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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Ethos, logos, pathos

Q: A friend and I were recently discussing “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.” Having studied classical Greek, I asserted they should be pronounced as the ancients did: eth-ahs, lah-gahs, and pa-thahs. My friend said English has adopted the words so the commonly used pronunciations of eth-ohs, loh-gohs, and pay-thohs are now acceptable. Any help?

A: As you know, ἦθος (“ethos”), λόγος (“logos”), and πάθος (“pathos”) are in Aristotle’s ῥητορική (Rhetoric), a treatise on the art of persuasion. In the work, he uses “ethos” (character), “logos” (reason), and “pathos” (emotion) in describing the ways a speaker can appeal to an audience. (The classical Greek terms have several other meanings, which we’ll discuss later.)

When English adopted the terms in the 16th and 17th centuries, they began taking on new senses. Here are the usual English meanings now: “ethos,” the spirit of a person, community, culture, or era; “logos,” reason, the word of God, or Jesus in the Trinity; “pathos,” pity or sympathy as well as a quality or experience that evokes them.

So how, you ask, should an English speaker pronounce these Anglicized words?

In referring to the Rhetoric and other ancient texts, we’d use reconstructed classical Greek pronunciations (EH-thahs, LAH-gahs, PAH-thahs), though there’s some doubt as to how Aristotle and others actually pronounced the terms. But in their modern English senses, we’d use standard English pronunciations for “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.”

As it turns out, the 10 online standard dictionaries we regularly consult list a variety of acceptable English pronunciations that include the reconstructed ones:

  • EE-thohs, EE-thahs, EH-thohs, or EH-thahs;
  • LOH-gohs, LOH-gahs, or LAH-gahs;
  • PAY-thohs, PAY-thahs, PAY-thaws, PAH-thohs, or PAH-thahs.

(Our preferences would be EE-thohs, LOH-gohs, and PAY-thohs for the modern senses, though these aren’t terms we use every day in conversation.)

When English adopts a word from another language, the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, number, or function of the loanword often changes—if not at once, then over the years. This shouldn’t be surprising, since English itself changes over time. The Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons is barely recognizable now to speakers of modern English.

Similarly, the Attic dialect used by Aeschylus (circa 525-455 BC) differed from the Attic of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Doric dialect of Pindar (c. 518-438 BC), the Aeolic of Sappho (c. 630-570 BC), and the Ionic of the eighth-century BC Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

You were probably taught a reconstructed generic Attic pronunciation of the fifth century BC. The reconstruction originated with Erasmus in the early 16th century and was updated by historical linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The linguists considered such things as the meter in poetry, the way animal sounds were written, the spelling of Greek loanwords in Latin, usage in medieval and modern Greek, and the prehistoric Indo-European roots of the language.

But Attic, the dialect of classical Greek spoken in the Athens area, wasn’t generic—it was alive and evolving. And to use a fifth-century BC Attic reconstruction for all classical Greek spoken from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC is like using a generic Boston pronunciation of the 19th century for the English spoken in Alabama, New York, Ohio, and Maine from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

As for the etymology, English borrowed “ethos” from the classical Latin ēthos, which borrowed it in turn from ancient Greek ἦθος, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, the word meant character or the depiction of character. In Greek, it meant custom, usage, disposition, character, or the delineation of character in rhetoric.

When “ethos” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “character or characterization as revealed in action or its representation.” The first Oxford example is from Theatrum Poetarum (1675), by the English writer Edward Phillips:

“As for the Ethos … I shall only leave it to consideration whether the use of the Chorus … would not … advance then diminish the present.” Some scholars believe that the poet John Milton, an uncle who educated Phillips, contributed to the work, which is a list of major poets with critical commentary.

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, “ethos” came to mean “the characteristic spirit of a people, community, culture, or era as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations; the prevailing character of an institution or system.”

The first citation is from Confessions of an Apostate, an 1842 novel by Anne Flinders: “ ‘A sentiment as true as it is beautiful,’ I replied, ‘like the “austere beauty of the Catholic Ethos,” which we now see in perfection.’ ”

English adopted “logos” in the late 16th century from λόγος in classical Greek,  where it meant word, speech, discourse, or reason. The OED’s first English citation uses it as “a title of the Second Person of the Trinity,” or Jesus:

“We cal him Logos, which some translate Word or Speech, and othersome Reason” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

The OED says modern writers use the term “untranslated in historical expositions of ancient philosophical speculation, and in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity in its philosophical aspects.”

English got “pathos” in the late 16th century from the Greek πάθος, which meant suffering, feeling, emotion, passion, or an emotional style or treatment. In English, it first meant “an expression or utterance that evokes sadness or sympathy,” a usage that Oxford describes as rare today.

The dictionary’s earliest English example is from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), the first major poetical work by the Elizabethan writer Edmund Spenser: “And with, A very Poeticall pathos.” (The original 1579 poem uses παθός, but a 1591 version published during Spenser’s lifetime uses “pathos.”)

In the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the term took on the modern sense of “a quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness; the power of exciting pity; affecting character or influence.” The first citation is from “Of Dramatic Poesie,” a 1668 essay by John Dryden: “There is a certain gayety in their Comedies, and Pathos in their more serious Playes.”

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Shrink, shrank, shrunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like more, only more so

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can not, cannot, and can’t

Q: Can you please dwell in some detail on why “can not” is now usually written as “cannot”? Is there a linguistic reason for this uncontracted form? Or is it just one of those irregularities that cannot be accounted for?

A: When the usage showed up in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was two words.

One of the oldest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, perhaps written as early as the 700s: “men ne cunnon” (“men can not”).

And here’s an expanded version that offers context as well as a sense of the Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“ac se æglæca etende wæs, / deorc deaþscua duguþe ond geogoþe, / seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold / mistige moras; men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað” (“all were in peril; warriors young and old were hunted down by that dark shadow of death that lurked night after night on the misty moors; men on their watches can not know where these fiends from hell will walk”).

The combined form “cannot” showed up in the Middle English period (1150 to 1450), along with various other spellings: cannat, cannatte, cannouȝt, connat, connott, conot, conott, cannote, connot, and cannott.

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at around 1280: “And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be” (“And thou that he [Jesus] died for cannot be sorrowful”).

In contemporary English, both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, though they’re generally used in different ways. The combined form, as you point out, is more common (Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online, says it’s three times as common in the Oxford English Corpus).

Here’s an excerpt from the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, on how the two terms, as well as the contraction “can’t,” are generally used today:

CAN NOT / CANNOT / CAN’T. Usually, you can’t go wrong with a one-word version—can’t in speech or casual writing, cannot in formal writing. The two-word version, can not, is for when you want to be emphatic (Maybe you can hit high C, but I certainly can not), or when not is part of another expression, like “not only . . . but also” (I can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it). Then there’s can’t not, as in The diva’s husband can’t not go to the opera.

Getting back to your question, why is “cannot” more popular than “can not”? We believe the compound is more common because the two-word phrase may be ambiguous.

Consider this sentence: “You can not go to the party.” It could mean either “You’re unable to go” or “You don’t have to go.” However, the sentence has only the first meaning if you replace “can not” with “cannot” (or the contraction “can’t”).

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “You can’t/cannot answer their letters” means “It is not possible or permitted for you to answer their letters,” while “You can not answer their letters” means “You are permitted not to answer their letters.”

In speech, Huddleston and Pullum write, any ambiguity is cleared up by emphasis and rhythm: “In this use, the not will characteristically be stressed and prosodically associated with answer rather than with can by means of a very slight break separating it from the unstressed can.” The authors add that “this construction is fairly rare, and sounds somewhat contrived.”

