Arrant Pedantry

By

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are some slogans up with which I will not put.” Obviously, with a name like Arrant Pedantry, I couldn’t let that slogan pass by without comment.

The slogan is obviously attempting to follow the old rule against stranding prepositions. Prepositions usually come before their complements, but there are several constructions in English in which they’re commonly stranded, or left at the end without their complements. Preposition stranding is especially common in speech and informal writing, whereas preposition fronting (or keeping the preposition with its complement) is more typical of a very formal style. For example, you’d probably say Who did you give it to? when talking to a friend, but in a very formal situation, you might move that preposition up to the front: To whom did you give it?

This rule has been criticized and debunked countless times, but even if you believe firmly in it, you should recognize that there are some constructions where you can’t follow it. That is, following the rule sometimes produces sentences that are stylistically bad if not flat-out ungrammatical. The following constructions all require preposition stranding:

  1. Relative clauses introduced by that. The relative pronoun that cannot come after a preposition, which is one reason why some linguists argue that it’s really a conjunction (a form of the complementizer that) and not a true pronoun. You can’t say There aren’t any of that I know—you have to use which instead or leave the preposition at the end—There aren’t any that I know of.
  2. Relative clauses introduced with an omitted relative. As with the above example, the preposition in There aren’t any I know of can’t be fronted. There isn’t even anything to put it in front of, because the relative pronoun is gone. This should probably be considered a subset of the first item, because the most straightforward analysis is that relative that is omissible while other relatives aren’t. (This is another reason why some consider it not a true pronoun but rather a form of the complementizer thatthat is often omissible.)
  3. The fused relative construction. When you use what, whatever, or whoever as a relative pronoun, as in the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, the preposition must come at the end. Strangely, Reader’s Digest once declared that the correct version would be “I Still Haven’t Found for What I’m Looking”. But this is ungrammatical, because “what” cannot serve as the object of “for”. For the fronted version to work, you have to reword it to break up the fused relative: “I Still Haven’t Found That for Which I’m Looking”.
  4. A subordinate interrogative clause functioning as the complement of a preposition. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives the example We can’t agree on which grant we should apply for. The fronted form We can’t agree on for which grant we should apply sounds stilted and awkward at best.
  5. Passive clauses where the subject has been promoted from an object of a preposition. In Her apartment was broken into, there’s no way to reword the sentence to avoid the stranded preposition, because there’s nothing to put the preposition in front of. The only option is to turn it back into an active clause: Someone broke into her apartment.
  6. Hollow non-finite clauses. A non-finite clause is one that uses an infinitive or participial form rather than a tensed verb, so it has no overt subject. A hollow non-finite clause is also missing some other element that can be recovered from context. In That book is too valuable to part with, for example, the hollow non-finite clause is to part with. With is missing a complement, which makes it hollow, though we can recover its complement from context: that book. Sometimes you can flip a hollow non-finite clause around and insert the dummy subject it to put the complement back in its place. It’s too valuable to part with that book doesn’t really work, though It’s worth killing for a love is at least grammatical. It’s worth killing for this love is better, but in this case A love worth killing for is still stylistically preferable. But the important thing to note is that since the complement of the preposition is missing, there’s nowhere to move the preposition to. It has to remain stranded.

And that’s where the Deadpool tweet goes off the rails. Rather than leave the preposition stranded, they invent a place for it by inserting the completely unnecessary relative pronoun which. But A love for which worth killing sounds like caveman talk, so they stuck in the similarly unnecessary is: A love for which is worth killing. They’ve turned the non-finite clause into a finite one, but now it’s missing a subject. They could have fixed that by inserting a dummy it, as in A love for which it is worth killing, but they didn’t. The result is a completely ungrammatical mess, but one that sounds just sophisticated enough, thanks to its convoluted syntax, that it might fool some people into thinking it’s some sort of highfalutin form. It’s not.

Instead, it’s some sort of hideous freak, the product of an experiment conducted by people who didn’t fully understand what they were doing, just like Deadpool himself. Unlike Deadpool, though, this sentence doesn’t have any superhuman healing powers. If you ever find yourself writing something like this, do the merciful thing and put it out of its misery.

