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Tawk of the Town

[Pat’s review of a book about New York English, reprinted from the September 2020 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

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PATRICIA T O’CONNER

You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English

By E J White. Oxford University Press 296 pp

You know how to have a polite conversation, right? You listen, wait for a pause, say your bit, then shut up so someone else can speak. In other words, you take your turn.

You’re obviously not from New York.

To an outsider, someone from, say, Toronto or Seattle or London, a conversation among New Yorkers may resemble a verbal wrestling match. Everyone seems to talk at once, butting in with questions and comments, being loud, rude and aggressive. Actually, according to the American linguist E J White, they’re just being nice.

When they talk simultaneously, raise the volume and insert commentary (‘I knew he was trouble’, ‘I hate that!’), New Yorkers aren’t trying to hijack the conversation, White says. They’re using ‘cooperative overlap’, ‘contextualization cues’ (like vocal pitch) and ‘cooperative interruption’ to keep the talk perking merrily along. To them, argument is engagement, loudness is enthusiasm and interruption means they’re listening, she writes. Behaviour that would stop a conversation dead in Milwaukee nudges it forward in New York.

Why do New Yorkers talk this way? Perhaps, White says, because it’s the cultural norm among many of the communities that have come to make up the city: eastern European Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers. As for the famous New York accent, that’s something else again.

White, who teaches the history of language at Stony Brook University, New York, argues that ‘Americans sound the way they do because New Yorkers sound the way they do’. In You Talkin’ to Me? she makes a convincing case that the sounds of standard American English developed, at least in part, as a backlash against immigration and the accent of New York.

Although the book is aimed at general readers, it’s based on up-to-the-minute research in the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics. (Here a New Yorker would helpfully interrupt, ‘Yeah, which is what?’) Briefly, it is about how and why language changes. Its central premise is that things like social class, gender, age, group identity and notions of prestige, all working in particular historical settings, are what drive change.

Take one of the sounds typically associated with New York speech the oi that’s heard when ‘bird’ is pronounced boid, ‘earl’ oil, ‘certainly’ soitanly, and so on. Here’s a surprise. That oi, White says, was ‘a marker of upper-class speech’ in old New York, a prestige pronunciation used by Teddy Roosevelt and the Four Hundred who rubbed elbows in Mrs Astor’s ballroom. Here’s another surprise. The pronunciation is now defunct and exists only as a stereotype. It retired from high society after the First World War and by mid-century it was no longer part of New York speech in general. Yet for decades afterwards it persisted in sitcoms, cartoons and the like. Although extinct ‘in the wild’ (as linguists like to say), it lives on in a mythological ‘New York City of the mind’.

Another feature of New York speech, one that survives today, though it’s weakening, is the dropping of r after a vowel in words like ‘four’ (foah), ‘park’ (pahk) and ‘never’ (nevuh). This was also considered a prestige pronunciation in the early 1900s, White says, not just in New York City but in much of New England and the South as well, where it was valued for its resemblance to cultivated British speech. Until sometime in the 1950s, in fact, it was considered part of what elocutionists used to call ‘General American’. It was taught, the author writes, not only to schoolchildren on the East Coast, but also to aspiring actors, public speakers and social climbers nationwide. But here, too, change lay ahead.

While r-dropping is still heard in New York, Boston and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard, it has all but vanished in the South and was never adopted in the rest of the United States. Here the author deftly unravels an intriguing mystery: why the most important city in the nation, its centre of cultural and economic power, does not provide, as is the case with other countries, the standard model for its speech.

To begin with, White reminds us, the original Americans always pronounced r, as the British did in colonial times. Only in the late 18th century did the British stop pronouncing r after a vowel. Not surprisingly, the colonists who remained in the big East Coast seaports and had regular contact with London adopted the new British pronunciation. But those who settled inland retained the old r and never lost it. (As White says, this means that Shakespeare’s accent was probably more like standard American today than Received Pronunciation.)

Posh eastern universities also helped to turn the nation’s accent westward. Towards the end of the First World War, White says, Ivy League schools fretted that swelling numbers of Jewish students, admitted on merit alone, would discourage enrolment from the Protestant upper class. Admissions practices changed. In the 1920s, elite schools began to recruit students from outside New York’s orbit and to ask searching questions about race, religion, colour and heritage. The result, White says, was that upper-crust institutions ‘shifted their preference for prestige pronunciation toward the “purer” regions of the West and the Midwest, where Protestants of “Nordic” descent were more likely to live’. Thus notions about what constituted ‘educated’ American speech gradually shifted.

Another influence, the author writes, was the Midwestern-sounding radio and television ‘network English’ that was inspired by the Second World War reporting of Edward R Murrow and the ‘Murrow Boys’ he recruited to CBS from the nation’s interior. Murrow’s eloquent, authoritative reports, heard by millions, influenced generations of broadcasters, including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather, who didn’t try to sound like they had grown up on the Eastern Seaboard. The voice of the Midwest became the voice of America.

This book takes in a lot of territory, all solidly researched and footnoted. But dry? Fuhgeddaboutit. White is particularly entertaining when she discusses underworld slang from the city’s ‘sensitive lines of business’ and she’s also good on song lyrics, from Tin Pan Alley days to hip-hop. She dwells lovingly on the ‘sharp, smart, swift, and sure’ lyrics of the golden age of American popular music – roughly, the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when New York lyricists, nearly all of them Jewish, preserved in the American Songbook not only the vernacular of the Lower East Side but also the colloquialisms of Harlem and the snappy patois of advertising.

You Talkin’ to Me? is engrossing and often funny. In dissecting the exaggerated New York accents of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, White observes that ‘Bugs even wielded his carrot like Groucho’s cigar’. And she says that the word ‘fuck’ is so ubiquitous in Gotham that it has lost its edge, so a New Yorker in need of a blistering insult must look elsewhere. ‘There may be some truth to the old joke that in Los Angeles, people say “Have a nice day” and mean “Fuck off,” while in New York, people say “Fuck off” and mean “Have a nice day.”’

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Let’s confer

Q: I saw a bio on a haiku website that says the subject “was conferred with a certificate for being one of the top 100 haiku poets in Europe.” Why does that use of “confer” sound wrong to me?

A: It sounds off-kilter because “confer” in the sense of to give or to present is a transitive verb (that is, it needs a direct object), and the proper object here is the thing given. You confer a certificate on someone or a certificate is conferred on someone.

The  verb “confer” has two very different meanings: (1) to give or present, which is the sense we’re talking about, and (2) to speak together, as in having a conference. The first is transitive and requires a direct object; the second is intransitive and never has an object.

This sentence illustrates both uses: “The trustees, after conferring on Monday, voted to confer three honorary degrees next May.”

Both senses of “confer” came into English in the 16th century and are derived from the same Latin verb, conferre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin verb, combining con– (together) and ferre (to bear or bring), also has two meanings: (1) to give or bestow, and (2) to bring together, join, gather, consult together, and so on.

When “confer” first came into English in the early 1500s, it had some meanings that have since disappeared—to collect, to comprise, to compare, and others. Today, the verb has only those two meanings mentioned above—to give, and to speak together.

The “confer” that you’re asking about is defined in the OED as “to give, grant, bestow, as a grace, or as the act of a qualified superior.” And there’s always an object—the gift or honor that’s being given.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1570 act of Parliament in England: “No Title to conferr or present by Lapse, shall accrue upon any Depryvation ipso facto” (Act 13 of the Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I).

These are among the dictionary’s later examples, and we’ll underline the objects of the verb: “Sacraments containe and conferre grace” (before 1600); “honour thus conferr’d” (1633); “favour you are then conferring” (1716-17); “conferring degrees in all faculties” (1725); “title … which the king is pleased to confer” (1765-69); “benefits conferred” (1858); “degrees were then conferred” (1891).

And in these examples, an honor is conferred “on” or “upon” a recipient, and again we’ll underline the object: “Power conferred on them” (1651); “the favour he had conferred upon him” (1841); “the great benefits we confer on them” (1861).

Oxford notes the similar use of “bestow” in the sense of “to confer as a gift, present, give,” a usage that also dates from the 16th century. In this sense “bestow,” like “confer,” is transitive, and the object of the verb is the thing bestowed.

This is among the dictionary’s later examples: “He bestowed on him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.” From A Short History of the English People (1874), by John Richard Green.

The other “confer”—the one that does not take an object—is defined in the OED as “to converse, talk together.” In modern use, the dictionary says, the verb always implies “on an important subject, or on some stated question: to hold conference, take counsel, consult.”

The OED’s citations date from the mid-16th century and include this cozy domestic example from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s): “They sit conferring by the Parler fire.” So in early use, to “confer” could mean simply to chat or gossip.

This 18th-century example illustrates the modern use of the verb: “A certain number … should meet, in order to confer upon the points in dispute.” From The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), by William Robertson.

That example raises a point we’d like to make. When you’re wondering whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—that is, whether it does or does not require an object—don’t be misled by prepositional phrases. In that example, “confer” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “upon the points in dispute.” But “points in dispute” is not the object of “confer.”

In fact, “confer” in that sentence has no object, and the prepositional phrase there could just as well be omitted—grammatically, it’s unnecessary.

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Whomspun history

Q: I often see the use of “whomever” as an object in a subordinate clause like “whomever he chooses.” I can see the logic of this, but it feels awkward to me. Is it because I grew up surrounded by grammatical laxity that “whomever” seems like a neologism born of pedantry? Was it already established as correct English before my time?

A: If “whomever” seems awkward to you, its stuffier sidekick “whomsoever” must strike you as even more awkward. The roots of both pronouns, as well as of “whom” itself, go back to Anglo-Saxon times, though it looks as if all three may be on the way out.

In Old English, the language was much more inflected than it is now—that is, words changed their forms more often to show their functions. You can see this in some of the forms, or declensions, of hwa, the ancestor of “who,” “whom,” and “what.”

When used for a masculine or feminine noun, as we use “who” and “whom” today, the Old English forms were hwa (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwone or hwæne (direct object). When used for a neuter noun, as we use “what” today, the forms were hwæt (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwæt (direct object).

As for “whoever” and “whomever,” the two terms ultimately come from swa hwa swa, the Old English version of “whoso,” and swa hwam swaswa, the early Middle English rendering of “whomso.”