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Pat reviews 4 language books

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

 

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

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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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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Are you down on “up”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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Syllables gone missing

Q: I just heard a BBC interviewer pronounce “medicine” as MED-sin. I’m pretty sure that Doc Martin attended MED-i-cal school, so why do the British drop the vowel “i” when speaking of pharmaceuticals?

A: The pronunciation of “medicine” as MED-sin is standard in British speech. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that we wrote about in 2012, the tendency of British speakers to drop syllables in certain words.

What’s dropped is a weak or unstressed next-to-last syllable in a word of three syllables or more. So in standard British English, “medicine” is pronounced as MED-sin, “necessary” as NESS-a-sree, “territory” as TARE-eh-tree, and so on.

The dropped syllable or vowel sound is either unstressed (like the first “i” in “medicine”) or has only a weak, secondary stress (like the “a” in “necessary”).

This syllable dropping apparently began in 18th- and 19th-century British speech, and today these pronunciations are standard in Britain. You can hear this by listening to the pronunciations of “medicine,” “secretary,” “oratory,” and “cemetery” in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (click the red icon for British, blue for American).

We know roughly when such syllable-dropping began because, as we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, lexicographers of the time commented on it.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that dictionaries—like those by William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), and John Walker (1791)—began marking secondary stresses within words, and providing pronunciations for each syllable.

Sheridan in particular made a point of this, lamenting what he saw as a general “negligence” with regard to the pronunciation of weakly stressed syllables.

“This fault is so general,” Sheridan wrote, “that I would recommend it to all who are affected by it, to pronounce the unaccented syllables more fully than is necessary, till they are cured of it.” (A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780.)

Despite such advice, syllable dropping continued, and these abbreviated pronunciations became more widely accepted throughout the 1800s. By 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones had recognized some of these pronunciations as standard.

In An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones omitted the next-to-last syllable in some words (“medicine,” “secretary,” “cemetery”) while marking it as optional in others (“military,” “necessary,” “oratory”). As the century progressed, later and much-revised editions of Jones’s dictionary omitted more of those syllables.

As Jones originally wrote, his aim was to describe what was heard in the great English boarding schools, the accent he called “PSP” (for “Public School Pronunciation”). In the third edition of his dictionary (1926), he revived the older, 19th-century term “Received Pronunciation” and abbreviated it to “RP” (here “received” meant “socially accepted”).

Americans, meanwhile, continued to pronounce those syllables.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1993), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that while British speech lost the subordinate stress in words ending in “-ary,” “-ery,” and “-ory,” this stress “is regularly retained in American English.”

As examples of American pronunciation, the authors cite “mónastèry, sécretàry, térritòry, and the like,” using an acute accent (´) for the primary stress and a grave accent (`) for the secondary stress.

Similarly, The Handbook of English Pronunciation (2015), edited by Marnie Reed and John M. Levis, says that in words “such as secretary, military, preparatory, or mandatory,” the next-to-last vowel sound “is usually deleted or reduced in Britain but preserved in North America.”

The book adds that North American speech also retains unstressed vowels in the word “medicine,” in the names of berries (“blackberry,” “raspberry,” “strawberry,” etc.), in place names like “Birmingham” and “Manchester,” and in names beginning with “Saint.”

However, not every unstressed next-to-last syllable is dropped in standard British pronunciation. The one in “medicine” is dropped, but the British TV character Doc Martin would pronounce the syllable in “medical,” as you point out.

And the word “library” can go either way. As Pyles and Algeo write, “library” is “sometimes reduced” to two syllables in British speech (LYE-bree), though in “other such words” the secondary stress can be heard. Why is this?

In The Handbook of English Pronunciation, Reed and Levis write that some variations in speech are simply “idiosyncratic.” They discuss “secretary,” “medicine,” “raspberry,” and the others in a section on “words whose pronunciation varies in phonologically irregular ways.”

However you view it—“idiosyncratic” or “phonologically irregular”—this syllable-dropping trend is not irreversible. As Pyles and Algeo note, “Some well-educated younger-generation British speakers have it [the secondary stress] in sécretàry and extraórdinàry.”

There’s some evidence for this. A 1998 survey of British speakers found that those under 26 showed “a sudden surge in preference for a strong vowel” in the “-ary” ending of “necessary,” “ordinary,” and “February.” (“British English Pronunciation Preferences: A Changing Scene,” by J. C. Wells, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, June 1999.)

So has American pronunciation influenced younger British speakers? Not likely, in the opinion of Pyles and Algeo: “A restoration of the secondary stress in British English, at least in some words, is more likely due to spelling consciousness than to any transatlantic influence.”

And Wells seems to agree: “English spelling being what it is,” he writes, “one constant pressure on pronunciation is the influence of the orthography. A pronunciation that is perceived as not corresponding to the spelling is liable to be replaced by one that does.”

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When a bomb goes boom

Q: I’ve come across a cartoon online that raises a good question: If “tomb” is pronounced TOOM and “womb” is pronounced WOOM,” why isn’t “bomb” pronounced BOOM?

A: In the past, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” and probably pronounced that way too. In fact, a “bomb” was originally a “boom,” etymologically speaking.

The two words have the same ancestor, the Latin bombus (a booming, buzzing, or humming sound). The Romans got the word from the Greek βόμβος (bómbos, a deep hollow sound), which was “probably imitative in origin,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Latin noun produced the words for “bomb” in Italian and Spanish (bomba), French (bombe), and finally English, where it first appeared in the late 1500s as “bome,” without the final “b.”

The “bome” spelling was a translation of the Spanish term. It was first recorded in Robert Parke’s 1588 English version of a history of China written by Juan González de Mendoza. Here’s the OED citation:

“They vse … in their wars … many bomes of fire, full of olde iron, and arrowes made with powder & fire worke, with the which they do much harme and destroy their enimies.”

After that, however, the word disappeared for almost a century, reappearing as a borrowing of the French bombe, complete with the “b” and “e” at the end.

The earliest English example we’ve found is from A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, a 1678 English translation of a French book on war by Louis de Gaya. A section entitled “Of Bombes” begins:

“Bombes are of a late Invention. … They are made all of Iron, and are hollow … they are filled with Fire-works and Powder, and then are stopped with a Bung or Stopple well closed; in the middle of which is left a hole to apply the Fuse to.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest “bombe” example appeared a few years later: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece” (from the London Gazette, 1684).

The first appearances we’ve found of the modern spelling “bomb,” without the “e” on the end, are from a 1680 edition of The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles. The word “bomb” appears more than a dozen times, as both noun and verb.

Here’s a noun example: “twenty of them were killed that day by one Bomb.” And here’s one with the verb: “the Captain General form’d all the Trenches and Traverses for an Attack, and Bomb’d the Town with twenty Mortar-pieces.”

By the mid-1690s the “bomb” spelling had become established enough to appear in an English-to-French dictionary, Abel Boyer’s A Complete French Mastery for Ladies and Gentlemen (1694): “a bomb, une bombe.” That final silent “b” remained in the word, probably for etymological reasons, forever after.

The pronunciation of “bomb” has varied over the centuries, and it still does. Today three pronunciations are considered standard, according to the OED.

The dictionary, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, gives them as /bɒm/, /bʌm/, and /bɑm/, which we might transcribe as BOM, BUM, and BAHM (the first two are British, the third American).

The three vowels sound, respectively, like the “o” in “lot,” the “u” in “cup,” and the “a” in “father.” Furthermore, the British pronunciations are short and clipped in comparison with the American, which is more open and drawn out.

