English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Writing

A tale of tricky endings

Q: Can you please tell us the rules for using the suffixes “-tion,” “-sion,” and “-cion”? Very Interested, Busy and Confused Teachers.

A: English borrowed all three endings from French in the Middle Ages, but they ultimately come from the same word fragment in Latin. So etymologically they’re three different spellings of the same term.

However, the suffixes have evolved in English and are used in so many different ways, depending on placement and pronunciation, that we’d recommend consulting a dictionary when in doubt.

But since you’ve asked for specific guidelines, we’ll pass along a usage note from Lexico, a defunct dictionary website with content from Oxford University Press. Although Lexico is gone, the usage note can still be seen in Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine digital archive:

Words ending in -sion-tion, and -cion

These endings are part of many everyday English nouns but people often have problems with their spelling. Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right one:

Words ending in -sion

  • If the ending is pronounced as in confusion, then it should be spelled -sion. Here are some examples:

collision; division; revision; persuasion; explosion; decision; seclusion.

  • When the ending comes after an -l, it’s always spelled -sion:

compulsion; revulsion; expulsion; emulsion; propulsion.

  • When the ending follows an -n or -r, it’s often spelled -sion, especially if the word is related to one that ends in -d or -se. For example: immersion (from immerse); comprehension (from comprehend). Here are some more examples:

aversion; conversion; apprehension; diversion; extension; version.

  • Nouns based on words that end in -ss or -mit always end in -sionpermission comes from permit and discussion comes from discuss. Here are some more examples:

commission; expression; aggression; admission; succession; impression; emission.

Words ending in -tion

  • If the ending is pronounced as in station, then it’s spelled -tion. For example:

addition; duration; nation; solution; ambition; edition; caution; position.

  • If the noun is related to a word ending in -ate, then the ending will be -ation, e.g. donation (from donate) or vacation (from vacate). Here are some more examples:

accommodation; location; creation; rotation; education; mediation.

  • If the ending comes after any consonant apart from -l, -n, or -r, then the ending is spelled -tion:

action; connection; reception; affection; interruption; description; collection; infection; deception.

  • After -n and -r, the ending can be -tion or -sion. It’s more likely to be -tion if the word’s related to another one that ends in –t or –tain, e.g. assertion (from assert) or retention (from retain) Here are some more examples:

exertion; distortion; abstention; invention.

Words ending in -cion

           There are just two common nouns that end in -cion: suspicion and coercion.

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to these terms as suffixes, even though the first letter is often part of the base. We’re using “ending” and “suffix” interchangeably here.

The OED says the usual function of the suffix is to form “a noun of action, equivalent to the native ending -ing” and with its “kindred uses.”

The OED says the three suffixes, plus “-xion” in variant spellings like “connexion” and “inflexion,” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin -tion-, a word fragment combining the -t of a past participial stem and the word-forming element -ion-.

“The Latin meaning was primarily ‘the state or condition of being (what the past participle imports),’ ” the dictionary says, adding, “But already in Latin -tiō was used for the action or process of relating, completing, suspending, etc., and also concretely or quasi-concretely, as in dictiō, the condition of being said.”

Middle English borrowed the suffix from the Old French -cion and the Middle French -tion, which were derived from the classical Latin word fragment.

In Middle English, spoken in England from abut 1100 to 1500, the ending could begin with “c,” “s,” “t,” or “x.” There are medieval versions of all four in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written from 1387 until the author’s death in 1400:

  • “He was so gentil of condicioun” (“The Knight’s Tale”).
  • “Youre inconstance is youre confusioun” (“The Summoner’s Tale”).
  • “Wher me was wo, that is no questioun” (“The Squire’s Tale”).
  • “Of his complexioun he was sangwyn” (“The General Prologue”).

We’ll end with an excerpt from “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In the story, an ugly old woman helps save the life of a young knight and as payment demands he marry her. He responds in horror:

My love? quod he, nay, my dampnacioun!
Allas! that any of my nacioun
Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!

(“My love?” cried he, “nay, my damnation!
Alas! that any of my kindred
Should ever so fouly dishonored be.”)

Ultimately, the two have a long, happy marriage.

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

On ‘giving’ and ‘giving back’

Q: Charitable giving is often characterized as “giving back,” which has a connotation of paying something owed.  My wife and I make substantial donations. I think of this as freely giving, not paying a debt.

A: We’ve also made quite a few charitable donations over the years, and done many hours of volunteer work. And like you, we see this as giving freely of our savings and our time rather than repaying a debt to society.