By

Historic, Historical

My brother recently asked me how to use pairs of words like historic/historical, mathematic/mathematical, and problematic/problematical. The typical usage advice is pretty straightforward—use historic to refer to important things from history and historical to refer to anything having to do with past events, important or not—but the reality of usage is a lot more complicated.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, historic was first used as an adjective meaning “related to history; concerned with past events” in 1594. In 1610, it appeared in the sense “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history”; sometimes this was contrasted with prehistoric. It wasn’t until 1756 that it was first used to mean “having or likely to have great historical importance or fame; having a significance due to connection with historical events.” The first edition of the OED called this “the prevailing current sense”, but the current edition notes that the other senses are still common.

The history of historical isn’t much clearer. It first appeared as an adjective meaning “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history” (sense 2 of historic) in 1425, though there aren’t any more citations in this sense until the mid- to late 1500s, about the same time that historic began to be used in this sense. Also in 1425, it appeared in the sense of a work that is based on or depicts events from history, though this sense also didn’t appear again until the late 1500s. In the broader sense “related to history; concerned with past events”, it appeared in 1521, several decades before historichistoric appeared in this sense.

In other words, both of these words have been used in essentially all of these senses for all of their history, and they both appeared around the same time. It’s not as if one clearly came first in one sense and the other clearly came first in the other sense. There is no innate distinction between the two words, though a distinction has begun to emerge over the last century or so of use.

Other such pairs are not much clearer. The OED gives several senses for mathematical beginning in 1425, and for mathematic it simply says, “= mathematical adj. (in various senses)”, with citations beginning in 1402. Apparently they are interchangeable. Problematic/problematical seem to be interchangeable as well, though problematical is obsolete in the logic sense.

But rather than go through every single pair, I’ll just conclude with what Grammarist says on the topic:

There is no rule or consistent pattern governing the formation of adjectives ending in -ic and -ical. . . .

When you’re in doubt about which form is preferred or whether an -ic/-ical word pair has differentiated, the only way to know for sure is to check a dictionary or other reference source.

By

Overanxious about Ambiguity

As my last post revealed, a lot of people are concerned—or at least pretend to be concerned—about the use of anxious to mean “eager” or “excited”. They claim that since it has multiple meanings, it’s ambiguous, and thus the disparaged “eager” sense should be avoided. But as I said in my last post, it’s not really ambiguous, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply being uncooperative.

Anxious entered the English language in the the early to mid-1600s in the sense of “troubled in mind; fearful; brooding”. But within a century, the sense had expanded to mean “earnestly desirous” or “eager”. That’s right—the allegedly new sense of the word was already in use before the United States declared independence.

These two meanings existed side by side until the early 1900s, when usage commentators first decided to be bothered by the “eager” sense. And make no mistake—this was a deliberate decision to be bothered. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage includes this anecdote from Alfred Ayres in 1901:

Only a few days ago, I heard a learned man, an LL.D., a dictionary-maker, an expert in English, say that he was anxious to finish the moving of his belongings from one room to another.

“No, you are not,” said I.

“Yes, I am. How do you know?”

“I know you are not.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“There is no anxiety about it. You are simply desirous.”

Ayres’s correction has nothing to do with clarity or ambiguity. He obviously knew perfectly well what the man meant but decided to rub his nose in his supposed error instead. One can almost hear his self-satisfied smirk as he lectured a lexicographer—a learned man! a doctor of laws!—on the use of the language he was supposed to catalog.

A few years later, Ambrose Bierce also condemned this usage, saying that anxious should not be used to mean “eager” and that it should not be followed by an infinitive. As MWDEU notes, anxious is typically used to mean “eager” when it is followed by an infinitive. But it also says that it’s “an oversimplification” to say that anxious is simply being used to mean “eager”. It notes that “the word, in fact, fairly often has the notion of anxiety mingled with that of eagerness.” That is, anxious is not being used as a mere synonym of eager—it’s being used to indicate not just eagerness but a sort of nervous excitement or anticipation.

MWDEU also says that this sense is the predominant one in the Merriam-Webster citation files, but a search in COCA doesn’t quite bear this out—only about a third of the tokens are followed by to and are clearly used in the “eager” sense. Google Books Ngrams, however, shows that to is by far the most common word that immediately follows anxious; that is, people are anxious to do something far more often than they’re anxious about something.

