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

Gentlemen, God rest you merry!

Q: Which is the more traditional version of this Christmas carol: “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”? I see it both ways, but the one with “you” looks better to me.

A: You’re right—“you” makes more sense than “ye” in this case, as we’ll explain later. In fact, the original pronoun in that early 18th-century carol was “you.”

But that isn’t the only misunderstanding associated with the song. There’s that wayward comma too. Here’s the story.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, English speakers used “rest you” or “rest thee” with a positive adjective (“merry,” “well,” “tranquil,” “happy,” “content”) to mean “remain in that condition.” (The verb “rest” is used in a somewhat similar sense today in the expressions “rest assured” and “rest easy.”)

In the earliest and most common of such expressions, the adjective was “merry,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And at the time, “merry” had a meaning (happy, content, pleased) that’s now obsolete.

So in medieval English, the friendly salutation “rest you (or thee) merry” meant remain happy, content, or pleased. The OED explains it more broadly as “an expression of good wishes” that meant “peace and happiness to you.”

The form “rest you merry” was used in addressing two or more people, while “rest thee merry” was used for just one. This is because our modern word “you,” the second-person pronoun, originally had four principal forms: the subjects were “ye” (plural) and “thou” (singular); the objects were “you” (plural) and “thee” (singular). The expression we’re discussing required an object pronoun.

The OED’s earliest example of the expression, in 13th-century Middle English, shows a single person being addressed: “Rest þe [thee] murie, sire Daris” (the letter þ, a thorn, represented a “th” sound). From Floris and Blanchefleur (circa 1250), a popular romantic tale that dates from the 1100s in Old French.

As early as the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, “you” began to replace the other second-person pronouns. By the early 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes in ordinary usage: objective and nominative, singular and plural.

As a result, the usual form of the old expression became “rest you merry” even when only one person was addressed. And it was often preceded by “God” as a polite salutation, with the meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness,” the OED says. The dictionary cites several early examples of the formula:

  • “o louynge [loving] frende god rest you mery.” From an instructional book, Floures for Latine Spekynge Gathered Oute of Terence (1534)by Nicholas Udall. (The English is presented as a translation of the Latin greeting Amice salue.)
  • “God rest you mery bothe and God be your guide.” From Like Wil to Like (1568), a morality play by Ulpian Fulwell.
  • “God rest you merry sir.” From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1600).

Soon after Shakespeare’s time, we find the formulaic “rest you merry” addressed to “gentlemen.” In plays of the 17th century in particular, it’s often spoken by a character in greeting or parting from friends.

The popular playwright John Fletcher, for example, used “rest you merry gentlemen” in at least two of his comedies: Wit Without Money (c. 1614) and Monsieur Thomas (c. 1610-16).

It also appears in several other comedies of the period, including works by the pseudonymous “J. D., Gent” (The Knave in Graine, 1640), Abraham Cowley (Cutter of Coleman-Street, 1658), Thomas Southland (Love a la Mode, 1663), and William Mountfort (Greenwich-Park, 1691).

In most of the 17th-century examples we’ve found, there’s no comma in “God rest you merry gentlemen.” When a comma does appear, it comes after “merry,” not before: “Rest you merry, gentlemen.”  This is because “rest you merry” is addressed to the “gentlemen.”

In his comedy Changes: or, Love in a Maze (1632), James Shirley has “Gentlemen, rest you merry,” a use that more clearly illustrates the sense of the expression and removes any ambiguity.

This brings us to the Christmas song “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”— the title as given in The Oxford Book of Carols and other authoritative collections. The oldest existing printed version of the song was published around 1700, though the lyrics were probably known orally before that.

As the OED says, “rest you merry” is no longer used as an English expression; it survives only in the carol. But the syntax of the title, the dictionary adds, “is frequently misinterpreted, merry being understood as an adjective qualifying gentlemen.” So the comma is often misplaced after “you,” as if those addressed were “merry gentlemen.”

In fact, the carol originally had no title. The words first appeared, as far as we can tell, in a single-page broadsheet entitled Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays with only a generic designation—“Carol  I. On Christmas-Day.” The broadsheet had no music, either; the words were sung to a variety of tunes.

The sheet was probably published in 1700 or 1701, according to the database Early English Books Online. Some commentators have said the lyrics existed earlier, but we haven’t found any documents to show this. The other three songs on the sheet are designated “Carol II. On St. Stephen’s-Day,” “Carol III. On St. John’s-Day,” and “Carol IV. On Innocent’s-Day.”  Here’s a facsimile of the front side, with “Carol I” at left.

“God rest you merry Gentlemen” (without a comma) is the first line of “Carol I,” and it later became used as the title. It appeared as the title in some printings of the carol by the late 1700s.

But well into the 19th century the song was sometimes referred to simply as “Old Christmas Carol” (in Sam Weller, a play by William Thomas Moncreiff, London, 1837) or “A Christmas Carol” (in The Baltimore County Union, a weekly newspaper in Towsontown, MD, Dec. 23, 1865).

For the most part, music publishers over the years have printed the title with “you” (not “ye”) and with the comma after “merry,” a form that accurately represents the original meaning. But in books, newspapers, and other writing the title has also appeared with “ye,” a misplaced comma, or both.

Why the misplaced comma? Apparently the old senses of “rest” and “merry” were forgotten, and the title was reinterpreted in ordinary usage. It was understood to mean that a group of “merry gentlemen” were encouraged to relax and be jolly.

The OED’s earliest example of the misconception dates from the early 19th century, where Samuel Jackson Pratt refers to “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” as “a time-embrowned ditty” (Gleanings in England, 2nd ed., 1803).

And why the shift from “you” to “ye”?  Our guess is that it represents an attempt to make the carol sound older or more “traditional.” (Not coincidentally, “ye” began appearing in place of “you” in 18th- and 19th-century reprints of those old comedies we mentioned above, as if to make them more antique.)

We’ve found scores of “ye” versions of the carol dating from the 1840s onwards in ordinary British and American usage.

A search of Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “you” versions were predominant in books and journals until the mid-20th century. But in the 1960s, “ye” versions began to rise, and by the ’80s they had surpassed the “you” versions. (Placement of the comma isn’t searchable on Ngram.)

Today, both the “ye” and the misplaced comma are ubiquitous in common usage, despite the way the title is printed by most music publishers and academic presses.

Perhaps the music of the carol bears some of the blame for the wayward comma. While the song has had several different musical settings, it’s now sung to music, most likely imported from Europe, that some scholars believe was first published in Britain in 1796. And the tune doesn’t allow for a pause before “gentlemen,” so the ear doesn’t sense a comma there.

As the music scholar Edward Wickham writes, “The comprehension of whole sentences of text, when sung, relies in part on the perception of how those sentences are segmented and organised.”

“The music to the Christmas carol ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen,’ ” Wickham says, “makes no provision for the comma and thus is routinely misunderstood as ‘God rest you, merry Gentlemen.’ ” (“Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing,” a chapter in Experimental Affinities in Music, 2015, edited by Paulo de Assis.)

One final observation. All this reminds us of an entirely different “ye” misunderstanding—the mistaken use of “ye” as an article. This misconception shows up in signage of the “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe” variety, an attempt at quaintness that we wrote about in 2009 and again in 2016.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Why ‘it’s’ means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’

Q: I can’t stand the use of “it’s” for “it has” in writing. When I see “it’s,” I read “it is” and then have to translate this to “it has.” Am I too picky?

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “it’s” as the contraction of “it is” or “it has,” whether in writing or in speech. One can easily tell from the context which sense is meant, and both uses are long established in standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, says “it’s” has two meanings: “1. Contraction of it is. 2. Contraction of it has.” And Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says “its is the possessive form of it (The cat licked its paws) and it’s is the shortened form of it is (It’s raining again) or it has (It’s come).”

In fact, “it’s” has been a contraction of both “it is” and “it has” for hundreds of years, though “it’s” was once the usual form of the possessive adjective and “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is.” Confusing, ’tisn’t it? Here’s the story.

In Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (about 1150 to 1450), the usual nominative or subject form of “it” was hithyt, etc. The usual genitive or possessive form (“its” or “of it”) was hishys, etc. The nominative it was seen only occasionally in Old English, more often in Middle English.

Here’s an early example of the nominative hit in Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725: “hit wearð ealgearo, healærna mæst” (“it stood there ready, the noblest of halls”).

And here’s an example of the genitive his in an Anglo-Saxon herbal remedy: “Gedrinc his þonne on niht nistig þreo full fulle” (“Drink of it, after a night of fasting, three full cups”). From the Old English Herbarium, a 12th-century manuscript at the British Library (Cotton Vitellius C. iii).

(By the way, “he” was he in Old English, “she” was heo or hie, “his” was his or hys,  and “her” was hire.)

Both “its” and “it’s” first came into use as possessive adjectives in early Modern English, probably because the older neuter genitive his was being confused with the masculine possessive his.

(We’re using the term “possessive adjective” here to describe a dependent genitive like “her” or “their,” and “possessive pronoun” to describe an independent genitive like “hers” or “theirs.”)

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “its” as a possessive adjective is from a late 16th-century translation of a collection of Latin anecdotes for clerics: “There stands a bedde, its death to tell.” From Certain Selected Histories for Christian Recreations (1577), by Ralph Robinson.

And the first OED citation for the apostrophized “it’s” used as a possessive is from the definition of spontaneamente in an Italian-English dictionary: “willingly, naturally, without compulsion, of himselfe, of his free will, for it’s owne sake.” From A Worlde of Wordes (1611), by John Florio.

Of the two versions of the possessive adjective—with and without the apostrophe—“it’s” was apparently the predominant spelling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (In fact, “her’s,” “our’s,” “their’s,” and “your’s” were also possessives in early Modern English.)

The dictionary cites a half-dozen examples of the possessive “it’s,” including one from a Nov. 8, 1800, letter by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra. We’ve expanded the citation, which describes the reaction of Austen’s neighbors, the Harwoods, on learning that their son Earle, a marine lieutenant, had accidentally shot himself in the thigh:

One most material comfort however they have; the assurance of it’s being really an accidental wound, which is not only positively declared by Earle himself, but is likewise testified by the particular direction of the bullet. Such a wound could not have been received in a duel.”

We’ll add this earlier one from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, believed written in the late 1590s and first published in the 1623 Folio: “As milde and gentle as the Cradle‑babe, / Dying with mothers dugge betweene it’s lips.”

As Merriam-Webster explains, “the unapostrophized its was in competition with it’s from the beginning and began to rise to dominance in the mid 18th century.” M-W cites several language authorities to show how the usage evolved.

In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), Robert Lowth gave “its” as the possessive form of “it.” But in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell gave “it’s.” In Reflections on the English Language (1770), Robert Baker preferred “it’s,” then switched to “its” in the 1779 edition. And in English Grammar (1794), Lindley Murray endorsed its.

As for the “it is” contractions, “ ’tis” appeared about a century before “it’s,” according to citations in the OED.

This is Oxford’s earliest example of “ ’tis” is written without an apostrophe (for the missing “i” in “it”): “Alas, tys pety yt schwld be þus” (“Alas, ’tis a pity it should be thus”). From Mankind, an anonymous morality play written around 1475.

The dictionary’s earliest example with an apostrophe is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first published in the 1623 Folio but believed to have been performed in 1606: “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, It were done quickly.”

Meanwhile, “it’s” had emerged as a competing contraction. This is Oxford’s first example:  “And ambition is a priuie [private] poison, It’s also a pestilens.” From Rewarde of Wickednesse, a 1574 poem by Richard Robinson.

At first, the competition of “ ’tis” and “it’s” was pretty one-sided. A comparison using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, suggests that “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is” from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th.

In fact, the early dominance of “ ’tis” was even greater than the comparison shows, since the Ngram results include the use of “it’s” as a possessive adjective as well as a contraction of “it has” and “it is.”

Language authorities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries indicated a preference for “ ’tis.” Campbell, for instance, complains in The Philosophy of Rhetoric about what he considers the misuse of “it’s, the genitive of the pronoun it, for ’tis, a contraction of it is.”

And both Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) include entries for “ ’tis” (but not “it’s”) as a contraction of “it is.”

Getting back to your complaint about the use of “it’s” as a contraction of “it has,” the earliest example we’ve seen for the usage is from the 1623 Folio of King Lear.