Merriam-Webster defines the phrasal verb “give back” in this sense as “to provide help or financial assistance to others in appreciation of one’s own success or good fortune,” and has this example: “The community had people with time to volunteer and give back.”

We’d add that the way charities now use the term strikes us as marketing jargon that conveys a sense of obligation to contribute, as well as guilt for not doing so.

A less promotional version of the usage dates back to the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a speech given Dec. 27, 1877, by W. M. Brooks, president of Tabor College, at a meeting in Cedar Rapids of the State Teachers’ Association of Iowa:

“I believe in general it is true, both of private and State schools, that they are doing their work so faithfully as to give back to the community vastly more than enough to repay the outlay.” In that example, “give back” is used literally (“to repay the outlay”).

We especially like this example from “Problems of Property,” an article by George Iles in The Popular Science Monthly, July 1882:

“It used to be thought that the sons or grandsons of rich Americans could be relied upon to give back to the community their inherited wealth through demoralization and incompetence; but that reliance is proved baseless in a noteworthy proportion of cases in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

And here’s a turn-of-the-century example from “The University and the City,” a speech by Seth Low, president of Columbia University, given at the University of Rochester on Oct. 11, 1900:

“The cities can justify themselves, in thus absorbing the population of the land, only by demonstrating that they have the capacity to give, as well as to take. If they take the people out of the country, they must not only give to these individuals enlarged opportunity and greater happiness, but, through them and through their own sons, they must give back to the country in a thousand ways what they have taken from it.”

The sense of repaying an obligation is even clearer in a Jan. 27, 1964, speech by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine at the Women’s National Press Club in Washington.

One reason she decided to seek the Republican nomination for President, she says, “is that women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate—and that I should give back in return that which had been given to me.”

The use of the term was relatively rare until the 1980s, according to a search for “give back to the community” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

Business executives began using the expression at the time in describing charitable contributions by their companies, as in this example from a business forum in The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1988:

“The challenge in business is to find a socially responsible niche where you can effectively give back to the community in which you operate and in which you have prospered” (M. Anthony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems).

The term is now often used by businesses, public figures, charities, and volunteers in connection with the Giving Tuesday movement, begun in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation:

“Giving Tuesday 2023: 27 brands giving back: Giving Tuesday is a day for people and businesses to give back after Black Friday and Cyber Monday—here’s how to participate this year” (from the website of NBC News, Nov. 28, 2023).

In looking into the usage, we found an article in which Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the “demand that wealthy should ‘give back’ is heard mostly from progressive or leftist voices.”

In “Giving vs. ‘Giving Back’ ” (Philanthropy Daily, Jan. 4, 2012), Merrill says the “Harvard political theorist John Rawls gave expression to this view in his highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971).”

However, Rawls doesn’t use the term “give back” in his book about distributive justice, the fair allocation of resources. And we’ve seen no indication that people using the expression are particularly progressive, leftist, or aware of his work.

We’ll end with a passage from the book Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990), by William F. Buckley Jr. In discussing the impossibility of repaying our cultural inheritance, he gives several examples, including this one about our musical heritage:

“If you listen, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in May of every year, to four hundred musicians performing the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach, it becomes numbingly plain that there is simply no way in which one can ‘repay’ the musical patrimony we have inherited.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Q: Do you have information on the origin of the phrase “don’t  sweat the small stuff”? I didn’t find a convincing answer with Google search and ChatGPT. Any light you might be able to shed on the subject would be appreciated!

A: As far as we can tell, the slang expression “don’t sweat the small stuff” first appeared in the US in the 1950s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the student newspaper at Mercer University in Macon, GA: “Have a good time over the summer and don’t sweat the small stuff” (The Mercer Cluster, May 25, 1956).

The Oxford English Dictionary says “to sweat the small stuff” means “to worry about trivial, insignificant matters (usually in negative contexts); originally and chiefly imperative, in: don’t sweat the small stuff.”

The earliest OED citation is from an Oct. 23, 1979, article in The New York Times that cites Dr. Kenneth Greenspan, a specialist in stress-related disorders at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

In opening a two‐day seminar at the college, the article says, “He quoted a friend’s prescription for dealing with stress. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ he said. ‘And try to remember it’s all small stuff.’ ”

In its entry for “to sweat the small stuff,” the OED refers readers to the earlier expression “don’t sweat it,” which the dictionary describes as US slang for “don’t worry.”

