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English language Language Usage Writing

Multiple choice

[Note: An updated and expanded post about “multiple” appeared on Aug. 15, 2018.]

Q: Would you indulge me by discussing the overuse of “multiple”? It’s not attractive, nor does it save syllables. What’s wrong with good old “many”? I’m all for a varied vocabulary, but some of these fad words become so ubiquitous that variety doesn’t even come into the picture.

A: Not only does “multiple” not save syllables, but it adds one. In our opinion, a good writer avoids words that are longer than need be. Shorter is often more beautiful, too, as in this excerpt (which we’ve quoted before) from Yeats’s “When You Are Old”:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

While we find “multiple” a bit clunky, there’s nothing wrong with the word. It’s been used as an adjective since the mid-17th century to refer to many people or things.

But “many” is much, much older, going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Let’s skip the Old English citations in the OED and go directly to Shakespeare for an example.

Here’s Guildenstern (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern notoriety) speaking to King Claudius in Hamlet (1604):

We will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.

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Plea agreement

[Note: A later post on this subject was published on May 7, 2021.]

Q: Which is correct: “plead” or “pleaded” guilty? I hear these used interchangeably on the evening news. What’s up wid dat?

A: The usual past tense and past participle of the verb “plead” is “pleaded,” but “pled” is a common variant in American English, especially in legal usage.

In addition, two of the five standard American dictionaries we regularly consult (Merriam-Webster and Webster’s New World) include “plead” (pronounced as “pled”) as a less common variant.

So y0u should be hearing either “pleaded” or “pled” on the evening news as the past tense or past participle. However, some talking heads are apparently mispronouncing “plead” when it’s used in the past, and should be pronounced as “pled.”

All five standard British dictionaries we consult include only “pleaded” as the past tense and past participle, though some note that “pled ” is an American variant.

[This post was updated on April 26, 2021.]

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An article of faith

Q: I have a pet peeve about the italic notes under magazine pieces translated from other languages – e.g., “Translated from the Japanese by so-and-so.” Why is “the” necessary? Shouldn’t it simply say, “Translated from Japanese by so-and-so“?

A: In English, the definite article “the” has often been used in an idiomatic way with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article (or could use the article “a” instead). For instance:

● With names of seasons, directions, and natural phenomena: “in the spring”; “I hate the cold”; “face the north,” and so on.

● With diseases: “she has the flu,” “have you had the measles?”

● With some titles: “the Reverend,” “the Honorable,” etc.

● With musical instruments: “she learned to play the piano,” “lessons on the viola.”

● And, finally, with the names of languages: “translated from the Spanish,” “borrowed from the German.”

Once the use of “the” with a language was much more prevalent than it is today. Here are two old citations from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Let not your studying the French make you neglect the English” (1760). And “Every advantage that … a complete knowledge of the Arabic could afford” (1795).

The OED says people use “the” with languages in an elliptical way – that is, they’re mentally deleting part of a longer phrase. Examples: “translated from the Spanish [version]” … or “from the [original] German” or “from the Japanese [language].”

At any rate, it’s not a mistake. It’s just a custom. Some people (and publications) adopt it and some don’t. And readers just accept this idiomatic “the” as, let’s say, an article of faith.

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What’s buttery about butterflies?

Q: I’ve read that the large-winged insect we see every summer was originally called a “flutterby,” but a tongue-tied VIP in England could only say “butterfly” and that name caught on. This makes sense to me since butterflies do more fluttering than buttering. Do you agree?

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. In written use it goes back to about the year 700, when Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Epinal Glossary, a list of terms in Latin and Old English: “Papilo, buturfliogae” (butur- was the compound form of buter or buture, Old English for “butter,” while fleoge and flyge were terms for a winged insect).

The OED says the reason for the name is unclear, but it “may arise from the pale yellow appearance of the wings of certain European butterflies (perhaps specifically the brimstone butterfly), or from a supposed tendency to feed on or hover over butter or buttermilk, or from a folk belief that butterflies (or even witches in the form of butterflies) steal butter.”

