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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

How appropriate is ‘apropos’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making sense of mixing tenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whom again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That sinking feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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

Are you down on “up”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A time for timeless verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A contraction too far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fit to Print

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

Out of Bounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why foxes have fur, horses hair

Q: Why do we say some animals have “hair” while others have “fur”?

A: All mammals have hair—dogs, cats, foxes, pigs, gerbils, horses, and people. Even dolphins have a few whiskers early in their lives. Scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between hair and fur.

“This is all the same material,” Dr. Nancy Simmons, a mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, said in a 2001 interview with Scientific American. “Hair and fur are the same thing.”

She added that there are many norms for hair length, and that different kinds of hair can have different names, such as a cat’s whiskers and a porcupine’s quills.

Well, science is one thing but common English usage is another. Most of us do have different ideas about what to call “hair” and what to call “fur.”

For example, we regard humans as having “hair,” not “fur.” And we use “hair” for what grows on livestock with thick, leathery hides—horses, cattle, and pigs.

But we generally use “fur” for the thick, dense covering on animals like cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes, bears, raccoons, beavers, and so on.

Why do some animals have fur and others hair? The answer lies in the origins of the noun “fur,” which began life as an item of apparel.

In medieval England, “fur” meant “a trimming or lining for a garment, made of the dressed coat of certain animals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source, the dictionary suggests, is the Old French verb forrer, which originally meant to sheathe or encase, then “developed the sense ‘to line,’ and ‘to line or trim with fur.’ ”

When the word “fur” first entered English, it was a verb that meant to line, trim, or cover a garment with animal hair. The earliest OED use is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance about Alexander the Great, composed in the late 1200s or early 1300s:

“The kyng dude of [put on] his robe, furred with meneuere.” (The last word is “miniver,” the white winter pelt of a certain squirrel.)

The noun followed. Its first known use is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (from 1366 or earlier) of an Old French poem. The relevant passage refers to a coat “Furred with no menivere, But with a furre rough of here [hair].”

The noun’s meaning gradually evolved over the 14th and 15th centuries. From the sense of a lining or trimming, “fur” came to mean the material used to make it. Soon it also meant entire garments made of this material, as well as the coats of the animals themselves.

Oxford defines that last sense of “fur” this way: “The short, fine, soft hair of certain animals (as the sable, ermine, beaver, otter, bear, etc.) growing thick upon the skin, and distinguished from the ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser. Formerly also, the wool of sheep” [now obsolete].

Note that this definition establishes the distinction between the special hair we call “fur” (short, fine, soft), and “ordinary hair” (longer, coarser).

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to sheep as bearing “furres blake and whyte” (circa 1430). The first non-sheep example was recorded in the following century, a reference to the “furre” of wolves (Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579).

From the 17th century on, examples are plentiful. Shakespeare writes of “This night wherin … The Lyon, and the belly-pinched Wolfe Keepe their furre dry” (King Lear, 1608). And Alexander Pope writes of “the strength of Bulls, the Fur of Bears” (An Essay on Man, 1733).

But a mid-18th-century example in the OED stands out—at least for our purposes—because it underscores that “fur” was valued because it was soft and warm: “Leave the Hair on Skins, where the Fleece or Fir is soft and warm, as Beaver, Otter, &c.” (From An Account of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage, 1748, written by the ship’s clerk.)

Elsewhere in the account, the author notes that deer or caribou skins were “cleared of the Hair” to make use of the skin as leather.

As for “hair,” it’s a much older word than “fur” and came into English from Germanic sources instead of French.

Here’s the OED definition: “One of the numerous fine and generally cylindrical filaments that grow from the skin or integument of animals, esp. of most mammals, of which they form the characteristic coat.”

The word was spelled in Old English as her or hær, Oxford says, and was first recorded before the year 800 in a Latin-Old English glossary: “Pilus, her.” (In Latin pilus is a single hair and pili is the plural.)

By around the year 1000, “hair” was also used as a mass or collective noun, defined in the OED as “the aggregate of hairs growing on the skin of an animal: spec. that growing naturally upon the human head.”

In summary, most of us think of “fur” as soft, cuddly, warm, and dense. We don’t regard “hair” in quite the same way (even though it technically includes “fur”). “Hair,” in other words, covers a lot more bases.

But in practice, English speakers use the words “hair” and “fur” inconsistently. People often regard some animals, especially their pets, as having both “fur” and “hair.”

They may refer to Bowser’s coat as “fur,” but use the word “hair” for what he leaves on clothes and furniture. And when he gets tangles, they may say that either his “hair” or his “fur” is matted and needs combing out.

Furthermore (no pun intended), two different people might describe the same cat or dog differently—as having “hair” or “fur,” as being “hairy” or “furry,” and (particularly in the case of the cat) as throwing up a “hairball” or a “furball.” They simply perceive the animal’s coat differently.

Our guess is that people base their choice of words on what they perceive as the thickness, density, or length of a pet’s coat. The heavy, dense coat of a Chow dog or a Persian cat is likely to be called “fur.” And the short, light coat of a sleek greyhound or a Cornish Rex is likely to be called “hair.”

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Self denial

Q: It’s chalk screeching on a blackboard when I hear people, especially TV people, using “I” as an object. But I’m confused as to when “myself” should be used instead of “me.” Sometimes “myself” just feels more comfortable. Your views?

A: We’ve written about “myself” several times on our blog, most recently in 2018. And Pat has written about it in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Here’s the section on “myself” from the updated and expanded Woe Is I, which came out a few weeks ago:

SELF DENIAL

In the contest between I and me, the winner is often myself. That’s because people who can’t decide between I and me often choose myself instead. They say things like Jack and myself were married yesterday. (Better: Jack and I.) Or: The project made money for Reynaldo and myself. (Better: for Reynaldo and me.) You’ve probably done it yourself.

Well, it’s not grammatically wrong, but I don’t recommend this self-promotion. Ideally, myself and the rest of the self-ish crew (yourself, himself, herself, etc.) shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns I and me, he and him, she and her, and so on. They’re better used for two principal purposes:

• To emphasize. I made the cake myself. Love itself is a riddle. The detective himself was the murderer. (The emphasis could be left out, and the sentence would still make sense.)

• To refer back to the subject. She hates herself. And you call yourself a plumber! They consider themselves lucky to be alive. The problem practically solved itself.

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‘Play’ time

Q: In a YouTube clip I’ve seen, a pianist at a hotel lounge says he likes to “play to guests.” Is it “play to” or “play for”? Wouldn’t “play to” suggest currying favor with the guests, as in “play to the gallery”?

A: The verb “play” is especially playful. You can “play” tennis, a violin, the innocent, Lady Macbeth, a sonata, the ponies or a slot machine, a CD, your queen at chess or cards, and so on.

Things get even more playful when “play” is part of a phrasal verb, a multi-word verb that’s treated as a single unit with a meaning that can stray far from the senses of the verb itself.

You can “play with” your food, “play up” or “play down” an illness, “play on” an opponent’s weak point, “play around” sexually, “play up to” your boss, “play along” with a con artist, “play at” a boring task, and so on.

The phrasal verb you mention, “play to,” has two meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

(1) “To behave or perform in a particular way for (someone or something) in order to get approval or attention … He didn’t mean what he was saying. He was just playing to the crowd.”

(2) “To make use of (something) … a film that plays to stereotypes of housewives.”

As for your question, we see nothing wrong with a pianist’s saying he likes to “play to guests.” In this case, “to” is a simple preposition pointing to the pianist’s audience, not part of a phrasal verb.

But we wouldn’t use the verb “play” with the preposition “to” if we felt a reader or listener might think we were using the phrasal verb. For example, we wouldn’t say the pianist “plays to the guests,” since it sounds too much like “plays to the crowd” or “plays to the gallery”—that is, plays up to the guests (the meaning of sense #1 above).

We should note here that “play for” is more common than “play to,” according to our recent searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases. “Played for,” for instance, was more than twice as popular as “played to” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

As for the etymology, the verb “play” had many of its modern meanings when it showed up as plægian in Old English: to do something for fun, to take part in a game or sport, to perform on a musical instrument, and to play with words—that is, to pun.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of “play” used in the punning sense also includes one of the earliest puns in the English language. The citation describes Pope Gregory I’s reaction on seeing a group of Angle children from Britain for sale in a Roman slave market:

“Ða gyt he ahsode hwæt heora cyning haten wære: & him mon ondswarade ond cwæð, þætte he Æll haten wære. Ond þa plegode he mid his wordum to þæm noman & cwæð: Alleluia, þæt gedafenað, þætte Godes lof usses scyppendes in þæm dælum sungen sy.”

(“He asked moreover what their king was called; the reply came that he was called Ælle. And then he played with his words on the name, saying: Alleluia, it is fitting that praise of God our Creator should be sung in those places.’’)

The pun refers to Ælle, king of the Anglian kingdom of Deira in what is now northern England. We restored the ellipses in the citation, which comes from an anonymous early Old English translation of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

Earlier in the passage, the Pope had asked where the children were from. When told “þæt heo Ongle nemde wæron” (“that they were named Angles”), he punned “þæt heo engla æfenerfeweardas in heofonum sy” (“that they should be joint heirs with the angels in heaven”). A third pun in Bede’s Latin doesn’t work in Old English, so we’ll skip it.