The second British pronunciation, BUM, was “formerly usual” in the British Army, Oxford says. And it apparently was widespread in the 18th century, since it’s the only pronunciation given in several dictionaries of the time, including the most popular one, John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791).

As for the BOOM pronunciation, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” or “boomb,” suggesting that it was pronounced that way too. The OED cites both spellings in an anonymous 1692 diary of the siege and surrender of Limerick: “600 Booms” … “800 Carts of Ball and Boombs.”

And the dictionary points readers to rhymes in poetry, where “bomb” is sometimes rhymed with “tomb” and “womb,” which were pronounced TOOM and WOOM at the time.

Here’s an Oxford citation from “The British Sailor’s Exultation,” a poem Edward Young wrote sometime before his death in 1765: “A thousand deaths the bursting bomb / Hurls from her disembowel’d womb.”

We’ve found a couple of additional examples in poetry of the 1690s.

In a 1692 poem written in rhyming couplets and based on Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, John Crown rhymes “bomb’d” with “entomb’d.” Here are the lines: “The wealthy Cities insolently bomb’d, / The Towns in their own ashes deep entomb’d.”

And Benjamin Hawkshaw’s poem “The Incurable,” written in rhyming triplets, rhymes “womb,” “tomb,” and “bomb.” These are the lines: “It works like lingring Poyson in the Womb, / And each Day brings me nearer to my Tomb, / My Magazin’s consum’d by this unlucky Bomb.” (From Poems Upon Several Occasions, 1693.)

What’s more, the word “boom” (for a loud hollow noise) was sometimes spelled “bomb” or “bombe,” which suggests that the pronunciations occasionally coincided.

This example, cited in the OED, is from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, a natural history, or study of the natural world, published in 1627, a year after his death:

“I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Vpper Chamber, which being thought weake in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron … Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was strucke; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.” (We’ve expanded the citation to give more context.)

And we found this example in a work that discusses sound production, Walter Charleton’s A Fabrick of Science Natural (1654): “As in all Arches, and Concamerated or vaulted rooms: in which for the most part, the sound or voyce loseth its Distinctness, and degenerates into a kind of long confused Bombe.”

In short, it’s safe to say that that “bomb” was probably pronounced BOOM by some educated speakers in the 17th century.

As we’ve noted, the word didn’t appear until 1588, during the modern English period. As far as we know, the final “b” was never pronounced. But the other words you mention, “womb” and “tomb,” are much older, and the “b” in their spellings was originally pronounced.

In the case of “womb,” a Germanic word that dates back to early Old English, it originally had a different vowel sound, too. But beginning in the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500), the “oo” vowel sound developed and the “b” became silent.

As for “tomb,” a Latin-derived word that English borrowed from the French toumbe around 1300, it came with the “oo” vowel sound, and the “b” became silent in later Middle English. The “b” remained in the spelling, though in the 16th and 17th centuries the word occasionally appeared as “toom” or “toome,” according to OED citations.

Several other words ending in “b” (“lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” “plumb”) originally had an audible “b,” but it became silent during the Middle English period. Linguists refer to this shift in pronunciation from “mb” to “m” as an example of “consonant cluster reduction.”

We wrote a post in 2009 about other kinds of spelling puzzles—why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme, and why silent letters appear in words like “sword” and “knife.” And in 2017 we discussed “-ough” spellings (“enough,” “ought,” “though,” “through,” etc.), which are pronounced in many different ways.

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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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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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‘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 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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How to say you’re not quite sure

Q: What is the difference in meaning between “John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill” and “John didn’t come yesterday—he will have been ill”? I realize that “must” is more popular than “will” in such constructions, but does one express more certainty than the other?

A: The words “will” and “must” in your examples are epistemic modal verbs, auxiliary verbs that express probability.

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “epistemic modality qualifies the speaker’s commitment to the truth.”

“While It was a mistake represents an unqualified assertion,” Huddleston and Pullum write, “It must have been a mistake suggests that I am drawing a conclusion from evidence rather than asserting something of whose truth I have direct knowledge.”

In your first example (“John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill”), the auxiliary “must” indicates that the writer (or speaker) believes John was probably ill.

In our opinion, the expression “he will have been ill” indicates somewhat more probability than “he must have been ill” (though some might argue the point). And both of them indicate a much greater probability than “he may have been ill”—another example of epistemic modality.

Huddleston and Pullum note that epistemic modality is “commonly expressed by other means than modal auxiliaries.” For example, by adverbs (“he was probably ill”), verbs (“I believe he was ill”), adjectives (“he was likely to be ill”), and nouns (“in all likelihood, he was ill”).

There are two other principal kinds of modality: deontic, which expresses permission or obligation (“He may have one more chance, but he must come tomorrow”), and dynamic, which expresses willingness or ability (“I won’t come today, but I can come tomorrow”).

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors, Randolph Quirk et al., say, “At its most general, modality may be defined as the manner in which the meaning of a clause is qualified so as to reflect the speaker’s judgment of the likelihood of the preposition it expresses being true.”

Quirk divides the modal verbs into two types:

“(a) Those such as ‘permission,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘volition’ which involve some kind of intrinsic human control over events, and

“(b) Those such as ‘possibility,’ ‘necessity,’ and ‘prediction,’ which do not primarily involve human control of events, but do typically involve human judgment of what is or is not likely to happen.”

Quirk adds that the two categories “may be termed intrinsic and extrinsic modality respectively,” since “each one of them has both intrinsic and extrinsic uses: for example, may has the meaning of permission (intrinsic) and the meaning of possibility (extrinsic); will has the meaning of volition (intrinsic) and the meaning of prediction (extrinsic).”

“However, there are areas of overlap and neutrality between the intrinsic and extrinsic senses of a modal: the will in a sentence such as I’ll see you tomorrow then can be said to combine the meanings of volition and prediction.”

Another point to consider, Quirk writes, “is that the modals themselves tend to have overlapping meanings, such that in some circumstances (but not in others), they can be more or less interchangeable.”

In other words, there’s a lot of ambiguity here. Or, as Quirk puts it, “the use of modal verbs is one of the more problematic areas of English grammar.”

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The truth about trees

Q: The words “tree” and “true,” according to a TED video, have a common ancestor. From what I gather, this was back in prehistoric times, before there was writing. So how do we know the first thing about an ancient language if there’s no written record of it?

A: Historical linguists believe that “tree” and “true” have a common prehistoric ancestor, a belief that’s based on studies of a reconstructed, hypothetical ancient language known as Proto Indo-European (PIE for short), not on any written evidence.

By studying members of the present Indo-European family, linguists have extrapolated back to the presumed prehistoric language. The Indo-European family comprises many European and Asian languages, including English.

In reconstructing the PIE vocabulary, for example, linguists have used the comparative method, a technique for finding similar words in various Indo-European languages.

As the linguist and phonologist Calvert Watkins explains, similar words, or cognates, in present Indo-European languages “provide evidence for the shape of the prehistoric Indo-European word.”

Watkins, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, says “tree” and “true” are ultimately derived from deru-, a Proto Indo-European root meaning to “be firm, solid, steadfast.”

This PIE root gave prehistoric Germanic the terms trewam (“tree”) and treuwithō (“truth”), and Old English the words trēow (“tree”) and trēowe (“true”), Watkins writes. (Old English spellings vary considerably.)

The earliest example of “tree” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with the plural treo) is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825:

“Muntas and alle hyllas, treo westemberu and alle cederbeamas” (“Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars”). We’ve expanded the citation, from Psalm 148.