The dictionary notes similar words in other Germanic languages. A popular name for the insect in 16th-century Dutch, for example, was botervlieg, while popular names in Middle High German were bitterflivge and brutflevg. The insect is normally called vlinder in Dutch and schmetterling in German.

The OED also cites several Dutch and German regional terms that reflect the folk belief in butterfly thievery and witchery: botterheks (“butter witch”) in Dutch as well as butterhexe (“butter witch”) and “milchdieb (“milk thief”) in German.

The dictionary notes the use in Dutch of “boterschijte, lit. ‘butter shit,’ which has led to the (improbable) suggestion that the insect was so called on account of the (supposed) appearance of its excrement.”

In fact, butterflies don’t produce excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. However, the website and book by Phil Schappert note that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.

The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily in various spellings since it first appeared in Old English. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.

The earliest Oxford citation with the modern spelling is from the early 17th century: “As Butterflies quicken with heat, which were benummed with cold” (from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie, 1626).

As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but we can’t find a single published reference for the word in the OED.

The closest thing is this citation from 2000 in the dictionary’s entry for “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

Q: Have you noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective? I see lots of signs that say “ice tea” and people talk about “mix tapes.”

A: No, we haven’t noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective, though some words that began life with the suffix are often seen without it.

For example, the use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, while “damn” used in this sense didn’t appear until the late 18th century and is now much more popular.

The loss of the “-ed” ending here is is no surprise. The fact is that “-ed” can be awkward to pronounce before a consonant. This can sometimes lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

As for the chilled tea served over ice, both “iced tea” and “ice tea” showed up in the 19th century (the version with “d” in 1839 and one without it in 1842, according to citations in theOxford English Dictionary). You can find both versions in standard dictionaries now, though the suffixed one is far more popular.

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, shows that “iced tea” is five times as popular as “ice tea.” And the longer version is even more popular in a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books up until 2008. 

In short, the “-ed” adjective is alive and well in writing, though it’s often dropped in speech. We’re used to hearing things like “corn beef,” “mash potatoes,” “grill cheese,” “chop liver,” and “whip cream,” but people generally preserve the “-ed” endings in writing these noun phrases.

As for the compilation of music from multiple sources, it’s usually “mixtape” now, though it was “mix tape” when it showed up in writing in the 1980s and has sometimes been “mix-tape,” according to our searches of newspaper databases. It has seldom been written as “mixed tape.” The word “mix” in the compound “mixtape” is an attributive noun—one used adjectivally.

[Note: This post was updated on July 12, 2019.]

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Heavens to Betsy!

Q: I saw the expression “Heavens to Betsy” in the paper the other day and it reminded me of my late, dearly beloved mother, who used to use it at least once a week. Where does the expression come from, and who was Betsy?

A: Word sleuths have long asked themselves the same questions about “Heavens to Betsy,” an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear.

All they’ve been able to learn is that the expression can be traced to 19th-century America. But “Betsy” herself remains stubbornly anonymous. As the Oxford English Dictionary comments: “The origin of the exclamation Heavens to Betsy is unknown.”

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the OED, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”

Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, found this hyphenated example in an an 1878 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Heavens-to-Betsy! You don’t think I ever see a copper o’ her cash, do ye?”

And the OED has this one from a short-story collection by Rose Terry Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered From New England Hills (1892): “’Heavens to Betsey!’ gasped Josiah.” (“Betsy,” as you can see, is spelled there with a second “e.”)

The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.

In later use, the dictionary says, “extended forms” have included “Heaven and earth,” “Heavens above,” “Heavens alive,” and “Heavens to Betsy,” which it says originated and is chiefly heard in the US.

Some people have suggested that the exclamation was inspired by the Minna Irving poem “Betsy’s Battle Flag” (about Betsy Ross) or the nickname of Davy Crockett’s rifle, Old Betsy, but language authorities have debunked these ideas.