This didn’t stop one commenter from claiming that not only is this use of anxious confusing, but she’d literally never encountered it before. It’s hard to take such a claim seriously when this use is not only common but has been common for centuries.

It’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s ambiguous when nobody can manage to find an example that’s actually ambiguous. A few commenters offered made-up examples that seemed designed to be maximally ambiguous when presented devoid of context. They also ignored the fact that the “eager” sense is almost always followed by an infinitive. That is, as John McIntyre pointed out, no English speaker would say “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us” or “I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that” if they meant that they were eager or excited.

Another commenter seemed to argue that the problem was that language was changing in an undesirable way, saying, “It’s clearly understood that language evolves, but some of us might prefer a different or better direction for that evolution. . . . Is evolution the de facto response for any misusage in language?”

But this comment has everything backwards. Evolution isn’t the response to misuse—claims of misuse are (occasionally) the response to evolution. The word anxious changed in a very natural way, losing some of its negative edge and being used in a more neutral or positive way. The same thing happened to the word care, which originally meant “to sorrow or grieve” or “to be troubled, uneasy, or anxious”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet nobody complains that everyone is misusing the word today.

That’s because nobody ever decided to be bothered by it as they did with anxious. The claims of ambiguity or undesired language change are all post hoc; the real objection to this use of anxious was simply that someone decided on the basis of etymology—and in spite of established usage—that it was wrong, and that personal peeve went viral and became established in the usage literature.

It’s remarkably easy to convince yourself that something is an error. All you have to do is hear someone say that it is, and almost immediately you’ll start noticing the error everywhere and recoiling in horror every time you encounter it. And once the idea that it’s an error has become lodged in your brain, it’s remarkably difficult to dislodge it. We come up with an endless stream of bogus arguments to rationalize our pet peeves.

So if you choose to be bothered by this use of anxious, that’s certainly your right. But don’t pretend that you’re doing the language a service.

By

No, Online Grammar Errors Have Not Increased by 148%

Yesterday a post appeared on QuickandDirtyTips.com (home of Grammar Girl’s popular podcast) that appears to have been written by a company called Knowingly, which is promoting its Correctica grammar-checking tool. They claim that “online grammar errors have increased by 148% in nine years”. If true, it would be a pretty shocking claim, but the numbers immediately sent up some red flags.

They searched for seventeen different errors and compared the numbers from nine years ago to the numbers from today. From the description, I gather that the first set of numbers comes from a publicly available set of data that Google culled from public web pages. The data was released in 2006 and is hosted by the Linguistic Data Consortium. You can read more about the data here, but this part is the most relevant:

We processed 1,024,908,267,229 words of running text and are publishing the counts for all 1,176,470,663 five-word sequences that appear at least 40 times. There are 13,588,391 unique words, after discarding words that appear less than 200 times.

So the data is taken from over a trillion words of text, but some sequences were discarded if they didn’t appear frequently enough, and you can only search sequences up to five words long. Also note that while the data was released in 2006, it does not necessarily all come from 2006; some of it could have come from web pages that were older than that.

It sounds like the second set of numbers comes from a series of Google searches—it simply says “search result data today”. It isn’t explicitly stated, but it appears that the search terms were put in quotes to find exact strings. But we’re already comparing apples and oranges: though the first set of data came from a known sample size (just over a trillion words) and and was cleaned up a bit by having outliers thrown out, we have no idea how big the second sample size is. How many words are you effectively searching when you do a search in Google?

This is why corpora usually present not just raw numbers but normalized numbers—that is, not just an overall count, but a count per thousand words or something similar. Knowing that you have 500 instances of something in data set A and 1000 instances in data set B doesn’t mean anything unless you know how big those sets are, and in this case we don’t.

This problem is ameliorated somewhat by looking not just at the raw numbers but at the error rates. That is, they searched for both the correct and incorrect forms of each item, calculated how frequent the erroneous form was, and compared the rates from 2006 to the rates from 2015. It would still be better to compare two similar datasets, because we have no idea how different the cleaned-up Google Ngrams data is from raw Google search data, but at least this allows us to make some rough comparisons. But notice the huge differences between the “then” and “now” numbers in the table below. Obviously the 2015 data represents a much larger set. (I’ve split their table into two pieces, one for the correct terms and one for the incorrect terms, to make them fit in my column here.)