And in Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory, an unbeliever is compared to a barren tree:

“Ælc triow man sceal ceorfan, þe gode wæstmas ne birð, & weorpan on fyr, & forbærnan” (“Every tree that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire and burnt”). We’ve expanded the OED citation, which refers to Matthew 7:19. The dictionary describes triow here as a variant reading of treow.

When “true” showed up in Old English, it meant loyal, faithful, or trustworthy. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725:

“Þa gyt wæs hiera sib ætgædere, æghwylc oðrum trywe” (“The two were at peace together, true to each other”). Here trywe is a variant spelling of trēow.

As Old English gave way to Middle English in the 12th century, the word “true” came to mean accurate or factual, as in this example from Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“Belin ihærde sugge þurh summe sæg treowe of his broðer wifðinge” (“Belin heard it said through some true report of his brother’s marriage”). The passage refers to Belin and Brennes, brothers who vie in Anglo-Saxon legend to rule Britain.

And this example is from Wohunge Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), a Middle English homily written sometime before 1250. The author, presumably a woman, tells Jesus of her passionate love for him:

“A swete ihesu þu oppnes me þin herte for to cnawe witerliche and in to reden trewe luue lettres” (“Ah, sweet Jesus, you open your heart to me, so that I may know it inwardly, and read inside it true love letters”).

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Wolf tickets for sale

Q: I recently heard a television commentator use the phrase “selling wolf tickets.” After research, I found both a Russian and an African-American Vernacular English source for somewhat related phrases. Did these evolve independently or is there evidence for cross pollination?

A: To “sell wolf tickets,” an expression that’s about 60 years old, is to oversell yourself—to spread boasts or threats that you can’t (or won’t) back up.

The usage was first recorded in writing in 1963, when sociologists noted its use by black gang members in Chicago. The sociologists had reported it two years before in a speech, and it was undoubtedly used on the streets even earlier than that.

Some commentators have suggested that the expression comes from “to cry wolf” (to bluff or raise a false alarm). But a more likely theory is that the “wolf” here was originally “woof” and was intended to mean a bark without a bite.

In African-American Vernacular English, to “woof” has meant to bluff or challenge since at least as far back as 1930. In fact, the phrase has been recorded as “sell woof tickets” since the 1970s.

But as we said, the earliest written example we’ve found for the complete phrase is the “wolf” version; this may reflect the way “woof” was interpreted by white sociologists in the mid-20th century.

Let’s start with “woof” and come later to “sell wolf [or woof] tickets.”

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines the verb “woof,” used “chiefly” among black speakers, as “to engage in behavior, esp speech, intended to impress, intimidate, or provoke; to bluff, kid.” DARE also mentions “woofer,” “woofing,” and other related words.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “woof” used in this way comes from a play written in 1930: “Stop woofing and pick a little tune there so that I can show Daisy somethin’.” (From Mule Bone, written in black vernacular, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.)

In December 1934, the journal American Speech published a paper mentioning both “woof” and “woofer” as terms in black college slang. Here are the examples:

“WOOF. To talk much and loudly and yet say little of consequence,” and “A WOOFER. Applied to one who talks constantly, loudly, and in a convincing manner, but who says very little.” (From “Negro Slang in Lincoln University,” a paper by Hugh Sebastian.)

The earliest published example we’ve found for “sell wolf tickets” is from a 1963 paper on the sociology of gang behavior, though an unpublished version dates from 1961. Here’s the relevant passage (“worker” is a social worker and “Commando” a gang leader):

“In a conflict situation, without a worker present, Commando would find it difficult not to ‘sell wolf tickets’ (i.e., challenge) to rival gang members and instigate conflict.”

The paper, “The Response of Gang Leaders to Status Threats: An Observation on Group Process and Delinquent Behavior,” by James F. Short, Jr. and Fred L. Strodtbeck, was published in the American Journal of Sociology in March 1963. This was a revised version of a paper (now lost) read on Sept. 1, 1961, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In answer to an email query, Dr. Short told us that the same passage, with the phrase “sell wolf tickets,” probably appeared in the earlier, unpublished version that was delivered in 1961. “I cannot imagine that it was not in the earlier version,” he said.

Over the years, both “wolf tickets” and “woof tickets” have appeared, with variant spellings for “woof” and with “tickets” in singular as well as plural.

DARE, for example, says the phrase “woof ticket,” used “especially” among black speakers, means a “lie, bluff, challenge.” Its earliest written use was recorded in 1971.

The scholar Geneva Smitherman, writing in the English Journal in February 1976, wrote: “ ‘Sellin woof [wolf] tickets’ (sometimes just plain ‘woofin’) refers to the kind of strong language which is purely idle boasting.” The bracketed and parenthetical additions are hers.

Time magazine also used both versions in its Aug. 20, 1979, issue: “ ‘To sell wolf tickets’ (pronounced wuf tickets) means to challenge somebody to a fight” (from “Outcry Over Wuff Tickets,” an article about black English in the classroom).

And in 1982, an early rap group called Wuf Ticket briefly appeared on the singles charts.

A few years later, the linguist Carolyn G. Karhu said that “wolf ticket” (defined as an empty threat) and “selling wolf tickets” (making an empty threat) were terms used by prison inmates in Tennessee (American Speech, summer 1988).

But by the 1990s, these terms had apparently become passé in the language of the streets.

“ ‘Woof ticket’ is a somewhat dated phrase,” Betty Parham and Gerrie Ferris wrote in 1992 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. And “selling wolf tickets” was defined as “archaic black slang” by Jack E. White, writing in Time magazine’s issue of Oct. 24, 1995.

So was this “woof” merely a black pronunciation of “wolf”? The language columnist William Safire thought so. Commenting on the phrase “woof ticket,” he wrote, “Woof is a Black English pronunciation of ‘wolf’ ” (the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 2000).

That assertion brought a response from Peter Jeffery, now a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame. His letter, later published in Safire’s book The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), objected to Safire’s explanation for “woof ticket.”

“The origin had nothing to do with ‘wolf,’ ” Jeffery wrote. “The metaphor was of a barking watchdog (‘woof, woof!’).”

Jeffery, who grew up in Brooklyn and heard the phrase as a youth, added: “By the 1970s, ‘woof ticket’ had disappeared from the speech of young black Americans, though it may still be remembered among those are old enough.” He noted, “I’ve since heard that ‘woofin’ is still sometimes used among jazz musicians to describe the back-and-forth challenges between instrumental soloists.”

Well, old slang terms have a way of reviving, and that appears to be the case here.

Today the phrase is usually seen as “to sell wolf tickets,” and its meaning has become broader. It’s sometimes used to describe a hyped-up promotion or an inflated sales pitch—for a product or event that doesn’t live up to the hype.

By the way, we’ve found no connection with the use of the phrase in Russian slang, where “wolf ticket” (волчий билет or volchiy bilyet) refers to a document or other impediment that negatively affects someone, such as by making it impossible to get a specific job or enroll in a certain university.

[Updated on Dec. 10, 2018]

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When ‘I have’ becomes ‘I’ve’

Q: I’m seeing the use of “I’ve” where “have” is not an auxiliary but the actual verb, as in “I’ve a red car.” That’s not legit, is it? Yuck.

A: We’ve searched the major scholarly works of grammar and haven’t found any grammatical objections to using “I’ve” as a contraction when “have” is the primary verb. However, the usage is more common in Britain and may sound unidiomatic to American ears.

In British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns (2006), the linguist John Algeo writes that the use of “I’ve” with the contracted primary verb is over five times more frequent in the UK than in the US.

What you’re noticing, however, may be a shortening of the word “have” in speech or written dialogue, rather than an actual contraction. The “h” or “ha” sounds are often dropped in conversation, and the contraction itself is elided when an expression like “I’ve got to go” comes out as “I gotta go.”