In addition to the contraction “it’s” for “it has,” Shakespeare used “it” twice by itself as a possessive: “the Hedge-Sparrow fed the Cuckoo so long, that it’s had it head bit off by it young.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

As to ‘as to’

Q: Would you tackle the ubiquitous use of “as to” as the go-to substitute for “about”? I’ve noticed it among the students in my college writing class who are trying to sound “professional” (the current word for “formal” in the lingo of pre-professionals).

A: The phase “as to” has been used since the 14th century by many admired writers—including Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Henry James—to mean with respect to, concerning, or about.

We see nothing wrong with the usage and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says “it is a common compound preposition in wide use at every level of formality.”

The earliest citation for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), a 1340 Middle English translation by the Benedictine monk Dom Michelis of Northgate of a Middle French treatise on morality:

“Þe ilke þet hateþ his broþer, he is manslaȝþe ase to his wylle and zeneȝeþ dyadliche” (“he that hateth his brother, he is a man-slayer as to his will, and sinneth deadly”). We’ve expanded the citation, which is from a translation of La Somme le Roi (“A Survey for a King,” circa 1395), written for the children of Philip III by the Dominican Friar Laurent d’Orléans, the king’s confessor and his children’s tutor.

The usage is ultimately derived from the Old English eall swa (“all so”), an intensification of “so” and an ancestor through “progressive phonetic reduction” of the Modern English “as,” “so,” “also,” “as for,” and “as to,” according to the OED.

As far as we can tell, nobody was troubled by the usage until the early 20th century, when H. W. Fowler complained in The King’s English (1907) about the use of compound prepositions and conjunctions, notably “the absurd prevailing abuse of the compound preposition as to.”

Fowler was especially troubled by the use of “as to” before the conjunction “whether,” arguing that “if as to is simply left out, no difference whatever is made in the meaning.”

But in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Fowler acknowledged that the phrase “has a legitimate use—to bring into prominence at the beginning of a sentence something that without it would have to stand later (As to Smith, it is impossible to guess what line he will take).”

Other usage writers have criticized “as to” as legalese and wordy as well as redundant before conjunctions like “how,” “why” and “whether.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes that the phrase is not legalese and is less wordy than some proposed alternatives, like “concerning” and “regarding.” In fact, M-W says, “If we replace it with about, we have five letters, no space, two syllables. How much have we gained? Nothing.”

Yes, “as to” is often unnecessary, but we’re among the many writers who use it. We feel a phrase like “as to whether” may sometimes be less abrupt or more clear than “whether” itself. Here are a couple of Merriam-Webster examples that we’ve expanded:

“My uncertainty as to whether I can so manage as to go personally prevents me from being more explicit” (from an April 7, 1823, letter by Lord Byron).

“There ensued a long conversation as they waited as to whether waiters made more in actual wages than in tips” (from “May Day,” a short story in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922, by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

And here are a few of the many M-W citations (some of them expanded) for “as to” used in other ways:

“As to the old one, I knew not what to do with him, he was so fierce” (Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).

“Fanny had by no means forgotten Mr. Crawford when she awoke the next morning; but she remembered the purport of her note, and was not less sanguine as to its effect than she had been the night before” (Mansfield Park, 1814, by Jane Austen).

“And so you don’t agree with my view as to said photographer?” (from an April 1, 1877, letter by Lewis Carroll).

“There still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself” (The Art of the Novel, 1934, by Henry James. From a collection of prefaces originally written for a 1909 multivolume edition of James’s fiction).

“When women were first elected to Congress, the question as to how they should be referred to in debate engaged the leaders of the House of Representatives” (The American Language, 4th ed., 1949, by H. L. Mencken).

As Merriam-Webster explains, “As to is found chiefly in four constructions: as an introducer (the use approved by Fowler and his followers) and to link a noun, an adjective, or a verb with following matter.”

The usage guide cites these four examples from conversations of the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson (cited in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1791):

“He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ ” Johnson is speaking here with the actor David Garrick.

“Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities.”

“For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

“We are all agreed as to our own liberty.”

In the opinion of the M-W editors, “All of the constructions used by Dr. Johnson are still current. You can use any of them when they sound right to you.”

We agree, though some other usage guides have various objections. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), for example, says “as to is an all-purpose preposition to be avoided whenever a more specific preposition will do.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Imperatively speaking

Q: A sign in the bathroom of the ladies’ locker room says, “It is imperative that nothing but TP is put in the toilet.” Aside from the fact that a couple of other things also go in the toilet, shouldn’t this read “be put,” not “is put”?

A: A sentence like that is referred to as a mandative construction; it demands something. It includes a mandative adjective (“imperative”) that governs a subordinate clause expressing what’s demanded.

The two usual ways to write such a sentence are (1) “It is imperative that nothing but TP be put in the toilet” and (2) “It is imperative that nothing but TP should be put in the toilet.” A much less common and somewhat iffy version is (3) “It is imperative that nothing but TP is put in the toilet.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, says a mandative adjective can be followed by (#1) a “subjunctive mandative” clause, (#2) a “should mandative” clause, or (#3) a “covert mandative” clause. The term “covert” here describes a tensed usage with a hidden subjunctive sense.

“Clear cases of the covert construction are fairly rare,” the authors add, “and indeed in AmE are of somewhat marginal acceptability. In AmE the subjunctive is strongly favoured over the should construction, while BrE shows the opposite preference.”

The Cambridge Grammar includes many examples of the three types of mandative construction, including these: (1) “It is essential that everyone attend the meeting”; (2) “It is essential that everyone should attend the meeting”; (3) “It is essential that everyone attends the meeting.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Can you break a phrasal verb up?

Q: I often encounter a construction like this: “Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise.” Is “pushed a law through Congress” incorrect? It seems crisper, less contorted.

A: Some writers, probably influenced by the old “split infinitive” myth, are reluctant to break up a phrasal verb like “push through,” and this sometimes leads to contorted sentences.

However, we don’t think that’s the issue here. Our guess is that the writer of the passage (“Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise”) simply wanted to keep the noun “law” close to its description.

We agree with you that “pushed a law through Congress” is usually more straightforward than “pushed through Congress a law,” but we think the passage is more effective as written.

A phrasal verb, as you know, is made up of a verb and one or more other words, typically adverbs or prepositions: “break up,” “carry out,” “shut down,” “find out,” “give up,” “put off,” “try on,” etc.

There’s nothing wrong with breaking up a phrasal verb as long as it still makes sense: you can “shut down a computer” or “shut a computer down.” It’s a question of style, not grammar.

The phrasal verb “push through,” meaning to carry out something to its conclusion, showed up in late 19th-century writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, breaks up the phrase:

“If it is not pressing, neither party, having other and nearer aims, cares to take it up and push it through” (from The American Commonwealth, 1888, by the British historian and statesman James Bryce).

Finally, we’ve written several times on our website about the so-called “split infinitive,” a misleading phrase, since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive  and nothing is being split.

As we note in a 2013 post, when “to” appears with an infinitive, it’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.” When an infinitive appears without “to,” it’s described as a bare, simple, or plain infinitive.

On the Language Myths page of our website, we note that writers have been putting words between the infinitive and its particle since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-19th century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—objected to the usage.

Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive. The so-called rule was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

‘Got a screwdriver?’ … ‘I do.’

Q: If I ask a question like “Have you got a screwdriver?” and someone answers, “I do,” it sets my teeth on edge. I extrapolate that to mean “I do got.” Is that answer incorrect, or is it just me?

A: The use of “I do” in reply to “have you got” is a normal and correct construction in English. There is no “rule” against this common usage.

What’s thrown you off is the idiomatic verb construction “have got.” Both the Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say “have got” here means “have” (in the sense of own or possess). Oxford calls it a “specialized” usage while the Cambridge Grammar calls it an informal idiom.

So in the type of question you mention, “have got” and “have” are interchangeable. And whether it’s worded “Have you got a screwdriver?” or “Do you have a screwdriver?” the question has several grammatically correct replies, including (1) “Yes I have” and (2) “Yes I do.”

Both of those are elliptical replies, in which the verb is stranded at the end. They might be expanded as “Yes I have [or have got] a screwdriver” and “Yes I do have a screwdriver.”

So as you can see, the “do” in reply #2 is elliptical for “do have,” not “do got.” As the Cambridge Grammar explains, the “got” in the idiomatic “have got” cannot be stranded at the end of a sentence. This means that in an elliptical construction with a verb at the end, an auxiliary like “have” or “do” is used.

Keep in mind that “have you got” is an idiom to begin with, so it’s not unexpected that the common reply—“Yes I do,” or “No I don’t”—should be idiomatic too.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that in answer to a “have you got” question, the “do” reply is a familiar feature of both British and American English. Fowler’s, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, offers this analysis:

“Question: Have you got a spare room? Answer: Yes, we do. This apparently illogical use of do, replacing have as the auxiliary verb, arises because the question implicitly being answered is ‘Do you have a spare room?’ It is a common pattern in AmE and causes less surprise to British visitors than formerly, since it has also become a feature of BrE.”

In ordinary usage, rather than in the idiom, “have got” is the present perfect tense of the verb “get,” with “have” as the auxiliary (as in “I have got infected”). But in the idiom we’re discussing, the OED says, “have got” functions as the present-tense equivalent of “have.”

And “have” in the idiomatic “have got” is the main verb (not an auxiliary). So both grammatically and semantically, “I have got” = “I have.” In fact, the question  “Have you got a screwdriver?” could be rephrased more formally as “Have you a screwdriver?”

(We might add that many speakers find a sentence like “Have you a screwdriver?” to be excessively formal. Americans in particular seem to prefer questions phrased with “do” when there’s a direct object: “Do you have a screwdriver?”)

You might wonder why English speakers started using the idiomatic “have got” in the first place. After all, the simple “have” performed that function for hundreds of years, and still does.

As we said in a 2014 post, there are two theories about the likely origins of this usage, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary. Thus “got” was added as an informal prop.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So if a sentence like “I’ve a cat” felt unnatural or abrupt, one could use “I’ve got a cat” instead.

We should mention another familiar idiomatic use of “have got”—the one that means “must.” Here too, the “got” is not essential to the meaning. “I have got to leave” = “I have to leave” = “I must leave.”

And again, a “do” reply to this variety of “have got” question is perfectly acceptable: “Have you got to leave?” … “I do.”

The “have got” that indicates obligation or necessity is followed by a “to” infinitive, like “to leave.” (The other “have got” idiom, the one indicating possession, is followed by a direct object, like “a screwdriver.”) We wrote about this usage in 2010.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Casting a little light

Q: Living a life in theatre, I cast actors, though I don’t throw them out the window. “Cast” is one of those verbs with the same form in the past and present. Interesting word, and with so many meanings. I could look it up in my Compact OED, but I can’t read the tiny print—even with the magnifier.

A: Yes, “cast” is an interesting verb, but it’s not always the same in the present tense, past tense, and past participle. The third-person present is “casts.” Some similar verbs are “bet,” “cost,” “cut,” “hit,” “hurt,” “let,” “put,” and “shut.”

You’re right that “cast” has a lot of senses, as both a verb and a noun. All of them are derived from the Old Norse verb kasta (to cast or throw), which first appeared in Middle English and took the place of an Old English verb with the same meaning, weorpan, the ancestor of “warp.”

But as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, “cast,” a Scandinavian migrant that replaced an Old English word, “has now in turn been largely superseded in ordinary language and in the simple literal sense by throw,” which began life as the Old English þrawan (thrawan), and originally meant to twist or turn.

Today, the OED says, “cast” has an old-fashioned air when used in its original English sense: “ ‘Cast it into the pond’ has an archaic effect in comparison with ‘throw it into the pond.’ ” But the word “is in ordinary use in various figurative and specific senses, and in many adverbial combinations, as cast about.”

When “cast” first appeared in the Middle English of the early 13th century, Oxford says, it was a verb meaning “to project (anything) with a force of the nature of a jerk, from the hand, the arms, a vessel, or the like.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from Hali Meidenhad (Holy Virginity,) an alliterative homily written around 1230: “Ha cast hire fader sone se ha iboren wes fram þe hehste heuene in to helle grunde” (“As soon as she [Pride] was born, she cast her father from the highest heaven into the deep of hell”).

The OED’s earliest example for the noun “cast” used in the sense of a throw is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “If a stoon he throwe, and with the cast sleeth [slayeth], lijk maner he shal be punishid” (Numbers 35:17-18).

Interestingly, the noun “cast” showed up earlier in a figurative example that likened the Last Judgment to a game of chance where everything is risked on a throw of dice:

“On domesdai be-for iustise, þar all es casten on a cast” (“On doomsday before justice, there all is risked on a single cast”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325.

