff up (e.g., recites lines of prose supposedly by Mark Twain that he never wrote, as the NY Times reports). To me, the chatbot is lying, not hallucinating.

A: When a chatbot simply makes something up, the untruth is a “hallucination” in the lingo of artificial intelligence.

As The Times reports in a Jan. 10, 2023 article, a chatbot may tell you that “Mark Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County could not only jump but talk. A.I. researchers call this generation of untruths ‘hallucination.’ ”

But is such an untruth a mistake—the machine’s best guess at something it doesn’t know—or is it a lie? Shouldn’t the machine admit that it doesn’t know?

Your question, as you can see, is pretty complicated. We don’t pretend to be experts on the ethical implications of chatbots, but we can throw some light on the history of “hallucinate” and “hallucination.”

And as it turns out, the new senses of the words in artificial intelligence aren’t as new as you think. They reflect the words’ original meanings in the 16th and 17th centuries, when to “hallucinate” was to be in error, to be deceived, or to lie, and a “hallucination” was caused by error or deception.

Both verb and noun came into English from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. They can be traced to the Latin verb alucinari (“to wander in mind, talk idly, prate,” the dictionary says, though some other sources suggest an earlier antecedent, the Greek αλύειν (alyein, to be confused or distraught).

The verb entered English first, in the mid-1500s, when to “hallucinate” meant to be mistaken or misled. The OED defines it more broadly this way: “To be deceived, suffer illusion, entertain false notions, blunder, mistake.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from a poem entitled “An Artificiall Apologie” (1540), a satirical broadside by “the ryght redolent & rotounde rethorician R. Smyth.”

The author says he has included annotations so that “the imprudent lector shulde not tytubate [stumble, go astray] or hallucinate in the labyrinthes of this lucubratiuncle [scholarly writing].”

Smyth deliberately peppered his verse with obscure, unusual, and exaggeratedly learned words for humorous effect. And “hallucinate” must have been extremely obscure at the time, since the next example we’ve found in the sense of “mistake” appeared almost a century later:

“Sir Hu[m]frey with all his diuinitie [divinity] had not iudgement to distinguish, he proueth nothing but doth onelie hallucinate betweene trueth and falsehood.”  From The VVhetstone of Reproofe (1632), by a church sexton identifying himself as “T.T.”

(Incidentally, the “VV” in the title above represents “UU,” for the letter “W,” an early usage that we discussed in a  recent post on the blog.)

The OED’s earliest citations for the verb “hallucinate” are from the mid-17th century, in passages accusing seers and healers of being mistaken. Here’s the first one, which we’ve expanded:

“If Prognosticators have so often hallucinated (or deceiving, been deceived) about naturall effects” (Πυς-μαντια: The Mag-astro-mancer, 1652, an examination of astrology and witchcraft by a Puritan clergyman, John Gaule). The first element in the Greek title is ersatz Greek, but the second, –μαντια, refers to divination.

As for that other early meaning of “hallucinate” (to lie), it lasted for only a few decades before falling out of use.

The OED labels this sense “rare” and “obsolete,” adding that it was “apparently” found only in dictionaries or glossaries of the early 17th century. Oxford cites examples from two early dictionaries,  which define “hallucinate” as “to deceive, or blind” (1604) and “to deceive” (1623).

In searching old databases, however, we’ve found an example in an anonymous political tract that clearly refers to a falsehood, not a mistake: “No sure, in thist you hallucinate verie palpably and groasly” (Bad English, yet Not Scotch, published in London in 1648).

The noun “hallucination” in its early sense (a false or mistaken idea) is still known today, though that’s no longer the principal meaning in modern English.

Oxford defines this sense as “the mental condition of being deceived or mistaken, or of entertaining unfounded notions,” as well as “an idea or belief to which nothing real corresponds; an illusion.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from a religious treatise of the 1630s, aimed at those who are industrious in their material lives but inattentive to God:

“millio[n]s of people shall be in hell, who according to their hallucination, their misdeeming [mistaking], their alas! misseconceit, thought that they were not idle.” (The Ransome of Time Being Captive, John Hawkins’s 1634 translation from the Spanish of Andreas de Soto.)

And here’s the OED’s first example for this sense of the noun (a mistaken belief): “Notions … arising from the deceptions and hallucinations of Sense” (Select Discourses, by the philosopher John Smith, probably written around 1650 and published in 1660).

Around this time, the mid-17th century, the spookier and more familiar meanings of “hallucinate” and “hallucination” emerged. These senses involve not just erroneous notions, but deranged or supernatural experiences—seeing or hearing things that aren’t real.

The noun in this sense is defined in the OED as a term in “Pathology and Psychology” for “the apparent perception (usually by sight or hearing) of an external object when no such object is actually present.” The dictionary notes that it’s “distinguished from illusion in the strict sense, as not necessarily involving a false belief.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest recorded example: “If vision be abolished it is called cæcitas, or blindnesse, if depraved and receive its objects erroneously, Hallucination” (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, by the physician Sir Thomas Browne).

The verb “hallucinate” in the modern, deranged sense took longer to enter the mainstream. The pathological meaning of the verb wasn’t recorded, as far as we can tell, until the end of the 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is in a doctor’s report on a patient in a mental hospital, published in a South Carolina newspaper:

“He is very obedient and courteous, but continues to hallucinate, often stating that the spirit voices keep him awake at night” (Keowee Courier, May, 21, 1919).

And this is the OED’s earliest citation: “A man hallucinated that the clothes of the girls ‘flew off them’ ” (The Creative Mind, 1930, by the British psychologist Charles Edward Spearman).

That meaning of “hallucinate,” plus the corresponding sense of “hallucination,” are the ones chiefly recognized today in standard dictionaries. Some, however, add that “hallucination” less commonly can mean an unfounded or mistaken belief.

No standard dictionary has yet recognized the new deceptive chatbot sense of “hallucinate” and “hallucination.” But it has become established in the Artificial Intelligence industry, where unreliable data is a problem.

In the words of Vilius Petkauskas, a senior journalist at Cybernews, “chatbots hallucinating convincing fakes can lead to anything from misunderstandings to misinformation” (March 6, 2023).

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