As for the contraction, Sydney Greenbaum, writing in the Oxford English Grammar, describes “I’ve” as the contracted form of “I have” when “have” is either a primary verb or an auxiliary.

We couldn’t find any objections to the usage in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, or A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

However, both books question the usage in some negative constructions.

Quirk, for example, says it’s generally preferable to contract “not” rather than “have” in such constructions, recommending “I haven’t” instead of “I’ve not.” Huddleston and Pullum consider sentences like “I’ve no time today” and “I haven’t enough tea” to be grammatical only in certain dialects.

We checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them define “I’ve” as simply a contraction for “I have.” None of them say it can’t be used to contract the principal verb. In fact, two of the dictionaries include examples that do just that:

“I’ve one more appointment today” (from Merriam-Webster Unabridged) and “I’ve no other appointments” (from the online Collins Dictionary).

Finally, none of the usage manuals in our extensive language library comment on the use of “I’ve” as a contraction for “I have,” suggesting that the authors aren’t especially bothered by the way “I’ve” is being used today in either in the US or the UK.

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Umpteen hyperbolic numerals

Q: What’s the story behind such fanciful numbers as “umpteen,” “zillion,” “jillion,” and “gazillion”?

A: When precision doesn’t matter, and exaggeration is allowed, it’s useful to have whimsical alternatives for large numbers. The linguist Stephen Chrisomalis calls these inventions “indefinite hyperbolic numerals.”

In fact, the earliest known examples we’ve seen for “umpteen” and “zillion” were discovered a couple of years ago by Chrisomalis, a linguistic anthropologist at Wayne State University.

In “Umpteen Reflections on Indefinite Hyperbolic Numerals,” a paper published in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech, Chrisomalis cites this 19th-century New Zealand example of “umpteen”:

“They are like you and me, and never trot round with a credit balance of more than about umteen pence.” (From an article in the Christchurch Press, Sept. 14, 1878.)

And here’s an American example with “umpteen,” spelled the usual way and used to mean a large number, not an indefinite small one:

“Increase acreage ‘umpteen’ per cent.” (From an article about wheat crop forecasts in a Minneapolis trade journal, Northwestern Miller, July 21, 1882.)

Chrisomalis’s first example for “zillion” is from a satirical article in a California newspaper: “They’re going to bring ’em over here—zillions of ’em.” (Oakland Tribune, Dec. 12, 1916.)

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet caught up to these early sightings. Its oldest example of “zillion” is from 1944, and its first “umpteen” sighting is from 1918.

Chrisomalis says indefinite hyperbolic numerals like these emerged “principally in the period from 1880 to 1930, frequently in American contexts.”

His research suggests that “zillion” probably comes from African-American speech. It’s now “the most common indefinite hyperbolic numeral in English,” he says.

“Umpteen,” although first recorded in New Zealand in the 1870s, became a common American usage by the 1890s, according to Chrisomalis. (The similar-sounding “umpty,” recorded in both Australia and the US in 1886, represented a vague number rather than a large one.)

Here are some of the other hyperbolic words the author discusses, along with the earliest dates he’s found and possible origins:

“forty-leven” (1839), a combination of “forty” and “eleven,” was “associated with white, well-educated Northeastern writers of a Unitarian or Universalist bent”;

“squillion” (1878), US, associated with children’s speech;

“steen” (1882), now obsolete American college slang, modeled after “sixteen” but without that meaning;

“skillion” (1923), first recorded in Canada as a variant of “squillion” that quickly became more popular;

“jillion” (1926), associated with cowboy speech in rural and small-town Texas and surrounding Plains states;

From the 1930s onward, prefixes like “ba-” and “ga-” were added to “zillion” and “jillion” to make them seem even bigger: “bazillion” (1939), “umptillion” (1948), “kazillion” (1969), “gazillion” (1974), “bajillion” (1990).

Chrisomalis differentiates between hyperbolic numerals and what are known as “hyperbolic quantifiers,” words like “scads,” “oodles,” “heaps,” “wads,” and “slew.”

He also notes that even a definite number can be used hyperbolically, as in “I’ve told you a hundred times.” (The French, he points out, use the actual number 36, trente-six, hyperbolically to mean a large number. A Frenchman might say, “I’ve told you 36 times.”)

However, unlike definite numbers, “zillion” and “umpteen” can never have a literal meaning. And words like that, Chrisomalis writes, are “cross-linguistic” rarities—that is, they’re rare in other languages.

Two exceptions he points to are from the 1970s or later: “Spanish tropecientos (from tropel ‘mob, heap, mass’ + cientos ‘hundreds’) and Italian fantastilione (from fantastico+ ilione).”

English speakers, however, keep inventing new humongous numbers. In his paper Chrisomalis shares a few, including this one from Ian Frazier’s short story “The Killion” (New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1982):

“The killion, as every mathematician knows, is a number so big that it kills you.”

We’ll end with some definite, non-hyperbolic numerals. Here are the current meanings of some “-illion” words that are for real:

  • million = one thousand thousands
  • billion = one thousand millions
  • trillion = one thousand billions
  • quadrillion = one thousand trillions
  • quintillion = one thousand quadrillions

From there, the numbers proceed to such stratospheric levels that we get nosebleeds just thinking about them.

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Is ‘comedic’ or ‘comic’ funnier?

Q: Last weekend a friend went on a rant about the unnecessary introduction of “comedic” into the English language. I think it’s overused for “comic,” but has different connotations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it!

A: We won’t go so far as to say that “comedic” is unnecessary. But it can usually be replaced by “comic,” a simpler and less academic-sounding term.

Of the two adjectives, “comedic” has a narrower meaning. Most dictionaries define it as having to do with comedy.

But “comic” means that and something more—funny.

For example, you could use either word here: “He prefers comic [or comedic] roles to tragic ones” … “Satire is just one element in the comic [or comedic] genre.”

But only “comic” will do when you’re talking about something that makes you laugh: “The feud stemmed from a comic misunderstanding” … “The dog provided comic relief.”

So writers who use “comedic” to mean funny—as in “several comedic moments” or “a comedic facial expression”—are misusing the word.

The standard American dictionaries, and most British ones, recognize this distinction. (Two of the British dictionaries—Longman and Macmillan—have no entries at all for “comedic.”)

The definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) are typical:

“Comedic” is defined solely as “of or relating to comedy.” But “comic” is defined as both “characteristic of or having to do with comedy” and “amusing; humorous.”

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, are similar, though those for “comic” go into much more detail.

Of the two adjectives, “comic” is older. It was first recorded in English writing, the OED says, in the sense “of, relating to, or of the nature of comedy (esp. Greek or Roman classical comedy) as a literary or dramatic genre.”

The earliest known example of the adjective used in this sense is from a 1567 translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry):

“To Menander the Commicke gowne of Afphranus was fit.” (The references are to two comic playwrights—Menander in ancient Greece and Lucius Afranius in Rome.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent example for this sense of the word: “The comic playwrights seeking to follow Plato had to come to terms with Aristophanes whether they wanted to or not.” (From Martin Puchner’s book The Drama of Ideas, 2010.)

As for “comic” in the sense of funny or amusing, the earliest example in the OED is from the early 17th century:

“That Comicke impreza: If wise, seeme not to know that which thou knowest.” (From Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman, 1630. An “impreza,” normally spelled “impresa,” is a maxim or proverb.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation for “comic” in the laughable sense: “Mary Alice leans forward and scrunches up her face into a delightfully comic mug.” (From the Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1995.)