As we’ve said, the word “cast” has a great many senses, so many that the OED arranges the verb in 13 categories, though some of the usages are labelled archaic, obsolete, rare or dialect:

“I. To throw. II. To throw down, overthrow, defeat, convict, condemn. III. To throw off so as to get quit of, to shed, vomit, discard. IV. To throw up (earth) with a spade, dig (peats, a ditch, etc.). V. To put or place with haste or force, throw into prison, into a state of rage, sleep, etc. VI. To reckon, calculate, forecast. VII. To revolve in the mind, devise, contrive, purpose. VIII. To dispose, arrange, allot the parts in a play. IX. To cast metal, etc. X. To turn, twist, warp, veer, incline. XI. To plaster, daub. XII. Hunting and Hawking senses, those of doubtful position, and phrases. XIII. Adverbial combinations.”

Here are some of the more common uses of the verb that have evolved from its original sense of throwing, along with dates of the earliest OED citations: “cast out” (circa 1200), “cast into prison” (before 1225), “cast a fishing line” (c. 1250), “cast away” (c. 1325), “cast an eye, glance, look, etc.” (c. 1385), “cast off” (c. 1400), “cast aside” (1475), “cast molten metal” (1512), “cast about” (1575), “cast with plaster or the like” (1577), “cast a shadow” (1630), “cast the parts of a play” (1711), “cast some light” (1752), “cast adrift” (1805), “cast a stitch”  (in knitting, 1840), and “cast a horoscope” (1855).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

A sticky question

Q: The verb “stick” seems to have uses that don’t allow conjugation. You can say, “We got stuck in the elevator,” but not “The elevator sticks us.” Are there other verbs with one sense applicable only in the past tense?

A: In a clause like “We were stuck in the elevator” or “We got stuck in the elevator,” the word “stuck” is either a past participle or a participial adjective, depending on the meaning. In either case, “stuck” is a nonfinite verb form, one that isn’t inflected for tense.

When a state or condition is meant, “stuck” is usually a participial adjective in an intransitive clause. When an action is meant, “stuck” is usually a past participle in a passive transitive clause.

The “be” version is used for a condition or an action, while the “get” version tends to be used for an action.

You can expand the two elevator clauses above to make clear that the first refers to a condition (“We were stuck in the elevator all night”) and that the second refers to an action (“We got stuck in the elevator when the power failed”).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language refers to the past participle in such uses as a “verbal passive” and the participial adjective as an “adjectival passive.”  Cambridge calls the two conditions “stative” and “dynamic.” It discusses “be” and “get” passives in more detail on pages 1429-1443.

The grammar’s authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, cite several examples of adjectives derived from past participles but with special meanings:

“She’s bound to win” … “We’re engaged (to be married)” … “Aren’t you meant to be working on your assignment?” … “His days are numbered” … “Are you related?” …  “I’m supposed to pay for it” … “He isn’t used to hard work.”

For readers who’ve forgotten the terminology, a verb is transitive when it needs a direct object to make sense (“Beverly raises calla lilies”) and intransitive when it makes sense without one (“The yellow ones died”).

A  verb is active when the subject performs the action (“Gertrude grows lupins”) and passive when the action is performed on the subject (“The lupins are grown by Gertrude”).

When an active transitive clause becomes passive, as in that latter example, the former direct object (“lupins”) becomes the subject, and the former subject (“Gertrude”) becomes the object of a prepositional phrase, though the prepositional phrase is not always expressed.

As for the etymology here, when “stick” was originally used to mean fix in place it was an intransitive verb spelled sticiað in Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary says transitive uses “are typically recorded later than their intransitive equivalents and chiefly occur in the passive, as to be stuckto get stuck, etc.”

The earliest intransitive example in the OED is from the Old English Boethius, a translation made in the late ninth or early tenth century of De Consolatione Philosophiae (“The Consolation of Philosophy”), a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“Gesihst þu nu on hu miclum & on hu diopum & on hu þiostrum horoseaða þara unðeawa ða yfelwillendan sticiað” (“Do you see now in how great and in how deep and in how dark an abyss of sins men of evil vices stick”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “stick” used as a transitive passive is from a letter written on Oct. 4, 1635, by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the English statesman Thomas Wentworth:

“When he saw the man and his horse stuck fast in the quagmire.” (Here “stuck” is a participial adjective.)

The OED’s earliest “be stuck” example is figurative: “It is Natural to men in the wrong to persist, and believe they take Wing when they are deepest stuck in the Mire” (from The Portugues Asia, John Stevens’s 1695 translation of a work by the Portuguese historian Manuel de Faria e Sousa).

And the dictionary’s first “get stuck” citation is from the transcript of an 1899 case before the New York State Court of Appeals: “If the logs get stuck we keep men there with pevies and work them through.” A “peavey” (the usual spelling) is a hooked lumberjack tool.

Finally, we should mention that the verb “stick” took on a bloody sense in Middle English when it came to mean “to impale (a thing) on (also upon) something pointed.” The OED’s first citation is from an anonymous medieval romance:

“And Þe bor is heued of smot, / And on a tronsoun of is spere / Þat heued a stikede for to bere” (“And he beheaded the boar and stuck the head on the end of his spear so he could carry it”). From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun (circa 1300).

Two centuries later, the verb came to mean “to pin (a person) to a wall, the ground, etc., by running a weapon through his or her body.” The first OED citation is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And Saul had a iauelynge [javelin] in his hande, and cast it, and thoughte: I wyll stycke Dauid fast to the wall” (1 Samuel 18:11).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Clause encounters

Q: In retirement, I’m pursuing my interest in grammar. Right now, I’m studying noun clauses, but I can’t figure out the function of these wh-ever question clauses: “Whoever you ask, you get the same answer” … “Whatever you do, don’t lose this key” … “Whoever calls, he must be admitted” … “He’s an honest man, whoever his friends might be.” I’d appreciate any guidance you might give me.

A: These are not, as you suggest, “wh-ever question clauses.” They’re adverbial clauses—more specifically, subordinate clauses that modify a main clause.

This type of clause can begin with a pronoun (like “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever”) or an adverb (“wherever,” “whenever”). But no matter whether it begins with a pronoun or an adverb, the clause functions as an adverb that modifies a verb or adjective.

When “whoever” is used to introduce a modifying subordinate clause, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “if any one at all; whether one person or another; no matter who.” And in similar use, “whatever” means “no matter what” or “notwithstanding anything that.”

So in your four examples, the modifying clauses are the equivalent of “no matter whom you ask,” “no matter what you do,” “no matter who calls,” and “no matter who his friends are.”

The same is true of the other “wh-” words: “whichever,” “wherever,” “whenever.” When they introduce a subordinate clause that modifies a main clause, they’re the equivalent of “no matter which,” “no matter where,” “no matter when.” And their function is adverbial.

Of the four clauses in your examples, three modify verbs: “get,” “lose,” and “admit.” They indicate the manner in which, or the condition under which, some action should or should not be performed. The fourth modifies an adjective (“honest”). It indicates how honest a person is.

Another indication that these are adverbial clauses is that you could substitute a simple adverb (like “regardless,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” “notwithstanding,” etc.) in grammatically similar sentences.

The “wh-ever” words can introduce a modifying clause that’s the grammatical equivalent of these:

(1) A conditional clause (typically beginning with “if” or “unless”): “If you ask anyone, you’ll get the same answer”

(2) A concessive clause (beginning with “though,” “although,” “even though,” “even if,” etc.): “Even though you ask everyone, you’ll get the same answer.”

(3) A disjunctive clause (often constructed with “whether … or”): “Whether you ask politely or not, you’ll get the same answer.”)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

When Mom dies, is it your loss or hers?

Q: When I wrote my mother’s obit several years ago, the expression “we mourn her loss” stopped me, since the loss was ours, not hers. The usage doesn’t make logical sense, but I’m assuming it’s idiomatic and correct. Can you advise?

A: In a usage such as “we mourn her loss,” the pronoun “her” is a genitive adjective, not a possessive.

As we’ve written several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is much broader and includes many categories in addition to possession. So while a genitive construction may look possessive, it doesn’t necessarily imply ownership.

A genitive adjective—whether a pronoun or noun with an apostrophe—can indicate a wide range of relationships, including possession (“the boy’s jacket”); source or origin (“the family’s history”); date (“Wednesday’s mashed potatoes”); type or description (“a women’s college”); part (“the car’s engine”); measure (“a night’s sleep”); duration (“three years’ experience,” “a day’s drive”); or other close association (“a summer’s day,” “a doctor’s appointment,” “his death”).

In the case of “we mourn his loss,” the phrase “his loss,” like “his death,” expresses something associated with him.

Often genitive relationships can be expressed with “of” instead of an apostrophe or a pronoun that looks possessive. For instance, “the history of the family,” “the engine of the car,” “a night of sleep,” “three years of experience,” “a day of summer,” “the loss of him.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in its entry on “his” used in genitive constructions: “In some cases the objective genitive is expressed periphrastically by of him (e.g. ‘his defence, I mean your defence of him, was well conducted’).”

In its entry for the noun “loss,” the OED includes a sense that’s been around since the early 15th century: “The being deprived by death, separation, or estrangement, of (a friend, relative, servant, or the like).” The OED adds that in context, “loss” often means “the death (of a person regretted).”

So this sense of “loss” is used in two ways. The “loss” can be associated with either the survivors (“Frank’s widow still mourns her loss”) or the dead (“Frank’s widow still mourns his loss”). Both of those are genitive constructions, but here we’ll concern ourselves with the second kind, in which “his loss” means “the loss of him” (that is, “his death”).

Most of the OED’s examples for this use of “loss” are genitive constructions with “of.” This is the earliest: “For los of frendes or of any þynge [thing].” From Instructions to Parish Priests, by John Myrc (also known as John of Lilleshall), probably written before 1420.

And here’s a mid-17th-century “loss of” example: “Ther be many sad hearts for the losse of my Lord Robert Digby.” From James Howell’s Epistolæ Ho-elianæ, Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren (1645). Epistolæ Ho-elianæ is also a genitive construction and means “Letters of Howell” in Latin.

This OED example shows “loss” modified by the pronoun “whose”: “[Died] John Case Browne, esq. whose loss will be severely felt … by the whole neighbourhood.” From a death notice in the Monthly Magazine, London, June 1798.

Elsewhere in the dictionary there are other examples, from the 18th century onward, of “loss” modified by pronouns that look like possessives (“her loss,” “his loss,” “their loss”). But in these cases, the pronouns refer to the dead, and the constructions are genitive rather than strictly possessive:

“But Posterity will do Her Justice, and perhaps the present Age may live to regret Her Loss.” A reference to the late Queen Anne in “English Advice, to the Freeholders of England” (1714), a political tract by Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester.

“His Adventures gave Life and Subsistency to the Colony, and his Loss was their Ruin and Destruction.” A reference to the death of Capt. John Smith, from The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia (1747), by William Stith.

“Though motherless, though worse than fatherless, bereft from infancy of the two first and greatest blessings of life, never has she had cause to deplore their loss.” A reference to the orphaned heroine’s parents in Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).

We’ll end with an example from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852): “Let the bell be toll’d … / And the volleying cannon thunder his loss.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Three degrees of separation

Q: How does one refer to the first degree of an English adjective or adverb? If the second degree is comparative and the third is superlative, may the first degree be called descriptive?

A: The degrees of English adjectives and adverbs are (1) positive, (2) comparative, and (3) superlative. Here, “positive” doesn’t have its ordinary meaning (the opposite of negative). In the grammatical sense, “positive” means basic or primary.

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “positive” as a term in grammar: “Designating the primary degree of an adjective or adverb, which expresses simple quality without qualification; not comparative or superlative.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “positive” as a grammatical term is from a 15th-century treatise by an English schoolmaster:

“Þe [The] positif degre … be-tokenyth qualite or quantite with outyn makyng more or lesse & settyth þe grownd of alle oþere [other] degreis of Comparison.” (From a 1434 work cited in “John Drury and His English Writings,” by Sanford Brown Meech, published in the January 1934 issue of Speculum, a medieval studies journal.)

As you know, many adjectives and adverbs change degree by inflection—that is, with a change in form. In this case, suffixes are added: “-er” for the comparative and “-est” for the superlative.

