Arrant Pedantry

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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.

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Most Awarded

The other day a friend of mine complained about the use of the phrase “most-awarded” in a commercial for the Jeep Cherokee, which called it the “most-awarded SUV ever.” It bothered him, he said, because “they are saying lots of Cherokees get given away as awards, but that’s not what they mean.” I was surprised—I thought it was pretty clear that it meant “the SUV that has been given the most awards”—but several other people chimed in to say that they read it the other way—the SUV most given as an award. One person suggested that it was just another example of advertisers bastardizing the language, while another thought that it was an attempt to be funny by saying one thing but meaning another. And of course the question came up, “Can you correctly say that something has been ‘awarded’ if it is not the award?

There’s absolutely nothing incorrect about it, though it is technically ambiguous. The problem is that in this instance, “awarded” is a passive construction (technically a reduced one), meaning that what is normally an object has been moved to subject position. But it’s ambiguous because “awarded” is ditransitive, which means that it can take both a direct and an indirect object. Most transitive verbs (that is, verbs that take objects) can take only one object, as in “The boy kicked the ball,” but some can take two, as in “The boy gave his friend the ball.” In both sentences, the ball is the direct object, but in the second sentence, we also have an indirect object, his friend.

The same holds for the verb award—you award something to someone (or something), like “The committee awarded him (indirect object) the Nobel Prize (direct object)” or “Car and Driver awarded the Cherokee (indirect object) SUV of the Year (direct object).” (I don’t know if they actually did.) To put the sentence in the passive voice, we can move either one of the objects to subject position, giving us either “The Cherokee was awarded SUV of the Year (by Car and Driver)” or “SUV of the Year was awarded to the Cherokee (by Car and Driver).”

The structural ambiguity comes in when you turn a sentence like this into a reduced passive, as in “most-awarded SUV.” The adjectival phrase “most-awarded” derives from the fuller passive clause “The Cherokee was awarded the most.” Structurally speaking, because award is ditransitive, this could derive from something like either “The Cherokee was awarded to people the most” or “The Cherokee was awarded the most awards.” (Ignore the awkward repetition of the latter; we’re just interested in the structure here, not in elegance.)

Put back into the active voice, this could be either “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee to the most people” or “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee the most awards.” (In either case, it’s not relevant who the subject is, especially since it’s presumably multiple someones.) In the first sentence, the Cherokee is being given as an award; in the second, it’s receiving the awards.

At first, my intuition was that there was something strange about giving a car as an award; it could be a reward or a prize, but in my mind an award is something like the Nobel Prize or an Academy Award or some sort of cash prize. But then I remembered the infamous leg lamp from A Christmas Story, which the father repeatedly describes as “a major award.” So obviously an award could be something other than a medal or a cash amount.

Corpus data wasn’t very helpful, either. COCA gives only five hits for “most awarded,” but all of them support my reading—“the SUV that has received the most awards”—by making the subject the recipient of the award, not the thing being awarded to someone. The Google Books corpus provides more hits, and though most of them still use the “has received the most awards” sense, there’s a little more variation here, with some employing the “most given as an award” sense, such as “The Nobel Prize in physics is the most awarded of all the five prize categories.”

Next I turned to Twitter to solve the argument. I wrote, “Help me settle an argument: Does ‘most-awarded SUV’ mean ‘SUV most given as an award’ or ‘SUV that has received the most awards’?” The results were not terribly helpful. Out of five responses, three voted for “most given as an award” and two voted for “has received the most awards,” though one noted that either was possible.

Honestly, I was baffled, though I think there’s something of an answer in here somewhere. In most of the examples I came across in the corpora, it’s very clear from context what the award is and who or what is receiving it. If I tell you that Schindler’s List is the most-awarded movie in history (at least it was in 1994, when one of the corpus examples was written), you know that the movie received awards, not that someone received a movie as an award. And if I tell you that the PhD is the most-awarded degree, you know that someone is receiving the degree, not that the degree is receiving an award.

But with a car, it’s more ambiguous. Cars can receive awards, and people can presumably receive cars as awards. And although I think it’s clear that the first meaning is intended, a lot of people are irked by it or don’t get the intended meaning at all.

The upshot of this is that it underscores the importance of researching points of usage before declaring an answer. At first I was convinced that I was clearly right and everyone else was wrong. But though my intuition coincides with the intended meaning, intuition alone isn’t enough to explain what’s going on. You need real-world data for that, and sometimes you find that the answer is not as simple as you thought.

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