This meaning of “comic,” by the way, is pretty much identical to that of the earlier “comical,” which is defined in the OED as “intentionally humorous; funny,” and dates from about 1590.

As for “comedic,” it was first recorded in the 17th century, according to the OED, but after that it wasn’t used much—if at all—until the mid-19th century.

Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “This might be the comedick catastrophe of our verie fearfull-like Episcopall tragedie.” (From a letter written in 1639 by Robert Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister and author.)

This is the dictionary’s second example: “Such a definition … would have the singular luck of excluding our very best comedic dramas from the list of comedies.” (From George Darley’s introduction to an 1840 collection of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher.)

Even as late as the 1860s, “comedic” was so uncommon that this writer thought he (or she) had invented it:

“The comic element … soon associated with itself a comedic element, manifested in the representation of manners and characters of the current age. … I ask pardon for coining this word comedic; but comic, in the signification which it has gradually assumed, does not express what I mean.” (By an author signed “J.A.” in the Ladies’ Companion, 1864.)

George Bernard Shaw also felt called upon to substitute “comedic” for “comic” in an article he wrote for the Saturday Review in 1897:

“Speaking of the masters of the comedic spirit (if I call it, as he does, the Comic Spirit, this darkened generation will suppose me to refer to the animal spirits of tomfools and merryandrews).”

Apparently both “J.A.” and Shaw felt that “comic” had begun to imply too much revelry, and wasn’t appropriate in serious discussion of comedy as a dramatic genre.

As you might suspect, all these words have roots in classical Latin and Greek.

The adjective “comic” is from the Latin cōmicus (of or belonging to comedy, or comic). The Romans got it from Greek: kōmikos, derived from kōmos (a festivity or revel with music and dancing).

“Comedic” is from the classical Latin cōmoedicus (of or relating to comedy, or comic), which in turn is from the Greek kōmōidikos, derived from kōmōidia (comedy).

Finally, “comedy,” which came into English in the late 14th century, is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French (comedie) and partly from Latin (cōmoedia), which is derived from Greek (kōmōidia).

We like the definition Samuel Johnson gives “comedy” in his dictionary of 1755: “A dramatick representation of the lighter faults of mankind.”

In our opinion, writers sometimes use “comedic” as a pompous substitution for “comic.” But that’s one of their lighter faults.

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Here you go

Q: How did “Here you go” come to mean “Here is the thing you wanted”?

A: “Here you go,” an idiomatic expression that showed up in writing in the 1800s, is a casual way of saying “Here it is” when you give someone something that’s requested.

That’s why an easygoing barista says “here you go” rather than the more formal “here it is” when he hands over your mocha latte.

Like other idioms, “here you go” is not meant literally and doesn’t even make sense on a literal level. But it’s so common that most of us don’t stop to think about it.

We haven’t seen much linguistic scholarship about the expression, though the British linguist Michael Fortescue comments briefly about “here you go” in Semantix, a 2014 book about semantics and pragmatics.

In discussing how the verb “go” has evolved in meaning and usage over the years, he says “here you go” reflects “the gradual historical bleaching of the original motion sense of the verb as it gradually became more grammaticalized.”

Grammaticalization is a process in which lexical terms acquire new grammatical functions over time. In the idiomatic expression “here you go,” Fortescue writes, “there is of course nothing left of any of the original meaning of ‘go’ at all.”

As we’ve said, “here you go” has been used in writing since the 19th century to mean “here it is.” In searches of newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found is from a short story in the Dec. 25, 1879, issue of the Door County Advocate in Sturgeon Bay, WI.:

“ ‘You’ve both won the heat, race, and money. Here you go,’ and he tipped the two lads handsomely.” (The speaker gives the boys, who have tied in a race, a “five-dollar piece” each.)

And this example (from the Oct. 15, 1885, Daily Yellowstone Journal in Montana) is in a joke about an elderly man asking for a light from a child’s cigar:

“Old gentleman, full of fun, to infant of eight summers, who is smoking a cigar—Can I trouble you for a light mister?

“Infant of eight summers—Here you go my boy, but be sure you give me back the right one.”

Since 1900, sightings of “here you go” used in the sense of “here it is” have become much more common.

Cambridge Dictionaries says “here you go” means “this is the object you asked me to give you.” It has this example: “ ‘Would you please pass the sugar?’ ‘Here you go.’ ”

The Macmillan Dictionary and The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English have similar definitions.

Dictionaries also include three similar idiomatic expressions that can be used the same way: “here you are,” “there you go,” and “there you are.”

Some dictionaries label these expressions informal or colloquial. One grammar book, English Grammar Today (2016), by Ronald Carter et al., considers the “go” versions more informal than the “are” ones:

“We can use here you are and there you are (or, in informal situations, here you go and there you go) when giving something to someone. Here and there have the same meaning in this use.”

A more scholarly grammar book, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says in a footnote that “here [or there] you are” when used in this sense is equivalent to “this is for you.” (It adds that “there you are” has an additional idiomatic meaning: “That supports or proves what I’ve said.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t discuss “here you go” in its entry for the verb “go,” which was revised in 2015 and now includes 603 senses of the word.

However, the OED does refer to the “are” version, saying that “here we [or you] are” can mean “Here is what we [or you] want.” The usage is labeled colloquial.

The dictionary’s only example is from the mid-19th century: “Hum! ha! now let’s see, here we are—the ‘G-i-a-o-u-r’—that’s a nice word to talk about.” (From Frank Fairlegh, an 1850 novel by Francis Edward Smedley. The noun “giaour” is a derogatory term for a non-Muslim.)

In that example, however, there’s no sense of one person presenting another with a physical item, like the barista offering you your coffee.

And the OED defines “there you are” as drawing attention to a completed action (not to a physical thing), or as meaning “What did I tell you?” or “expressing resignation to an unpleasant fact.”

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Breaking wind

Q: My boyfriend and I are having an argument over whether the word “fart” is vulgar. I say “yes” and he says “no.” I’ve searched your blog, but don’t see anything about it. Can you help settle this?

A: Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, differ on how to label this word. It’s variously described as vulgar, informal, rude, impolite, colloquial, and slang. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way: “Not now in decent use.”

In other words, “fart” is not quite quite, though dictionaries disagree on the extent of its not-quite-quiteness. One wouldn’t use it in an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but it’s probably been heard in her private apartments at Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first Queen Elizabeth is said to have used the term to remind Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, of an embarrassing incident, according to Brief Lives, a collection of biographical sketches written by John Aubrey in the late 1600s:

“This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

The medievalist Valerie Allen says early “instances of misplaced farts suggest the cultural constancy of its shame value.”

In On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (2007), Allen writes, “There is evidence aplenty that one could be ‘just as squeamish of farting’ in the Middle Ages as today.”

She cites “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” a tale in the Arabian Nights about a man who emits a “great and terrible” fart at his wedding banquet and flees. After 10 years, he returns and hears a mother say her daughter was born “on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.” He flees again and never returns.

As for the etymology here, the word “fart” is very old, with roots in prehistoric Germanic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reconstructed Germanic fertan gave Old English feortan, an early version of the verb “fart.”

Although feortan itself has been reconstructed by linguists (it isn’t found in existing Old English manuscripts), written relatives survived in Old High German (ferzan) and Old Norse (freta).

The earliest written ancestor of “fart” showed up in Middle English. The first citation in the OED is from “Sumer Is Icumen In” (“Summer’s Come In”), a song written around 1250:

“Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ [verteth]” (“The bullock cavorts; the buck farts”). In Middle English, the verb evolved from “verten” to “ferten” to “farten.”

The next Oxford citation is from “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “He was som del squaymous Of fartyng” (“He was rather squeamish about farting”).