Correct Term

Then

Now

jugular vein

56,409

794,000

bear in mind

931,235

35,500,000

head over heels

179,491

8,130,000

chocolate mousse

237,870

6,790,000

egg yolk

152,458

5,420,000

without further ado

120,124

1,960,000

whet your appetite

52,850

533,000

heroin and morphine

3,220

112,000

reach across the aisle

2707

117,000

herd mentality

19,444

411,000

weather vane

70906

477,000

zombie horde

21,091

464,000

chili peppers

1,105,405

29,100,000

brake pedal

138,765

1,450,000

pique your interest

8,126

296,000

lessen the burden

14,926

389,000

bridal shower

852,371

16,500,000

Incorrect Term

Then

Now

juggler vein

693

4,150

bare in mind

18,492

477,000

head over heals

12,633

398,000

chocolate moose

14,504

364,000

egg yoke

2,028

88,900

without further adieu

13,170

437,000

wet your appetite

8,930

216,000

heroine and morphine

45

3,860

reach across the isle

93

11,800

heard mentality

313

21,300

weather vein

698

16,100

zombie hoard

744

64,200

chilly peppers

2,532

155,000

brake petal

417

27,800

peek your interest

320

111,000

lesson the burden

212

91,400

bridle shower

182

157,000

But then the Correctica team commits a really major statistical goof—they average all those percentages together to calculate an overall percentage. Here’s their data again:

Incorrect Term

Then

Now

Increase

juggler vein

1.2%

0.5%

–57.2%

bare in mind

1.9%

1.3%

–31.9%

head over heals

6.6%

4.7%

–29.0%

chocolate moose

5.7%

5.1%

–11.5%

egg yoke

1.3%

1.6%

22.9%

without further adieu

9.9%

18.2%

84.5%

wet your appetite

14.5%

28.8%

99.5%

heroine and morphine

1.4%

3.3%

141.7%

reach across the isle

3.3%

9.2%

175.8%

heard mentality

1.6%

4.9%

211.0%

weather vein

1.0%

3.3%

234.9%

zombie hoard

3.4%

12.2%

256.7%

chilly peppers

0.2%

0.5%

131.8%

brake petal

0.3%

1.9%

527.9%

peek your interest

3.8%

27.3%

619.8%

lesson the burden

1.4%

19.0%

1258.6%

bridle shower

0.0%

0.9%

4315.2%

3.4%

8.4%

148.2%

They simply add up all the percentages (1.2% + 1.9% + 6.6% + . . .) and divide by the numbers of percentages, 17. But this number is meaningless. Imagine that we were comparing two items: isn’t is used 9,900 times and ain’t 100 times, and regardless is used 999 times and irregardless 1 time. This means that when there’s a choice between isn’t and ain’t, ain’t is used 1% of the time (100/(9900+100)), and when there’s a choice between regardless and irregardless, irregardless is used .1% of the time (1/(999+1)). If you average 1% and .1%, you get .55%, but this isn’t the overall error rate.

But to get an overall error rate, you need to calculate the percentage from the totals. We have to take the total number of errors and the total number of opportunities to use either the correct or the incorrect form. This gives us (1+100/((9900+999)+(100+1))), or 101/11000, which works out to .92%, not .55%.

When we count up the totals and calculate the overall rates, we get an error rate of 1.88% for then (not 3.4%) and 2.38% for now (not 8.4%). That means the increase from 2006 to 2009 is not 148.2%, but a much more modest 26.64%. (By the way, I’m not sure where they got 148.2%; by my calculations, it should be 147.1%, but I could have made a mistake somewhere.) This is still a rather impressive increase in errors from 2009 to today, but the problems with the data set make it impossible to say for sure if this number is accurate or meaningful. “Heroine and morphine” occurred 45 times out of over a trillion words. Even if the error rate jumped 141.73% from 2009 to 2015, and even if the two sample sets were comparable, this would still probably amount to nothing more than statistical noise.