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When verb forms are the object

Q: In my ESL class, I wrote the following sentence: “I was sick yesterday, so all I did was resting at home.” My teacher said I should have written “rest,” not “resting,” but he couldn’t give a grammatical explanation. He said his native ear informed him. Was he correct?

A: Your teacher was right. That construction calls for an infinitive, “rest,” as a direct object, not a gerund.

He was also right in saying that there’s no good explanation why some verbs take a gerund as a direct object, some take an infinitive, and some take both, as we wrote on our blog in 2010 and 2014. The only way to know which take what is through experience.

As you already know, an infinitive is the bare form of a verb (like “rest”), while a gerund is the infinitive plus “-ing” (“resting”).

Because infinitives and gerunds can act as nouns, they can be the direct objects of verbs. Some verbs (“learn,” “like,” and “prefer,” among others) can have both infinitives and gerunds as direct objects.

For instance, one can say either “I learned to knit” (infinitive) or “I learned knitting” (gerund) … “I like to read” or “I like reading” …  “I prefer to rest at home” or “I prefer resting at home.”

But other verbs—“decide” and “finish” are examples—take either one or the other: “She decided to go” (not “She decided going”) … “He finished dressing” (not “He finished to dress”).

When the verb is a form of “to be,” the story varies. Sometimes the direct object is an infinitive, sometimes a gerund, and sometimes they’re interchangeable.

For example, we say, “What he did was walk” (bare infinitive), not “What he did was walking.” But we also say, “His hobby is skiing,” not “His hobby is to ski.” And we can say either “Her passion is vacationing in Tahiti” or “Her passion is to vacation in Tahiti.”

So the verb “to be” is unpredictable, which is why that sentence was mysterious to you and why even linguists have never cracked the code (if there is one).

In case you’re interested, we wrote posts in 2017 that discussed the use of infinitives versus gerunds after “interested” and after “intend.” You can find other relevant posts by putting the words “infinitive” and “gerund” in the search box of our blog and clicking the magnifying glass.

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Jenny Kiss’d Me

[Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and to mark the occasion we’re republishing a post from July 20, 2012, about a point of grammar in Leigh Hunt’s poem “Jenny Kiss’d Me.”]

Q: I was browsing through a collection of “best loved poems” the other day and came across the charming rondeau “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” a favorite of mine. Once upon a time I even had occasion to memorize it (wrongly as it turns out). Two of its lines are: “Time, you thief, who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in!” I remembered it as “who loves to get,” which sounds better to me. I’m certainly not the one to correct Leigh Hunt, but I would be interested in any comment you might have.

A: You can find published versions of Leigh Hunt’s poem (originally published in the November 1838 issue of the Monthly Chronicle) with either “love” or “loves.” But most of them use the second-person singular “love,” which is appropriate, as we’ll explain.

The earliest version of “Jenny Kiss’d Me” that we could find online was from an 1847 collection of Hunt’s prose writings. In one of the essays, he mentions that a rondeau written by Pope inspired him to write this one of his own:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

(We’ve used the punctuation from Hunt’s essay.)

Why does Hunt uses “love,” not “loves,” in his poem? Because the line is addressed to “Time, you thief!” so the second-person verb—the form used with “you”—is correct.

Similar second-person constructions (as in “you who love,” “you who say,” “you who are,” and so on) can be found throughout English literature, whenever the writer addresses a subject referred to subsequently as “who.”

Here’s an example from a sermon by John Wesley: “And as to you who believe yourselves the elect of God, what is your happiness?”

And here’s another, found in a letter written from Italy by Lord Byron in 1819: “All this will appear strange to you, who do not understand the meridian morality, nor our way of life in such respects.”

By analogy, Hunt might have written, “Time! You who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in.”

Hunt’s poem, commonly known as “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” is actually entitled “Rondeau,” though it’s technically not a rondeau. It has only one stanza and it doesn’t have the typical rhyme scheme of a rondeau. But it does, like a rondeau, begin and end the same way.

Who, you may ask, was Jenny and why did she kiss him? Here’s Hunt’s explanation:

“We must add, lest our egotism should be thought still greater on the occasion than it is, that the lady was a great lover of books and impulsive writers: and that it was our sincerity as one of them which obtained for us this delightful compliment from a young enthusiast to an old one.”

The Carlyle Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Cumming, identifies Jenny as Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle. Her nickname was “Jenny,” according to the encyclopedia, and she kissed Hunt on learning that he’d recovered from one of his many illnesses.

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.)

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the new, fourth edition of her bestselling grammar book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

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A pretty little girl

Q: Your post about the use of “pretty” to mean “rather” got me wondering about a sentence like this: “She is a pretty little girl.” Not knowing her, how am I to tell if she’s rather little or pretty and little? Would a comma after “pretty” indicate that it’s an adjective, not an adverb?

A: As we mentioned in that post, “pretty” has been used as an adjective in the sense of “attractive” since the 1400s and as an adverb meaning “rather” since the 1500s.

Because it has these dual uses, “pretty” can be ambiguous. A phrase like “a pretty little girl” most likely means a girl who’s both pretty and little. But in a discussion of children’s growth rates, it could mean a girl who’s pretty little.

In other words, how are we to know whether “pretty” is an adjective (helping to modify “girl”) or an adverb (modifying “little”)? The answer is that without additional context, there’s no way to know for sure.

And a comma won’t help. This is because a comma would not normally be inserted between “pretty” and “little” to show that both were meant as adjectives. Here’s why.

Certain classes of adjectives always occur in a certain order when they’re used together in a series, and with no commas separating them. And “pretty little girl” is a good example.

We wrote in 2010 about the order of adjectives in a series, and again in 2017 about strings of adjectives that need no commas.

Our advice about commas: if it’s not idiomatic to use “and” to separate adjectives in a series (as in “a pretty brick house”), don’t use commas either.

But if it’s reasonable to use “and” between adjectives, then a comma is appropriate: Examples: “a pretty, well-mannered girl,” “a pretty, graceful girl,” “a pretty, intelligent girl.”

Often, idiomatic usage (or your ear) can tell you how “pretty” is being used.

In the case of “a pretty little girl,” we believe that most people would interpret both modifiers as adjectives, unless there was some reason to think otherwise. When “pretty” and “little” occur together before a noun, this is usually the case.

But when “pretty” appears with “big,” “good,” and some other modifiers, it’s most often an adverb: “a pretty big house,” “in pretty good company,” “a pretty long journey,” “a pretty bad location,” “a pretty loud noise.” Nobody misunderstands combinations like those.

The upshot? If there’s a chance of misunderstanding, a writer should avoid using “pretty” as an adverb before an already modified noun. A less ambiguous word—“rather,” “quite,” “very,” “somewhat,” “awfully”—would work better.

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Who, me?

Q: In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she uses this sentence to describe the sacrifices her parents made in raising her and her brother Craig: “We were their investment, me and Craig.” Surely that should be “Craig and I.”

A: Not necessarily. We would have written “Craig and I.” But the sentence as written is not incorrect. It’s informal, but not ungrammatical.

Here the compound (“me and Craig”) has no clear grammatical role. And as we wrote in 2016, a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t the subject or object of a sentence—is generally in the objective case.

In our previous post, we quoted the linguist Arnold Zwicky—the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.” In other words, when the pronoun has no distinctly defined role, the default choice is “me,” not “I.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note: “I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position.” The examples given include “Me too” … “You’re as big as me” … “It’s me” … “Who, me?”

“Almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions,” M-W says.

As we said, we think the compound “me and Craig” has no clear grammatical role. But digging deeper, we could interpret it as placed in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject of the sentence: “we.” And technically, appositives should be in the same case, so the pronoun in apposition to “we” should be a subject pronoun: “I [not “me”] and Craig.”

That’s a legitimate argument, and if the author were aiming at a more formal style, she no doubt would have taken that route.

On the other hand, the same argument could be made against “Who, me?” Those two pronouns could be interpreted as appositives, but forcing them to match (“Whom, me?” or “Who, I?”) would be unnatural.

In short, the choice here is between formal and informal English (not “correct” versus “incorrect”), and the author chose the informal style.

By the way, as we wrote in 2012, the order in which the pronoun appears in a compound (as in “me and Craig” versus “Craig and me”) is irrelevant. There’s no grammatical rule that a first-person singular pronoun has to go last. Some people see a politeness issue here, but there’s no grammatical foundation for it.

That said, when the pronoun is “I,” it does seem to fall more naturally into the No. 2 slot. “Tom and I are going” seems to be a more natural word order than “I and Tom are going.” This is probably what’s responsible for the common (and erroneous) use of “I” when it’s clearly an object—as in “Want to come with Tom and I?”

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Most important … or importantly

Q: It seems to me that a majority of radio and television pundits use “most important” where I would use “most importantly.” Would you please clear up for me which phrase would be correct at the beginning of a sentence or clause.

A: Either “most important” or “most importantly” (as well as “more important” or “more importantly”) can be used to introduce a sentence or a clause.

In cases like this, “important” and “importantly” are interchangeable, and one is no more “correct” than the other.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, both “important” and “importantly,” when “preceded by an adverb of degree, as more, most, etc.,” can be “used to modify a clause or sentence.”

The OED describes “importantly” here as a “sentence adverb” that’s “used to emphasize a significant point or matter.” And it describes “important” as part of “a supplementive adjective clause used to modify a clause or sentence.”