We’ll end with a comment by the linguist Anatoly Liberman. In a post about the etymology of “fart” on the Oxford University Press blog, he explains why linguists aren’t squeamish about discussing such words:

“Scatological words are always embarrassing to discuss. But linguists are like doctors: desensitizing makes them indifferent to many things that excite others. In the office they are professionals, and words are just words to them. Other than that, they are normal people.”

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Can ‘so don’t I’ mean ‘so do I’?

Q: There’s a grammatical quirk in northern New England in which a negative is used affirmatively: Example: “I love it when the leaves turn in the fall.” … “Oh, so don’t I. It’s my favorite time of year.” Any ideas where that might have come from?

A: You’re right that this quirky use of “so don’t I” is peculiar to New England. A native Bostonian would understand it immediately as meaning “so do I,” while a Californian would probably hear just the opposite—“I don’t.”

The linguist William Labov has said this use of “so don’t I” represents a “reversal of polarity,” a kind of construction in which “negative comes to mean positive or positive negative.” (From his 1974 paper “Linguistic Change as a Form of Communication.”)

Labov, an expert in the fields of sociolinguistics and regional variation, says the usage is common to eastern New England. It has also been called “the Massachusetts negative positive,” and research has shown that it extends into Maine.

He and his colleagues conducted a study in which subjects were given this question: “Somebody said, I like liver and then somebody else said, So don’t I. What do you think he meant?”

A majority of those from outside eastern New England interpreted the answer in the negative: “I do not.” But all the native New Englanders interpreted it as positive: “I do too.”

As Labov notes, “So don’t I has risen to the level of an overt stereotype in eastern New England.” However, “most outsiders are puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the positive so and the negative n’t.”

The usage consists of the adverb “so,” followed by a negative auxiliary verb (“don’t,” “didn’t,” “can’t,” “couldn’t,” etc.), and a noun or pronoun subject.

It’s always spoken in response to an affirmative statement. And despite the negative “-n’t,” the speaker is being affirmative too.

Labov notes a similarity with a “tag question” that’s another form of reverse polarity: “Don’t I though!”

Another similar usage has been noted by the Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn. In Smoky Mountain English, someone who responds to a suggestion or invitation by saying, “I don’t care to” actually means “I don’t mind if I do” or “I’m pleased to.”

As Horn writes, this usage is as likely as “so don’t I” to be “misinterpreted by outlanders.” (From his paper “Multiple Negation in English and Other Languages,” 2010.)

Jim Wood, another Yale linguist, argues that there’s a shade of difference between a New Englander’s affirmative “so don’t I” and a straightforward “so do I.” A speaker who responds with “so don’t I,” he says, is correcting an assumption.

In his paper “Affirmative Semantics with Negative Morphosyntax” (2014), Wood uses the following exchange to illustrate his point. Speaker A: “I play guitar.” Speaker B: “Yeah, but so don’t I.”

Here Speaker A seems to imply he’s the only one (that is, in the relevant context) who plays the guitar. Speaker B’s response sets him straight, and can be seen as meaning “It’s not true that I don’t play the guitar too.”

Wood, as a native of southern New Hampshire, has firsthand experience of the usage. He (along with Horn, Raffaella Zanuttini, and others) collaborated on a broad-ranging language study, the Yale Diversity Project, which researched several dozen usages in addition to “so don’t I.”

The study found that “so don’t I” had been recorded as far north as York, ME, as far south as New Haven, CT, and as far west as Erie, PA.

You can read more online about the Yale study’s “so don’t I” research, and see a map plotting its usage.

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Black (or African) American?

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted an update indicating the latest preferences.)

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both whites and blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Jan. 15, 2018: American Heritage dropped the usage note from its fifth edition. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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The Reader Over Your Shoulder

Read Pat’s essay today in The Paris Review about The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a guide to writing, written in the 1940s by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

The essay is excerpted from Pat’s introduction to a new edition of the book, scheduled to be published this year by Seven Stories Press. 

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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 topics: the history of “white sales,” and words of the year.

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When ‘even’ is odd

Q: Is the use of “even” correct in all these sentences? (1) “Even when he is sick, she works.” (2) “She works even when he is sick.” (3) “She even works when he is sick.” Thanks for any insight you can provide.

A: All three are correct: #1 and #2 mean the same thing, but the meaning of #3 is slightly different.

As an adverb, “even” has a number of uses, and one of them is to point out a special case or an unusual situation.

In your first two examples, “even” is used emphatically to suggest that the main clause (“she works”) is true not just normally but in an unusual situation (“when he is sick”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “even” as “intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied.”

Here the “general proposition” is that “she works”; the “extreme case,” introduced by “even,” is “when he is sick.”

Interestingly, this use of “even,” the OED says, didn’t come into English until the 1500s and is unknown in the other Germanic languages.

In this sense, the dictionary says, “even” is “attached to a word or clause expressing time, manner, place, or any attendant circumstance.” In your first two sentences, the clause expresses a circumstance: “when he is sick.”

The earliest written example in Oxford comes from this lyrical passage in a 16th-century work on husbandry, or agriculture. The “husbande” here is a farmer:

“The leafe … turneth with the Sunne, whereby it sheweth to the husbande, euen in cloudie weather, what time of the day it is.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation from the Latin of Conrad Heresbach.)

Getting back to your question, the meaning doesn’t change when the order of the clauses is reversed, as in #1 (“Even when he is sick, she works”) and #2 (“She works even when he is sick”).

In both examples, “even” identifies “when he is sick” as the unusual circumstance under which “she works.”

But the meaning is slightly altered when “even” is attached to a different part of the sentence, as in #3 (“When he is sick, she even works”).

In this example, the emphasis has changed, because “even” is attached directly to the verb “works.” This makes the act of working (not his being sick) the extreme case.

The implication in #3 is that she does many things “when he is sick”—in fact, she “even works.” Imagine what’s unspoken here: “When he is sick, she [does this and that and] even works.”

We’re speaking now about a written sentence. In a spoken sentence, however, the speaker can influence the way the sentence is interpreted, as we’ll explain below.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “even” in these senses a “focusing modifier.” It focuses meaning on a particular part of the sentence, much in the same way as “also,” “as well,” and “too.”

Even is typical of focusing adverbs in being able to occur in a wide range of positions,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. They illustrate with these sentences (note the shift in emphasis as “even” is moved):

Even you would have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed even dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed dancing even tonight.”

In the first, third, and fourth examples, the authors say, there’s only one possible interpretation—each of them different.

But where “even” modifies an entire verb phrase, as in the second example, “You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight,” there are three possible interpretations, and speakers can pinpoint their meaning by vocally stressing the word they intend as the focus:

“YOU would even have enjoyed dancing tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed DANCING tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed dancing TONIGHT.”

The authors add that “even” usually precedes what it modifies, “but in informal speech it occasionally follows,” as in “You would have enjoyed dancing tonight, even.”

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‘I bet’ or ‘I’ll bet’?

Q: What are your thoughts about using “I bet” versus “I’ll bet” to introduce a statement? I prefer “I’ll bet,” but I can’t explain why.

A: The verb “bet” has several meanings in addition to its usual gambling sense:

1. to agree (“I was bummed out” … “I bet you were”); 2. to disagree (“I’ll really stick to my diet this time” … “Yeah, I bet”); 3. to mean certainly (“You bet I’ll be there”); 4. to say you’re fairly sure (“I bet she felt crummy,” “I bet he’ll forget,” “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow,” “I’ll bet they’re late again”).