The earliest example of “don’t sweat it” that we’ve found is from a 1954 issue of Desmos, the journal of Delta Sigma Delta, an international dental fraternity: “Per usual, the seniors and juniors tell the sophomores, ‘don’t sweat it.’ ”

The earliest Oxford citation is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “Don’t sweat it means ‘don’t worry about it,’ ’’

We discuss “don’t sweat it” in a 2016 post that includes an earlier, similar usage in the Dec. 12, 1914, issue of Happy Days, a New York weekly newspaper:

“ ‘What’s the meeting for, anyway?’ said Paul Braddon. ‘Keep your shirt on, and don’t sweat it off,’ said Deacon Small.”

[Note:This post was updated on Feb. 14, 2024.]

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A tale of two suffixes

Q: I have a question about how suffixes are chosen. Specifically, why did the noun/verb “impact” turn into an adjective by adding “-ful” instead of “-ive”?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that both “impactive” and “impactful” can be found in standard dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines “impactive” as “having an impact or marked effect,” and “impactful” as “having a forceful impact: producing a marked impression.” It treats both as standard English.

M-W has this “impactive” example (which we’ve expanded) from F. Scott Fitgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night: “Feeling the impactive scrutiny of strange faces, she took off her bath-robe and followed.”

And here’s the dictionary’s “impactful” example: “Fashion loves a big expansive gesture, but a small one can be pretty impactful, too” (from an article by Mark Holgate in Vogue, Oct. 30, 2017).

The two adjectives were originally formed by adding the suffixes “-ive” and “-ful” to the noun “impact,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun is believed to come from the Latin impactus, the participial stem of impingere (to impinge). The OED adds an asterisk to impactus, indicating that it’s “a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.”

As it turns out, “impactive” showed up nearly a century before “impactful” appeared in the late 1930s, but the younger term is by far the more popular now, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

The earliest example we’ve found for “impactive” is from The League’s Convert, an 1847 play by Henry W. Pearson about a king’s daughter who falls in love with a populist leader.

In this passage, she appeals to her lover to make peace with her father: “With philanthropic eye, review our race / As an impactive body, whereof they, / The members, serving the prime good of all.”

However that early literary example seems to be an outlier. The other 19th-century examples we’ve found are in technical works that describe the force of something, such as weight or wind or waves, on various structures.

For instance, the Scottish structural engineer William Fairbairn writes that the weight and speed of trains are “severe tests of impactive force on every structure, whether beams or bridges” (On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes, 1854).

As for “impactful,” the earliest example cited by the OED is from The Commentator magazine (June 29, 1939): “The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page.”

That example also appears in a 2019 post of ours about “impactful,” a word criticized by some language commentators. Although it’s standard English, we think many other words have more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “forceful,” and so on.

As for the suffixes, let’s begin with “-ive,” which the OED says is derived from –ivus, a Latin suffix that formed adjectives when added to the participial stem of verbs (act-ivus, active) or nouns (tempest-ivus, seasonable).

The dictionary says the suffix is generally used in English to form words based on Latin terms with -ivus suffixes or to “form words on Latin analogies, with the sense ‘having a tendency to, having the nature, character, or quality of, given to (some action).’ ”

As for the English suffix “-ful,” Oxford says it’s used to form “adjectives with the sense ‘full of, or (more generally) having or characterized by (what is expressed by the first element)’. Also combined with verbs with the sense ‘liable or tending to —.’ ”

The OED adds that the suffix is derived from the Old English adjective full (“containing or holding as much or as many as possible; having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; filled to capacity”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Old English adjective ultimately comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root fulla (full) and the Proto-Indo-European pelə- (to fill).

The OED notes that “in Old English the adjective full, like its cognates in the other Germanic languages, was frequently used as a suffix in combination with a preceding noun.”

In modern English, “-ful” usually combines with nouns derived from Old English or other Germanic languages (“harmful,” “tearful,” “frightful,” “playful,” “skillful”). But it’s also seen with nouns from Romance languages or Latin (“beautiful,” “colorful,” “fateful,” “graceful,” “masterful,” “tactful”).

Why have both “-ful” and “-ive” joined with “impact” to give us the adjectives “impactful” and “impactive”? And why does the more popular, “impactful,” link a prefix derived from Old English to a noun believed to come from Latin?

Why not? English is a Germanic language with many borrowings from non-Germanic languages, especially Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French. We’ve written several times about this, including a 2018 post, When English met Latin.

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