For instance, “little” as an adjective of size has the usual degree forms: “little/littler/littlest.” Similarly, the adverb “hard” has the degree forms “hard/harder/hardest.”  Here they are in sentences:

“He’s little (positive adjective), but he works hard” (positive adverb) … “He’s littler, but he works harder” (comparatives) … “He’s the littlest, but he works the hardest” (superlatives).

However, not all adjectives and adverbs work this way. Many aren’t inflected, as we wrote on the blog in 2018. To change degree, adverbs (like “more” or “less”) are added to them.

An adjective like “popular,” for example, would become “more/less popular” (comparatives), “most/least popular” (superlatives). An adverb like “easily” would become “more/less easily” (comparatives), “most/least easily” (superlatives).

There are also irregular adjectives and adverbs, where the positive, or primary, degree changes completely in the comparative and superlative. The most familiar of the irregular adjectives are “good” and “bad.” The gradations in degree are “good/better/best” and “bad/worse/worst.”

And some common irregular adverbs are “much,” which has the degree forms “much/more/most,” and “little,” which as an adverb has the degree forms “little/less/least.” Here they are in sentences:

“They were much offended” (positive) … “They were more offended” (comparative) … “They were most offended” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify an adjective, “offended.”

“He cared little about money” (positive) …  “He cared less about money” (comparative) … “He cared least about money” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify a verb, “cared.”

And speaking of “much” and “little,” they can be not only adverbs but adjectives of quantity. In that case, the adjectives can have the same degree forms as the adverbs: “much/more/most” and “little/less/least.”

Examples: “He has much/little money” (positive) … “He has more/less money” (comparative) … “He has the least/most money” (superlative).

Similarly, the adverb “well,” like the adjective “good,” has “better” and “best” as its comparative and superlative: “Your solution works well, his works better, but mine works best.”

By the way, you’ll notice that superlatives are often preceded by “the,” as in “He’s better, but you’re the best.” In its entries for many superlative adjectives and adverbs, the OED says they’re “frequently” or “chiefly” or “usually” accompanied by “the.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Why ‘any other’ doesn’t mean ‘any’

Q: I become a little apoplectic (alright, my husband would say very apoplectic) whenever I hear or read “any other” illogically cropped to “any,” as in this passage from Timothy Snyder’s newsletter: “Russia has done more for the cause of nuclear proliferation than any country in the world.” Am I being needlessly pedantic?

A: No, we don’t think you’re being pedantic. That sentence from the Yale historian’s newsletter is dissonant to us too, though it doesn’t give us apoplexy.

The comparison is off-kilter because it contrasts an individual entity (“Russia”) with a group it belongs to (“any country in the world”). The two have to be exclusive for the comparison to make sense: “Russia” vs. “any other country in the world.”

Faulty comparisons like that one aren’t rare. And they don’t cause misunderstandings as long as we know—as we do with that example—what the writer intends. He doesn’t mean to imply that Russia isn’t a country.

However, not all comparisons using “any” instead of “any other” are as easy for a reader to interpret. Some can be ambiguous and leave us wondering. We’ll make up an example:

“She is better qualified than any European candidate.” If we don’t know anything about the person, we might assume she’s not European. But if she is European, this is a misleading comparison that should read, “She is better qualified than any other European candidate.”

What purpose does “other” serve here? It separates the individual from the group, allowing for a legitimate comparison.

Not many usage guides comment on this. An exception is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The editor, Jeremy Butterfield, says that comparisons using “any” can be marred by “a fine net of illogicality.”

He uses this example, then corrects it: “a better book than any written by this author (read any others).”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

The poop about a mass noun

Q: I came across your “waste paper” posting online, but it didn’t answer a question that’s been puzzling me. Which is correct, “bodily waste” or “bodily wastes”? I’m referring to the undigested food eliminated by human beings.

A: When “waste” refers to an unusable or unwanted byproduct, such as “bodily waste” or “industrial waste,” it’s usually a mass or uncountable noun, one that doesn’t typically have a plural form (like “air,” “knowledge,” “water,” etc.). However, the plural is sometimes used to make clear that different kinds of waste are intended.

We’ve seen written examples of both “bodily waste” and “bodily wastes,” but the “waste” version is much more common in comparisons done with Googles’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books, and the News on the Web corpus, a database from online newspapers and magazines.

“Waste” is also a mass noun when it refers to the unnecessary use of resources, as in a “waste” of time, money, electricity, and so on. And “wastes” is a mass noun in plural form when it refers to a large, barren area, such as the “the icy wastes of Antarctica” or “the arid wastes of the Sahara.”

Interestingly, the noun “waste” had that barren sense when it first appeared 800 years ago. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the “etymological notions underlying waste are ‘emptiness’ and ‘desolation.’ ” Ayto says the source of the English word is the classical Latin vastus (empty),  which has also given English “vast” and “devastate.”

When the noun entered Middle English around 1200, it meant an “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from the Trinity Homilies at the University of Cambridge:

“Ac seðen hie henen wenden, atlai þai lond unwend and bicam waste, and was roted oueral and swo bicam wildernesse” (“But it’s true that after they [the old tillers] left, the land lay idle and untilled and became a waste, and took root all over and so became a wilderness”). The citation is from a homily on the Assumption of Mary that compares the sinful world to a field not tilled.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, notes that an even older, now obsolete adjective had a similar meaning in Old English: “Of a place: uninhabited and uncultivated; wild, desolate, waste.” The Anglo-Saxon term (woeste, woste, wæste, etc.) comes from prehistoric Germanic, but it’s ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root as vastus, the Latin source of “waste.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the Anglo-Saxon adjective is from Psalm 69:25 in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript written in Latin as well as Old English:

Fiat habitatio eorum deserta, et in tabernaculis eorum non sit qui inhabitet. Sie eardung heara woestu & in geteldum heara ne sie se ineardie” (“Let their dwelling place be desolate [deserta in Latin and woestu in Old English], and let no one dwell in their tents”).

Getting back to the noun “waste,” its sense of a “useless expenditure or consumption, squandering (of money, goods, time, effort, etc.)” appeared in late 13th-century Middle English. The dictionary’s first citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297), an account of early Britain: “Wiþ so gret prute & wast & so richeliche” (“With such great pride and waste and so richly”).

The sense of “waste” as trash, including an unusable or unwanted byproduct, was recorded in the early 15th century. The earliest OED example is from Libeaus Desconus (1430), a Middle English version of a romance about Gingalain, son of King Arthur’s knight Gawain:

“For gore, and fen, and full wast, That was out ykast” (“For all the filth and dung and waste that was cast out”). The Middle English wast here means trash, while both gore and fen could mean either filth or dung.

Interestingly, the OED entry for the noun “waste,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1923, doesn’t include an example in which the unwanted byproduct sense refers to the undigested food eliminated by the human body.

As far as we can tell from a search of digitized newspapers and books, the excretion sense of “waste” first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an example that we found in a medical textbook:

“There is a direct sympathy between the stomach and the rest of the body, by means of which the stimulus of hunger becomes unusually urgent where the bodily waste has been great, although a comparatively short time has elapsed since the preceding meal” (from The Physiology of Digestion, 1836, by the Scottish physician Andrew Combe).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

‘On the TV’ vs. ‘on TV’

Q: “We watched the game on the TV” sounds non-standard, while “We listened to the game on the radio” sounds perfectly fine. Why does “the” seem wrong when applied to TV, but OK when applied to radio?

A: The use of the definite article in fixed expressions like those is arbitrary and idiomatic. For example, you can listen “to the radio” or “on the radio,” but you communicate “by radio” and work “in radio.”

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “A number of fixed expressions require the definite article. In such cases, it is largely arbitrary that the definite article is required rather than a bare noun (and often both are possible).”

Huddleston and Pullum note the use of “the definite article in expressions concerned with devices and institutions for the transfer of information, even though it is the activity or action that is relevant rather than the device used on a particular occasion.”

They cite “listened to the radio” and “spoke to her on the telephone,” where the definite article is necessary, but note that “the article is optional” in “watch something on (the) television” and not used in “watch (some) television.”

Searches with the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspapers and magazines on the Internet, indicate that “on television” (91,933 hits) is much more popular than “on the television” (9,635). Nevertheless, dictionaries consider both versions standard English.

The wording of  Merriam-Webster’s entry for the usage, “on (the) television,” indicates that the article is optional.

M-W defines the expression as “broadcast by television” or “being shown by television or in a television program.”

The dictionary includes these examples: “What is on the television tonight?” and “There’s nothing (I want to watch) on television right now.”

The authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk et al., say the definite article is used in expressions like “the newsthe radiothe televisionthe paper(s)the press, etc., referring to aspects of mass communication.” But they add that “with television or TV, there is also the possibility that the article will be omitted.”

Quirk includes these among his examples: “Did you hear the ten o’clock news?” …  “What’s on the radio this evening?” … “What’s on (the) TV this evening?”

As we said at the beginning, the use of “the” in such expressions is idiomatic and arbitrary. Like you, we find “on TV” more natural than “on the TV,” but both versions are standard.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

What’s ‘done’ doing here?

Q: In some Southern dialects, one hears the perfect tense expressed with “done” in place of the auxiliary “have.” Example: “We done ate” instead of “We have eaten.” And “done been” forms an emphatic remote perfect tense. Example: “We done been ate.” I have always assumed this is Gullah influence, but perhaps you can give further insight.

A: The word “done” has many roles in American regional English, especially in the South and South Midland, and among the Gullah of the coastal Southeast. However, lexicographers use different terms than yours to describe this regional usage.

The word “done” functions as an adverb, an auxiliary, or the infinitive “do” in expressions like the ones you’ve cited, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

However, the adverbial use is “not always clearly distinguishable” from the auxiliary usage, the dictionary explains.

DARE says “done” is being used adverbially “to emphasize the attainment of a state or completion of action” in this passage:

“Then she begun to sing again, working at the washtub, with that singing look in her face like she had done give up folks and all their foolishness and had done went on ahead of them, marching up the sky, singing.” From William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

The dictionary says “done” is acting as the auxiliary “have” in this citation: “You just done made up your mind that you ain’t going to be no good to me.” From Richard Wright’s novel Lawd Today! (completed in 1935 and published posthumously in 1963).

And here’s a DARE example, which we’ve expanded, for “done” used in place of the bare (or “to”-less) infinitive “do” in Gullah, a creole language found among African-Americans of the Lowcountry of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas:

“I come mighty nigh marryin him mysef one time. E use to beg me so, but I’m glad now I didn’ done it.” From the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), by Julia Peterkin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete use of “done” as an auxiliary in Scottish English. The OED says the auxiliary “done” here is used periphrastically (by a combination of words) to add tense to a bare infinitive that would otherwise need to be inflected.

In this example, the OED says “done” is “a periphrastic auxiliary” that turns the bare infinitive “discuss” into a past participle: “As I afore, haue done discus” (“As I before have discussed”). From Tract Concernyng the Office and Dewtie of Kyngis, Spiritvall Pastoris, and Temporall Ivgis [Judges] (1556), by William Lauder.

And in this example, “done” turns the bare infinitive “invent” into a past participle: “And many other false abusion / The Paip hes done invent” (“And many another false abuse / The Pope has invented”). From a 1578 poem collected in John Graham Dalyell’s Scotish Poems of the 16th Century (1801).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘only’ is apt to be dismal

Q: Recent weather stories have referred to catastrophic floods that “will only become more common” and heat waves “expected to only intensify in the years ahead.” What is “only” doing in those sentences?

A: Here “only” is an adverb meaning “inevitably,” and it’s often used in forecasting something bad. Those two examples are dismal forecasts, contrary to what one would wish, and at the same time seen as certainties.

Standard dictionaries define this use of the adverb in varying ways, but all imply both the certainty of the result and its contrary or negative nature.  In fact, some split their definitions of “only” to separate the two notions.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says “only” here can have these meanings: “a. in the last analysis or final outcome; inevitably,” as in “actions that will only make things worse”; and “b. with the negative or unfortunate result,” as in “received a raise only to be laid off.”

And Merriam-Webster has these meanings: (1) “in the final outcome,” as in “will only make you sick”; or (2) “with nevertheless the final result,” as in “won the battles, only to lose the wars.”

The adverb is often used with verbs that are either modals (like “will,” “would,” “can, “could,” etc.) or are in the infinitive. Your examples illustrate each usage: “will only become more common” and “expected to only intensify.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical usage, discusses these adverbial uses of “only” among those that emphasize “the contrary nature of a consequence.”