In #4, the usage you’re asking about, “I bet” or “I’ll bet” introduces a subordinate construction. You can find examples in standard dictionaries for both “I bet” and “I’ll bet” used in this sense, though “I bet” is more common.

In our opinion, “I bet” (present tense) sounds more natural when the subordinate construction is in the past tense (“I bet she felt crummy”) or the future tense (“I bet he’ll forget”).

But “I’ll bet” (future tense) seems more idiomatic when the complement uses the present tense to express the future, either with a time element (“I’ll bet you come late tomorrow”) or without a time element (“I’ll bet they’re late again”).

A few years ago, we wrote a post about the futurate—a usage that expresses the future with a tense not normally used for it, as in “He arrives Saturday.”

Something similar is at work when we use “bet,” “wager,” and “hope” to talk about the future. These verbs, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, often introduce “subordinate constructions allowing pragmatically unrestricted futures.”

For example, the underlined complements of “bet” in “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow” and “I’ll bet they’re late again” express what the Cambridge Grammar calls a “deictic future time.” The sense of a deictic expression depends on how it’s used.

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, explain, “The construction generalises to the deverbal nouns bet, wager, hope.” In other words, “I’ll bet they’re late again” is another way of saying “My bet is that they’re late again.”

Getting back to your question, we’ve generally (though not always) used “I’ll bet” or “we’ll bet” with complements that indicate the future but aren’t expressed in the future tense.

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My plastic blue new nice truck

Q: If, as a child, I said, “That me truck,” someone would have corrected me. But if I said, “my plastic blue new nice truck,” I don’t think anyone would have told me the order was wrong. So how do such conventions get passed on?

A: We’ve already written about the order of adjectives in noun phrases. A post in 2010 explains why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress.” And a 2017 post discusses the lack of commas in such a phrase.

However, we haven’t written about how children become aware of the conventions for using premodifiers.

Entire books and countless papers have been written about the order of premodifiers. But we haven’t found a definitive answer as to how this apparently “natural” order is passed on.

As you suggest, a toddler who says “my plastic blue new nice truck” is probably not corrected to say, “my nice new blue plastic truck,” yet somehow the conventional order eventually becomes automatic.

How does this happen? We can offer a couple of possibilities.

As children become more articulate, either (1) they imitate what they hear around them, with adults consistently placing adjectives in a given order, or (2) they intuitively grasp that there’s a natural hierarchy of English adjectives.

We lean toward #2, though #1 may play a role. If #2 is the answer, and there’s a natural hierarchy, it may be organized roughly like this:

The adjectives closest to the noun reflect qualities that exist in the noun (like “blue” or “plastic”), while those further from the noun reflect subjective opinions or evaluations (like “nice” and “new”).

This seems to be the pattern when linguists and grammarians write about the order in which English premodifiers appear.

For example, English Grammar Today, by Ronald Carter et al., divides them into 10 categories, beginning with those that are always first in line—that is, farthest from the noun (the head of the phrase):

“1. opinion (unusual, lovely, beautiful); 2. size (big, small, tall); 3. physical quality (thin, rough, untidy); 4. shape (round, square, rectangular); 5. age (young, old, youthful); 6. colour (blue, red, pink); 7. origin (Dutch, Japanese, Turkish); 8. material (metal, wood, plastic); 9. type (general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped); 10. purpose (cleaning, hammering, cooking).”

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk and his co-authors suggest that “a subjective/objective polarity” accounts for the order of premodifiers in English:

“That is, modifiers relating to properties which are (relatively) inherent in the head of the noun phrase, visually observable, and objectively recognizable or assessible, will tend to be placed nearer to the head and be preceded by modifiers concerned with what is relatively a matter of opinion, imposed on the head by the observer, not visually observed, and only subjectively assessible.”

It’s interesting to note that English isn’t unique in the ordering of modifiers before a noun. In his book Linguistic Semantics (1992), William Frawley writes:

“English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Indonesian, and Basque all order value before size, and those two before color: Value > Size > Color.”

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Nonbinary thinking

Q: The company I work for has hired a person who identifies as gender nonbinary, and prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Our new hire adds that a simple, sensitive, and inclusive solution would be to use plural pronouns for everyone. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, geez Louise, this is counter to my 50-plus years of English education! Am I wrong?

A: No, you’re not wrong. It’s silly to use “they” for someone who’s happy to be called “he” or “she.” And the binary majority might not consider the usage simple, sensitive, or inclusive. (We’ll discuss the nonbinary use of “they” later in this post.)

Several months ago we wrote about changing views on the use of the plural pronoun “they” in reference to an indefinite, unknown person.

A sentence like “Someone forgot their umbrella” is now considered standard English, even though “they” is plural and an indefinite pronoun like “someone” is technically singular—that is, it takes a singular verb: “someone is.”

The indefinite singular use of “they” is not new, as we wrote in that post. It’s been common in English writing since the early 1300s, and was considered perfectly normal until 18th-century grammarians took exception to it.

In spite of the admonitions, however, English speakers have continued to use “they” (along with “them,” “their,” and “theirs”) in reference to an unknown “someone,” “everybody,” “anybody” and the rest.

As we’ve said many times, common usage will out! Those old prohibitions are no longer recognized by linguists and lexicographers, and we accept their view (though we prefer to reword our own writing to avoid the plural “they” for indefinite pronouns).

Your question, however, leads us to a different singular use of “they.” Because it is gender-neutral, “they” has recently been adopted as the pronoun of choice by many people who identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

We’ll invent an office-type example of this usage, with “Robin” as our nonbinary person: “If Robin is at their desk, please ask them to come to the meeting, since they expressed an interest.”

This nonbinary “they” (we’ll call it #2) is very different from the indefinite “they” (call it #1) that we discussed above.

The #1 “they” represents an unknown person (as in “Someone forgot their umbrella”), but the #2 “they” is a known person who doesn’t want to be referred to as a “he” or a “she.”

As of today, all the major dictionaries recognize the #1 “they” as standard English, but the #2 “they” is mentioned by only one. This is to be expected, since #1 has been around for 700 years while #2 is still unfamiliar to many English speakers.

The only standard dictionary to tackle the subject—at least so far—is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Its entry for “they” includes this definition: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

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

In fact, the dictionary says a majority of its usage panel was against this new “they” at last report:

“As of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender. With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.”

Dictionaries may lag, but the nonbinary use of “they” has been accepted by the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, which are looked to as guides by many news organizations and book publishers.

Last March both announced new policies on “they,” allowing its use in reference to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female.

AP said in its announcement that the change was “spurred in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender and gender-nonbinary issues.”

The new AP Stylebook recommends using “the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” but adds: “If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

The newly published 17th edition of the Chicago Manual has this: “For references to a specific person, the choice of pronoun may depend on the individual. Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preferences should generally be respected.”

Oddly, both AP and the Chicago Manual only grudgingly accept the use of “they” for an unknown person, a usage that is no longer questioned in dictionaries.

When used in reference to an unknown person, Chicago says, “they and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing.”

Yet they thoroughly embrace the nonbinary usage, a much newer, potentially confusing, and more grammatically radical use of “they.” And, as we’ve said, a use that has made it into only one standard dictionary so far—with a warning.

What’s our advice? Well, as things stand, the nonbinary use of “they” for a known person is accepted by some usage authorities and not by others. Only time will tell whether it will become common in ordinary English.

In the meantime, companies that want to be sensitive to the wishes of nonbinary employees might follow the examples of AP and the Chicago Manual.

If a pronoun is necessary, use “they,” “them,” and “their” for an employee who has that preference. But clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when “they” refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.

And when “they” is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: “Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.”

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