In a posting to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, the etymologist Gerald Cohen has suggested that Betsy Ross may indeed have inspired the expression even if the Irving poem didn’t. He adds that “Heavens to Betsy” may be an elliptical way of saying “may the heavens be gracious to Betsy.”

As for any more definitive explanation, we can’t offer one. This is one of the many language mysteries that we simply have to live with.

It’s even possible that the expression referred to nobody in particular, and that “Betsy” was used simply because it was a familiar feminine name. The generic use of names isn’t uncommon in such expressions, as we’ve written in posts about “Tom, Dick, and Harry”  and “Johnny-come-lately.”

The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk, in his appropriately titled book Heavens to Betsy!, says he spent “an inordinate amount of time” on this problem before deciding that it’s “completely unsolvable.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 23, 2018.]

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Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Continuing education

Q: I am curious about the words “continual” and “continuous.” Is there a difference between them and when should each one be used?

A: Many usage guides make this distinction: “continual” means going on regularly or frequently but with breaks in between; “continuous” means going on steadily and without interruption. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, offers a trick for telling them apart—imagine that the “ous” ending is short for “one uninterrupted sequence.”

These days, however, so many people use the two words interchangeably that the distinction may someday be lost. In fact, a case can be made that the difference between “continual” and “continuous” has never been quite as clear-cut as the sticklers insist.

The word “continual,” for instance, has been used to mean both continuing without interruption and repeated with brief interruptions since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The 17th-century newcomer “continuous,” the OED says, means uninterrupted or unbroken.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “continuous” as uninterrupted, but they say “continual” can mean either uninterrupted or recurring regularly.

Because people use both to imply without interruption, it’s better to use “repeated” or “intermittent”  instead of “continual” to describe something that starts and stops.

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

Do you pronounce ‘t’ in ‘often’?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” How “correct” is the second pronunciation? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats the version with the audible “t” as a variant that occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some. [Update, May 25, 2018: The online edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has dropped that label and now has the word “nonstandard” before the second pronunciation.]

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today.

Even a word like “oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

[Note: This post was updated on May 25, 2018.]

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Is “trepidatious” a word?

Q: I hear people use “trepidatious” to mean fearful or anxious, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and my spell-checker tells me it’s wrong. Is “trepidatious” a word?

A: Yes, it’s a word, though it’s more common in the US than in the UK. Six of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the adjective.

All five American dictionaries include it as standard English. However, it’s found in only one of the five British dictionaries, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), which describes the usage as informal. All 10 dictionaries include the noun “trepidation.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the adjective as “apprehensive, nervous; filled with trepidation.” The dictionary says it originated with the addition of the suffix “-ious” to either trepidāt-, the past participial stem of the classical Latin verb trepidāre (to be alarmed), or to the root of the English word “trepidation.”

Although the usage is more popular in the US than the UK, the first OED citation is from an early 20th-century British novel about colonial India:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight” (The Sirdar’s Oath: A Tale of the Northwest Frontier, 1904, by Bertram Mitford, a member of the aristocratic and literary Mitford family).

The earliest American citation in the OED is from the May 18, 1940, issue of the Circleville Herald, an Ohio newspaper: “A trepidatious Europe today remained tense, worried, fearful, for the outcome of what military men predict will be the greatest battle in the history of the world.”

The much older noun “trepidation” ultimately comes from the Latin trepidāre. When it first appeared in the early 17th century, the OED says, “trepidation” referred to agitation in the scientific sense:

“Massiue bodies … haue certaine trepidations and wauerings before they fixe and settle” (from Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, Diuine and Humane, 1605, by Francis Bacon).

Two decades later, the noun took on its modern sense of “tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest citation is from another work by Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit” (The Essayes or Counsels, Ciuill and Morall, 1625).

Some sticklers have objected to the use of the relatively new adjective “trepidatious,” but we see nothing wrong with it. The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who uses the term himself, wrote a strong defense of the adjective in a Nov. 17, 2004, post on the Language Log.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, to reflect newer dictionary information. Posts on “trepidatious,” “trepidant,” and “trepidated” also appeared in 2015 and 2017. ]

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Is ‘irregardless’ your #1 ‘uggie’?