We discussed this in a post more than 10 years ago, but it never hurts to take a new look at an old topic.

Examples of both usages date from the 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example using “importantly” in this sense:

“She had been brought up partly by religious parents, but more importantly as it affected her ideas and manners, in the house of a very worthy gentlewoman.” (From an Edinburgh periodical, the Scottish Christian Herald, Oct. 2, 1841.)

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest corresponding use of “important”:

“The loss … of efficiency in the transformers, and, even more important, the great cost of that part of the equipment, would both be avoided.” (Popular Science Monthly, September 1894.)

In constructions like these, the adjective “important” can be compared to “significant” or “remarkable” or “surprising.” And the adverb “importantly” can be compared to “significantly” or “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” All are used with “more” and “most” to modify entire sentences or clauses.

We’ve written before about sentence adverbs, but we haven’t discussed what might be called sentence adjectives.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk et al., uses these examples in discussing adjectives that can modify an entire sentence: “Most important, his report offered prospects of a great profit” and “More remarkable still, he is in charge of the project.”

These adjective constructions, according to Quirk, behave “like comment clauses introduced by what.” (That is, they can be regarded as elliptical for “What is most important” and “What is more remarkable still.”)

Furthermore, the book says, with a few such adjectives, the “corresponding adverb can be substituted for the adjective with little or no difference in meaning.”

Nevertheless, Quirk adds, “Objections have been voiced against both most important … and most importantly. Some usage books recommend the one construction, some the other.”

Today that’s no longer the case. While many English speakers may be divided on their preferences, writers of usage guides now accept both.

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

“Preceded by more or most, both words comment on the sentence or clause containing them.” Both, Butterfield notes, “work perfectly well” and are standard. “Choose whichever you prefer, and whichever reads better in your specific context.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “more important as a sentence-starter has historically been considered an elliptical form of ‘What is more important …’ and hence the -ly form is sometimes thought to be less desirable.”

However, Garner’s says, “criticism of more importantly and most importantly” has dwindled and can now be “easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.”

A final note about terminology.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, would categorize each version, “more important” or “more importantly,” as an “evaluative adjunct,” an element that precedes a statement and “expresses the speaker’s evaluation of it.” The first version would be an “evaluative adjective,” the second an “evaluative adverb.”

The authors themselves use both “more important” and “more importantly,” in case you have any lingering doubts.

In a section about punctuation, Huddleston and Pullum write, “More important, there is some significant regional variation, most notably with respect to the interaction between quotation marks and other punctuation marks.”

And in a discussion of “many,” “few,” “much,” and “little,” they write: “More importantly, all four are gradable, and have inflectional comparative and superlative forms.”

When linguistic superstars use both versions, so can you.

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Can ‘clear’ mean ‘clearly’?

Q: Is “clear” an adverb as well as an adjective? Can one say “I speak clear” or is it always “I speak clearly”?

A: The word “clear” can be an adverb as well as an adjective, but it’s not used adverbially in quite the same way as “clearly” in modern English.

A sentence like “I speak clearly” is more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than “I speak clear.” However, “I speak loud and clear” is just as idiomatic as “I speak loudly and clearly.” And “I speak clear” would have been unremarkable hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both clear and clearly are adverbs, but in recent use they do not overlap. Clear is more often used in the sense of ‘all the way.’ ”

The usage guide gives several “all the way” examples, including one from a Jan. 18, 1940, letter by E. B. White (“there is a good chance that the bay will freeze clear across”) and another from Renata Adler in the April 24, 1971, issue of the New Yorker (“a model son who had just gone clear out of his mind”).

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “clear” is also used adverbially to mean distinctly or clearly, as in “loud and clear” and “high and clear.” The OED adds that “in such phrases as to get or keep (oneself) clear, to steer clear, go clear, stand clear, the adjective passes at length into an adverb.”

We’d add the use of “see (one’s way) clear” in the sense of agreeing to do something, as in “Can you see your way clear to lending me the money?”

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield writes that “it would be absurd to substitute clearly for clear in such phrases as go clear, keep clear, stand clear, stay clear, steer clear, loud and clear, or in sentences like the thieves got clear away.”

However, Butterfield adds, “Clearly is overwhelmingly the more usual adverbial form of the two.”

So how is the adverb “clearly” used in modern English?

It can mean “in a clear manner,” as in this M-W example from At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by the Irish writer Flann O’Brien, pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan: “His skull shone clearly in the gaslight.” And this M-W citation from the November 1982 issue of Smithsonian: “looked clearly at their country and set it down freshly.”

The “-ly” adverb can also mean “without a doubt,” as in this M-W citation from the Oct. 2, 1970, Times Literary Supplement: “He clearly knows his way about the complex and abstruse issues.” And this one from James Jones in Harper’s (February 1971): “walked toward them calmly and sanely, clearly not armed with bottles or stones.”

In addition, the M-W usage guide says, “clearly” can be a sentence adverb meaning “without a doubt,” as in this passage by Sir Richard Livingstone in the March 1953 Atlantic: “Clearly it is a good thing to have material conveniences.” And this citation from Barry Commoner in the Spring 1968 Columbia Forum: “Clearly our aqueous environment is being subjected to an accelerating stress.”

In an adverbial phrase that combines different adverbs, the form of the adverbs is usually consistent: either flat (“loud and clear”) or with a tail (“loudly and clearly”). We’ll cite recent pairs of each that we’ve found in the news.

This “-ly” example is from an opinion piece in the Nov. 5, 2018, Boston Globe: “As concerned citizens committed to our democratic values, we must be willing to stand up and say loudly and clearly that we will not stand for that kind of governance.”

And this tailless example is from a Nov. 11, 2018, report in the Washington Post about President Trump’s recent trip to Paris: “Trump was not making a sound, but his presence could still be heard loud and clear.”

When English borrowed “clear” from Old French in the late 13th century, it was an adjective “expressing the vividness or intensity of light,” according to the OED. It ultimately comes from the Latin clārum (bright, clear, plain, brilliant, and so on).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297: “a leme swythe cler & bryȝte” (“a light very clear and bright”).

The adverbs “clear” and “clearly” both showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1300s. The adverbial “clear” initially described visual clarity, while “clearly” referred to brightness.

The earliest OED example for “clear” used as an adverb is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Þe sune … schines clere” (“The sun … shines clear”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “clearly” (clerliche in Middle English) is from the Life of St. Brandan (circa 1300): “Hi seȝe in the see as clerliche as hi scholde alonde” (“He sees on the sea as clearly as he should on land”). The medieval Irish saint, usually called St. Brendan, is known for a legendary sea journey from Ireland to the Isle of the Blessed.

Why do some adverbs have tails while others don’t? Here’s a brief history.

In Anglo-Saxon days, adverbs were usually formed by adding –lice or –e at the end of adjectives. Over the years, the –lice adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones and the adverbs with a final –e lost their endings, becoming tailless flat adverbs that looked like adjectives.

Sounds simple, but things got complicated in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Latin scholars insisted that adjectives and adverbs should have different endings in English, as they do in Latin. As a result, people began sticking “-ly” onto perfectly good flat adverbs and preferring the “-ly” versions where both existed.

Although the adjective “clear” comes from Old French, not Old English, the flat adverb “clear” may have been influenced by the loss of the adverbial –e in native Anglo-Saxon words, first in pronunciation and later in spelling.

As the OED explains, the adverbial use of “clear” arose “partly out of the predicative use of the adjective” and “partly out of the analogy of native English adverbs,” which by loss of the final –e had become identical in form with their adjectives.

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What do you suggest?

Q: What is the graceful or correct way to use “suggest” when it’s an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-verb (not transitive, I think). I’ve recently read such things as “I was suggested to study harder.”

A: Anyone who’d say “I was suggested to study harder” should probably study harder. The usual way to say that would be “It was suggested I study harder” or “It was suggested I should study harder.”

The verb “suggest” can mean to propose, to express possibility, to state indirectly, to evoke, and so on.

There are several ways the verb can be used in modern English, depending on the context: with an object (that is, transitively), with a quotation, or with a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb).

When used to introduce a clause (with or without “that”), the verb in the clause is often in the subjunctive mood, especially in American English: “They suggested that he study Latin.” The indicative is more common in British English: “They suggested that he should study Latin.”

Here are a few examples of “suggest” used to propose something for consideration: “He suggested that we wait a few days before voting”  … “ ‘We should wait a few days,’ ” he suggested” … “He suggested a delay.”

And here “suggest” expresses the possibility of something: “The smell of bitter almonds suggests that poison was used” … “The smell of bitter almonds suggests cyanide.”

In these examples, it’s used to state something indirectly: “Are you suggesting I’m a liar?” … “No, I’m not suggesting any such thing.” And here “suggest” is used when one thing evokes another: “The cloudy sky suggests El Greco’s View of Toledo.”

When the verb “suggest” showed up in English in the early 1500s, it was transitive and the object was an idea put into someone’s mind, “esp. of insinuating or prompting to evil,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example for this sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by William Bonde:

“The angell of Sathanas … euer suggestyng and mouyng some vyce, vnder the colour of vertue” (“The angel of Satan … ever suggesting and prompting some vice, under the color of virtue”).

English borrowed “suggest” from Latin, where suggest- is the past participial stem of suggerĕre (to bring up, supply, provide), according to the dictionary.