And even if these numbers were accurate and meaningful, there’s still the question of research design. They claim that grammar errors have increased, but all of the items are spelling errors, and most of them are rather obscure ones at that. At best, this study only tells us that these errors have increased that much, not that grammar errors in general have increased that much. If you’re setting out to study grammar errors (using grammar in the broad sense), why would you assume that these items are representative of the phenomenon in general?

So in sum, the study is completely bogus, and it’s obviously nothing more than an attempt to sell yet another grammar-checking service. Is it important to check your writing for errors? Sure. Can Correctica help you do that? I have no idea. But I do know that this study doesn’t show an epidemic of grammar errors as it claims to.

(Here’s the data if anyone’s interested.)

By

Fifty Shades of Bad Grammar Advice

A few weeks ago, the folks at the grammar-checking website Grammarly wrote a piece about supposed grammar mistakes in Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being a runaway hit, the book has frequently been criticized for its terrible prose, and Grammarly apparently saw an opportunity to fix some of the book’s problems (and probably sell its grammar-checking services along the way).

The first problem, of course, is that most of the errors Grammarly identified have nothing to do with grammar. The second is that most of their edits not only fail to fix the clunky prose but actually make it worse.

Mark Allen already took Grammarly to task in a post on the Copyediting blog, saying that their edits “lack restraint”, that “the list is full of style choices and non-errors”, and that “it fails to make a case for the value of proofreading, and, by association, . . . reflects poorly on the craft of copyediting.” I agreed and thought at the time that nothing more needed to be said.

But then Grammarly decided to go even further. In this infographic, they claim to have found “similar gaffes” in the works of authors ranging from Nicholas Sparks to Shakespeare.

The first edit suggests that Nicholas Sparks needs a comma in the sentence “I am a common man with common thoughts and I’ve led a common life.” It’s true that this is a compound sentence, and such sentences typically require a comma between the two independent clauses. But The Chicago Manual of Style says that the comma can be omitted when the clauses are short and closely related. This isn’t an error so much as a style choice.

Incidentally, Grammarly says that “E. L. James is not the first author to include a comma in her work when a semi-colon would be more appropriate, or vice versa.” But the supposed error here isn’t that James used a comma when she should have used a semicolon; it’s that she didn’t use a comma at all. (Also note that “semicolon” is not spelled with a hyphen and that the comma before “or vice versa” is not necessary.)

Error number 2 is comma misuse (which is somehow different from error number 1, which is also comma misuse). Grammarly says, “Many writers forget to include a comma when one is necessary, or include a comma when it is not necessary.” (By the way, the comma before “or include a comma when it is not necessary” is not necessary.) The supposed offender here is Hemingway, who wrote, “We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” Grammarly suggests putting a comma after “at night”, but that would be a mistake.

The sentence has a compound predicate with three verb phrases strung together with ands. Hemingway says that “We would (1) be together and (2) have our books and (3) at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” You don’t need a comma between the parts of a compound predicate, and if you want to set off the phrase “at night”, then you need commas on both sides: “We would be together and have our books and, at night, be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” But that destroys the rhythm of the sentence and interferes with Hemingway’s signature style.

Error number 3 is wordiness, and the offender is Edith Wharton, who wrote, “Each time you happen to me all over again.” Grammarly suggests axing “all over”, leaving “Each time you happen to me again”. But this edit doesn’t fix a wordy sentence so much as it kills its emphasis. This is dialogue; shouldn’t dialogue sound like the way people talk?

Error number 4, colloquialisms, is not even an error by Grammarly’s own admission—it’s a stylistic choice. And choosing to use colloquialisms—more particularly, contractions—is a perfectly valid stylistic choice in fiction, especially in dialogue. Changing “doesn’t sound very exciting” to “it does not sound very exciting” is probably fine if you’re editing dialogue for Data from Star Trek, but it just isn’t how normal people talk.

The next error, commonly confused words, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Here Grammarly fingers F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing “to-night” rather than “tonight”. But this has nothing to do with confused words, because they’re the same word. To-night was the more common spelling until the 1930s, when the unhyphenated tonight surpassed it. This is not an error at all, let alone an error involving commonly confused words.