In one such use, Oxford says, the adverb is “frequently” used with a modal verb or infinitive to mean “inevitably although contrary to intention or desire.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 17th-century sermon and shows “only” followed by an infinitive: “serving only to make a servant more disposed & more able too, as well for the plotting as the acting of villany” (from a collection, King Davids Vow for Reformation, by the Anglican clergyman George Hakewill, 1621).

And the OED’s next citation, from later in the century, has “only” plus a modal verb: “This unlimited power of doing anything with impunity, will only beget a confidence in kings of doing what they list” (from Justice Vindicated, by Roger Coke, 1660). Here the archaic verb “list” means wish, desire, or choose.

The dictionary’s most recent example, from a show-biz memoir, is in a description of Robert Redford: “He is very into incognito so he sports lots of scarves and mufflers and hats and shades, which only make him look more Redfordish” (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, 1991, by Julia Phillips). In that sentence, “look” is an infinitive.

The other use of “only” that emphasizes “the contrary nature of a consequence” also originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

In this case, the adverb is “followed by a dependent infinitive clause” and means “with no other consequence or result than.” And that consequence is sometimes unexpected, surprising, or ironic.

This is the OED’s earliest citation: “He recouerd [recovered] … only to be made more miserable” (from The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, a prose romance by Lady Mary Wroth, 1621).

We still use the adverb in that same way. This is the OED’s most recent example: “Cursing Rachel and Jeff for having stolen me away from the detention centre … only to bring me to this dungeon” (from By the Sea, a novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2001).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Categorically speaking: in, into, by

Q: Are these sentences correct? (1) “My articles are organized into categories.” (2) “My articles are organized by category.” I’m sure the first is. I think the second is too, but I don’t know why “category” is singular, since I assume there are multiple categories.

A: We’d use “in” for your first example. We think it’s more idiomatic in a passive construction, though not necessarily more correct: “My articles are organized in categories.”

But we’d prefer “into” with an active construction: “I organized my articles into categories.” Why? Perhaps because “into” expresses movement or action, and has since Anglo-Saxon times.

As for your second example (“My articles are organized by category”), we’d leave it as is. Why “category” when there are likely multiple categories?

When the preposition “by” is used in the sense of traveling, paying, communicating, organizing, and so on, it’s generally followed by a mass (or non-count) noun, one that’s always singular in form and doesn’t have an indefinite article or a number as a modifier.

Here are a few examples: “Did you get there by train?” … “She paid by check” … “I’ll send them by email” … “He lined up the class by size.”

Of course nouns like those (“train,” “email,” “check,” and “size”) can be used in other situations as count nouns—nouns that can be singular or plural: “I sent you an email explaining that the two checks were in the mail.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Punctuation Usage Writing

An ‘or’ … or more?

Q: I find the use of “or” confusing before the last item in a complicated list. For instance, “when shareholders have different consumption preferences, information, tax bases, or investment horizons.” Readers expect “and,” but have to stop and rethink the passage when they get to “or.” Why not put another “or” earlier in the series to help them?

A: We don’t find that passage confusing, but if we did we wouldn’t add an “or” to the series. An extra “or” would make the writing bumpy and might in fact confuse readers.

If you feel that series or another is hard to read, it would be better to add “or” before each item and delete the commas: “when shareholders have different consumption preferences or information or tax bases or investment horizons.”

If a writer (or speaker) believes that clarity requires repetition of the conjunction before each item in a series, then it should be repeated. The writer’s ear should indicate whether that would be helpful.

But otherwise the repetition isn’t required. Commas can be used instead. The only requirement is that a conjunction (“and” or “or”) be used before the final item.

Finally, as we’ve written many times on the blog, we believe a final comma before the conjunction is helpful.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Let’s be negative

Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?

A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.

Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).

Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”

So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”

The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).

The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).

The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).

The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).

We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a  Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

It’s ‘along’ story

Q: In David Copperfield, Mrs. Gummidge uses an odd construction to blame herself for Daniel Peggotty’s readiness to visit the pub: “I am sorry it should be along of me that you’re so ready.” She’s apparently using “along of” to mean “because of,” a usage I’m unaware of. What’s going on?

A: English has had two different “along” words. The usual one today is a preposition or adverb with various lengthwise and accompanying senses. The other is an archaic adjective that survives in regional dialects and is the source of the usage in the 1850 novel by Charles Dickens.

Both words are very old, dating back to early Old English, but they’re not etymologically related, and weren’t originally spelled alike.

The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of the more common “along” was andlang, a preposition, adjective, or adverb with many of the term’s modern senses, including alongside, next to, over the length of, and parallel to.

The ancestor of the archaic or dialectal “along” was gelong, an adjective meaning belonging to, depending on, or as a result of (the usage in David Copperfield).

Originally andlang, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, referred to “extending a long way in the opposite direction.” It was “a compound formed from and-  ‘against, facing’ (whose original source was Greek anti-  ‘against’) and lang  ‘long.’ ”

“The meaning gradually changed,” Ayto writes, “via simply ‘extending a long way,’ through ‘continuous’ and ‘the whole length of something’ to ‘lengthwise.’ ”

At the same time, he says, “the and- prefix was gradually losing its identity: by the 10th century the forms anlong and onlong were becoming established, and the 14th century saw the beginnings of modern English along.”

As for the other word “along,” now archaic and dialectal, Ayto says its Old English ancestor, gelong, was formed from “the prefix ge-, suggesting suitability, and long, of which the notions of ‘pertaining’ and ‘appropriateness’ are preserved in modern English belong.”

In Middle English, the term was spelled ilongylongallang, and alonge. The “along” spelling showed up in the 1600s, perhaps influenced by the spelling of today’s more common “along.”

In later use, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the less common “along” was “usually perceived as a special use of” the more common one.

Here are OED citations for early Old English appearances of andlang and gelong (we won’t include examples for all the senses of the two Old English words):

“Her for se here up þurh þa brycge æt Paris & þa up andlang Sigene oþ Mæterne oþ Cariei” (“A.D. 887. This year the army went up through the bridge at Paris and then up along the Seine to the Marne and then to Chézy”). From an entry for the year 887 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, Parker Library, Cambridge.

“Þæt wæs swiþost on ðæm gelong þæt Hasterbal swa late fleah for þon þe he elpendas mid him hæfde” (“That was mostly the result of the failure of Hasdrubal [brother of Hannibal] to flee with his elephants”). The Old English Orosius, an early Old English translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), circa 400, by Paulus Orosius.

Getting back to your question, the now dialectal “along” (from gelong) has lost most of its original senses in modern English. As the OED explains, it appears “only in weakened use as a compound preposition, with of (also occasionally onwith, etc.)” and means “because of, on account of, owing to.”

The dictionary’s earliest “along of” citation is from an anti-Roman Catholic broadside, or flyer: “What a damn’d Journey have you made me take, Allong of you, and Mother-Churches sake, Been tost [tossed] at Sea.” (“The Catholick Gamesters or A Dubble Match of Bowleing,” 1680, by the printmaker and polemicist Stephen College.)

And this is Oxford’s earliest example with the modern spelling: “ ’Tis all along of you that I am thus haunted” (from The Fool of Quality; or, The History of Henry, Earl of Moreland, 1766, a novel by the Irish writer Henry Brooke).

Finally, here’s the most recent OED citation: “It was along of the din you were making that I came to see if he was hurting you” (from Missy, a 2008 novel by the Scottish author Chris Hannan).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Plead, pleaded, and pled

Q: You had a recent post about the use of “lead” for “led.” What about the use of “plead” for “pled”? I see that in print every once in a while.

A: The usual past tense and past participle for the verb “plead” is “pleaded.” That’s the only standard form in British English and the most popular one in American English.

All ten of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) recognize “pleaded” as a past tense and past participle. All the American dictionaries also recognize “pled,” and three of them include “plead” (pronounced as “pled”).

However, some usage writers have complained since the mid-19th century about the use of “pled” and “plead” for the past and past participle of the verb “plead.”

In Vulgarisms & Other Errors of Speech (1869), Richard Meade Bache writes: “Plead, mispronounced pled, is frequently used for pleaded; as, ‘He plead (pled) guilty to the indictment.’ The sentence should be, ‘He pleaded guilty to the indictment.’ ” He gives “pleaded” as the only past and past participle.

In Dictionary of Errors (1905), Sherwin Cody offers this advice: “Say, ‘He pleaded guilty’ (not ‘pled’ or ‘plead’).” And in A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1906), Frank H. Vizetelly writes, “The spelling of pled for the past is not warranted, and is a colloquialism. Careful speakers use pleaded.”

As for now, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the US.” It adds that “pled” is “fully respectable” in American English “in spite of occasional backward-looking by a commentator or two.”

The online Merriam-Webster standard dictionary says in a usage note that “pleaded” is the more popular usage today, both inside and outside the courtroom:

“In legal use (such as ‘pleaded guilty,’ ‘pled guilty’), both forms are standard, though pleaded is used with greater frequency. In nonlegal use (such as ‘pleaded for help’), pleaded appears more commonly, though pled is also considered standard.”

As we’ve said, three US dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Webster’s New World) include “plead” as a variant past and past participle. Nevertheless, we’d avoid it, since the usage is unusual and could be confusing.

When the verb “plead” appeared in Middle English (borrowed from Anglo-Norman), it was spelled various ways, including plaide, plaidi, and pledde. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Þeȝ we ne bo at one acorde, / we m[a]ȝe bet mid fayre worde, / witute cheste, & bute fiȝte, / plaidi mid foȝe & mid riȝte” (“though we two are not in accord, we can plead better with fair word, without strife & fight, with togetherness & right”).

The past and past participle were also spelled in different ways in Middle English, including pladd, pladde, and pleyd. The “pled,” “pleaded,” and “plead” spellings appeared in early Modern English (the first two in the 1500s and the third in the 1600s).

Here are the earliest OED citations for the three spelling that are seen today:

“The canon law … which is dailie pleaded” (from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative history of England, Scotland, and Ireland).

“And with him to make part against her, came Many graue persons, that against her pled” (The Faerie Queene, 1596, by Edmund Spenser). We’ve expanded the citation.

“St. Augustine plead it in bar to Celer’s action of unkindnesse against him for not writing sooner” (The Alliance of Divine Offices, 1659, by Hamon L’Estrange). The passage is from a section comparing practices of the Church of England to those of the early Christian church.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘graffiti’ a verb?

Q: Is it becoming acceptable to use “graffiti” as a verb? I recently encountered a sign that read “Do Not Litter / Do Not Loiter / Do Not Graffiti.”

A: Yes, “graffiti” is a verb. Five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (Cambridge, Collins, Lexico, Merriam-Webster, and Merriam-Webster Unabridged) recognize “graffiti” as both a verb and a noun.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines the noun as “usually unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface” and the verb as “to draw graffiti on” or “to deface with graffiti.”

The verb showed up in print a few decades ago, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s definition of the verb is “to cover (a surface) with graffiti, apply graffiti to; also, to write as graffiti.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a newspaper in southeastern England: “The material has a wood bark finish which is very difficult to graffiti” (South Oxfordshire Chronicle, Nov. 20, 1987).

As for the noun, English borrowed it in the 19th century from Italian, where graffiti is the plural of graffito (a little scratch). In English, “graffiti,” plural of “graffito,” originally referred to drawing or writing that was scratched on ancient walls or other surfaces.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the plural and refers to marks at the site of a Neolithic tomb on Mainland, the main island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago:

“The slight scratching of many of the Maeshowe Runes, and the consequent irregularity and want of precision in the forms, and also, no doubt, in the orthography and grammar, of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti” (Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, 1863, by Daniel Wilson).

In the mid-20th century, according to the OED, “graffiti” first appeared in print as a singular mass noun—like “writing,” “art,” or “vandalism”—for “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 27, 1961, issue of The New York Times: “The slogans were scratched out … in the never-ending battle between those who write and those who remove graffiti.”

Here’s an early example we’ve found that’s more obviously singular: “the graffiti is passable—‘Norman Norell Is A Yenta’ ” (New York magazine, Sept. 1, 1969).

Most of the standard dictionaries we use say the noun “graffiti” can now be either singular or plural, but it’s usually a singular mass noun. The dictionaries say the singular “graffito” is usually limited to archeological or other technical writing.