Over the years, Oxford says, it’s been used in “extended application, to propose as an explanation or solution, as a course of action, as a person or thing suitable for a purpose, or the like.”

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Are you feeling pressurized?

Q: To “pressurize” is, to my mind, quite different from to “pressure.” The former means to inflate something and the latter to put pressure on someone. So why does our inflationary language permit “pressurize” to have both meanings?

A: Well, “pressurize” isn’t a word we’d use in place of “put pressure on” or simply “pressure.” It’s one of those words that seem unnecessary, like “orientate” in place of “orient,” or “preventative” in place of “preventive.”

But to “pressurize” in the nonphysical sense—to put pressure on—is a legitimate usage, one recognized in some standard dictionaries though perhaps not fully accepted in formal American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for instance, labels the verb “informal” when it means “to subject to psychological, political, or other nonphysical pressure,” as in “pressurized the government to enact reforms.”

And the verb is listed as a British usage (often spelled “pressurise”) in three standard dictionaries from the UK: Oxford Dictionaries Online and the online Collins and Macmillan dictionaries.

The verb “pressurize” came along in the 20th century with a purely physical meaning, to manipulate atmospheric pressure in a closed space. And before long, it was being used in the sense you’re talking about, to manipulate a person—that is, to “put pressure on” or “pressure” someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the physical sense as “to produce or maintain pressure artificially in (a container, closed space, etc.); spec. to maintain a close-to-normal atmospheric pressure in (an aircraft cabin) at high altitudes.”

The earliest use we’ve found is from the late 1930s: “Without pressurized cabins, planes now fly as high as 14,000 feet; with them, passengers will feel no discomfort at DC-4’s service ceiling, 22,900 feet.” (From Time magazine, May 23, 1938. Here the verb is in the form of a participial adjective.)

The OED’s first citation also uses the verb “pressurize” adjectivally: “The pressurizing mechanism maintains ideal weather within this passenger chamber.” (From an Illinois newspaper, the Freeport Journal-Standard, March 19, 1940.)

The dictionary’s next citation is from a 1944 issue of the journal Aeronautics: “The fuselage will be pressurized so that at all altitudes cabin conditions will be equivalent to a height of 8,000 ft.”

Soon “pressurize” was being used in a more personal sense. The OED defines this as “to subject to moral, psychological, or other non-physical pressure; to put pressure on; to coerce, influence, or urge.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Thus, selective service continues to ‘pressurize’ recalcitrant military unfits into war plants.” (From an Ohio newspaper, the Lima News, Jan. 17, 1945.)

And this is the most recent: “Zia was also pressurized by the United States to roll back the nuclear weapons programme.” (From a 2002 book, The Nuclearization of South Asia, by Kamal Matinuddin.)

However, we’ve found an outlier, a rare example from the 1880s: “If they can wheedle or pressurise the rackrenters into doing what the Lansdownes and Lismores have found it necessary to do, they shall have our hearty good will in the operation.” (From an article about Irish politics, published in the Freeman’s Journal in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 15, 1887.)

We’ll disregard that flash in the pan, and say that for all practical purposes this nonphysical use of “pressurize” was born in the mid-20th century.

As far as we can tell, it’s not a common US usage. In news items, it mostly appears in articles from other English-speaking countries. Most Americans apparently use “pressure” or “put pressure on” when they mean to press, urge, or exert influence on.

The OED discusses the phrase “put pressure on” within its entry for the noun “pressure” as used in the sense of coercion, influence, or psychological force.

As Oxford says, “to put (also bring, exert) pressure on” means “to urge or press strongly or coercively,” or “to apply influence or psychological force.” And a similar phrase, “to bring pressure to bear,” means “to exert influence to a specific end, esp. on a person or thing.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for these phrases is from a 19th-century American newspaper: “The fleet going to the waters of an allied power, not for the purpose of injuring it, or putting any pressure on it, but on the contrary, to be ready to assist that power should it desire.” (The New-York Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1853.)

The earliest example of the “bring pressure to bear” version is from the other side of the Atlantic: “Some pressure had evidently been brought to bear.” (From a letter written by Sir William Hardman on April 21, 1864.)

The dictionary also has examples of variant phrases that mean the same thing, “bring pressure on” (1875) and “exert pressure on” (1961).

To clarify this use of “pressure,” perhaps we should begin with the word that started it all—the noun “press,” meaning a device for compressing, crushing, and so on.

This noun entered late Old English before the Norman Conquest as presse, an early borrowing from French. And in its earliest appearance, in a document that scholars have dated from the late 10th to early 11th century, the word meant a device for stretching and smoothing cloth.

Here’s the OED citation, from a partial list of the tools and machinery used in making textiles: “flexlinan, spinle, reol, gearnwindan, stodlan, lorgas, presse, pihten.” The list is from an Old English manuscript known as the Gerefa, outlining the duties of a gerefa, or reeve, a word that here refers to the steward or manager of an estate.

Those terms can be translated and explained as “flax lines” (for hanging spun flax), “spindle,” “reel” (or bobbin), “yarn winders,” “uprights” (for a vertical loom), “heddle rods” (allowing the weaver to insert the weft threads), “press” (for stretching and smoothing finished cloth), “comb-beater” (for compacting the weft threads).

Our explanation of those Old English terms comes from R. G. Poole’s article “The Textile Inventory in the Old English Gerefa,” published in the Review of English Studies, November 1989.

In later use, the noun “press” had many other meanings related to the exertion of a steady force or a heavy weight.

Instruments called “presses,” according to OED citations, were used in squeezing grapes and olives (circa 1390); in printing and engraving (1535); in torturing prisoners (1742); and in preserving plant specimens (1776).

Other nouns developed in turn, as in the use of “press” to mean a publisher (1579) and print journalism in general (1649).

The verb “press” came after the noun. It first appeared in Middle English around 1330 and had “multiple origins,” the OED says.

The verb was partly derived from the earlier English noun, the dictionary says, but it was also borrowed partly from the French verb presser (to torment, torture, squeeze, harass, crowd) and from the Latin verb pressāre (to exert pressure on, weigh down, press together, squeeze, suppress).

Since the Middle Ages, the English verb has had both literal and figurative meanings—to physically or mentally push, squeeze, crowd, compress, and so on.

For example, “press” in the sense of to bear down (1300s) gave us the adjective “hard-pressed.” Originally it had only the literal sense, firmly compacted (“harde pressed matter,” 1562). But the 18th century brought the figurative meaning: strained or in difficulty (“hard-press’d Virtue,” 1702; “hard pressed to defend themselves,” 1747).

This brings us to the noun “pressure,” which came into English in the late 1300s and originally meant physical pain or discomfort.

In the OED’s earliest example, from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, “pressure” refers to the pains of childbirth: “Whanne sche hath borun a sone, now sche thenkith not on the pressure or charge for ioye” (“When she has borne a son, she no longer thinks of the pain and inconvenience because of the joy”).

Very soon, “pressure” came to mean “mental oppression or affliction; the burden of grief, troubles, etc.,” the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from The Imitation of Christ, an English translation in the late 1400s of the Latin devotional by Thomas à Kempis: “Þy grace … is … liȝt of þe herte, þe solace of pressure” (“Thy grace … is … light of the heart, the comfort for affliction”).

Then later, in the mid-1600s, “pressure” came to mean a state of difficulty (as in “financial pressure”). This, the OED says, led to the current meaning of “an external force or difficulty causing a person stress or tension,” and hence “a strain, a stress.” Here are a pair of the dictionary’s early and late examples:

“Now is the Time to relieve the poor Farmers, that they may recover their past Losses, and be free from the like Pressures for the future.” (From a British journal, the Landlord’s Companion, 1742.)

“Not that they do not want freedom; but it brings pressures and choices with which they find it hard to cope.” (The Times, London, March 30, 1976.)

The “pressure” that’s meant in the phrase “put pressure on” is the kind that comes from people and not from circumstances. The OED defines it this way: “Psychological or moral influence, esp. of a constraining or oppressive kind,” as in “coercion, persuasion, or dissuasion.”

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “pressure” is from an essay by Francis Bacon (1625), which mentions “pressure of Consciences.”

And the word still has that meaning. This is the OED’s most recent example: “An esthetic judgment can be changed, or confirmed, only under renewed contact with the work of art in question, not through reflection or under the pressure of argument.” (From the posthumously published Homemade Esthetics, 1999, by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who died in 1994.)

The latecomer here is the verb “pressure,” which appeared in the early 20th century and means “to apply pressure to, esp. to coerce or persuade by applying psychological or moral pressure,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Debates of the House of Commons of Canada (1911): “Extreme protection brought the formation of gigantic trusts, which pressured the consumers, who are now in open revolt against that regime.”

In addition, “to pressure” can mean “to press or agitate” for something (first used this way in 1922), or “to gain through the application of pressure” (1944), as in to “pressure” a settlement.

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Can a company be a ‘who’?

Q: I listen to NPR a lot and hear people say things like “a company who is hiring more workers” or “a school who is putting on a festival.” Did I miss the memo that said “who” had replaced “that” and “which”? What is your take on it?

A: We hadn’t noticed this use of “who” for things rather than people until you brought it to our attention. We’re now seeing it a bit, though not all that often in the mainstream media.