An Old English speaker would use swa hwa swa (literally “so who so”) much as we would use “whoever” and “whosoever.” And his Middle English-speaking descendants would use swa hwam swaswa (“so whom soso”) as we would use “whomever” and “whomsoever.”

Here’s an early “whoso” example that we’ve found in King Alfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “swa hwa swa wille dioplice spirigan mid inneweardan mode æfter ryhte” (“whoso would deeply search with inner mind after truth”).

And here’s a “whomso” citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from a 12th-century document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Þæt hi mosten cesen of clerchades man swa hwam swaswa hi wolden to ercebiscop” (“that they could choose from the secular clerks whomso they wished as archbishop”).

“Whosoever” (hwase eauer) and “whoever” (hwa efre) also first appeared writing in the  12th century, while “whomever” (wom euer) showed up in the 14th century and “whomsoever” (whom-so-euyr) followed in the 15th.

The first OED citation for “whoever,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English sermon in the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175):

“Hwa efre þenne ilokie wel þene sunne dei. oðer þa oðer halie daʒes þe mon beot in chirche to lokien swa þe sunne dei. beo heo dalneominde of heofene riches blisse” (“Whoever looks well on Sunday and on the other holy days that man must also be in church, then he shall participate in the heavenly kingdom’s bliss”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “whomever” is from Arthour and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wom euer þat he hitt, Þe heued to þe chinne he slitt” (“Whomever he hit, he beheaded, to the chin he slit”). Arthurian legends can get gory at times.

So as you can see, “whomever” was indeed established in English before your time—quite a few centuries before.

As for the use of these terms today, you can find “whoso” and “whomso” in contemporary dictionaries, but they’re usually labeled “archaic,” while “whosoever” and “whomsoever” are generally described as formal versions of “whoever” and “whomever.”

“Who,” of course, is still one of the most common pronouns in English, but “whom” and company are falling out of favor, and many usage writers now accept the use of “who” and “whoever” for “whom,” “whomever,” and “whomsoever” in speech and informal writing.

As Jeremy Butterfield puts it in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “In practice, whom is in terminal decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English, in which in most cases it would be inappropriately formal.”

Butterfield’s recommendation: “Despite exceptions, the best general rule is as follows: who will work perfectly well in conversation (except the most elevated kind) and in informal writing.” The main exception he notes is that “who” should not be used for “whom” right after a preposition.

Traditionally, as you know, “who” (like the Old English hwa) is a subject, and “whom” (like hwam) is an object. As Pat explains in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, “who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him).”

Pat recommends the traditional usage in formal writing, but she has a section in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I on how to be whom-less in conversation and informal writing:

A Cure for the Whom-Sick

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

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

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

[Note: The reader who sent us this question responded, “Your example involving a Caribbean cruise seems fraught with danger in these pan(dem)icky times. If a colleague were to tell me that, my first instinct would be to ask, ‘Who would dare?’ ”]

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On ‘damage’ and ‘damages’

Q: In the last year or so, I’ve been irked to hear mass nouns being replaced by countable counterparts. Examples: “check the car for damages” … “economic supports for workers” … “non-profits are feeling pressures.” Is this a trend? Am I right to feel irked?

A: Let’s begin with “damage.” Yes, it’s a mass noun, but we wouldn’t describe “damages” as a count or countable noun.

As you know, a count noun (like “chair”) is one that can be counted—that is, modified with a numeral, an indefinite article, or a quantitative adjective like “few” or “many.” A mass noun (like “furniture”) can’t be counted. You can say “a chair,” “two chairs,” or “many chairs,” but not “a furniture,” “two furnitures,” or “many furnitures.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language considers “damage” a mass noun (it uses the term “noncount”), but lists “damages” among “plural-only nouns” for which “the singular form exists, but not with the standard sense relation to the plural.” It’s in a group of plural nouns that “have to do with compensation and reward for what has to be done,” such as “dues,” “earnings,” “proceeds,” “reparations,” and “wages.”

In contemporary English, as you point out, the singular noun “damage” means loss or harm to someone or something, while the plural “damages” refers to monetary compensation for loss or injury. Those are the meanings in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

However, a cursory search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles, indicates that “damages” is indeed often used now with what standard dictionaries consider the meaning of “damage.”

Here’s a recent example: “Damages from a two-alarm fire Friday morning at a commercial building near Funkstown could exceed $2 million, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s office” (Herald-Mail Media, Hagerstown, MD, April 17, 2020).

Centuries ago, however, both “damage” and “damages” were used to mean a loss as well as compensation for such a loss. Here’s an example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the plural used in the sense of loss or injury: “Repairing the damages which the kingdom had sustained by war” (The History of England, 1771, by Oliver Goldsmith).

And here’s an OED citation for the singular used in the legal sense: “He shall therefore pay 500li to the King and 200li Dammage to Mr Deane and make recognition of his fault and wrong” (from a 1631 case cited in Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, 1886, edited by Samuel R. Gardener. A star chamber is a secret or executive hearing).

As for the other two nouns you’re asking about, dictionaries generally regard “support” as a mass noun when used to mean financial assistance, but they say “pressure” can be either a mass or a count noun when used to mean stressful demands.

Here are two examples from the “pressure” entry in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online: “backbenchers put pressure on the government to provide safeguards” (mass noun) … “‘the many pressures on girls to worry about their looks” (count noun).

Do you have a right to feel irked about a questionable usage? Well, you have that right, but when we come across a usage we don’t like, we usually laugh it off or simply ignore it. And every once in a while we learn that a bugbear of ours is not only legitimate but has been used for hundreds of years by writers we respect.

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Depart … or depart from?

Q: My impression is that we used to “depart from” a location but that now, under the influence of airline-speak, we just “depart.” Example: “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland.” I’m a copy editor. Should I put that “from” back in, or is it acceptable without it?

A: The verb “depart” can properly be used with or without “from,” though it’s more often found with the preposition.

The two versions represent different uses of the verb—one transitive and the other intransitive. Both forms of “depart” have been in use since the 14th century, and both are still recognized as standard English.

In “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland,” the verb is being used transitively—that is, with a direct object.

Here are some other examples: “the train departed the station” … “the enemy has departed our shores” … “the judge has no plan to depart the bench” … “she departed this life in 1902” … “he departed the office of ombudsman last year.”

Used intransitively—without a direct object—the verb may or may not be followed by a prepositional phrase (like “from the Port of Oakland”). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially.

Here are other intransitive examples, using different prepositions or none at all: “he departed for home” … “the boat departs in 15 minutes” … “the bus departs at 5 p.m.” … “we departed on time” … “they’re ready to depart” … “the ship departs soon.”

You’ve probably noticed that the first bunch of examples, the transitive ones, have a somewhat formal or literary feeling—a jargony one in in the case of the ship’s departure. (Airlines in particular seem to prefer “depart” without “from” or “at,” as in “Flight 202 will depart Gate 5” and “it now departs 12:45.”)

The intransitive “depart,” used with “from” (or “at”), seems more natural to us than the transitive use without the preposition. But as we’ve said, both transitive and intransitive uses have been around since the Middle Ages.

The intransitive use was known earlier. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s implied in a 12th-century manuscript, though more definite sightings showed up in the 14th century.

A few examples, with and without prepositions: “we fra þe depart” (“we from thee depart,” c. 1300); “departed well erly from Parys” (1490); “yff I depart” (1526); “depart from Portsmouth” (1817); “the train departs at 6.30” (1895).

The transitive version of “depart”—with a direct object and without “from”—has been used to mean “to go away from, leave, quit, forsake” since about the mid-1300s, according to OED citations.

A range of examples: “departe vs nouȝt” (“depart us not,” circa 1340); “departed their company” (1536); “to depart the toune [town]” (1548); “may depart the Realm” (1647); “to depart Italy” (1734); “to depart the kingdom” (1839).

The dictionary says the transitive use is “now rare except in to depart this life.” But the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it hasn’t “fully updated” its entry for “depart” since it was published in 1895. And none of the examples—for any senses of the verb—go beyond the 1800s.

We don’t agree that the transitive “depart” is rare, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “If the transitive was rare at the end of the 19th century, it no longer is,” the usage guide says, adding that “it seems common enough in American English.”

However, it may be that the use has declined in British English over the years. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015), says “except in the formal or literary phrase departed this life, the construction no longer forms part of the standard language in Britain.”

Opinion is mixed in current standard dictionaries. The ten that we usually consult—five American and five British—all recognize the transitive “depart” as standard English. However, three of the five British dictionaries label it a North American usage. Apparently, a use that once was ordinary in both varieties of English has fallen off in the UK but survives in the US.

Nevertheless, some American news organizations have discouraged the use of “depart” without a preposition since at least as far back as the 1970s.

The revised 1977 edition of a stylebook adopted jointly by the Associated Press and United Press International has an entry for “depart,” with examples, saying it must be followed by a preposition. The entry concludes, “Do not drop the preposition as some airline dispatchers do.”

The most recent editions of the AP stylebook still have that entry for “depart,” identical except for the admonition at the end. The entry now reads, “Follow it with a preposition: He will depart from LaGuardia. She will depart at 11:30 a.m.

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When negatives collide

Q: I often encounter a sentence such as “I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace,” when it actually means the opposite—the speaker or writer wouldn’t be surprised if she DID steal it. Is there a term for this (a type of double negative, maybe)? And how did it come to be so widespread?

A: We’ve seen several expressions for this kind of construction. Terms used by linguists today include “expletive negation,” in which “expletive” means redundant; “negative concord,” for multiple negatives intended to express a single negative meaning; and, more simply, “overnegation.”

Yes, it’s also been called a “double negative,” the term H. L. Mencken used for it more than 80 years ago. Like linguists today, Mencken didn’t find this particular specimen odd or unusual. As he wrote in The American Language (4th ed., 1936), “ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain’ is almost Standard American.”

The linguist Mark Liberman discussed this usage—“wouldn’t be surprised” followed by another negative—on the Language Log in 2009. He called it a “species of apparent overnegation” along the lines of “fail to miss” and “cannot underestimate.” (More on those two later.)

Of course, what appears to be an overnegation may not be so. For instance, if everyone but you is predicting rain, you might very well respond with “I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain” (i.e., you wouldn’t be surprised if it failed to rain). No overnegation there, just two negatives used literally, nothing redundant.