The sixth error, sentence fragments, is again debatable, and Grammarly even acknowledges that using fragments “is one way to emphasize an idea.” Once again, Grammarly says that it’s a style choice that for some reason you should never make. The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, rightly acknowledges that the proscription against sentence fragments has “no historical or grammatical foundation.”

Error number 7 is another puzzler. They say that determiners “help writers to be specific about what they are talking about.” Then they say that Boris Pasternak should have written “sent down to the earth” rather than “sent down to earth” in Doctor Zhivago. Where on the earth did they get that idea? Not only is “down to earth” far more common in writing, but there’s nothing unclear about it. Adding the “the” doesn’t solve any problem because there is no problem here. Incidentally, they say the error has to do with determiners, but they’re really talking about articles—a, an, and the. Articles are simply one type of determiner, which also includes possessive determiners, demonstratives, and quantifiers.

I’ll skip error number 8 for the moment and go to number 9, the passive voice. Again they note the passive voice is a stylistic choice and not a grammatical error, and then they edit it out anyway. In place of Mr. Darcy’s “My feelings will not be repressed” we now have “I will not repress my feelings.” Grammarly claims that the passive can cause “a lack of clarity in your writing”, but what is unclear about this line? Is anyone confused about it in the slightest? Instead of added clarity, we get a ham-fisted edit that shifts the focus from where it should be—the feelings—onto Mr. Darcy himself. This is exactly the sort of sentence that calls for the passive voice.

The eighth error is probably the most infuriating because it gets so many things wrong. Here they take Shakespeare himself to task over his supposed preposition misuse. They say that in The Tempest, Shakespeare should have written “such stuff on which dreams are made on” rather than “such stuff as dreams are made on”. The first problem with Grammarly’s correction is that it doubles the preposition “on”, creating a grammatical problem rather than fixing it.

The second problem with this correction is that which can’t be used as a relative pronoun referring to such—only as can do that. Their fix is not just awkward but doubly ungrammatical.

The third is that it simply ruins the meter of the line. Remember that Shakespeare often wrote in a meter called iambic pentameter, which means that each foot contains two syllables with stress on the second syllable and that there are five feet per line. Here’s the sentence from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(Note that these aren’t full lines because I’m omitting the text from surrounding sentences that make up part of the first and third lines.) Pay attention to the rhythm of those lines.

we ARE such STUFF
as DREAMS are MADE on AND our LITTle LIFE
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

Now compare Grammarly’s fix:

we ARE such STUFF
on WHICH dreams ARE made ON and OUR littLE life
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

The second line has too many syllables, and the stresses have all shifted. Shakespeare’s line puts most of the stresses on nouns and verbs, while Grammarly’s fix puts it mostly on function words—pronouns, prepositions, determiners—and, maybe worst of all, on the second syllable of “little”. They have taken lines from one of the greatest writers in all of English history and turned them into ungrammatical doggerel. It takes some nerve to edit the Bard; it apparently takes sheer blinkered idiocy to edit him so badly.

So, just to recap, that’s nine supposed grammatical errors that Grammarly says will ruin your prose, most of which are not errors and have nothing to do with grammar. Their suggested fixes, on the other hand, sometimes introduce grammatical errors and always worsen the writing. The takeaway from all of this is not, as Grammarly says, that loves conquers all, but rather that Grammarly doesn’t know the first thing about grammar, let alone good writing.

Addendum: I decided to stop giving Grammarly such a bad time and help them out by editing their infographic pro bono.

By

Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

I recently received an email asking about the expression woe is me, namely what the plural would be and why it’s not woe am I. Though the phrase may strike modern speakers as bizarre if not downright ungrammatical, there’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation: it’s an archaic dative expression. Strange as it may seem, the correct form really is woe is me, not woe am I or woe is I, and the first-person plural would simply be woe is us. I’ll explain why.

Today English only has three cases—nominative (or subjective), objective, and genitive (or possessive)—and these cases only apply to personal pronouns and who. Old English, on the other hand, had four cases (and vestiges of a fifth), and they applied to all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Among these four were two different cases for objects: accusative and dative. (The forms that we now think of simply as object pronouns actually descend from the dative pronouns, though they now cover the functions of both the accusative and dative.) These correspond roughly to direct and indirect objects, respectively, though they could be used in other ways too.