In fact, we’ve found only one example in a search of NPR transcripts. Here it is, along with some other “company who” sightings from news sites online:

“It isn’t the best look for a company who is trying to maintain investor confidence” (NPR, Sept. 25, 2018).

“As a company who is just beginning to take its technology out of the lab and into the market, focus is everything” (Forbes, Sept 10, 2018).

“We need to see some units designated as workforce housing and managed by a company who is (already) doing it” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 10, 2018).

“A company who is making more money by cutting back rather than by growing is not an attractive investment and the stock will drop” (Nasdaq, April 13, 2018).

In all those examples, speakers of standard English would normally use “that” or “which” in place of “who.” We should note that some of the examples are from people being interviewed on the news sites, not by journalists at those sites.

Typically, “who” is used only for people and animals with names. Inanimate things and nameless animals are referred to as “that” or “which.”

However, some sentences that at first glance look like those examples above are indeed standard English, as in this definition of “executive secretary” from Macmillan Dictionary online:

“someone with a senior position in a company who is responsible for helping people in senior positions with organization and management.” (The “who” here refers to “someone,” not “company.”)

In the uses we’re discussing, “who,” “that,” and “which” are relative pronouns, words that introduce dependent (or subordinate) clauses, as in these examples: “He’s the guy who stole my car” … “This is the car that [or which] he stole.”

By the way, many people erroneously believe “that” can refer only to a thing, not to a person. However, “that” has been used for both people and things for about 800 years, and the usage is standard English (as in “He’s the guy that found my car”).

On a related issue, a dependent clause that’s not essential (one that can be removed without losing the main point of the sentence) customarily begins with “which” and is set apart with commas: “Mac and cheese, which is our favorite dish, is on the menu twice a week.”

A dependent clause that’s essential can begin with either “that” or “which,” and has no commas: “We prefer the mac and cheese that [or which] comes with wieners.” As we wrote in 2013, “that” is more common in the US and “which” in the UK, though there’s no rule requiring either one in essential clauses.

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A verb to be suspicioned?

Q: I recently saw this pitch online for a silk throw: “Comes complete with the Hyena label to show you really are as cool as your friends had suspicioned!” I can’t believe that use of “suspicion” as a verb is ever correct. Or am I just behind the times? (I’m almost 65.)

A: You can find the verb “suspicion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as well as in several standard dictionaries.

However, the usage is variously described as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or substandard. We’d add unidiomatic—that is, not natural for a native speaker of standard English.

The use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect” appeared in English in the early 1600s, according to the OED, but this early sighting “appears to be a fortuitous occurrence unrelated to later uses.”

Here’s the early outlier: “Suspicioning of himselfe, that if he should grow negligent, he might come to loose his magnanimity” (from the English scholar Nicholas Ferrar’s translation, sometime before his death in 1637, of a treatise by the Spanish religious writer Juan de Valdés).

The usage, described as “dialect and colloq.” in the OED, reappeared in the early 1800s on the other side of the Atlantic, and it’s been found since then in both American and British English.

The earliest US example we’ve seen, cited by the Dictionary of American Regional English, is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, a New Englander, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense … as … to suspicion one.” (Knight, who later became an Episcopal clergyman, published a collection of his letters in 1824 under the pseudonym “Arthur Singleton, Esq.”)

The OED’s first 19th-century British example (from Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America, 1839) quotes an American: “I suspicion as much.”

The next one is from Stanton Grange: or, At a Private Tutor’s (1864), by John Christopher Atkinson: “They suspicioned all wasn’t reet” (“right” was pronounced “reet” in some British dialects).

DARE describes the usage as “old-fash.” and says it’s especially found in the  South and South Midland regions of the US.

The regional dictionary has more than two dozen US examples. The latest four, dated 1986, are from Tennessee (“They suspicion he did it”), Georgia (“Where you might be suspicioned”), Arizona (“It was suspicioned”), and Florida (“They sort of suspicioned”). DARE cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States: Concordance, edited by Lee Pedersen, for these four examples.

The OED citations indicate that the verb “suspicion” is usually transitive (with an object), as in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel Tom Sawyer: “Anybody would suspicion us that saw us.”

But the verb is occasionally intransitive, as in “An Habitation Enforced,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling in the August 1905 issue of Century Magazine: “An’ d’you mean to tell me you never suspicioned?”

We’ve found four standard dictionaries that include the use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect.” It’s labeled “informal” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), “chiefly dialectal” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Informal or Dial.” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), and “chiefly substandard” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

As for the etymology, the noun and verb “suspicion” as well as the noun, adjective, and verb “suspect” ultimately come from suspicĕre, classical Latin for “look up to,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, suspicĕre “evolved metaphorically along two lines: ‘look up to, admire,’ which has since died out, and ‘look at secretly,’ hence ‘look at distrustfully,’ which has passed into English.”

The English word “suspect” comes from suspect-, the past participial stem of suspicĕre, while the English word “suspicion” comes from suspectio, a medieval Latin derivative of suspicĕre.

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‘Whatever’ or ‘what ever’?

Q: Is the one-word or two-word form correct here? Or are both correct? If not, which is preferred? And why? (1) Whatever happened to so-and-so? (2) What ever happened to so-and-so?

A: The compound words formed with the adverb “ever” were originally two separate words, though today they’re nearly always written as one: “whoever,” “however,” “wherever,” and so on.

But in the case of “what” + “ever,” you have a choice when asking a question. “Whatever” is more common, but “what ever” is also used to underscore the emphatic nature of “ever” (as in “What ever do you mean?” or “What ever could have happened?”).

Most standard dictionaries don’t include a separate entry for “what ever.” The few that do say “what ever” is more emphatic than “whatever.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, says “what ever” is “used for emphasis in questions, typically expressing surprise or confusion,” and it gives this example: “What ever did I do to deserve him?”

The online Macmillan Dictionary says the two-word version is “used for emphasizing a question, especially when you are surprised or upset,” and gives this example: “What ever gave you that idea?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has no separate entry for “what ever,” but mentions it in a usage note in its entry for “whatever”:

“Both whatever and what ever may be used in sentences such as Whatever (or What ever) made her say that? … In adjectival uses, however, only the one-word form is used: Take whatever (not what ever) books you need.”

We mention “whatever” (also “whatsoever”) in a 2011 post we wrote about similar two- and three-word compounds. Among the other words we discuss are “albeit,” “heretofore,” “inasmuch,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding.”

Most of the “ever” combinations came along during the Middle English period—roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Although they started out as phrases, they’re now “usually” or “always” written as single words, depending on where you look in the OED.

As the dictionary explains, “ever” is used “following interrogative adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions (e.g. how, what, when, where, who, why), to intimate that the speaker has no idea of what the answer will be.”

So the “ever” in “whatever” lends emphasis to a question that could very well be asked with “what” alone. (In fact, “whatever” is sometimes called an emphatic interrogative pronoun.)

And the two-word “what ever,” which isolates and underscores the “ever” part of the compound, further accentuates the note of surprise, bewilderment, or disbelief.

The earliest “ever” compound, and the only one known to have existed in Old English, was the pronoun “whoever” (written hwa æfre), according to Oxford citations.

The others, along with the dates they first appeared, include the pronoun and adjective “whatever” (written “what euer,” early 1300s); the adverb “however” (“hou-euer,” c. 1380); the adverb and conjunction “whenever” (“whanne evere,” c. 1380), the adverb and conjunction “wherever” (“ware euere,” c. 1275); and the adverb “why ever” (1660), the only one still generally written as two words.

The OED’s earliest citation for “whatever” is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “But what euer he had in þouȝt” (“But whatever he had in thought”). Here the word is a pronoun introducing a clause.

Soon the compound was also being written as one word, as in this OED example: “Son, what may al this noys be … Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?” (From a manuscript of The Seuyn Sages that probably dates from around 1330.) Here the pronoun is interrogative.

The OED has many examples of both “whatever” and “what ever” over the centuries. And the two-word version is still around, as in this citation from Vanity Fair in November 2013: “What ever happened to style?”

“Whatever” is also used following a noun to mean something like “at all,” in which case it behaves like an adverb. The examples range from 1623 (“more withered and dry than … any other Tree whateuer”) to 1884 (“had no chance whatever”). In this usage, it’s always one word.

And as we all know, “whatever” is also used as an interjection in a sometimes dismissive way, as in “Yeah, whatever.”

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.”

Oxford labels the usage colloquial and says it originated in the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1965 episode of the TV series Bewitched.

As fans of the sitcom will recall, Samantha’s mother, Endora, persisted in mispronouncing her son-in-law’s name. Here’s the exchange cited in the OED:

Endora. “Good morning, Derwood.”
Samantha. “Darrin.”
Endora. “Whatever.”

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What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: new words and how they make it into the dictionary.

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When there’s a ‘there’ there

Q: Some academic colleagues and I have lamented the tendency of other colleagues to write ponderous sentences that begin with “There is” and go on with something such as “a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market.” Do you agree with our biases against “There is” constructions?

A: No, we don’t.

We do agree that a sentence like “There is a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market” would be much stronger as “Regulators tend to ignore the demands of the market.”

And it’s true that many handbooks of writing lament the so-called “dummy,” “pleonastic,” or “expletive” construction, names given to sentences beginning with “It is,” “There is,” or “There are.” Granted, too much of this can make a person’s writing seem weak and tedious.