But the usage we’re discussing is a genuine redundancy with no literal intent. And it’s a type of redundancy that’s very common, especially in spoken English. Yet it seldom causes confusion. People generally interpret those dueling negative clauses just as the writer or speaker intends.

You’re a good example of this. While you noticed the redundancy there (“I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace”), you correctly interpreted the writer’s meaning (if she did steal it). And no doubt most people would interpret it that way, whether they encountered the sentence in writing or in speech. Why is this?

In the case of written English, our guess is that readers interpreting the writer’s intent take their cues not only from the surrounding context but also from their own past experience. They’re used to seeing this construction and don’t automatically interpret it literally.

In the case of spoken English, where the usage is more common, listeners have the added advantage of vocal cues. Take these two sentences, which are identical except for the different underlined stresses. A listener would interpret them as having opposite meanings:

(1) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.

(2) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost.

In #1, the redundant or overnegated example, the speaker emphasizes the verb and whizzes past the superfluous second negative (“didn’t”). But in #2, the literal example, the speaker emphasizes the second negative, so there’s no doubt that it’s intentional and not redundant.

Language types have been commenting on the overnegated “wouldn’t be surprised” usage since the 19th century.

On the Language Log, Liberman cites this entry from “Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi,” a dissertation written by Hubert Anthony Shands in 1891 and published in 1893: “Wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. This expression is frequently used by all classes in the place of wouldn’t be surprised if it did.”

The usage wasn’t peculiar to Mississippi, though. In old newspaper databases, we’ve found 19th-century examples from other parts of the country.

These two 1859 sightings, the earliest we’ve seen, appeared in a humorous story, written in dialect, from the May 7, 1859, issue of the Columbia Spy, a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“ ‘There’s been so much hard swearin’ on that book’ (pointing to Logan’s Bible) ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the truth was not pretty considerably ranshacked outen it.’ ”

“ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you wa’nt vain arter this.’ ”

This example is from newspaper serving the twin cities of Bristol in Virginia and Tennessee: “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them didn’t run away after all without paying their bills.” (The Bristol News,  Feb. 8, 1876.)

And here’s one from the Midwest: “The business interests of Salina feel the weight of their power, and we wouldn’t be surprised if even Nature did not pause for a moment and measure their colossal proportions.” (The Saline County Journal in Salina, Kansas, Jan. 25, 1877.)

As mentioned above, there are other varieties of overnegation besides the “wouldn’t be surprised” variety. Here are some of the more common ones, along with their intended interpretations.

“You can’t fail to miss it” = You can’t miss it

“We can’t underestimate” = We can’t overestimate

“Nothing is too trivial to ignore” = Nothing is too trivial to consider

“I don’t deny that she doesn’t have some good qualities” = I don’t deny that she does have some good qualities

“We don’t doubt that it’s not dangerous” = We don’t doubt that it is dangerous

As we’ve said, even readers or listeners who notice the excess negativity will understand the intended meaning.

The Dutch linguist Wim van der Wurff uses the term “expletive negation” for usages of this kind. As he explains, the first clause “involves a verb or noun with the meaning ‘fear,’ ‘forbid,’ ‘prohibit,’ ‘hinder,’ ‘prevent,’ ‘avoid,’ ‘deny,’ ‘refuse,’ ‘doubt’ or another predicate with some kind of negative meaning.” What follows is a subordinate clause with “a negative marker” that’s “semantically redundant, or expletive.”

He gives an example from a letter written by Charles Darwin: “It never occurred to me to doubt that your work would not advance our common object in the highest degree.” (From Negation in the History of English, edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon Van Ostade and others.)

Historical linguists have shown that this sort of overnegation exists in a great many languages and in fact was a common usage in Old English and early Middle English.

“Negative concord has been a native grammatical construction since the time of Alfred, at least,” Daniel W. Noland writes, referring to the 9th-century Saxon king (“A Diachronic Survey of English Negative Concord,” American Speech, summer 1991).

But after the Middle Ages, the use of overnegation in English began to fall off, at least in the writings that have been handed down. Little by little, from around the late 15th to the 18th century, multiple negations became less frequent until they finally came to be considered unacceptable. Why?

Don’t point to the grammarians. It seems that this transition happened naturally, not because people started to object on logical or grammatical grounds.

In her monograph A History of English Negation (2004), the Italian linguist Gabriella Mazzon says the claim “that multiple negation was excluded from the standard as a consequence of the grammarians’ attacks is not correct, since the phenomenon had been on its way out of this variety [i.e., standard English] for some time already.”

As for today, Noland says in his American Speech paper, this type of overnegation “still has a marginal status even in standard English.”

We wouldn’t be surprised!

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A needy confection

Q: In chapter 4 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aunt Chloe uncovers “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need to have been ashamed.” Could you explain that “need to have been” construction? It doesn’t sound quite right to me.

A: Yes, there is something unusual about that passage from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. What’s strange is the presence of “to.” The clue here is “need,” which in that sentence is a modal auxiliary and not the principal verb.

“Need” is unusual because it can go both ways. It can be the main verb in a clause (as in “no one needs a car,” “no one needs to drive”) or a modal auxiliary (“no one need drive”).

We’ve written before on the blog about modal auxiliaries (the more familiar ones include “must,” “should,” “can,” and “might”). They’re used alongside other verbs to express things like probability, necessity, permission, or obligation.

When “need” is a modal, it’s not followed by a “to” infinitive. Like the other modals, it’s followed by a bare (“to”-less) infinitive.

This bare infinitive can be the usual simple one, as in “need be,” “need go,” “need leave.” Or it can be the perfect infinitive, as in in “need have been,” “need have gone,” “need have left.

The simple infinitive is appropriate here when speaking of the present or future: “no one need go.” The perfect infinitive is appropriate when speaking of the past: “no one need have gone.”

Which brings us back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that passage, Stowe is describing something in the past—a cake baked and cooling and waiting to be served. So we would expect to find “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need have been ashamed.” In the passage as she wrote it, “need to have been ashamed,” the “to” is extraneous.

Is Stowe grammatically out of bounds here? Yes. She’s blending two different forms of “need”: the one that’s a main verb (as in “no one needs to have been”) and the one that’s a modal auxiliary (as in “no one need have been”). However the misuse is understandable.

The truth is that the modal use of “need” is rare in American English, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

Another source, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says the modal “need” is rare in both varieties of English, though “rarer” in the US than in the UK.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that writers sometimes confuse the two forms of “need”—the main verb and the modal. Here’s how the two differ.

  • As a main verb, “need” is inflected—that is, it changes according to its subject and tense. So “-s” is added in the third-person singular present (“no one needs”) and “-ed” in the simple past (“no one needed”). But the modal “need” is uninflected; it’s always “need.”
  • As a main verb, “need” can have a direct object, such as a noun (“he needs coffee”), a “to” infinitive (“she needs to leave”), or sometimes a gerund (“his shirt needs ironing”). But as a modal, “need” can’t have a direct object; what follows is always a main verb in the bare infinitive (“she need not leave”).
  • As a main verb, “need” can be used with auxiliary forms of “do” (“he doesn’t need coffee,” “did she need to leave?”). But the modal “need” cannot.
  • When it’s the main verb, “need” can be used in any kind of clause—whether statement or question, negative or positive. But the modal is used only in negative statements or in questions. As the Cambridge Grammar puts it, the modal “need” is “restricted to non-affirmative contexts” (the Comprehensive Grammar calls them “nonassertive contexts”).

In those first three respects—verb agreement, complements, and use with “do”—the modal “need” behaves just like “must,” “should,” and the other common modals. But in that last respect—its occurrence only in negatives and questions—“need” is unlike them. Here’s how it works.

Used negatively, it expresses non-necessity or non-obligation, as in “she need not come” … “he needn’t leave” … “nobody need go hungry.” (Or, in reference to the past: “she need not have come” … “he needn’t have left” … “nobody need have gone hungry.”)

Used in questions, it expresses doubt about necessity or obligation: “need she come?” … “need he leave?” … “need anyone go hungry?” (Or, in reference to the past: “need she have come?” … “need he have left?” … “need anyone have gone hungry?”)

Less frequently, the modal “need” is also used in semi-negative statements, those that include “hardly” or “only” or some other negative implication. Examples: “she need hardly speak” … “he need only ask” … “your dad need never know” … “the test is longer than it need be.” (Or, in the past: “she need hardly have spoken” … “he need only have asked” … “your dad need never have known” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”)

You can see why the differing forms of “need” can pose a challenge, especially for speakers who don’t customarily use the modal. And after all, aside from stylistic preferences there’s no pressing need to use the modal here.

For instance, take the sample clause above, the one about the excessively long test. This is how the same thought can be expressed in standard English in different ways.

With “need” as modal: “the test is longer than it need be” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”

With “need” as main verb: “the test is longer than it needs to be” … “the test was longer than it needed to be.”

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To internet, or not to internet?

Q: I saw this in a New York Times article the other day: “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet.” And this was the tagline of a recent Bayer TV commercial: “This is why we science.” Am I just an old fogy or can any noun be turned into a verb these days?

A: You won’t find the verbs “internet” or “science” in standard dictionaries, but there’s a case to be made for the verbing of the noun “internet.” In fact, the verb showed up in print just a year after the noun, though not in the sense you’re asking about.

When the noun “internet” first appeared in 1975, it referred to “a computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When the verb appeared in 1976, it meant “to connect by means of a computer network.”

The usual sense of the noun now—a global computer network that allows users around the world to communicate and share information—evolved over the 1980s and ’90s. The verb took on the sense you’re asking about—to use the internet—in the 1990s.

Here are the two earliest OED citations for the verb used in that way: “A number of providers want you to Internet to their services” (Globe & Mail, Toronto, May 13, 1994) … “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I just internetted” (Associated Press, Aug. 21, 1994).

Oxford doesn’t include a usage label that would suggest the verb is anything other than standard English. However, none of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have an entry for “internet” as a verb. (The collaborative Wiktionary includes it as an “informal” verb meaning to use the internet, and offers this example: “Having no idea what that means, I am internetting like mad.”)

As for the verb “science,” we couldn’t find an entry for it in either the OED or standard dictionaries. However, Oxford and four standard dictionaries include the adjective “scienced” as a rare or archaic usage.