The OED and many standard dictionaries also include “graffitied” as an adjective meaning covered with graffiti, and “graffitist” as a noun for someone who writes or draws graffiti. The first Oxford citation for the adjective, which we’ve expanded, refers to a school in Buffalo, NY:

“I came across a graffitied bulletin board in a guidance office that was a combination of ribbing and signifying. Under the graffiti ‘Hoes of Buffalo sign here’ were five names.” (From Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens: The Unrecognized Dilemma of Inner City Schools, 1974, by Herbert L. Foster.)

The earliest OED example for “graffitist” is from the New Statesman (Dec. 2, 1966): “His gift is to bring out the scholiast—or the graffitist—in the reader.” A scholiast was an early commentator who made marginal annotations in ancient literature.

The next example refers to an artist inspired by graffiti: “For Pop Master and one-time graffitist Claes Oldenburg, the blossoming graffiti are like a dream come true” (New York magazine, March 26, 1973).

We’ll end with an Oxford example of “graffiti” used as a singular mass noun in Ed McBain’s 1977 mystery Long Time No See: “The graffiti was oversprayed—Spider 19 giving way to Dagger 21, in turn giving way to Salazar IV, so that nobody’s name meant a rat’s ass any more.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Summoned’ or ‘summonsed’?

Q: I’m curious about the police use of “summonsed.” Is this an example of a verb made out of a noun? Should it not be “summoned”? Or “issued a summons”?

A: The use of “summons” as a verb is not unusual or new. Since the 1600s it’s been a term used in law for ordering an appearance. (Etymologically, as we’ll explain later, the verb means to warn or advise.)

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue writ of summons against; to serve with a summons.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a witch trial held in Essex County Court at Salem, Mass., on June 28, 1659:

“John Godfrey … shall be legally summonsed thereunto” (cited in Salem Witchcraft , 1867, by Charles W. Upham). Godfrey was charged with being a witch, but later won defamation suits against his accusers.

The dictionary has examples of the verb from every century since the 1600s onward. Here’s one from each century.

“A woman had but to summons her seducer before the judges” (1780, in the English clergyman Martin Madan’s Thelyphthora, a treatise advocating polygamy).

“Say another word, and I’ll summons you” (1839, in Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby).

“The snakey bastard, chasing you off like that. He ought to get summonsed” (1958, in Alan Sillitoe’s novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner).

“Occasionally they summonsed people for not having lights on their bicycles at night” (2005, in the Irish writer John McGahern’s Memoir, published in North America in 2006 as All Will Be Well).

The verb “summons,” as the OED says, was derived from the earlier noun “summons,” which originally meant an official order to appear or assemble before some authority. The noun had been borrowed into English around 1300 from French (somonse).

The more familiar meaning of a “summons” today, “an official writ that orders a person to appear in a court of law,” began appearing in the later 1300s, according to Oxford.

Both the noun and the verb “summons” were preceded by the simpler verb “summon,” which came into English from French in the 1200s. Its ultimate source is Latin, summonere (or submonere), derived from monere (to warn or advise).

In classical Latin, summonere meant “to advise privately,” the OED says, but in post-classical times it took on more official meanings, including to command an appearance in court or at an assembly.

At first, the English verb “summon” also had an official flavor, as in some kind of warning to appear. Its earliest meaning, according to Oxford, was “to call authoritatively for (an official group, parliament, council, etc.) to gather or assemble.”

And very early on, around 1300, to “summon” had the same meaning as the later “summons.” It was defined, the OED says, as “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue a writ of summons against.”

But less legalistic uses of “summon” also began to emerge: to call for someone or something to come, as in to “summon” help (c. 1300); to muster or rouse, as in to “summon” one’s courage (1581); to conjure, as in to “summon” a ghost or spirit (1619); to evoke or call into existence, as in to “summon” an image (1679).

It may be that those broader and less official senses of “summon” created some ambiguity or confusion with its legal meanings. If so, that ambiguity could have influenced the development of the narrower and more specific verb “summons” in the 1600s. At any rate, “summons” now has a distinct meaning in common usage, and we’d rather be “summoned” than “summonsed” any day!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Lie and lay: the flip side

Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.

Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.

You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”

We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.

All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.

In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).

The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”

And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)

The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)

In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:

“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).

“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).

“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).

“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).

Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840,  by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).

The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).

Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:

“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).

“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Ask, and it shall be given

Q: I wish you’d talk about the current trend to say “ask forgiveness” instead of “ask for forgiveness.” Is the shorter version acceptable these days?

A: Yes, it’s acceptable and it has been for hundreds of years. Phrases like “ask forgiveness” and “ask mercy” and “ask leave” (with no intervening preposition) have been around since at least the 1300s.

Here’s an early “mercy” example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Thai ask mercy, bot nocht at ȝow” (“They ask mercy but not of thou”). From The Bruce, 1375, a narrative poem by the Scottish writer John Barbour.

And here’s an early “forgiveness” citation in the OED: “A man schuld all anely ask him forgifnes wham he trespast to.” From Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which the British Library dates at the last quarter of the 14th or first quarter of the 15th century.

The preposition is often unnecessary, especially when “ask” is used in the sense of “request” or “seek.”

Examples: “I’m asking permission” … “Ask him the time” … “He asked the child’s name” … “Let’s ask the price” … “Did you ask the way?” … “Don’t ask the reason” … “I didn’t ask why” … “Never ask her age” … “Can I ask the score?” and many others.

Sometimes the use of a preposition (like “for” or “about”) between “ask” and the object is optional and the choice is up to you. In some cases, though a preposition is always used, as in “We asked after his mother’s health” and “When you arrive, ask for the manager” and “Don’t ask about that.”

Most of this stuff is idiomatic, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. But as the OED says, the use of a preposition here is “more usual when the thing requested is concrete” rather than abstract.

So one would “ask for” a loan or a refrigerator. But one could either “ask” or “ask for” forgiveness; both usages were common in a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Congregate or congregant care?

Q: Is health-care housing where lots of people live in close proximity “congregant” or “congregate” living? I see both terms used interchangeably, even within the same publication.

A: “Congregate” is overwhelmingly more popular than “congregant” as an adjective to describe group services or facilities for people, especially the elderly, who need supportive care. And it’s the only one of the two usages included in the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

American Heritage, for example, defines “congregate” as a verb meaning “to bring or come together in a group,” and as an adjective meaning “involving a group: congregate living facilities for senior citizens.” It defines “congregant” solely as a noun for “one who congregates, especially a member of a group of people gathered for religious worship.”

Collins,, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World have similar definitions. Lexico has similar definitions in its American English version but doesn’t include “congregate” as an adjective in its British version. Cambridge, Longman, and Macmillan don’t have either the noun “congregant” or the adjective “congregate.”

In the News on the Web corpus, a database from articles in newspapers and magazines on the Internet, the “congregate” usage is significantly more popular than the one with “congregant.”

Here are the results of some recent searches: “congregate living,” 820 examples; “congregant living,” 35; “congregate care,” 579; “congregant care,” 18; “congregate housing,” 95; “congregant housing,” 0.

In searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, “congregant living” barely registered, while “congregant care” and “congregant housing” didn’t show up at all.

As for the etymology, both “congregate” and “congregant” are derived from congregare, classical Latin for to collect together into a flock or company, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Congregate,” the oldest of the two English words, showed up around 1400 as a verb meaning to collect or gather things together. In the 1500s, it took on the modern sense of to gather together into a group of people.

The adjective, which is derived from congregatus, past participle of congregare, appeared soon after the verb in this OED citation: “These men somme tyme congregate schalle goe furthe” (from an early 15th-century translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century Latin work of history and theology).

The latecomer, “congregant,” is derived from congregantem, present participle of congregare. It showed up in the late 19th century as a noun that Oxford defines as “one of those who congregate anywhere; a member of a congregation; esp. a member of a Jewish congregation.”

We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first example: “The Bevis Marks synagogue, the only building of genuine historical interest in England which the Jews can boast, is at the present moment threatened with destruction at the hands of a portion of its own governing body, to the dismay of the majority of its congregants and of the community in general” (The Pall Mall Gazette, London, March 24, 1886).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “congregant” used as an adjective. As far as we can tell from a cursory search, the usage showed up in the 20th century, perhaps originally as an eggcorn, a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

Here’s an example from a few decades ago: “Joan is a young woman who does considerable work with older people and serves on the board of a congregant housing facility for the elderly” (from Ministry of the Laity, 1986, by James Desmond Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

When maitre d’s are possessive

Q: I have an arcane punctuation question for you. Would the singular possessive of maître d’  be maître d’s or maître d’’s? And if there are several maître d’s, would the plural possessive be maître d’s’ or maybe maîtres d’s?

A: We’ll begin with the usual singular and plural forms of the contracted noun and its fuller version (in contemporary English the circumflexes are optional and italics aren’t used).

  • Singular: “maitre d’ ” … “maitre d’hotel”
  • Plural: “maitre d’s” … “maitres d’hotel”

Those are the recommended singulars and plurals given in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

In the plural of the contracted form, “s” is simply added to the end of the singular. In the plural of the longer form, the noun “maitre,” not the adjectival “d’hotel,” gets the plural inflection (“s”), which is the usual rule for forming the plurals of English compounds. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 7.7) illustrates with the examples “fathers-in-law,” “chefs d’oeuvre,” “coups d’etat,” and “masters of arts.”

Dictionaries do not provide the possessive forms of nouns. Here are the possessive forms we recommend for the singular nouns, and the reasons why:

  • Singular possessive: “maitre d’s” … “maitre d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, there’s no double apostrophe (’’); a single apostrophe serves both to contract the term and to form its possessive. This is consistent with the usual rule for not using two identical punctuation marks together; one can do double duty if needed, as when an abbreviation like “etc.” falls at the end of a sentence.

In the longer noun, the final element gets the possessive inflection (apostrophe + “s”), which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds. The Chicago Manual (section 7.24), gives the example “my daughter-in-law’s address.”

Finally, these are the possessive forms we recommend for the plurals, and our reasons why:

  • Plural possessive: “maitre d’s” …  “maitres d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, we see no reason to add another apostrophe to the plural (“maitre d’s”) and create a monster (“maitre d’s’ ”). We adhere to that well-known edict of copy editors everywhere: Don’t follow a rule if it leads you off a cliff. We advise letting the first apostrophe + “s” do double duty, as both the plural and the possessive inflection. Another choice is to use “of” with the plural, making it attributive rather than possessive—as in “He designs the uniforms of maitre d’s” (rather than “He designs maitre d’s uniforms”). Here’s the Chicago Manual again: “If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive” (7.20).

In the longer noun, the final element of the compound gets the possessive inflection, which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds whether they’re singular or plural. Again we’ll cite the Chicago Manual (section 7.24): “In compound nouns and compound phrases, the final element takes the possessive form, even in the plural.” Its examples include “parents-in-law’s message” (section 5.20) and “my sons-in-laws’ addresses” (7.24).

One more point about punctuation before we move on. When the singular “maitre d’ ” comes at the end of a sentence or clause, the period or other mark goes outside the apostrophe: “The restaurant has a new maître d’.” The apostrophe is considered part of the word, and no other mark should come between them (Chicago Manual, 6.118).

Why all this effort to answer a few simple punctuation questions? Well, “maitre d’ ” is an abnormality in English, a noun ending in an apostrophe. Naturally, that apostrophe makes the plural and the possessive abnormal too. Now let’s move on to some etymology.

The word “maitre d’ ” was formed in the US in the early 20th century as a contracted version of “maitre d’hotel,” which had come into English in the 16th century. We’ll begin with the original.

In French, maître d’hôtel dates back to the 13th century and literally means “master of the house.” It originally was used for the major-domo, overseer, or head steward at a mansion or townhouse, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This was a time when the noun hôtel meant a large private home or a nobleman’s residence.)

When this term was borrowed into English in the 16th century, it meant what it did in French, the OED says: “a major-domo, a steward, a butler.” Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for its use in written English:

“Tannagel, the maistre d’hostell with vij [seven] persons.” From a letter written in 1540 and cited in Original Letters, Illustrative of English History: 3rd Series (1846), edited by Sir Henry Ellis, then head librarian at the British Museum.

This sense of “maitre d’hotel,” as a butler or chief servant in an affluent home, persisted even into the 20th century. Here’s an OED citation from Rebecca West’s novel The Thinking Reed (1936): “She [a woman of great wealth] had sent both the chef and the maître d’hôtel off on a holiday.”