Q: I’m sick of hearing people use “irregardless” instead of “regardless.” It’s not just ugly; it’s No. 1 on my list of “uggies.” Where did the superfluous “ir” come from? And how can we get rid of it?

A: “Irregardless” has been around for about a century and has been condemned for just as long. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary (1912), questions its legitimacy: “Is there such a word as irregardless in the English language?”

The OED defines it as a nonstandard or humorous usage for “regardless.” Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary agree that it’s nonstandard.

Where did that extra “ir” come from? Lexicographers (the folks who compile dictionaries) believe that “irregardless” is probably the result of the mushing together “irrespective” and “regardless.”

I agree with you that “irregardless” is ugly. It’s right up there on my list of “uggies” too. The best way to exorcise it from the English language is to avoid using it. Let’s all do our part. But “irregardless” has been around for a long time, and it doesn’t seem willing to go quietly.

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A tough row to hoe

Q: I’m always hearing people say “a tough ROAD to hoe.” Hoeing a road is probably illegal, and using that expression should be illegal too. What are your thoughts?

A: We don’t know if hoeing a road is illegal, but an asphalt road must be a mighty tough road to hoe. The correct expression is, of course, “a tough row to hoe,” and it refers to hoeing rows on a farm. To have a “tough” or “hard” or “long” or “difficult” row to hoe means to have a daunting task to perform.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the correct expression is of American origin and dates back to the early 19th century. The first OED citation is from the March 24, 1810, issue of the New-York Spectator:

“True, we have a hard row to hoe—’tis plaguy unlucky the feds have taken him up.”

And here’s an example from An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, an 1835 book by the frontiersman Davy Crockett: “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”

Interestingly, the “road” version of the expression showed up soon after Crockett’s book. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Dec. 3, 1842, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston).

A farmer, describing his long journey to take wheat to market, writes: “ ‘Truly you have a hard road to hoe,’ you will say; ‘why don’t you sell your wheat nearer home?’ ”

We sympathize with you, but we think substituting “road” for “row” in the expression is a misdemeanor and doesn’t deserve hard time. Definitely no more than an hour on a road crew!

A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2017.]

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The great divide

Read Pat’s review in the New York Times today of two new language books.

—————

Speech Crimes

By PATRICIA T. O’CONNER

Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists” — those who’d rap your knuckles for using “snuck” versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn’t nearly as great as it’s made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe “slud,” as in “Rizzuto slud into second”).

If you’re old enough to have learned the parts of speech in school, you probably think of them as written in stone. Not so. The nine categories are arbitrary and shifting. Nouns get verbed, adjectives get nouned, prepositions can moonlight as almost anything.

Yagoda, who teaches English at the University of Delaware, agrees that the categories are artificial, but he’s smitten with them anyway. Each member of the “baseball-team-sized list” (adj., adv., art., conj., int., n., prep., pron. and v.) gets its own chapter. Don’t overlook the surprisingly entertaining one on conjunctions — yes, conjunctions — with its riffs on the ampersand (“the more ampersands in the credits, the crummier the movie”) and the art of “ ‘but’ management.” No word is too humble for Yagoda, who can get lexically aroused by the likes of “a” and “the.”

Read the rest of the review on Grammarphobia.com. And buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.

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Assure, ensure, and insure

Q: I am a puzzled editor. I cringe every time I see the word “insure” used in a non-financial sense in respected publications. I am under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that “insure” should be used in regard to finances, and “ensure” in a more abstract and wider sense. I would appreciate any light that you can shed on this.

A: In the US, both “ensure” and “insure” can mean to make certain of something, but “insure” is preferred in the commercial sense (to issue or take out insurance). All five American standard dictionaries that we regularly consult agree on this, while the five British dictionaries we consult describe it as standard in the US.

Nevertheless, some usage and style manuals insist that “insure” should be used only in the financial sense.

A third verb, “assure,” is often confused with “ensure” and “insure.” In both the US and the UK, “assure” means to set someone’s mind at rest, though it’s sometimes used in the UK to mean underwrite financial loss.