Oxford describes the adjective as “now rare” when used to mean “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit; (in later use also) adopting a scientific approach.” It says the term is “now somewhat archaic” when used in the sense of “well versed or trained in boxing.”

(Wiktionary includes the “colloquial, humorous” use of the verb “science,” meaning “to use science to solve a problem.” It also includes the adjective “scienced,” meaning “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit.” It doesn’t cite any examples.)

Speaking for ourselves, we aren’t likely to use “internet” or “science” as a verb, at least not yet. Neither usage is widespread enough. However, we see nothing wrong in principle with the verbing of nouns. In a 2016 post, we defended it as process that dates back to the early days of English.

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Link, a bendable word

Q: There was a headline describing something as “linked with” cancer. I thought it should have said “linked to” cancer. But I am not sure why or if both are permissible.

A: Both prepositions are acceptable. You can link something “to” or “with” something else. In fact, the “with” usage is somewhat older, though writers have used both prepositions for hundreds of years.

Before we discuss the prepositions, let’s look at the history of “link,” which is ultimately derived from kleng-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to bend or turn, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That ancient Proto-Indo-European term gave Old English the noun hlęnce (plural hlęncan), meaning armor or a coat of mail.

Then it gave Middle English (by way of Old Norse) the word lynk, lynke, linke, etc., a noun for a section of a chain, and in the plural, chains or fetters.

Finally, lynk and its variations led to the Middle English verb linken, meaning to bind or fasten things together.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the bending sense of the prehistoric root “implies ‘joints’ and ‘links,’ and this is the meaning which the word is presumed to have had when it passed into Old Norse as hlenkr—from which English acquired link.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any Old English citations for hlęnce or hlęncan used to mean armor, but here’s an example and a translation from the Boswell-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

“Moyses bebeád … frecan árísan habban heora hlencan … beran beorht searo” (“Moses bade the warriors arise, take their coats of mail, bear their bright arms”). From a retelling of Exodus in the Junius Manuscript, believed written in the late 900s. We’ve added ellipses to show where words in the original manuscript are missing from the Boswell-Toller citation.

The first OED citation for the noun “link” is from a poem based on an Aesop fable: “Thinkand thairthrow to lok him in his linkis” (“Think and thereby lock him in his chains”). From “The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman,” in The Morall Fabillis of Esope, circa 1480s, by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

In the 16th century, the noun took on the more general sense of a connecting part, whether literal or figurative. In the first Oxford example, “link” refers to a political marriage: “A conuenient mariage … whiche should be a lincke necessary, to knit together the realme of Scotlande and England.” From The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall.

As for the verb “link,” the OED says it’s derived from the noun “though recorded somewhat earlier.” In other words, the verb appeared first in writing but it’s believed to have come from the earlier use of the noun in speech.

The earliest citation for the verb is from a poem about the friendship between two merchants: “In love he lynketh them that be vertuous.” From “Fabula Duorum Mercatorum” (“Tale of Two Merchants”), written sometime before 1412 by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

Getting back to your question about prepositions, the earliest OED example for “link with” is from a poem by Lydgate about the rise and fall of Troy: “So was malice linked with innocence” (Troy Book, written from 1412 to 1420).

The first “link to” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an allegorical poem in which spiders and flies stand for opposing Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th-century reign of Queen Mary I:

“Our chaine / That lingth [linketh] vs to credence: is not auctoritie [authority], / But good vse of auctoritie, by honestie” (The Spider and the Flie, 1556, by John Heywood).

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Now I am become Death

Q: I recently read a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment about the first test of an atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I assume that “I am become” is an old usage. How would it be expressed in modern English?

A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. This is the use of forms of “be” in place of “have” as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses: “The prince is [or was] arrived” instead of “The prince has [or had] arrived.”

The passage you ask about, “I am become Death,” is a present-perfect construction equivalent to “I have become Death.” (We’ll have more to say later about Oppenheimer and his quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.)

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a well-known example of this usage: “We are met on a great battle-field.” Another familiar use is from the Bible: “He is risen” (King James Version, Matthew 28:6). And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). All of those are in the present-perfect tense.

Though usages like this were rare in Old English, they became quite frequent during the early Modern English period—roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-1600s, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

The verbs affected were mostly intransitive (that is, without objects) and involved movement and change. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”

The dictionary’s citations from the mid-1400s include “So may þat boy be fledde” (“That boy may well be fled”) and “In euell tyme ben oure enmyes entred” (“Our enemies are entered in evil times”).

In Modern English (mid-17th century onward), this auxiliary “be” faded from ordinary English and was largely replaced by “have.” So by Lincoln’s time, the auxiliary “be” was considered poetic or literary. You can see why if you look again at the examples above.

Lincoln used “we are met” to lend his speech a gravity and stateliness that wouldn’t be conveyed by the usual present-perfect (“we have met”). “He is risen” is nobler and more elevated than the usual present perfect (“He has risen”). And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”).

Apart from matters of tone, the auxiliary “be,” especially in the present perfect, conveys a slightly different meaning than the auxiliary “have.” It emphasizes a state or condition that’s true in the present, not merely an act completed in the past.

As Oxford says, this use of “be” expresses “a condition or state attained at the time of speaking, rather than the action of reaching it, e.g. ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’ ”

Even today verbs are sometimes conjugated with “be” when they represent states or conditions. A modern speaker might easily say, “The kids were [vs. had] grown long before we retired,” or “By noon the workmen were [vs. had] gone,” or “Is [vs. has] she very much changed?”

In older English, those participles (“grown,” “gone,” “changed”) would have been recognized as verbs (“grow,” “go,” “change”) conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary “be.” Many such examples are interpreted as such in the OED. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb.

In its entry for the verb “grow,” for example, Oxford has this explanation: “In early use always conjugated with be, and still so conjugated when a state or result is implied.” And in the case of “gone,” the dictionary says that its adjectival use “developed out of the perfect construction with be as auxiliary, reinterpreted as main verb with participial adjective.”

We can never write enough about the word “be.” As David Crystal says, “If we take its eight elements together—be, am, are, is, was, were, being, been—it turns out to be the most frequent item in English, after the” (The Story of Be, 2017).

And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. It’s entitled to be complicated, and no doubt further complications are still to come. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased.

As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. You can hear his words in The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a 1965 NBC documentary:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

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A ‘they’ by any other name

Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.

A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”

As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.

You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”

This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.

When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”

Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”

For instance, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”

And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.

This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:

“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).

“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).

We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.

But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role  And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).

As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”

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All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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But if the husband be dead …

Q: I was reading the King James Bible and came across this passage in Romans 7:2: “but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law.” Can you explain why “be” is used this way? What would be the proper usage in standard English today?

A: Let’s begin with all of Romans 7:2 in the King James Version of the Bible: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

In the second half of the verse (“but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband”), “be” is used in the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation. In modern English, the subjunctive here would be expressed with “were,” not “be”: “but if the husband were dead, she would be freed from the law of her husband.”

However, the subjunctive is less common now than it was in Old English, Middle English, and the early Modern English of the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611). Today that passage might instead be written in the indicative mood, the verb form used to make an ordinary statement: “but if the husband is dead, she is free from the law of her husband.”

These days, the subjunctive is primarily used for three purposes: (1) to express a wish: “She wished that her husband were less demanding”; (2) to express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If he were less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) to express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “He suggested that she wear high heels to the party.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subjunctive was used much more broadly: to express doubt, unreality, potential, wishes, desires, requests, commands, prohibitions, obligations, theories, and conjectures. As the subjunctive began waning in Middle English, modal auxiliary verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” and “would” stepped in to express many of these intentions and beliefs.

So the hypothetical mood, or attitude, of the speaker in those three subjunctive sentences above could be expressed in declarative sentences by using modal auxiliary verbs: (1) “She wished that her husband would be less demanding”; (2) “If he could be less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) “He suggested that she should wear high heels to the party.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about modal auxiliary verbs, most recently in 2018. And we’ve written often about the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 that discusses the use of the verb “be” over the years.

In the 2018 post, we note that modality can be expressed with adverbs, adjectives, and nouns as well as with modal verbs. We also discuss the archaic use of “be” in place of the plural “are” (as in “the powers that be”). And in the 2010 post, we note that the subjunctive is losing ground in British English, though it’s holding its own (for now) in American English.

We’ve also pointed out that some archaic uses of the subjunctive have survived on both sides of the Atlantic, such as “lest she forget” (instead of “forgets”), “God forbid” (instead of “forbids”), “come what may” (instead of “comes”), “suffice it to say” (instead of “suffices”), and “long live the Queen” (instead of “lives”).

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Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Q: Is it OK to use “shrunk” as the past tense of “shrink,” as in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?

A: Yes, it’s OK if you’re American, like that 1989 Disney film. However, British dictionaries are divided over the usage.

As we wrote in 2010, most standard American dictionaries recognize either “shrank” or “shrunk” as a legitimate past tense of “shrink.” So as far back as nine years ago, a sentence like “His trousers shrunk in the laundry” was widely accepted as standard in the US.

These were the recommended American forms: “shrink” as the present tense; “shrank” or “shrunk” as the past tense; “shrunk” or “shrunken” as the past participle (the form used in perfect tenses, requiring an auxiliary like “have” or “had”).

Today, acceptance of the past tense “shrunk” is even more pronounced, as we found in checking the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

All five of the American and three out of the five British dictionaries now accept “shrunk” as well as “shrank.” (One of those last three, Cambridge, qualified its acceptance by saying that “shrunk” is standard in the US but not in the UK.)

Only two holdouts insist on “shrank” alone as the past tense, the British dictionaries Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online). They accept “shrunk” solely as a past participle.

Despite the increasing respectability of the past tense “shrunk,” it’s apparently regarded by some as casual or informal.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that while “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, “shrank” is the usual preference in written English. (As we’ll show later, “shrunk” is widely preferred in common usage, if not in edited writing.)

However, we see no reason to avoid “shrunk,” even in formal writing. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “shrunk” has been used this way since the 1300s. It apparently fell out of favor—at least in written English—sometime in the 19th century and became respectable again in the latter half of the 20th.