The more familiar, commercial senses of “maitre d’hotel”—defined in the OED as “a hotel manager” but now usually “the manager of a hotel dining room” or a headwaiter—emerged in both French and in English. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from the 19th century:

“A venerable maître d’hôtel in black cutting up neatly the dishes on a trencher at the side-table, and several waiters attending.” From William Makepeace Thackeray’s article “Memorials of Gormandising,” published in the June 1841 issue of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. (We’ve expanded the passage, in which Thackeray describes a sumptuous dinner for 10, priced at 15 pence a head.)

The contracted “maitre d’,” which is used only for a headwaiter or the head of a dining room, was formed in the US in the early 20th century but soon spread to Britain. The apostrophe is a sign of contraction showing that part of the original was omitted.

(As the OED notes, a contraction also appeared in French in 1975, maître d’hô. There, the first apostrophe shows the contraction of de, and no second apostrophe is added to show the omission of tel.)

The earliest examples of “maitre d’ ” that we’ve found in our searches of old newspaper databases are from the 1930s.

Here’s the oldest: “The sophomores, in signing the Winton for the Case Mid-year Hop, had to do some tall talking because the maitre d’ there remembered the famous all-Case bun-throwing banquet last spring and wanted a breakage deposit.” From the Campus Gossip column in a student newspaper, Case Tech, Cleveland, Jan. 22, 1930.

And here’s a second example from the ’30s, found in an ad announcing a California restaurant opening: “The Maitre d’ Greets You.” From the Coronado Citizen, Nov. 3, 1938.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1940s, in an article about a Hollywood restaurant: “Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business” (Oakland Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942).

And this British citation from the OED shows the plural form that’s still recommended today: “Maître d’s give her their best tables” (Sunday Express Magazine, Jan. 18, 1987).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Prior analytics

Q: Has the use of “prior” as an adverb gained acceptance? I am seeing it more and more, as in this example from a book on chess: “Why did I play in the Los Angeles Open a month later? I’d said I would, a year prior.”

A: That use of “prior” by itself as an adverb is not recognized in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The dictionaries consider “prior” an adverbial usage only as part of the preposition “prior to,” as in “He made the will prior to his marriage.” In that sentence, “prior to” introduces a prepositional phrase (“prior to his marriage”) that modifies the verb “made.”

As we wrote on our blog in 2007, “prior to” is a preposition that can function as either an adjective or an adverb. We used these examples: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” or “before” could be substituted for “prior to.”

So the adverbial use you mention, “I’d said I would, a year prior,” would be more acceptable in this form: “I’d said I would, a year prior to that.”

We’ll have more about “prior to” a bit later. As for “prior,” it’s sometimes used as a noun—meaning a religious official or as short for “prior conviction” or “prior arrest.” But in the sense you’re asking about, it’s defined in standard dictionaries as an adjective (not an adverb).

A usage note in American Heritage has this to say about the use of “prior” as an adjective:

“Though prior usually modifies a noun that comes after it, as in prior approval, it sometimes modifies a noun for a unit of time which precedes it, as in five years prior. These constructions are marginally acceptable when the combination serves as the object of a preposition, as in A gallon of gasoline was $4.29, up 10 cents from the week prior. In our 2014 survey, 51 percent of the Panelists accepted the sentence, with many commenting that they would prefer from the prior week or from the week before.”

The usage note goes on to add this about “prior” as an adverb: “The construction is even less acceptable when it acts as an adverbial modifier: only 29 percent of the Panel approved My cellphone was stolen. I had just bought it two days prior.

Getting back to “prior to,” American Heritage and Merriam-Webster define the phrase as a preposition synonymous with “before.” M-W says this in a note:  “Sometimes termed pompous or affected, prior to is a synonym of before that most often appears in rather formal contexts, such as the annual reports of corporations.” (Longman’s labels the “prior to” usage “formal.”)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language includes “prior” in a class of words that are prepositions when their complements are preceded by “to,” as in “prior to this.” Other such prepositions, according to the Cambridge Grammar, include “according,” “subsequent,” “pursuant,” “preparatory,” “next,” “previous,” “owing,” “contrary,” and several more. “For the most part,” the book says, “the to phrase complement is obligatory when these items are prepositions.”

As for its etymology, “prior” was adopted in the early 17th century from the classical Latin prior. To the Romans, the OED says, prior meant “in front, previous, former, earlier, elder, superior, more important.”

In English, Oxford says, “prior” was first used as an adjective, meaning “that precedes in time or order; earlier, former, anterior, antecedent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from 1607: “Learned Magitian, skild in hidden Artes, / As well in prior as posterior parts” (The Diuils [Devil’s] Charter, a play by Barnabe Barnes).

In examples like that, the adjective “prior” is attributive—that is, it appears before the noun. But it can also be predicative (appearing after the noun) and in those cases it’s chiefly used “with to,” Oxford says.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest such use: “I & my predicessouris [predecessors] be indouttitlie [undoubtedly] prior to thame in richt & place of dignitie” (The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1641).

The adverbial use of “prior to” appeared later in the same century and means “previously to, before, in advance of,” Oxford says. This is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“It was clear, that there was a former Trade, and correspondence betwixt them, prior to the Sons Infeftment.” (From Observations, 1675, Sir George Mackenzie’s commentaries on various Scottish parliamentary acts. “Infeftment” is a term in Scots law, similar to “enfeoffment” in English law, having to do with the investing of a feudal estate or fee.)

In our opinion, both “prior” alone and “prior to” have a lofty, formal sound, and for ordinary use there are better terms, both adjectives and adverbs: “previous,” “previously,” “before,” “earlier,” “in advance,” “preceding,” and so on. Usually, nothing is lost in translation.

However, Merriam-Webster compares the adjectives “prior” and “previous” and detects a slight difference: “previous and prior imply existing or occurring earlier, but prior often adds an implication of greater importance,” and it contrasts the uses with these examples: “a child from a previous marriage” versus “a prior obligation.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Try and stop us!

Q: How old is the use of “and” in place of “to” to join infinitives?  For example, “He wants to try and kill her” instead of “He wants to try to kill her.” I heard the usage on British TV, so it’s not just American.

A: The use of “and” to link two infinitives is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. And as you’ve discovered, it’s not just an American usage. In fact, the use of “try and” plus a bare, or “to”-less, infinitive (as in “He wants to try and kill her”) is more common in the UK than in the US.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “and” is being used here for “connecting two verbs, the second of which is logically dependent on the first, esp. where the first verb is come, go, send, or try.” With the exception of “come” and “go,” the dictionary adds, “the verbs in this construction are normally only in the infinitive or imperative.”

In other words, the “come” and “go” versions of the usage can be inflected—have different verb forms, such as the future (“He’ll come and do it”) or the past (“He went and did it”). But the “try” version is normally restricted to the infinitive (“He intends to try and stop us”) or the imperative (“Try and stop us!”).

The earliest example of the construction in the OED is from Matthew 8:21 in the West Saxon Gospels, dating from the late 900s: “Drihten, alyfe me ærest to farenne & bebyrigean minne fæder” (“Lord, let me first go and bury my father”). The verbs “go” (farenne) and “bury” (bebyrigean) here are infinitives.

The dictionary’s first citation for a “try” version of the construction is from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh. A 1599 entry reports that the council “ordanis the thesaure [orders the treasurer] to trye and speik with Jhonn Kyle.”

However, we’ve found an earlier “try” example in the Early English Books Online database: “they are also profitable for the faithfull / for they trye and purefye the faith of goddes [God’s] electe.” From A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye, a 1531 religious treatise by John Frith, a Protestant writer burned at the stake for heresy.

In the 19th century, some language commentators began criticizing the use of “try and” with a bare infinitive. For example, George Washington Moon chided a fellow British language authority, Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, for using “try and” in a magazine article based on Alford’s A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling (1863):

“Near the end of a paragraph in the first Essay occurs the following sentence, which is omitted in the book:— ‘And I really don’t wish to be dull; so please, dear reader, to try and not think me so.’ Try and think, indeed! Try to think, we can understand. Fancy saying ‘the dear reader tries and thinks me so’; for, mind, a conjunction is used only to connect words, and can govern no case at all” (The Dean’s English: A Criticism on the Dean of Canterbury’s Essays on the Queen’s English, 1865).

Moon was apparently bugged by Alford’s use of “try and think” because the phrase couldn’t be inflected. But as we’ve shown, English writers had been using “try and” phrases this way for hundreds of years before any commentator raised an objection.

Although some later language authorities have echoed Moon’s objection to the usage, others have said it’s acceptable, especially in informal English.

As Henry W. Fowler says in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), “It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.” It meets “the proper standard of literary dignity,” he writes, though it is “specially appropriate to actual speech.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s usage guide, expands on those comments from the first edition, adding that the “choice between try to and try and is largely a matter of spontaneity, rhythm, and emphasis, especially in spoken forms.”

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner describes “try and” as a “casualism,” which he defines as “the least formal type of standard English.” And Pat, in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (4th ed.), recommends “try to” for formal occasions, but says “try and, which has been around for hundreds of years, is acceptable in casual writing and in conversation.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which has dozens of examples of “try and” and similar constructions used by respected writers, says, “About the only thing that can be held against any of these combinations is that they seem to be more typical of speech than of high-toned writing—and that is hardly a sin.” Here are few of the usage guide’s “try and” citations:

“Now I will try and write of something else” (Jane Austen, letter, Jan. 29, 1813).

“ ‘Stand aside, my dear,’ replied Squeers. ‘We’ll try and find out’ ” (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839).

“The unfortunate creature has a child still every year, and her constant hypocrisy is to try and make her girls believe that their father is a respectable man” (William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, 1846).

“to try and soften his father’s anger” (George Eliot, Silas Marner, 1861).

“We are getting rather mixed. The situation entangled. Let’s try and comb it out” (W. S. Gilbert, The Gondoliers, 1889).

“If gentlemen sold their things, he was to try and get them to sell to him” (Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 1903).

Some linguists and grammarians describe the “and” here as a “quasi-auxiliary,” and its use in “try and” constructions as “pseudo-coordination,” since “and” is functioning grammatically as the infinitive marker “to,” not as a conjunction that coordinates (that is, joins) words, phrases, or clauses.

Getting back to your question about the usage in American versus British English, Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, discusses this in The Prodigal Tongue (2018). She cites two studies that indicate “try and” is more popular in the UK than in the US.

One study found that the British “used try and (where they could have said try to) over 71% of the time in speech and 24% of the time in writing,” Murphy writes. “The American figures were 24% for speech and 5% in writing.” (The study she cites is “Try to or Try and? Verb Complementation in British and American English,” by Charlotte Hommerberg and Gunnel Tottie, ICAME Journal, 2007.)

Another study, Murphy says, shows that older, educated people in the UK “prefer try to a bit more, but those under forty-five say try and 85% of the time, regardless of their level of education.” (The study here is “Why Does Canadian English Use Try to but British English Use Try and?” by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte, American Speech, 2016.)

In a Dec. 14, 2016, post on Murphy’s website, Separated by a Common Language, she has more details about the studies. She also notes a theory that some people may choose “try and get to know” over “try to get to know” because of a feeling that the repetition of “to” in the second example sounds awkward. Linguists refer to the avoidance of repetition as horror aequi, Latin for “fear of the same.”

Some grammarians and linguists have suggested that there may be a difference in meaning between the “try and” and “try to” constructions. But the linguist Åge Lind analyzed 50 English novels written from 1960 to 1970 and concluded: “If a subtle semantic distinction exists it does not seem to be observed” (from “The Variant Forms Try and/Try to,” English Studies, December 1983).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Notional agreement

Q: Is “one percent” singular or plural in this clause: “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty [was/were] conservative”? For what it’s worth, I believe it’s singular, but I’d like to hear your take.

A: “Percent” can be used with both singular and plural verbs. Generally, it takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun. Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”

However, “percent” can go either way with a singular collective noun like “faculty.” A collective noun, as you know, takes a singular verb when you’re talking about the group as a unit, and a plural verb when you’re talking about the individuals in the group.

What’s at work here is the principle of notional agreement. This is how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains the principle: “when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

As you can imagine, there may be some wiggle room as to whether a collective noun is singular or plural. Getting back to your specific example, we agree with you. We’d use a singular verb with the adjective “conservative.” However, we’d use a plural verb with the noun “conservatives.”

So we’d write “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty was conservative” but “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty were conservatives.” In the first example, “faculty” is viewed as a unit; in the second, as individuals.

We’ve borrowed much of this from a post we wrote 10 years ago.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

A few negative thoughts

Q: How do you interpret a negative construction with “or” rather than “and”? For example, “A pie without strawberries or cherries is awful”? Does it mean a pie needs both strawberries and cherries to not be awful? Or that just one or the other is necessary?