But the usage shouldn’t be condemned outright. The use of  “it” or “there” as an anticipatory or preparatory subject can be quite useful and in some cases necessary. In fact, great writers have used the construction memorably. Here are two examples from Shakespeare:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (from Julius Caesar, believed written in 1599).

“It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (from Othello, probably written in 1603).

Getting back to the mundane, how else would we talk about the weather? (“It’s sleeting” … “It looks like snow” … “There’s a chance of rain.”)

And in many other types of statements, “it” or “there” is the most reasonable way of beginning.

Constructions like “There’s no way of knowing” and “It’s likely they’ll lose” and “It’s been established that he’s guilty” are more natural and idiomatic than the alternatives (“No way of knowing exists” … “That they’ll lose is likely” … “That he’s guilty has been established”).

In fact, when a subordinate clause is the subject of a sentence (as in those last two examples), the clause routinely follows the verb and the dummy subject “it” precedes the verb.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ” The dictionary’s examples date as far back as the 700s.

In some cases, the use of “it” or “there” as a dummy subject, with the real one placed after the verb, is a handy way to emphasize an element.  “There’s a fly in my soup,” with the delayed stress on “fly,” is more effective than the deadpan “A fly is in my soup.”

The OED also discusses “there” as a “mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.” Its citations from English writing date back to the 800s.

This construction can be used, Oxford says, “for the sake of emphasis or preparing the hearer.” The dictionary illustrates with these examples: “there comes a time when [etc.]” and “there was heard a rumbling noise.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has this example of “it” in an extremely common English construction: “It upset me that she didn’t write.”

Here “it” is a “dummy pronoun filling the subject position,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The meaning of the sentence, they say, is the same as “That she didn’t write upset me.”

But “it” can also fill the object position. The Cambridge Grammar uses this example, which would be difficult to express in any other way: “I find it strange that no one noticed the error.”

In that case, the authors write, the dummy pronoun “it” fills the object position, replacing a true object that has been “extraposed”—the “embedded content clause” beginning with “that.”

We’ve written several times about dummy constructions, including posts in 2015 (about the use of “it” in talking about the weather); in 2014 (about using “it” to clarify a murky subordinate clause); and in 2013 (when the logical subject is an infinitive, as in “It was futile to resist”).

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Me, myself, and I

Q: In the 1960s, I began noticing the use of “myself” as a cover for the inability of the speaker/writer to know whether “I” or “me” is correct. Can you predate that?

A: English speakers have been using “myself” in place of the common pronouns “I” and “me” since the Middle Ages, and the usage wasn’t questioned until the late 1800s, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Critical language mavens argued that “myself’ (and other “-self” words) should be used only for emphasis (“Let me do it myself”) or reflexively—that is, to refer back to the subject (“She saw herself in the mirror”).

Alfred Ayres was apparently the first language writer to question the broader usage. In The Verbalist, his 1881 usage manual, Ayres criticizes the routine use of “myself” for “I”:

“This form of the personal pronoun is properly used in the nominative case only where increased emphasis is aimed at.”

Some modern usage writers still insist that “-self” pronouns should be used only emphatically or reflexively, but others accept their broader use as subjects and objects.

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner objects to the wider usage, while in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield accepts it.

We believe that “myself” and company should primarily be used for emphasis or to refer back to the subject. And we suspect that some people fall back on “myself” when they’re unsure whether “I” or “me” would be grammatically correct.

However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with using “myself” and other reflexive pronouns more expansively for euphony, style, rhythm, and so on. Respected writers have done just that for centuries, both before and after the language gurus raised objections.

This example is from a letter written on March 2, 1782, by the lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Williams, and Desmoulins, and myself are very sickly.”

And here are some of the many other examples that Merriam-Webster has collected from writers who were undoubtedly aware of the proper uses of “I” and “me”:

“the pot I placed with Miss Williams, to be eaten by myself” (Samuel Johnson, letter, Jan. 9, 1758);

“both myself & my Wife must” (William Blake, letter, July 6, 1803);

“no one would feel more gratified by the chance of obtaining his observations on a work than myself” (Lord Byron, letter, Aug. 23, 1811);

“Mr. Rushworth could hardly be more impatient for the marriage than herself” (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814);

“it will require the combined efforts of Maggie, Providence, and myself” (Emily Dickinson, letter, April 1873);

“I will presume that Mr. Murray and myself can agree that for our purpose these counters are adequate” (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1932);

“with Dorothy Thompson and myself among the speakers” (Alexander Woollcott, letter, Nov. 11, 1940);

“which will reconcile Max Lerner with Felix Frankfurter and myself with God” (E. B. White, letter, Feb. 4, 1942);

“The Dewas party and myself got out at a desolate station” (E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi, 1953);

“When writing an aria or an ensemble Chester Kallman and myself always find it helpful” (W. H. Auden, Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 2, 1967).

In those examples, “myself” is being used for “I” or “me” in three ways: (1) for “I” as the subject of a verb; (2) for “me” as the object of a verb; and (3) for “me” as the object of a preposition.

When “myself” is used as a subject, it’s usually accompanied by other pronouns or nouns, as in the Auden example above. However, the M-W usage guide notes that “myself” is sometimes used alone in poetry as the subject of a verb:

“Myself hath often heard them say” (Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1594);

“My selfe am so neare drowning?” (Ben Johnson, Ode, 1601);

“Myself when young did eagerly frequent” (Edward FitzGerald, translation, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1859);

“Somehow myself survived the night” (Emily Dickinson, poem, 1871).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes “-self” pronouns used expansively as “override reflexives”—that is, “reflexives that occur in place of a more usual non-reflexive in a restricted range of contexts where there is not the close structural relation between reflexive and antecedent that we find with basic reflexives.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say (as we do above) that the substitution of “myself” for “me” and “I” may sometimes be the result of uncertainty about the rules for using the two common pronouns.

“Much the most common override is 1st person myself,” Huddleston and Pullum write. “The reflexive avoids the choice between nominative and accusative me, and this may well favour its use in coordinate and comparative constructions, where there is divided usage and hence potential uncertainty for some speakers as to which is the ‘approved’ case.”

The use of override reflexives, especially “myself,” has been “the target of a good deal of prescriptive criticism,” the authors say, adding: “there can be no doubt, however, that it is well established.”

The M-W usage guide, which accepts the moderate use of “myself” for “I” and “me,” notes that the prescriptive criticism has often been contradictory, relying on such labels as “snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English.”

It’s hard to tell when people confused by “I” and “me” began using “myself” as a substitute. But it may have begun in the late 19th century, prompting those early complaints about the usage. Some of those adjectives used by critics (“nonstandard,” “incorrect,” “mistaken,” etc.) may have referred to the English of people with a shaky grasp of grammar.

As for the early etymology, all three of those first-person singular pronouns showed up in Anglo-Saxon times—“I” as the Old English ic, ih, or ich; “me” as mē or mec; “myself” as mē self. In the 12th century the ic spelling was shortened to and gradually began being capitalized in the 13th century, as we wrote in a 2011 post.

In Old English, spoken from roughly the 5th to the 12th centuries, “myself” was used  emphatically or reflexively. In Middle English, spoken from about the 12th to the 15th centuries, “myself” was also used as a subject of a verb, an object of a verb, and an object of a preposition.

Here’s an early example from the Oxford English Dictionary of “myself” used as the subject of a verb: “Sertes, my-selue schal him neuer telle” (“Certainly, myself shall never tell him”). It’s from The Romance of William of Palerne, a poem translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375.

And this is an example of “myself” as the object of a verb: “Mine þralles i mire þeode me suluen þretiað” (“My servants and my people shall threaten myself”). From Layamon’s Brut, a poem written sometime before 1200.

Finally, here’s “myself” used as the object of a preposition: “Þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“The lands that he has he holds for myself”). Also from The Romance of William of Palerne.

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Doctor’s or doctor appointment?

Q: Why do I use a possessive when I say, “I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday”? I never hear anyone say, “I have a doctor appointment.”

A: Of the two phrases, “doctor’s appointment” is much more common in digitized books, news, and other media, but “doctor appointment” is not unknown.

Searches of the News on the Web corpus, for example, indicate that “doctor’s appointment” has appeared 1,354 times since 2010 in the online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters tracked, compared to 78 appearances for “doctor appointment.”

Although the wording with ’s is more common for an appointment with a “doctor,” the plain construction is used more often for an appointment with a “dentist” as well as with a “cardiologist,” “dermatologist,” and some other medical specialists, according to our searches.

Strictly speaking, “doctor’s appointment” is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), the type (“a women’s college”), a part (“the book’s cover”), an amount (“two cups’ worth”), duration (“five years’ experience”), and so on.

In the phrase “doctor’s appointment,” the noun “doctor” is being used genitively to describe the type of appointment, while in “doctor appointment,” the noun is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to do the same thing.

The term “doctor’s” in the first example is often called a “descriptive genitive,” and “doctor” in the second an “attributive noun,” a “noun adjunct,” or a “noun premodifier.”

There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for whether to use a noun genitively or attributively as a modifier before another noun. However, some usages are more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than others.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors Randolph Quirk et al. say that genitives tend to premodify nouns referring to human beings, while attributive nouns are often closely related to the nouns they premodify.

So we might use genitives for “women’s college,” “cashier’s check,” or “learner’s permit,” and attributive nouns for “computer software,” “movie highlights,” or “pizza topping.”