The fact that modern lexicographers have come around to accepting “shrunk” is not an indication that standards are slipping or that English is becoming degraded. On the contrary, this development echoes a pattern seen with other verbs of that kind. Here’s the story.

The verb “shrink” was first recorded around the year 1000, as scrincan in Old English. It was inherited from other Germanic languages, with cousins in Middle Dutch (schrinken), Swedish (skrynkato), and Norwegian (skrekka, skrøkka).

In Anglo-Saxon days “shrink” had two past-tense forms—“shrank” (scranc) in the singular and “shrunk” (scruncon) in the plural—along with the past participle “shrunken” (gescruncen). So originally (and we’ll use the modern spellings here), the past-tense vowel changed only when the verb shifted from singular to plural, as in “I shrank” vs. “we shrunk.”

But in the 14th century, the dictionary says, the originally plural past tense “shrunk” began appearing with a singular subject (as in “I shrunk,” “he shrunk”). The dictionary’s earliest example is dated circa 1374:

“Sche constreynede and schronk hir seluen lyche to þe comune mesure of men” (“She contracted and shrunk herself to the common measure of men”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae.

This use of “shrunk,” the OED says, went on to become “frequent in the 15th cent.,” and was “the normal past tense in the 18th cent.”

Dictionaries of the time agree. A New Dictionary of the English Language (William Kenrick, 1733) and A General Dictionary of the English Language (Thomas Sheridan, 1780) both prefer “shrunk” over “shrank” as the past tense. They use the same illustration—“I shrunk, or shrank”—treating “shrank” as a secondary variant.

The preference for “shrunk” persisted among some writers well into the 19th century, as these OED citations show:

“Wherever he went, the enemy shrunk before him” (Washington Irving, A History of New York, 1809) … “Isaac shrunk together, and was silent” (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819) … “She shrunk back from his grasp” (Scott’s novel Kenilworth, 1821) … “Opinions, which he never shrunk from expressing” (Edward Peacock’s novel Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

But in the meantime “shrank” was also being used, and during the 19th century its popularity gradually revived in written English. Soon it came to be regarded as the better choice.

By the early 20th century, textbooks and usage guides were recommending “shrank” as the proper past-tense form. Henry Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), said “shrunk” had become archaic. (He was wrong, as we now know. Far from being archaic, “shrunk” had stubbornly persisted in common use.)

Here a question arises. If “shrunk” was the normal past tense in the 18th century, why did commentators in the early 20th century suggest that “shrank” was better?

Apparently arbiters of the language felt that forms of “shrink”—the present, past, and perfect tenses—should conform with those of similar verbs:  “drink/drank/drunk,” “sink/sank/sunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” and so on. They felt that the legitimate past tenses should be spelled with “a,” the past participles with “u,” and the distinction preserved.

But they overlooked the fact that many similar verbs had adopted “u” in the past tense with no objections. These all belong to a class that in Old English had “i” as the present-tense vowel and had two past-tense vowels: “a” in the singular (“I shrank,” “he shrank”) and “u” in the plural (“we shrunk,” “they shrunk”).

Examples of verbs like this include “cling,” “spin,” “swing,” and “wring.” By the 18th century, they had abandoned the old past tenses spelled with “a” (“clang,” “span,” “swang,” “wrang”) and adopted “u” forms identical to their past participles (“clung,” “spun,” “swung,” “wrung”).

The linguist Harold B. Allen has described “shrink” as “typical” of that class—Old English verbs that “in moving toward a single form for past and participle have popularly used the vowel common to both” (The English Journal, February 1957).

Unlike those other verbs, however, “shrink” was arrested in the process. Instead of dropping its “a” form completely, it has kept both past tenses, “shrank” and “shrunk.” (The same is true of the verbs “spring” and “stink,” which have retained both of their old past tense forms, “sprang/sprung” and “stank/stunk.”)

As we mentioned above, “shrunk” is the past tense favored in common usage. More than 60 years ago, Allen wrote that although textbooks listed “shrank” as the proper past tense, “shrunk” was more popular.

“The findings of the fieldwork for The Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest,” he wrote, “indicate that 86.5% of all informants responding to this item use shrunk as the preterit [past tense],” he said. And there was no evidence of a “small educated minority clinging to a favored shrank.

The preference for “shrunk,” he said, was “nearly the same in all three groups: 89% of the uneducated, 89% of the high school graduates, and 86% of the college graduates.” Though preferences were divided, he wrote, “the general dominance of shrunk is certain, despite the contrary statements of the textbooks.”

A final word about “shrunken,” which dictionaries still list alongside “shrunk” as a past participle. Today it’s “rarely employed in conjugation with the verb ‘to have,’ ” the OED says. There, too, “shrunk” has become the popular choice (as in “The trousers have shrunk”), and “shrunken” is seen mostly as a participial adjective (“the shrunken trousers”).

The same thing has happened with the verb “drink.” The usual past participle is now “drunk” (as in “he had drunk the poison”), while the old past participle “drunken” is now used only as an adjective.

But as for its past tense, “drink” has held on to “drank” in modern English, and a usage like “he drunk the poison” is not considered standard.

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No hidebound conservative he

Q: I recently watched a video of a discussion in which Antonin Scalia refers to Louis Brandeis as “no hidebound conservative, he.” Can you end a sentence like that with a pronoun? When would you do so? Is it an old-fashioned way of speaking? Is it used mostly in a humorous or sarcastic way today?

A: Yes, it’s OK to end a sentence (or a clause) that way. In the clause “no hidebound conservative he,” the subject is the pronoun “he,” but it could also have been a noun, a gerund, a noun phrase, or anything else acting as a noun.

Technically, the passage is an elliptical clause with subject-verb inversion. It’s elliptical because the verb “was” is missing but understood, and it’s inverted because the subject follows the implied verb—reversing the usual subject-verb order.

A clause, as you know, is a group of words with its own subject and verb. An elliptical clause is one in which the subject or verb is implicit. If we restored the verb in Justice Scalia’s clause and rearranged the words in a more conventional order, it would read “he was no hidebound conservative.”

A verb usually follows the subject in a declarative sentence or clause, one making a simple statement. However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with having the subject follow the verb, as in “no hidebound conservative was he” (an example of subject-verb inversion). And there’s nothing wrong with dropping the verb: “no hidebound conservative he.” (Some writers would use a comma, as you did, to mark the ellipsis, or missing verb, while others wouldn’t.)

People put the subject after the verb for many reasons. In questions, it’s natural: “Was Justice Brandeis a hidebound conservative?” And it’s common in statements that begin with a negative expression: “At no time was he considered a hidebound conservative.” It’s also seen after the auxiliary verb in conditional clauses: “Had he been called a hidebound conservative, he would have denied it.”

And, of course, the usage is often seen in poetry (for example, Tennyson’s “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”) and literary prose (Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”).

As you suggest, it can also be used to give a statement an old-fashioned, humorous, or sarcastic tone. We think Scalia, a linguistic and political conservative, was simply being his traditional self in both senses when he argued that judges shouldn’t fill in gaps left by legislators in statutes: “As Louis Brandeis said—no hidebound conservative he—‘To apply omissions transcends the judicial functions.’ ”

(Scalia made his comment on March 5, 2015, in a discussion at the Newseum in Washington with the lawyer and language writer Bryan A. Garner about their 2012 book Reading Law: Interpretation of Legal Texts.)

Interestingly, what we now consider subject-verb inversion was common word order in Old English. An Anglo-Saxon would put the subject after the verb in clauses that didn’t begin with the subject. As the linguist Eric Haeberli explains, Old English “exhibits frequent occurrences of subject-verb inversion when a non-subject is in clause-initial position.”

The usage is still common in other Germanic languages, but it began falling out of favor in Middle English, Haeberli writes in “The Development of Subject-Verb Inversion in Middle English and the Role of Language Contact,” a 2007 paper published in the journal Generative Grammar in Geneva.

Haeberli, a University of Geneva linguist who specializes in the development of syntax in early English, cites several Old English examples of the usage, including this one: “And egeslice spæc Gregorius be ðam” (“And sternly spoke Gregorius about that”). From Her Ongynð Be Cristendome, a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, a bishop of London and an archbishop of York.

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How possessive are you?

Q: I am curious why some of us were taught to use an apostrophe plus “s” to make a possessive of a singular proper noun ending in “s,” “x,” or “z,” while others were taught to use just an apostrophe.

A: Many people don’t realize that the conventions of punctuation are largely matters of style, and they’re much more fluid than the conventions of grammar. As we noted in a 2011 post, the customs of punctuation sometimes shift.

We wrote that an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns for at least three centuries, and that this has been true whether or not the nouns ended in a sibilant like “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say:

“The apostrophe before s became regulated as an indication of the singular possessive case towards the end of the 17c., and the apostrophe after s was first recorded as an indication of the plural possessive case towards the end of the 18c.”

Fowler’s says these “basic patterns” apply to proper names ending in “s.” So add an apostrophe plus “s” to a  singular name, Butterfield writes, “whenever you would tend to pronounce the possessive form of the name with an extra iz sound, e.g. Charles’s brother, St James’s Square, Thomas’s niece, Zacharias’s car.”

However, he notes that “gross disturbances of these basic patterns have occurred in written and printed work” since then, and “further disturbances may be expected in the 21c.”

In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon to be taught to drop the possessive “s” and use only an apostrophe after words ending in a sibilant (as in “Charles’ brother”). Although this isn’t a common practice today, it’s still sometimes seen in published writing.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says some writers and publishers still prefer a system “of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s.” However, the manual says that this system is “not recommended” because it “disregards pronunciation.”

This is what the Chicago Manual advocates: “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. … The general rule stated at [that paragraph] extends to the possessives of proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z.”

The examples given in the Chicago Manual include “Kansas’s legislature,” “Marx’s theories,” “Berlioz’s works,” “Borges’s library,” and “Dickens’s novels.”

To show just how changeable these customs can be, we wrote a post in 2018 on shifts in possessive forms of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s,” like “Moses” and “Euripedes.”

The traditional custom had been to add just an apostrophe, but in current practice the additional “s” is optional, depending on whether or not it’s pronounced: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

As Pat writes in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, “Let your pronunciation choose for you. If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final s (Moses’s). If you don’t pronounce that s (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.”