A: Most negative constructions with “or” and “and” are pretty straightforward. Here’s the difference:

“A pie without strawberries or cherries is awful” means both “A pie without strawberries is awful” and “A pie without cherries is awful.” In other words, a pie without one or the other is awful. The use of “or” indicates that the two coordinates, the strawberries and the cherries, are to be considered separately.

“A pie without strawberries and cherries is awful” means that a pie without both of them is awful. The use of “and” indicates that the two coordinates are to be considered together as a unit.

You may be thinking of the complications that arise when the word “both” appears in certain kinds of negative constructions. Here’s how Pat treats this problem in the 4th edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

BOTH . . . NOT/ NOT BOTH. Using both and not in the same sentence is asking for trouble. That’s because saying something negative about both can be ambiguous. When you say, Both children did not get the flu, do you mean both escaped it? Or that just one—not both—got it? Put the negative part where it belongs: One of the children, not both, got the flu. Or drop both and use neither instead: Neither child got the flu.

In fact, any negative statement with both should be looked on with suspicion. A sentence like There are no symptoms in both children probably won’t be misunderstood. But it would be clearer and more graceful to drop both and use either: There are no symptoms in either child.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Like as the waves

Q: I have a question about this passage from Shakespeare: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore.” I’ve never seen “like as” used this way before. Is it a poetic usage? Or was it once more common?

A: The use of “like as” to introduce a clause, a group of words with its own subject and verb, was once fairly common, but it’s now considered colloquial, nonstandard, obsolete, or rare.

When “like as” introduced a clause, the word “like” was “an emphatic modifier” of “as,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the dropping of “as” from “like as” probably contributed to the use of “like” by itself to introduce a clause, a usage often criticized by sticklers.

As the OED explains, “the use of like as a conjunction,” which was “often deprecated by usage writers and prescriptivists during the 19th and 20th centuries,” was probably influenced by “an ellipsis of as in the phrasal conjunction like as.”

(As we note in a 2013 post, “like” had introduced clauses for hundreds of years before language commentators began objecting to the usage.)

When the phrase “like as” first appeared in the late 14th century (spelled “lich as,”), it meant “as if” or “as though,” a usage that the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels colloquial or nonstandard now.

In the first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, the Roman Emperor Constantine is suffering from leprosy. But as he’s baptized, his skin lesions fall off and lie in the water like fish scales:

“And evere among the holi tales / Lich as thei weren fisshes skales, / Ther fellen from him now and eft / Til that ther was nothing beleft.” From Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower.

In the early 15th century, “like as” came to mean in the manner that, to the same extent as, just as, etc., senses that are now obsolete. The OED cites a 1414 entry in the rolls, or records, of Parliament:

“We … ne oughte not to answere lyk as bondemen of byrthe shulde, for the whiche the forseide Statut was made.” From Rotuli Parliamentorum (1767-77), edited by John Strachey.

A bit later in the 15th century, “like as” began being used “for emphasis or clarity” when introducing a subordinate clause “preceding the main clause introduced by anaphoric so,” according to Oxford. (The anaphoric so here refers readers to the subordinate clause).

The OED, which describes the usage as rare now, cites a manuscript, circa 1425, at the British Library: “Like as lecteture [a lecture] put thyng in mende [mind] / Of lerned men, ryght so a peyntyde fygure / Remembryth [reminds] men unlernyd in hys kende” (from Cotton MS Julius B. XII in Reliquiæ Antiquæ, 1845, edited by Thomas Wright et al.).

The passage from Shakespeare that you’re asking about introduces a subordinate clause at the beginning of Sonnet 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation from Agnes Grey (1847), Anne Brontë’s first novel. Here Nancy Brown uses “like as” in the sense of “as if” as she tells Agnes about hearing Edward Weston, the curate, read to her:

“An’ then he took that Bible, an’ read bits here and there, an’ explained ’em as clear as the day: and it seemed like as a new light broke in on my soul; an’ I felt fair aglow about my heart, an’ only wished poor Bill an’ all the world could ha’ been there, an’ heard it all, and rejoiced wi’ me.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

What’s up with ‘below’?

Q: Merriam-Webster describes “below” as an adverb in these two examples: “gazed at the water below” and “voices from the apartment below.” My understanding is that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. But “below” here is modifying two nouns, “water” and “apartment.” So what am I missing?

A: You raise a very good question. As it happens, linguists have asked themselves the same thing, and in the last few decades they’ve abandoned the traditional thinking about the status of “below” and similar words that express spatial relationships.

Traditionally, “below” has been classified as either a preposition or an adverb. It’s a preposition if an object follows, as in “the water below the bridge” and “the apartment below ours.” It’s an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, as in “the water below” and “the apartment below.” As far as we can tell, that’s been the thinking among grammarians since the late 18th century.

But as we’ll explain later, linguists now regard “below” solely as a preposition, a view reflected in recent comprehensive grammar books but not yet recognized in popular grammars and standard dictionaries.

Of course, for all practical purposes the word hasn’t changed, either in its meaning or in the way it’s used. In the scholarly comprehensive  grammars, the word has merely shifted in some cases from one lexical category (adverb) to another (preposition).

Standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up to this new way of thinking about “below.” The 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult say it can be either an adverb or a preposition in constructions like those above.

Cambridge, for example, calls it a preposition in “below the picture” but an adverb in “the apartment below.” The dictionary adds: “When the adverb below is used to modify a noun, it follows the noun.” (We know what you’re thinking: An adverb modifying a noun? Stay tuned.)

Despite the differing labels, the adverb and the preposition have virtually the same meaning. By and large, the standard dictionaries that define them say the adverb means “in or to a lower position” or “beneath,” while the preposition means “lower than” or “beneath.”

And in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, the broad definitions for the adverb and the preposition are identical: “Expressing position in or movement to a lower place.”

As we mentioned above, this view of “below” and words like it has a long history. Some similar words of this kind, prepositions that have traditionally been called adverbs when used without an object, include these:

“aboard,” “about,” “above,” “across,” “after,” “against,” “ahead,” “along,” “around,” “before,” “behind,” “below,” “beneath,” “besides,” “between,” “beyond,” “by,” “down,” “for,” “in,” “inside,” “near,” “off,” “on,” “opposite,” “out,” “outside,” “over,” “past,” “round,” “since,” “through,” “throughout,” “to,” “under,” “underneath,” “up,” “within,” “without.”

For example, Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795), says that in some instances a preposition “becomes an adverb merely by its application.” The word “since,” he says, is a preposition in “I have not seen him since that time” and an adverb in “Our friendship commenced long since.”

Murray also says, “The prepositions after, before, above, beneath, and several others, sometimes appear to be adverbs, and may be so considered,” giving as an example “He died not long before.” But when a complement follows, he writes, the word is a preposition, as in “He died not long before that time.”

A generation later, the philosopher John Fearn echoed Murray, referring to “the known Principle” that prepositions at the end of a sentence “become Adverbs by Position.”

Fearn also distinguishes between prepositions that require an object (like “with” and “from”) and those that don’t (like “through”). Those in the second group, he says, are “prepositional adverbs” when they’re used without an object (as in “He went through”).

(From Fearn’s Anti-Tooke: Or an Analysis of the Principles and Structure of Language, Vol. II, 1827, an extended argument against the language theories of John Horne Tooke.)

As we said above, the traditional view persists in standard dictionaries but is no longer found in up-to-date comprehensive grammar. Thinking began to change in the late 1960s, when some academic linguists began questioning the “adverb” label and widening the definition of “preposition.”

In the early ’90s, the linguist Ronald W. Langacker gave four examples of “below” as a preposition—“the valley below; the valley below the cliff; A bird flew below; A bird flew below the cliff.” (From “Prepositions as Grammatical(izing) Elements,” published in the journal Leuvense Bijdragen, 1992.)

Note that in those examples “below” is classified as a preposition (1) whether it’s used alone or with a complement, and (2) whether it follows a noun or a verb—thus resembling an adjective in one case (“valley below”) and an adverb in the other (“flew below”).

Most linguists today would agree with that interpretation: “below” and words like it are prepositions. Used with a complement, they’re said to be “transitive prepositions”; used without one, they’re “intransitive prepositions.”

The newer interpretation has only gradually made its way into major books on English grammar.

For example, the old view persisted at least through the publication in 1985 of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. It uses the terms “postmodifying adverb” and “prepositional adverb” for “below” and similar words in constructions like these.

A “postmodifying adverb,” according to the Comprehensive Grammar, is identical to a preposition except that it has no complement and modifies a preceding noun. Examples given include “the sentence below” … “the way ahead” … “the people behind.”

A “prepositional adverb,” the book says, is identical to a preposition but has no complement and modifies a verb. Examples include “She stayed in” … “A car drove past.

The word is a preposition, according to Quirk, only if a complement is present (and regardless of what it seems to modify). Examples include “below the picture” … “She stayed in the house” … “A car drove past the door.

The Comprehensive Grammar doesn’t use the words “transitive” and “intransitive” for prepositions, but it comes close: “The relation between prepositional adverbs and prepositional phrases may be compared to that between intransitive and transitive uses of certain verbs.”

The next exhaustive grammar book to come along, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), does use those terms. In this book, words that Quirk had previously classified as either postmodifying adverbs or prepositional adverbs are newly categorized as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar uses “transitive” for prepositions that have a complement, “intransitive” for those that don’t—and it’s the first important English grammar to do so.

The book calls “in” and “since” intransitive prepositions here: “He brought the chair in” … “I haven’t seen her since.” And it calls them transitive prepositions here: “He put it in the box” … “I haven’t seen her since the war.”

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, don’t discuss “below” at length, but they do say that it “belongs only to the preposition category.” It’s also included among a list of prepositions that are used with or without a complement, and these examples show it without one: “the discussion below” … “the room below.

Huddleston and Pullum essentially redraw the boundary between prepositions and adverbs, defining prepositions more broadly than “traditional grammars of English.” In this, they say, they’re “following much work in modern linguistics.” And they give two chief reasons why they  reject the traditional view and reclassify words like “below” as prepositions.

(1) The traditional view “does not allow for a preposition without a complement.” The Cambridge Grammar argues that the presence or absence of a complement has no bearing on the classification. So “the traditional definition of prepositions,” one that says they require a complement, is “unwarranted.”

The book makes an important point about these newly recognized prepositions. Their ability to stand alone, without a complement, “is not a property found just occasionally with one or two prepositions, or only with marginal items,” the book says. “It is a property found systematically throughout a wide range of the most central and typical prepositions in the language.”

(2) The “adverb” label is inappropriate for words like “below” because they don’t behave like adverbs. In “The basket is outside,” for instance, the word “outside” is traditionally defined as an adverb. But as the authors point out, typical adverbs, such as those ending in “-ly,” aren’t normally used to modify forms of the verb “be.”

That role is normally played by adjectives, or by prepositions of the kind we’re discussing—“inside,” “outside,” “above,” “below,” and so on. And such words, the authors write, “no more modify the verb than does young in They are young.”

[Here you might ask, Then why aren’t these words adjectives? “Below” certainly looks like an adjective in uses like “the water below.” The Cambridge Grammar discusses this at length and gives reasons including these: Prepositions can have objects but adjectives can’t. Prepositions are fixed, while adjectives can be inflected for degree (as in “heavy,” “heavier,” “heaviest”) or modified by “very” and “too.” As we wrote on the blog in 2012, the adjectival use of “below” premodifying a noun, as in “Click on the below link,” is not generally accepted.]

In summary, Huddleston and Pullum suggest that if an “-ly” adverb cannot be substituted for the word, then it’s not an adverb. And if a complement could be added (as in “The basket is outside the door”), then it’s not an adverb.

The next influential scholarly grammar to be published, the Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011), written by Bas Aarts, reinforces and builds on this distinction between transitive and intransitive prepositions. And it includes “below” in a list of prepositions that can be used either way—with or without a complement.

Aarts also discusses prepositions that follow a verb and can either stand alone or have a complement: “We might go out” or “We might go out for a meal “I shall probably look in” … or “I shall probably look in at the College.”

In short, modern developments in linguistics have given “below” a new label—it’s a preposition, and only a preposition. The traditional view lives on in dictionaries, and no doubt it will persist for quite some time. But in our opinion, the new label makes more sense.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Writing

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.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *


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.”’

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.