However, there are many exceptions. For instance, one might use the genitive in that last example to be more specific (“the pizza’s topping was cold”).

It’s especially hard to pin down the use of the descriptive genitive. Another authoritative source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, uses the term but describes it as “a somewhat unproductive category.”

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, note, “while it is possible to have a summer’s day and a winter’s day, corresponding forms for the other seasons are quite marginal.”

Similarly, they write, “we have a ship’s doctor but not a school’s doctor—instead a plain-case nominative is used, a school doctor.”

And that takes us back to where we began: Why is “doctor’s appointment” more common than “doctor appointment,” while “dentist appointment” is more common than “dentist’s appointment”?

We haven’t found an explanation in the linguistic scholarship for why English speakers prefer the genitive to describe an appointment with a “doctor.”

However, we suspect an attributive noun is preferred for “dentist” or similar terms ending in “-ist”  because people are put off by the two sibilants at the end of “dentist’s,” “dermatologist’s, “cardiologist’s,” and so on.

Finally, here are search results from the NOW corpus for a few other noun-noun constructions, with the more popular version of each pair listed first:

“driver’s license,” 8,966 hits, “driver license,” 306; “attorney fees,” 884, “attorney’s fees,” 681; “survivor benefits,” 291, “survivor’s benefits,” 38; “learner’s permit,” 237, “learner permit,” 171; “cashier’s check,” 161, “cashier check,” 6.

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When ‘should’ means ‘would’

Q: In re-watching Downton Abbey, I’ve noticed that “should” is used in many places where I’d use “would.” For example, “If I were you, I should keep my mouth shut.” It’s very confusing at first to figure out what is meant. How did this usage evolve, and is it still heard in England?

A: We didn’t see that specific example in a search of Downton Abbey transcripts, but here’s a similar use of “should” by Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from season 4, episode 3, of the TV series:

“If I were to search for logic, I should not look for it among the English upper class.”

In that example, “should” is used as an auxiliary verb to introduce a hypothetical future action, a usage that’s now generally expressed with “would” on both sides of the Atlantic.

The use of “should” for “would” can be confusing because “should” is commonly used to mean “ought to,” and “would” to mean “might.”

Why did Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, use “should” in that episode, which is set in the early 1920s?

To answer that, we’ll have to look at an old rule that drew a strict line between the use of “shall” and “will.” Here’s how we describe the rule in a 2011 post:

  • When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).
  • When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

As we note in that post, this so-called traditional rule has been observed more often in the UK than in the US, and the British haven’t been very observant.

John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician, introduced the rule in the 17th century in Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, an English grammar book written (believe it or not) in Latin:

“In primis personis, shall simpliciter praedicentis est; will, quasi promittentis aut minantis / In secundis et tertiis personis, shall promittentis est aut minantis; will simpliciter praedicentis” (“In the first person, shall is simply for predicting, while will is for promising or threatening. / In the second and third persons, shall is for promising or threatening, while will is simply for predicting”).

Wallis applied the rule only to “shall” and “will,” but later usage writers broadened it to require “should” in the first person for future, conditional, and interrogative usages.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, not long after the events portrayed in that Downton Abbey episode, Henry W. Fowler writes:

“Plain future or conditional statements & questions in the first person should have shall, should; the roman-type wills and woulds in the following examples are wrong.” Fowler’s no-no’s include “we will teach” … “we will soon be” … “will, I fear” … “we won’t get” … “would be a knave” … “would not” … “we would always get.”

So a dowager countess might very well have used “should” instead of “would” in the early 1920s.

However, Wallis’s old rule for using “shall” and “will,” as well as its expansion to “should” and “would,” has never been widely observed in the US or the UK—except for the use of “shall” in the first person in questions and legal documents.

As Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), says in the latest (2015) version of the usage guide, “It is unlikely that the rule ever had its foundation in real usage, although it may have applied to some people some of the time.”

“The supposed rule is a dead letter in speech, and in most kinds of writing,” Butterfield writes. “It is broadly true that shall and should have largely retreated in the standard language even as used in England. In other English-speaking areas shall and should have been almost totally replaced by will and would, or by the reduced forms I’ll/we’ll. There is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.”

[Note, July 23, 2018. A reader in Australia writes: “I have never forgotten our English teacher’s explanation of the difference (London, England, late 1940s). You are on the beach and hear a voice calling out. By paying careful attention to the grammar, you can decide whether or not to enter the surf and risk your own life! ‘I shall drown! And no-one will save me!’ is a plea to be rescued. ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me!’ is an announcement of firm intent to commit suicide!”

We’ve often come across this old memory aid, which was widely published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest example we’ve found is more than 200 years old. It’s from a short “filler” item published in the Feb. 4, 1804, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine: “Difference Between Shall and Will. A Frenchman tumbled overboard, and sang out: ‘I will drown, and nobody shall help me.’ The sailors told him ‘drown and be d—d.’  Had he said, ‘I shall drown, and nobody will help me,’ the sailors would have saved him.”]

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‘More’ or ‘-er’? ‘Most’ or ‘-est’?

Q: Is there a rule for when to use “more” and “most” to form comparatives and superlatives, and when to use “er” and “est”? Why do we have two ways to do this?

A: There’s no “rule” about using “more” and “most” versus “-er” and “-est” to express the comparative and superlative. But there are some common conventions.

With “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the normal mode” of forming the comparative and superlative is by using “more” and “most.”

A few one-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives and superlatives with “more” and “most” instead of with “-er” and “-est” suffixes, according to the OED.

The dictionary adds that “more” is also sometimes used with words of one or two syllables that would normally have “-er” comparatives, like “busy,” “high,” “slow,” “true,” and so on. Why? Here’s how Oxford explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

The OED offers additional details about the the use of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes with adjectives and adverbs.

In modern English, the dictionary says, “the comparatives in -er are almost restricted to adjectives of one or two syllables,” while longer adjectives as well as two-syllable adjectives not ending in “-ly” or “-y” form the comparative “by means of the adverb more.”

The same goes for the “-est” suffix, which is used similarly to form the superlative of adjectives (Oxford points to its “-er” comparative entry for the “present usage” of the “-est” superlative).

As for the use of “-er” and “-est” with adverbs, those that have the same form as corresponding adjectives (“hard,” “fast,” “close,” etc.) chiefly form the comparative and superlative with “-er” and “-est,” while adverbs that end in “-ly” form the comparative with “more” and the superlative with “most.”

There are quite a few exceptions, of course. For a more comprehensive guide to how the comparative and superlative are expressed in English today, check out Jeremy Butterfield’s entry for “-er and -est, more and most” in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.).

How did we end up with two ways to express the comparative and superlative in English? In a 2008 post, we discuss the etymology of “more” and “most” as well as the history of the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

As we say in that post, the “-er” and “-est” suffixes have been used to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: -ra for the comparative, and -ost (sometimes -est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Meanwhile, there was another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives—that is, to do the job of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes.

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were once used with “-er” and “-est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.”

Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fittermore better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example) most unkindest.”

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When ‘nor’ means ‘neither’

Q: Will you please address the use of “nor” in Shakespeare? Sometimes it differs from modern usage (“Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry,” Antony & Cleopatra), and sometimes not (“He swore, had neither motion, guard, nor eye,” Hamlet).

A: You’ve spotted a construction that’s rare today—the poetic use of “nor” to mean “neither.”

This is sometimes seen in older poetry and drama, with “nor” replacing “neither” at the beginning of a series. So instead of writing “neither X nor Y,” a Shakespeare or a Dryden or a Pope might have written “nor X nor Y.”

As you noticed in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607) and Hamlet (c. 1600), Shakespeare might have used “nor” or “neither” at the beginning of a series—a choice undoubtedly determined by rhyme or reason.

The “nor” usage showed up in English writing around the beginning of the 16th century but is now rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s usually found in the construction “nor — nor —” and is chiefly poetic, the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from Scotland, and the use is official rather than poetic:

“Nor ȝitt [yet] at the Sowth Loch nor yitt [yet] the North Loch.” (The phrase “nor yet” here means “and also not.” This passage, dated 1499-1500, was published in 1869 in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh.)

All of the dictionary’s subsequent examples are from poetry or drama. Here’s a sampling, century by century.

1558: “Mischief close in keele doth growe, / Nor might of men can helpe, nor water floodes that on they throwe.” (From Thomas Phaer’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.)

1697: “Nor Bits nor Bridles can his Rage restrain.” (From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics.)

1726: “Now let our compact made / Be nor by signal nor by word betray’d.” (From Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.)

1800: “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken.” (From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

1913: “Nor God nor Daemon can undo the done, / Unsight the seen.” (From Thomas Hardy’s poem “To Meet, or Otherwise.”)

The most recent OED example is from Untitled Subjects (1969), a collection of poems by Richard Howard: “your only troth was plighted to Lady Laudanum, / to whom nor gout nor Paris could make you untrue.”

In a 2017 post, we discussed the use of the adverbs “neither” and “either” to introduce a series of more than two items, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (Coriolanus, c. 1605-08) … “Thou hast neither heate, affection, limbe, nor beautie” (Measure for Measure, c. 1604) … “They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1597).

As we remarked in 2017, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that “neither” and “either” can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

There’s a similar explanation in the OED. It says that “following a word, phrase, or clause which is negated with neither,” the conjunction “nor” is “used before the second or further of two or more alternatives, normally to negate each.”