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Like more, only more so

Q: I’m seeing “more so” or “moreso” where I would expect “more.” Am I suffering from the usual recency illusion? Can I change it to “more” when editing? I sometimes have trouble knowing whether a language change is far enough along to indulge it.

A: The two-word phrase “more so” is standard English and showed up nearly three centuries ago. You can find it in two of James Madison’s essays in The Federalist Papers and in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

The one-word version “moreso” has been around for almost two centuries, though it’s not accepted by any modern standard dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says it’s mainly an American usage.

The OED says “more so” (as well as “moreso”) is derived from the earlier use of “more” with “ellipsis of the word or sentence modified.” That is, it comes from the use of “more” by itself to modify missing words, as in “I found the first act delightful and the second act even more.” (Here “delightful” is missing after “more” but understood.)

The earliest Oxford example for this elliptical “more” usage, which we’ll expand here, is from a Middle English translation of a 13th-century French treatise on morality:

“He ssolde by wel perfect and yblissed ine þise wordle and more ine þe oþre” (“He shall be morally pure and blessed in this world and more in the other”; from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a 1340 translation by the Benedictine monk Michel of Northgate of La Somme des Vices et des Vertus, 1279, by Laurentius Gallus).

Today, the OED says in a December 2002 update to its online third edition, the usage is seen “frequently with anaphoric so” in the phrase “more so (also, chiefly U.S., moreso).” An anaphoric term refers back to a word or words used earlier, as in “I saw the film and so did she.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “more so” is from an early 18th-century treatise by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley: “This is so plain that nothing can be more so” (A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics, 1735). Berkeley, California, was named after the philosopher, who was also the Anglican bishop of Cloyne, Ireland.

The next Oxford example is from a Federalist essay in which Madison discusses the size of districts that choose senators: “Those of Massachusetts are larger than will be necessary for that purpose. And those of New-York still more so” (Federalist No. 57, “The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation,” Feb. 19, 1788).

In the OED’s citation from Emma, published in 1815, Emma and Mr. Knightley are discussing Harriet’s initial rejection of Mr. Martin: “ ‘I only want to know that Mr. Martin is not very, very bitterly disappointed.’  ‘A man cannot be more so,’ was his short, full answer.”

The one-word version “moreso” soon appeared in both the US and the UK. The earliest British example that we’ve seen is from a clinical lecture on amputation delivered at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, Nov. 25, 1823:

“In all these cases, it is of infinite importance to be prompt in your decision, moreso almost than in any other cases to be met with in the practice of the profession” (from an 1826 collection of surgical and clinical lectures published by the Lancet).

The earliest American example we’ve found is from an Indiana newspaper: “Cure for the Tooth ache—This is one of the most vexatious of the ills that flesh (or rather nerves) is heir to. The following simple prescription can do no injury, & from actual experiment, we know it to be highly efficacious, moreso than any specific the dread of cold iron ever induced the sufferer to” (Western Sun & General Advertiser, Vincennes, April 29, 1826).

A few months later, the one-word spelling appeared in the published text of a Fourth of July speech at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Here’s the relevant passage from the speech by George W. Benedict, a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the university:

“Much has been said of the ingratitude of popular governments. That in those of ancient times, the very individuals to whom they were under the greatest obligations were as liable as others, sometimes apparently moreso, the victims of sudden resentment or the objects of a cold, unfeeling neglect, is doubtless true.”

The OED’s only example for “moreso” is from a late 20th-century book published in Glasgow: “Anyone perceived as being different from society’s norms was a potential target—no-one moreso than the local wise-woman” (Scottish Myths and Customs, 1997, by Carol P. Shaw).

However, the dictionary does have a hyphenated example from the 19th century: “The English servant was dressed like his master, but ‘more-so’ ” (The Golden Butterfly, an 1876 novel by the English writers Walter Besant and Samuel James Rice).

The linguist Arnold Zwicky notes in a May 30, 2005, post on the Language Log that “more” could replace “more so” or “moreso” in all of the OED citations, though the anaphoric versions (those with “so”) may add contrast or emphasis:

“The choice between one variant and the other is a stylistic one. One relevant effect is that, in general, explicit anaphora, as in more so, tends to be seen as more emphatic or contrastive than zero anaphora, as in plain more.”

In the 21st century, people seem to be using the one-word “moreso” in several new nonstandard senses. For example, Zwicky points out that “moreso” is now being used as a simple emphatic version of “more,” without referring back to a word or words used earlier: “alternating more and moreso have been reinterpreted as mere plain and emphatic counterparts, with no necessary anaphoricity.”

Here’s a recent example from an NPR book review of Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Orpheus Girl, an updated version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Oct. 13, 2019): “Moreso than Hades’s mythic underworld of old, this camp is Actual Hell (and all the trigger warnings that go with that).”

In another innovative reinterpretation, Zwicky says in his 2005 post, “moreso” is being used as a sentence adverb “without any specific standard of comparison implicated.”

It means “moreover” or “furthermore” in this recent sighting on Amazon.com: “Moreso, infants and preschoolers do not have the ability to express feelings of sadness in apt language” (from a description of How to Detect and Help Children Overcome Depression, 2019, by J. T. Mike).

And  “moreso” is being used in the sense of “rather” in this example: “Scientist Kirstie Jones-Williams, who will be helping to train and guide the volunteer researchers, says the goal of the program isn’t to create more scientists, but moreso global ambassadors on the dangers of pollution and more” (from a Sept. 25, 2019, report on NBC Connecticut about a trip to Antarctica).

We’ve occasionally seen the two-word “more so” used in such creative ways too, perhaps influenced by the newer uses of “moreso.” The phrase is a sentence adverb meaning “more importantly” in this query about the hip-hop career of the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown:

“But we have to know, if Brown starts releasing music, will you listen? More so, will you buy it? Let us know” (an item that appeared Oct. 16, 2019, on Instagram from USA Today’s Steelers Wire).

Although lexicographers are undoubtedly aware of the evolution of “moreso” in the 21st century, none of these new senses have made it into either the OED or the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. Webster’s New World, the only standard dictionary to take note of “moreso,” merely labels it a “disputed” spelling of “more so.” The online collaborative Wiktionary say it’s a “nonstandard” spelling of the phrase.

Getting back to your question, are you suffering from the recency illusion? Well, perhaps a bit. The term, coined by Zwicky, refers to the belief that things you recently notice are in fact recent. Yes, the anaphoric use of “more so” and “moreso” has been around for centuries, but “moreso,” with its new senses, seems to have increased in popularity in recent years.

Historically, “moreso” has been relatively rare in relation to “more so,” according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books published through 2008. However, recent searches with the more up-to-date iWeb corpus, a database of 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, suggest that “moreso” sightings may now be on the rise. Here’s what we found: “moreso,” 8,022 hits; “more so,” 107,837.

Should you change “moreso” or “more so” to “more” when editing? That depends.

Since “moreso” isn’t standard English, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term, depending on the sense—“more,” “more so,” “moreover,” “rather,” and so on.

As for “more so,” we’d leave it alone if it’s being used anaphorically. Otherwise, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term.

But as you note in your question, the English language is evolving. If you ask us about this in a few years, we may have a different answer.

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How susceptible are you?

Q: I recently saw the phrase “susceptible to many interpretations.” Normally, I would use “of” as the preposition. Do you agree that it would be more fitting than “to”?

A: We think that either “of” or “to” is acceptable in that construction—“susceptible of many interpretations” or “susceptible to many interpretations.” Both phrases have been used by eminent writers, and as of 2008 the two versions were equally common in published books, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

A survey of standard dictionaries shows no clear agreement here, but our impression is that a writer of British English would probably use the older “susceptible of” in this context, while an American might use either one.

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, is a good illustration of the British preference. It defines “susceptible of” as “capable or admitting of,” and gives these examples: “The problem is not susceptible of a simple solution” … “These things are not susceptible of translation into a simple ‘yes or no’ question” … “Each item separately may be susceptible of an innocent explanation.”

Another British guide, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), agrees, saying that “susceptible of” is “equivalent to ‘admitting or capable of.’ ”  Fowler’s gives these examples: “A passage susceptible of more than one interpretation” … “an assertion not susceptible of proof.”

On the American side, Merriam-Webster Unabridged says that “susceptible” in this sense is “used with of or to.” Here’s how M-W defines this use of “susceptible”: “of such a nature, character, or constitution as to admit or permit: capable of submitting successfully to an action, process, or operation.”

Merriam-Webster’s examples use both prepositions: “susceptible of proof” … “susceptible to solution” … “susceptible of being mistaken.”

Another US dictionary, American Heritage, also illustrates this sense of “susceptible” with both prepositions: “a statement susceptible of proof” … “a disease susceptible to treatment.”

However, one major American dictionary, Webster’s New World, is a hold-out for “susceptible of” in this sense. It says “susceptible of” means “that gives a chance for; admitting; allowing.” Its example: “testimony susceptible of error.”

All dictionaries agree that “susceptible” is used with “to” when it means easily affected or liable to be affected. Examples: “a man susceptible to her charms” … “a child susceptible to ear infections” … “a street susceptible to flooding” … “a boss susceptible to flattery.” (Memory aid: In that sense, “susceptible to” is much like “vulnerable to” or “subject to.”)

And all dictionaries agree that the adjective “susceptible” by itself—with no following preposition—usually means impressionable, emotionally sensitive, or easily moved by feelings. It’s often used to describe tender-hearted people. Examples: “the more susceptible in the audience were in tears” … “a susceptible young man is always falling in love” … “a movie too violent for susceptible children.”

In addition, the bare adjective is used to describe those likely to be affected by something, as in “distemper is deadly, and puppies are especially susceptible.”

As for its history, “susceptible” came into English in the early 17th century as a borrowing from the medieval Latin susceptibilis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The medieval term, which meant capable, sustainable, or susceptible, was derived from the classical Latin suscipĕre (to take up, support, or acknowledge).

The original meaning of “susceptible” was the one you ask about, “capable of undergoing, admitting of (some action or process).” Here’s the first OED example: “This Subiect of mans bodie, is of all other thinges in Nature, most susceptible of remedie” (Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, 1605).

All of the dictionary’s examples for this sense of “susceptible” are accompanied by “of,” but they extend only to 1871 (the OED says its “susceptible” entry has not yet been fully updated).