For instance, some prepositions took accusative objects, and some took dative objects (and some took either depending on the meaning). Nouns and pronouns in the accusative and dative cases could also be used in ways that seem strange to modern speakers. The dative, for example, could be used in places where we would normally use to and a pronoun. In some constructions we still have the choice between a pronoun or to and a pronoun—think of how you can say either I gave her the ball or I gave the ball to her—but in Old English you could do this to a much greater degree.

In the phrase woe is me, woe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today. It really means woe is to me. Today the phrase woe is me is pretty fixed, but some past variations on the phrase make the meaning a little clearer. Sometimes it was used with a verb, and sometimes woe was simply followed by a noun or prepositional phrase. In the King James Bible, we find “If I be wicked, woe unto me” (Job 10:15). One example from Old English reads, “Wa biþ þonne þæm mannum” (woe be then [to] those men).

So “woe is I” is not simply a fancy or archaic way of saying “I am woe” and is thus not parallel to constructions like “it is I”, where the nominative form is usually prescribed and the objective form is proscribed. In “woe is me”, “me” is not a subject complement (also known as a predicative complement) but a type of dative construction.

Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe. And though we don’t have distinct dative pronouns anymore, you can still use any pronoun in the object case, so woe is us would also be correct.

Addendum: Arika Okrent, writing at Mental Floss, has also just posted a piece on this construction. She goes into a little more detail on related constructions in English, German, and Yiddish.

And here are a couple of articles by Jan Freeman from 2007, specifically addressing Patricia O’Conner’s Woe Is I and a column by William Safire on the phrase:

Woe Is Us, Part 1
Woe Is Us, Continued

By

On Visual Thesaurus: “Clear and/or Unclear”

And/or is a surprisingly contentious little conjunction. Some lawyers love it, but most editors hate it—and many judges hate it too. Find out what the problem is in my newest post on Visual Thesaurus, “Clear and/or Unclear”.

By

New Post on Visual Thesaurus: Less Usage Problems

I have a new post on Visual Thesaurus, and this one’s open to non-subscribers:

The distinction between less and fewer is one of the most popular rules in the peevers’ arsenal. It’s a staple of lists of grammar rules that everyone supposedly gets wrong, and sticklers have pressured stores into changing their signs from “10 items or less” to “10 items or fewer.” Students have it drilled into their heads that fewer is for things you can count while less is for things you can’t. But there’s a problem: the rule as it’s commonly taught is wrong, and it’s dulling our sense of what’s actually right.

Go here to read the rest.

By

Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?

Several days ago, the Twitter account for the Chicago Manual of Style tweeted, “If you’re feeling sick, use nauseated rather than nauseous. Despite common usage, whatever is nauseous induces nausea.” The relevant entry in Chicago reads,

Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity of nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participial adjectives nauseated and nauseating.

Though it seems like a straightforward usage tip, it’s based on some dubious motives and one rather strange assumption about language. It’s true that nauseous once meant causing nausea and that it has more recently acquired the sense of having nausea, but causing nausea wasn’t even the word’s original meaning in English. The word was first recorded in the early 17th century in the sense of inclined to nausea or squeamish. So you were nauseous not if you felt sick at the moment but if you had a sensitive stomach. This sense became obsolete in the late 17th century, supplanted by the causing nausea sense. The latter sense is the one that purists cling to, but it too is going obsolete.

I searched for nauseous in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and looked at the first 100 hits. Of those 100 hits, only one was used in the sense of causing nausea: “the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.” The rest were all clearly used in the sense of having nausea—“I was nauseous” and “it might make you feel a little nauseous” and so on. Context is key: when nauseous is used with people, it means that they feel sick, but when it’s used with things, it means they’re sickening. And anyway, if nauseous is ambiguous, then every word with multiple meanings is ambiguous, including the word word, which has eleven main definitions as a noun in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. So where’s this ambiguity that Chicago warns of?