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Are families people or things?

Q: My work at a university involves writing about families. When referring to them, should I use “who” or “that”? For example, “families who eat together” vs. “families that eat together.” In other words, are families people or things?

A: “That” is our oldest and most flexible relative pronoun. It’s been used since the Middle Ages for both people and things. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with “that.”

The relative pronoun “who,” on the other hand, is used exclusively for people and animals personified with personal names.

Grammatically speaking, the noun “family” (like “class,” “committee,” “orchestra,” “faculty,” and so on) is a thing, even though it’s made up of people. So your example should read “families that eat together.”

But even if one argues that the noun “family” implies people, “that” is an appropriate relative pronoun, since it can be used for both people and things.

Despite what many people think, there’s no foundation for the widespread belief that “that” should refer only to things and “who” only to people.

As Pat writes in her grammar book Woe Is I, “that has been used for people as well as inanimate things for some eight hundred years, and it’s standard English. The girl that married dear old Dad was Mom.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has examples from Anglo-Saxon times for “that” (ðæt, ðet, and þhet in Old English) used as a relative pronoun for both people and things.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “that” in reference to a thing is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written around 825: “In bebode ðæt ðu bibude” (“In the command that thou commanded”).

The OED’s earliest example of “that” referring to a person is from the Lambeth Homilies, written around 1175: “Þes Mon þhet alihte from ierusalem in to ierico” (“This man that descended from Jerusalem into Jericho”).

And “that” has been used in both ways ever since.

A post we wrote in 2007 includes an excerpt from A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, about the history of the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” and “which.” It’s worth repeating:

That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for. … Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

As we said in 2007, you can undoubtedly find writers on grammar and usage who disagree with this conclusion, but we think it’s sound. We still do.

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The prepositional subject

Q: I’m studying English in Japan, and I’m confused by the use of prepositional phrases as subjects, as in this example: “Across the field is the nearest way to the lake.” Is this a common usage? Can prepositional phrases be objects too?

A: A prepositional phrase can be the subject, object, or complement of a verb. This is a common construction in English, and often the verb is a form of “be,” as in your example. Here are a few more illustrations.

As subject: “Over the mantle is a good place for the mirror” … “From five to seven would be the best time.”

As object: “He directed between 50 and 60 movies” … “The project will take over a week.”

As complement: “A good place for the mirror is over the mantle” … “The best time would be from five to seven.”

(With a linking verb like “be,” a subject complement occupies the position of the object.)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language cites these examples, with “spent” as the verb: “Over a year was spent on this problem” (subject) … “I spent over a year here” (object).

Prepositional phrases can be modifiers, too. So they can act as adverbs (“Puffin lies on the bed” … “In the afternoon, Puffin naps”) or as adjectives (“The cat on the bed is Puffin” … “Naps in the afternoon are her favorite”).

In fact, a prepositional phrase “is by far the commonest type of postmodification in English,” according to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

The authors give many examples of such modifiers following nouns, including “the car outside the station,” “the road to Lincoln,” “this book on grammar,” “passengers on board the ship,” “action in case of fire,” “the house beyond the church,” and “two years before the war.”

In addition, the authors explain, prepositional phrases can complement a verb (“We were looking at his awful paintings“) or an adjective (“I’m sorry for his parents“).

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When Dickens don’t use ‘doesn’t’

Q: While reading Dickens, I’ve noticed the use of “don’t” where we would now use “doesn’t.” In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for example, the boastful auctioneer Thomas Sapsea says, “it don’t do to boast of what you are.”

A: What standard dictionaries say today about these contractions is fairly clear cut:

  • “Doesn’t” (for “does not”) should be used in the third person singular—with “he,” “she,” “it,” and singular nouns.
  • “Don’t” (for “do not”) is correct in all other uses—with “I,” “we,” “you,” “they,” and plural nouns. In the third person singular, “don’t” is considered nonstandard.

As you’ve noticed, however, it’s not unusual to find “don’t” used in place of “doesn’t” in 18th- and 19th-century fiction, like the example you found in that unfinished 1870 novel.

Was the usage ever “correct”? As is often the case with English, this is not a “yes or no” question.

In our opinion, this way of using “don’t” was always somewhat irregular (the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it was regional or nonstandard from the start).

And as we’ll explain later, we think that in your example Dickens used “it don’t” colloquially to show that Mr. Sapsea didn’t speak the very best English.

The history of these contractions begins two centuries before Dickens. Both were formed in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular, according to M-W. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

With the verb itself so unsettled, it’s not surprising that the state of the contractions was even more chaotic.

In fact, M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

It’s significant that “don’t” was on the scene first; for a long while it was the only present-tense contraction for “do.” It was used as short for “do not” and (rightly or wrongly) for “does not.”

The earliest known written uses of “don’t” are from plays of the 1630s, though spoken forms were surely around long before that. And in the earliest OED examples, it’s used in the standard way—as short for “do not.”

The dictionary’s first example is dated 1633: “False Eccho, don’t blaspheme that glorious sexe.” (From Jasper Fisher’s Fuimus Troes, a verse drama; though published in 1633, it was probably performed a decade or so earlier.)

The next example is from William Cartwright’s The Ordinary, believed written about 1635: “Don’t you see December in her face?”

The OED also has a citation (with “I don’t”) from a comedy first acted in 1635 and published in 1640, Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden. And we’ve found a couple of interrogative uses (“dont you” and “dont they”) in a 1639 comedy, Jasper Mayne’s The City Match.

But “doesn’t,” with various spellings, wasn’t recorded until decades later—spelled “dozn’t” in 1678 and “doesn’t” in 1694, according to OED citations.

Even after “doesn’t” came on the scene, it apparently wasn’t common until at least a century later. Most uses of “doesn’t” that we’ve found in historical databases are from the 1760s or later, and it didn’t start appearing regularly (at least in writing) until the 1800s.

Before then, most writers used the uncontracted form, “does not,” even in fictional dialogue. The use of “don’t” in the third person singular was apparently irregular. The OED cites “he don’t,” “she don’t,” and “it don’t” among examples of regional or nonstandard uses, dating from 1660.

But to be fair, it seems only natural that mid-17th century British writers seeking a contraction for “does not” would use “don’t” in colloquial dialogue if “doesn’t” was unknown to them.

And no one can argue the fact that the earliest contraction people used for “does not” was “don’t.” Many continued to do so long after “doesn’t” came into the language.

M-W says, for example, that from the 17th through 19th centuries, the third person singular “don’t seems to have had unimpeachable status.” It cites examples (mostly in letters) by Horace Walpole, Charles Lamb, George Bernard Shaw, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Only after the usage was condemned in the latter half of the 19th century, M-W says, was this sense of “don’t” considered nonstandard.

We don’t agree entirely with M-W here. We’ve found hints that this use of “don’t” was regarded as less than exemplary by novelists of the 18th century.

For example, there are no irregular uses of “don’t” in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), in his Moll Flanders (1722), or in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (completed in 1767).

All three novels freely use “don’t” in the standard way and “does not” in the third person singular.

In Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740), we counted 14 examples of “don’t” in the third person singular—all but four used by servants—compared with 54 of “does not.”

We found no irregular uses of “don’t” in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and only two in his Tom Jones (1749)—spoken by a clerk and a servant.

Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) has four uses of this irregular “don’t,” three by servants and one by an eccentric duke. Otherwise Smollett uses “does not” in the third person singular.

So apparently the principal novelists of the 18th century did not consider the third person singular “don’t” a normal usage, except sometimes among the rural or working classes. (None of them ever used “doesn’t” in writing, as far as we can tell.)

Even in 19th-century fiction, it’s mostly working-class characters who use “don’t” in a nonstandard way (though the occasional aristocrat uses it in a slangy, casual manner).

Let’s consider your quotation from Charles Dickens. When he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he deliberately put the nonstandard “it don’t” into the mouth Mr. Sapsea, a conceited fool who is convinced he’s brilliant and has pretensions to good breeding. The character is introduced with these words:

“Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and conceit—a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more conventional than fair—then the purest Jackass in Cloisterham is Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.”

Sapsea isn’t the only character in the novel to use this irregular “don’t,” but the others are mostly laborers or servants. Those with higher education (teachers, clergy, etc.) use “does not.”

You don’t have to read 18th- or 19th-century fiction, however, to find nonstandard uses of “don’t.” They can be found in modern writing, too, mostly when the author intends to convey dialectal, regional, or uneducated English.

Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938), for instance, has many examples in the speech of working-class characters: “That don’t signify” … “it don’t make any odds” … “it don’t seem quite fair.”

But modern British authors sometimes use this irregular “don’t” in portraying sophisticated, affluent characters who are deliberately (even affectedly) careless or casual in their speech.

Take, for example, Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic, Oxford-educated detective in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels of the ’20s and ’30s. He not only drops a “g” here and there (“an entertainin’ little problem”), but he often uses “don’t” in the third-person singular.

To cite just a handful of examples: “gets on your nerves, don’t it?” … “it don’t do to say so” … “when he don’t know what else to say, he’s rude” … “it don’t do to wear it [a monocle] permanently” … “it don’t do to build too much on doctors’ evidence” … “it don’t account for the facts in hand.”

Lord Peter isn’t an 18th-century character. He’s a 20th-century snob, and when he uses such English, he’s slumming linguistically.

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