However, we know that “to” had crept into use in American English by the mid-19th century. We’ve found more than a dozen examples of “susceptible to proof” in American newspapers of the 1800s, beginning with this one:

“Intimations, not perhaps susceptible to positive proof, have reached me that … [etc.]” (from a letter written Feb. 11, 1847, by the acting territorial Governor of California, Lieut. Col. John C. Frémont, and published Dec. 4, 1847, in the Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette, Mo.).

We’ve also found many American examples of “susceptible to interpretation” (since 1874), “susceptible to error” (since 1880), and “susceptible to mistakes” (since 1885). So in American English, the use of “susceptible to” in the sense we’re discussing is solidly established.

The more common meaning of “susceptible”—easily affected or liable to be affected—was first recorded in 1702. This sense was also accompanied by “of” originally, but the OED’s later examples have “to” (“susceptible to attack,” 1883; “susceptible to smallpox,” 1887, and so on).

The newcomer is the bare adjective, with no preposition. This “susceptible” was first recorded in 1709. These are the OED’s most recent examples of the different senses:

“We must remember also the susceptible nature of the Greek” (from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues, 2nd ed., 1875) … “By cultures and by inoculations into susceptible animals” (from A System of Medicine, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, 1899).

Like us, you’re probably susceptible to fatigue, so we’ll stop here.

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Vowel movement

Q: You’ve discussed adjective order (why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress”), but you haven’t written about the order of vowels—why we say “zig-zag,” not “zag-zig.”

A: As we’ve written several times on our blog—in 2010, 2017, and 2019—certain kinds of adjectives occur in a predictable order. An opinion adjective normally comes ahead of one for size, and both come before color. You can see this pattern in “a perfect little black dress.”

However, a phrase like “zig-zag” or “tick-tock” conforms to an entirely different language pattern (call it another unwritten rule if you like). This one governs how we arrange vowel sounds in a sequence.

We touched on this subject before in a 2015 post about so-called “reduplicative” words, those formed by the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alterations.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative. And one like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative.

And as it happens, ablaut reduplicatives conform to a pattern, one in which vowel sounds naturally occur in a certain order. Invariably, a high vowel (quick, tight, and pronounced at the front of the mouth) will be reduplicated by a lower one (more drawn out, open, pronounced further back). Here’s how this works.

A short “i” sound, as in “zig,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “zag.” This is why we prefer “zig-zag” to “zag-zig,” just as we prefer “riff-raff” to “raff-riff” and “wishy-washy” to “washy-wishy.”

Similarly, a short “i” sound comes before an “o” sound (“flip-flop,” “criss-cross”). Here are the most common reduplicatives that illustrate this “i-a-o” (think of “tic-tac-toe”) order.

  • “i” before “a” sounds: “zig-zag,” “riff-raff,” “pitter-patter,” “mish-mash,” “splish-splash,” “dilly-dally,” “shilly-shally,” “tittle-tattle,” “jingle-jangle,” “wishy-washy,” “flim-flam,” “knick-knack,” “chit-chat,” “wig-wag”
  • “i” before “o” sounds: “tick-tock,” “clip-clop,” “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “tip top,” “drip-drop,” “criss-cross,” “ding-dong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” “sing song”

(Less significantly, an “ee” sound comes before an “o” or “aw” sound, but there aren’t many ablaut reduplicatives like this. Among the few examples are “see-saw,” “teeter-totter,” “be-bop,” and “hee-haw.”)

Patterns of ablaut reduplication are found not only in different languages, but in entirely different language families. The phenomenon has been discussed by philologists for more than a century and a half, with early research papers on the subject dating as far back as 1862.

English speakers have been forming new words by this kind of repetition since the Middle Ages. Historically, as the linguist Donka Minkova has written, simple or “copy” reduplicatives (like “yo-yo”) came first, with the others appearing by the end of the 15th century—the rhyming types, like “hocus-pocus,” and the ablauts, like “riff-raff.” (From “Ablaut Reduplication in English: The Criss-crossing of Prosody and Verbal Art,” published in the journal English Language and Linguistics, May 2002.)

The formation of new reduplicatives, Minkova writes, “declined sharply in the twentieth century.” (She rules out formations in which one half modifies the other: “Super-duper is a case of reduplication, while pooper scooper is not.”)

Scholars aren’t the only ones to take note of such patterns. Marketers are on the case, too. Think of ablaut reduplicatives the next time you spot brand names like “Kit Kat,” “Tic Tac,” “Spic and Span,” and “Ding Dongs.”

What happens when there’s a clash between the unwritten rules of adjective order and vowel order? The usual arrangement of the vowels seems to take precedence over the order of the adjectives.

That’s why we say “big bad wolf” instead of “bad big wolf.” A short “i” sound, as in “big,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “bad.”

Of course, “big bad” is not itself a reduplication—that is, a single element being echoed. But we have a choice in how to arrange two short adjectives. And the preferred order is based not on the meaning of the words but on their vowel sounds.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Punctuation Usage Writing

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

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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English English language Etymology Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Pat reviews 4 language books

Read Pat in the New York Times Book Review on four new books about the English language.

 

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Were it not for the grammar

Q: I’ve noticed what I take to be an instance of hypercorrection in this sentence: “Were it not for my grandfather, I would never be born.” I would say, “Had it not been for my grandfather, I would never have been born.” I feel in my grammar bones that the subjunctive is wrong here. I await your exegesis.

A: The opening clause of that sentence, “Were it not for my grandfather,” is grammatically equivalent to “If it were not for my grandfather” (we’ll explain why later). So the sentence is conditional, the kind that often begins with an “if” clause or the equivalent and continues with a “would” clause.

The only thing wrong with the sentence is the second clause, “I would never be born.” It should read, “I would never [or “not”] have been born.”

Because that clause refers to an event in the past—the speaker’s birth—the verb is in the conditional perfect tense (“would have been”), not the simple conditional (“would be”).

The simple conditional is used in a “would” clause that refers to the present or future: “Were it not for my grandfather’s money, I would be poor.” (We wrote about how to juggle tenses with “would” in 2011 and in 2015.)

As we said above, the first clause of that sentence is fine. “Were it not” is a rather formal way of beginning a conditional sentence, but it’s not wrong or “hypercorrect.” (As we wrote in 2009, hypercorrectness is making a mistake in an attempt to be ultra-correct.)

A less formal version would have begun with “If,” as in “If it weren’t for my grandfather.” But there are other options as well, like the one you suggest, “Had it not been for my grandfather,” as well as “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather.”

All four beginnings—(1) “Were it not,” (2) “If it were not,” (3) “Had it not been,” and (4) “If it hadn’t been”—are grammatically equivalent.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe all four as “remote conditionals.” These are conditional statements that pose a hypothetical situation (in this case, the nonexistence of a grandfather) that’s unlikely, impossible, or unreal.

Since the grandfather did in fact exist, making the condition unreal, the verb in that clause is in the subjunctive mood, a mood used to express hypothetical situations that are contrary to fact. (The classical example: “If I were king.”)

This accounts for the use of the subjunctive “were” instead of “was” in versions #1 and #2. (In 2014, we discussed this use of “were.”) But the subjunctive mood doesn’t alter verbs in perfect tenses, like the past perfect “had been” in versions #3 and #4.

Now, on to the issue we mentioned above—why the “if” versions (“If it were not,” “If it hadn’t been”) are equivalent to those without it (“Were it not,” “had it not been”). What happens grammatically when we swap one for the other?

To put it simply, we drop the “if” and switch the order of the following elements—the subject and its verb or auxiliary. Here’s how this works with our examples:

“If it were not” → “Were it not” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and verb “were”)

“If it hadn’t been” → “Had it not been” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and auxiliary “had”)

As the Cambridge Grammar explains this process, the “if” here is replaced with a “subject-auxiliary conversion.” The result is what the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, call an “inverted conditional.”

Here are a few of the examples they give of inverted conditionals (we’ll show only the relevant clauses):

“If that were to happen” → “Were that to happen”

“If he had seen the incident” → “Had he seen the incident”

“If I had had any inkling of this” → “Had I had any inkling of this”

One more characteristic of inverted conditionals: When they’re expressed in the negative, the negative element comes after the subject (“had he not seen”), instead of before (“had not he seen”).

This means that contractions aren’t used in inverted conditional statements. We say, “Had it not been for my grandfather” (not “Hadn’t it been”), and “Were it not for my grandfather” (not “Weren’t it”). The negative element follows the subject, “it.”

The Cambridge Grammar illustrates with the example “Had it not been for the weather,” noting that the contracted form (“Hadn’t it been for the weather”) isn’t normal English.

A final note before we leave the subject of remote conditional statements. The “if” clause (or equivalent) doesn’t have to include a verb. It could begin with “But for” or “If not for.”

So our original sentence, beginning “Were it not for my grandfather,” could have verbless versions as well: “But for my grandfather” and “If not for my grandfather.”

That last construction always reminds us of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You. And that gives us an excuse to share the original version of the song, which Dylan himself recently posted to the Internet.

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Happy belated birthday?

Q: Why do we say “happy belated birthday” when it should be “belated happy birthday”? The “happy birthday” is belated, not the “birthday.” Please help me understand the proper syntax.

A: Like you, we wouldn’t describe the syntax, or word order, in “happy belated birthday” as logical. But we doubt that anyone would have trouble with the semantics, or meaning, of the expression.

As you point out, the congratulatory phrase “happy birthday” is the thing that’s belated, not the “birthday” itself. Therefore, the logical arrangement of the words would be “belated happy birthday.” So why do many people find it more natural to say “happy belated birthday,” logic be damned?

We believe this is because of a clash between the logical order of the words and the natural order of adjectives. We’ve written several times about the order of adjectives, including a post in 2010 about why people say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress,” and one in 2017 about why a toy is “my nice new blue plastic truck” rather than “my plastic blue new nice truck.”

As we say in those earlier posts, it’s natural for an adjective that expresses subjective opinion (like “happy”) to come before an adjective that expresses age (like “belated”). So one would refer to “a delightful old recipe,” not “an old delightful recipe,” and “a risky premature birth,” not “a premature risky birth.”