The answer is that there really isn’t any. In this case it’s nothing more than a red herring. Perhaps it’s possible to concoct a sentence that, lacking sufficient context, is truly ambiguous. But the corpus search shows that it just isn’t a problem, and thus fear of ambiguity can’t be the real reason for avoiding nauseous. Warnings of ambiguity are often used not to call attention to a real problem but to signal that a word has at least two senses or uses and that the author does not like one of them. Bryan Garner (the author of the above entry from Chicago), in his Modern American Usage, frequently warns of such “skunked” words and usually recommends avoiding them altogether. This may seem like sensible advice, but it seems to me to be motivated by a sense of jealousy—if the word can’t mean what the advice-giver wants it to mean, then no one can use it.

But the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage. If 99 percent of the population uses nauseous in the sense of having nausea, then who’s to say that they’re wrong? Who has the authority to declare this sense “poor usage”? And yet Garner says, rather unequivocally, “Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea.” How does he know this is what nauseous means? It’s not as if there is some platonic form of words, some objective true meaning from which a word must never stray. After all, language changes, and an earlier form is not necessarily better or truer than a newer one. As Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper recently pointed out on Twitter, stew once meant “whorehouse”, and this sense dates to the 1300s. The food sense arose four hundred years later, in the 1700s. Is this poor usage because it’s a relative upstart supplanting an older established sense? Of course not.

People stopped using nauseous to mean “inclined to nausea” several hundred years ago, and so it no longer means that. Similarly, most people no longer use nauseous to mean “causing nausea”, and so that meaning is waning. In another hundred years, it may be gone altogether. For now, it hangs on, but this doesn’t mean that the newer and overwhelmingly more common sense is poor usage. The new sense is only poor usage inasmuch as someone says it is. In other words, it all comes down to someone’s opinion. As I’ve said before, pronouncements on usage that are based simply on someone’s opinion are ultimately unreliable, and any standard that doesn’t take into account near-universal usage by educated speakers in edited writing is doomed to irrelevance.

So go ahead and use nauseous. The “having nausea” sense is now thoroughly established, and it seems silly to avoid a perfectly good word just because a few peevers dislike it. Even if you stick to the more traditional “causing nausea” sense, you’re unlikely to confuse anyone, because context will make the meaning clear. Just be careful about people who make unsupported claims about language.

By

Mother’s Day

Today is officially Mother’s Day, and as with other holidays with possessive or plural endings, there’s a lot of confusion about what the correct form of the name is. The creator of Mother’s Day in the United States, Anna Jarvis, specifically stated that it should be a singular possessive to focus on individual mothers rather than mothers in general. But as sociolinguist Matt Gordon noted on Twitter, “that logic is quite peccable”; though it’s a nice sentiment, it’s grammatical nonsense.

English has a singular possessive and a plural possessive; it does not have a technically-plural-but-focusing-on-the-singular possessive. Though Jarvis may have wanted everyone to focus on their respective mothers, the fact is that it still celebrates all mothers. If I told you that tomorrow was Jonathon’s Day, you’d assume that it’s my day, not that it’s the day for all Jonathons but that they happen to be celebrating separately. That’s simply not how grammatical number works in English. If you have more than one thing, it’s plural, even if you’re considering those things individually.

This isn’t the only holiday that employs some grammatically suspect reasoning in its official spelling—Veterans Day officially has no apostrophe because the day doesn’t technically belong to veterans. But this is silly—apostrophes are used for lots of things beyond simple ownership.

It could be worse, though. The US Board on Geographic Names discourages possessives altogether, though it allows the possessive s without an apostrophe. The peak named for Pike is Pikes Peak, which is worse than grammatical nonsense—it’s an officially enshrined error. The worst part is that there isn’t even a reason given for this policy, though presumably it’s because they don’t want to indicate private ownership of geographical features. (Again, the apostrophe doesn’t necessarily show ownership.) But in this case you can’t even argue that Pike is a plural attributive noun, because there’s only one Pike who named the peak.

The sad truth is that the people in charge of deciding where or whether to put apostrophes in things don’t always have the best grasp of grammar, and they don’t always think to consult someone who does. But even if the grammar of Mother’s Day makes me roll my eyes, I can still appreciate the sentiment. In the end, arguing about the placement of an apostrophe is a quibble. What matters most is what the day really means. And this day is for you, Mom.