All three verbs—“assure,” “ensure,” and “insure”—have their roots in a Latin word for “safe” or “secure.” 

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[Note: This post was updated on April 21, 2020.]
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English English language Linguistics Punctuation Uncategorized Writing

A comma, too?

Q: I’ve managed to get myself into a debate with my girlfriend that is now running to two weeks and threatening our relationship. The question is whether or not one should use a comma before the word “too” at the end of a sentence—e.g., “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” The Chicago Manual of Style says you shouldn’t, but my girlfriend has found a website that says you should. I’m no grammarian, but I’d appreciate something approaching a definitive answer. Can you help?

A: In the universe of yeses and noes, the comma-bef0re-“too” question is a maybe (which explains why two intelligent people can disagree about it). There’s no grammatical rule that says you must use a comma with “too” in the kind of sentence you describe. It’s largely optional, and depends on the inflection the writer intends. In the case of “too,” use a comma if you intend to be emphatic about it.

Take your example: “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” Context might call for a comma or it might not. If Grandma has just given Steve’s pushy little brother Sam a scoop of ice cream, and their mother wants to suggest that shy little Steve should get the same, she might say, “Steve likes chocolate ice cream, too.” (With a little lilt at the end, emphasizing the “too.”)

But if Mom is just describing a catalog of the stuff that Steve likes, and has already mentioned, say, vanilla ice cream, she might say, “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” (No particular inflection there.) It’s often a judgment call.

In the middle of a sentence, however, a comma before “too” can be a help to the reader.

[Update, Feb. 19, 2021: Since we published this post, almost 15 years ago, The Chicago Manual of Style (now in its 17th edition) has clarified its position. It now says (section 6.52): “The adverbs too and either used in the sense of ‘also’ generally need not be preceded by a comma.” One of the examples given: “Anders likes Beethoven; his sister does too.” It adds: “When too comes in the middle of a sentence or clause, however, a comma aids comprehension.” The example: “She, too, decided against the early showing.”]

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

Can you cut the mustard?

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

Q: Where did the phrase “can’t cut the mustard” come from? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

A: The phrase “cut the mustard” originated in late 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “slang (originally U.S.),” and says the noun “mustard” here means “something which adds piquancy or zest; that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.”

The OED says the the phrase and its variants mean “to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed.” The variant phrases “to be the mustard” or “to be to the mustard” are also defined as “to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “cut the mustard” is from a Texas newspaper, in an article about legislative debate:

“They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors” (Galveston Daily News, April 9, 1891).

The same newspaper used the phrase again the following year: “Time will reveal that he cannot ‘cut the mustard’ ” (Sept. 12, 1892).

The OED cites these early uses of other “mustard” phrases, also from North America.

“For fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree” (The Log of a Cowboy, 1903, by Andy Adams).

“Petroskinski is a discovery of mine, and he’s all to the mustard” (You Can Search Me, 1905, written by George Vere Hobart under the pseudonym Hugh McHugh).

The OED suggests that “to be mustard,” when used to describe a person, might be compared to the expression “hot stuff.” An example: “That fellow is mustard” (from Edgar Wallace’s 1925 novel A King by Night).

However, somewhat similar “mustard” expressions were used much earlier in British English. According to the OED, “strong as mustard” (1659) and “hot as mustard” (1679) meant “very powerful or passionate,” while “keen as mustard” (1672) meant “very enthusiastic.”

Why the “cut” in “cut the mustard”? Nobody seems to know for sure. But we can offer a suggestion.

In the late 19th century, just before “cut the mustard” was first recorded, the verb “cut” was used to mean “excel” or “outdo,” according to OED citations.

The earliest OED example is from the April 13, 1884, issue of The Referee, a British sporting newspaper: “George’s performance … is hardly likely to be disturbed for a long time to come, unless he cuts it himself.”

So perhaps to “cut the mustard” is to surpass mustard—that is,  to be even more mustardy than mustard itself.

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