As for “happy belated birthday” and “belated happy birthday,” you can find both expressions in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media. The first version is generally more popular in less edited sources, and the second in more edited ones.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in books, shows that the logical version (“belated happy birthday”) is significantly more popular in these more closely edited works. However, a general Google search as well as a search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines, indicates that “happy belated birthday” is more popular.

Greeting card companies generally offer a wide variety of ways to say “happy birthday” belatedly. Although “happy belated birthday” seems to be the most common, “belated happy birthday” is also offered, as well as “belated birthday wishes,” “belated birthday greetings,” and “belated”-free offerings like “happy birthday … fashionably late” and “I feel horrible about missing your birthday … console me with leftover cake.”

As far as we can tell, the phrase “happy birthday” didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. At first it was literal, referring to the occasion itself. Later, it came to be a formulaic congratulatory expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “Pauline,” a short story by Elizabeth Scaife in the 1843 edition of the Keepsake, an annual literary magazine in London:

“Remembrance painted another birthday of younger years—a happy birthday—the birthday of her first love—a birthday of abounding and exulting expectation, and she could not but feel how different were the hopes she then cherished, and the realities which had overshadowed them.”

The first example we’ve found for the formulaic expression is from Mary’s Birthday, a play by the American writer George Henry Miles: “I wish you a very happy birthday, Miss Mary, and many happy returns.” (The comedy was published in 1858 and performed in the 1859 Broadway season.)

How did people wish each other a happy birthday before “happy birthday” appeared on the scene? The answer is in the previous example. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, people used “many happy returns,” “many happy returns of the day,” “many returns,” and so on as “conventional wishes and greetings on a special day, now spec. on a person’s birthday.”

The noun “return” here refers to the “act or fact of recurring or coming round again” or “each of a series of repetitions of an action,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation refers to New Year’s Day:

“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years” (from The Church of England Not Superstitious, 1714, by William Teswell, an Anglican rector).

The OED’s earliest use of “returns” in connection with a birthday is from The Battle of Life (1846), a novella by Dickens. We’ll expand the quotation for context:

“ ‘The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’ ” Dr. Jeddler, who finds life a farce, has just kissed his daughter Marion on her birthday and said “many happy returns of the—the idea!—of the day.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including these in the title and first stanza of “Many Happy Returns of the Day,” a verse by Sylvanus Swanquill, pseudonym of the English writer John Hewitt:

“So this is your birthday, my friend! / You’re just sixty-seven, they say; / You look eighty-eight, but I wish you / Many happy returns of the day.” (From the Court Journal, London, Oct. 17, 1835.)

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How appropriate is ‘apropos’?

Q: A website I read regularly uses “apropos” as if it means “appropriate” rather than “relevant” (the way I use it). Is this a new trend? Is it really right, and have I been wrong all these years?

A: The word “apropos” has several meanings in English, depending on whether it’s a preposition, an adverb, or an adjective.

As a preposition, it means “in respect to” and is often accompanied by “of,” according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which gives this example:

“Apropos the early church, Ford might have noted (and expatiated on) the qualifications added to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ particularly in reference to heretics” (John T. O’Connor, The American Historical Review, October 1986).

As an adverb, M-W Unabridged says, it means either “at an opportune time” or “by the way.”

For the first sense, it cites this example: “Your letter came very apropos, as, indeed, your letters always do” (Charlotte Brontë, letter, Nov. 14, 1844).

And for the second, it cites this one: “Apropos, this brings me to a point on which I feel, as the vulgar idiom goes, ‘very awkward,’—as I always do in these confounded money-matters” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lucretia, 1846).

As an adjective, the way it’s used in the New York Times article that caught your eye, it can mean either “to the point” (that is, relevant) or “suitable or appropriate,” according to M-W Unabridged.

For the “relevant” sense, the dictionary cites “an apropos comment/remark” (no source given). For the “appropriate” sense, it cites the sentence “An old barn and New York’s Catskill Mountains serve as an apropos backdrop” (Country Living, July 2011).

We checked nine other standard British and American dictionaries and they generally have similar definitions, though the wording differs here and there.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines the adjective as “very appropriate to a particular situation,” while Webster’s New World defines it as “fitting the occasion; relevant; apt,” and American Heritage as “fitting and to the point.”

Nevertheless, we’d use “appropriate” (or “fitting,” “suitable,” “proper,” and so on) if that’s what we meant. The use of “apropos” strikes us as affected.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the only contemporary usage guide in our library that comments on the issue, agrees with you and considers it a misuse.

English borrowed “apropos” in the 17th century from the French à propos, formed of à (to) + propos (purpose), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The word was first used as an adverb, says the OED, adding that its use with “of” is an echo of the French à propos de. (The dictionary does not categorize the word as a preposition.)

Oxford defines the adverb as meaning “to the purpose; fitly, opportunely,” and its earliest example uses it in that last sense: “The French … use them with better judgment and more apropos” (from John Dryden’s Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay, 1668).

The adjective, which followed soon afterward, is defined in the OED as “to the point or purpose; having direct reference to the matter in hand; pertinent, opportune, ‘happy.’ ” In other words, it could mean relevant or appropriate.

Oxford’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a rambling description of a plan to allocate taxes fairly in England: “It is certainly now the opus Dei, and a propos what he had said before in that Page” (An Account of Several New Inventions and Improvements Now Necessary for England, 1691, by Thomas Hale).

We’ll end with a clearer, lighter, and more appropriate OED example, also expanded, from Alexander Pope’s Epistle of Horace (1738), which updates the Roman satirist Horace to satirize life under the British Prime Minister Horace Walpole. Here Pope begins a riff on the old tale of the town mouse and country mouse:

Our friend Dan Prior, told (you know)
A tale extremely ‘à-propos’
Name a town life, and in a trice
He had a story of two mice.

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Making sense of mixing tenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whom again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That sinking feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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Are you down on “up”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A time for timeless verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A contraction too far?

Q: I recently noticed an example of a three-word contraction in a novel: “couldn’t’ve.” Is this usage accepted? Is it an outlier? Something new? Something old that’s faded with time? Also, I wonder how far contractions can go. Four words? Five?

A: English speakers often mush together three words—even four—in casual conversation.

A reader once told us that in casual speech she contracts “I am going to” into something like “I’mma,” as in “If it keeps raining, I’mma skip the grill and order pizza.” We’ve often heard “I’mna” and “I’munna” as informal renderings of “I’m going to.”

To use another example, “I would have” may be pronounced as “I’d’ve,” or “We might not have” as “We mightn’t’ve.” Such contractions are rarely seen in writing, except perhaps in dialogue. Even then, a careful writer would probably use “I’d have” or “We mightn’t have.” Why? Because three contracted words can be hard to read. And a writer wants (or should want) to be understood.

How far can one go in contracting written words? We think three words is already a word too far. Today, the legitimate written contractions generally include a verb, along with a subject or the word “not.” An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped.

In the past, longer contractions were common in writing, including ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t. But in the 18th century, language commentators began condemning contractions as harsh-sounding, vulgar, or overly familiar. By the end of the century, they were considered a no-no in writing, though tolerated in speech.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that written contractions—at least the two-word variety—were again acceptable. In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his influential usage guide.

In the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she lists contractions that she considers acceptable in formal writing and those that should be used only in dialogue, humor, or casual writing.

Fit to Print

aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, didn’t, doesn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d (he would; he had), he’ll, here’s, he’s (he is; he has), I’d (I would; I had), I’ll, I’m, I’ve, isn’t, it’ll, it’s (it is; it has), let’s, mightn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, she’d (she would; she had), she’ll, she’s (she is; she has), shouldn’t, that’s (that is; that has), there’s (there is; there has), they’d (they would; they had), they’ll, they’re, they’ve, wasn’t, we’d (we would; we had), we’ll, we’re, we’ve, weren’t, what’ll, what’re, what’s (what is; what has), what’ve, where’s (where is; where has) who’d (who would; who had), who’ll, who’s (who is; who has), who’ve, won’t, wouldn’t, you’d (you would; you had), you’ll, you’re, you’ve

Out of Bounds

AIN’T. In presentable English, it’s not OK and it never will be OK. Get used to it. If you’re tempted to use it to show that you have the common touch, make clear that you know better: Now, ain’t that a shame!

COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, WOULD’VE, MIGHT’VE, MUST’VE. There’s a good reason to stay away from these in your writing. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation, which explains why they’re often heard as could of, should of, would of, might of, and must of (or, even worse, coulda, shoulda, woulda, mighta, and musta). It’s fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let’s not forget that have is there. Write it out.

GONNA, GOTTA, WANNA. In writing, these are substandard English. Unless you’re talking to your sister on the phone, make it going to, got to, want to, and so on.

HOW’D, HOW’LL, HOW’RE, WHEN’LL, WHEN’RE, WHEN’S, WHERE’D, WHERE’LL, WHERE’RE, WHY’D, WHY’RE, WHY’S. Resist the urge to write contractions with how, when, where, or why, except that old standby where’s. We all say things like How’m I supposed to pay for this and where’m I gonna put it?” But don’t put them in writing.

IT’D, THAT’D, THERE’D, THIS’D, WHAT’D. Notice how these ’d endings seem to add a syllable that lands with a thud? And they look ridiculously clumsy in writing. Let’s use the ’d contractions (for had or would ) only with I, you, he, she, we, they, and who.

THAT’LL, THAT’RE, THAT’VE, THERE’LL, THERE’RE, THERE’VE, THIS’LL, WHO’RE. No. These clumsies are fine in conversation, but written English isn’t ready for them yet. Do I use that’ll when I talk? Sure. But not when I write.

To repeat what we said above, those no-nos are acceptable in informal speech. And in print, they’re fine in dialogue, humor, and casual writing, but not in formal writing.

Although usage guides now welcome contractions, some people still hesitate to use them in writing. We think that’s silly. As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

[Note, May 12, 2019. A reader of the blog writes: “The author of a short story I just read was contraction crazy. Some I’d seen before, such as ‘we’ll’ve.’ One in particular, ‘to’ve’ (in an infinitive phrase), which he used several times, I looked up online and found that Melville used it. One to add to your never list?” Well, never say never. Writers of dialogue or humor, or who are deliberately being colloquial or dialectal, are free to be as creative as they want. As for the rest of us, things like “I ought to’ve gone” are fine in speech, but not in formal writing. Spell out the “have.”]

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