Arrant Pedantry


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.


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.


Hanged and Hung

The distinction between hanged and hung is one of the odder ones in the language. I remember learning in high school that people are hanged, pictures are hung. There was never any explanation of why it was so; it simply was. It was years before I learned the strange and complicated history of these two words.

English has a few pairs of related verbs that are differentiated by their transitivity: lay/lie, rise/raise, and sit/set. Transitive verbs take objects; intransitive ones don’t. In each of these pairs, the intransitive verb is strong, and the transitive verb is weak. Strong verbs inflect for the preterite (simple past) and past participle forms by means of a vowel change, such as sing–sang–sung. Weak verbs add the -(e)d suffix (or sometimes just a -t or nothing at all if the word already ends in -t). So lie–lay–lain is a strong verb, and lay–laid–laid is weak. Note that the subject of one of the intransitive verbs becomes the object when you use its transitive counterpart. The book lay on the floor but I laid the book on the floor.

Historically hang belonged with these pairs, and it ended up in its current state through the accidents of sound change and history. It was originally two separate verbs (the Oxford English Dictionary actually says it was three—two Old English verbs and one Old Norse verb—but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole) that came to be pronounced identically in their present-tense forms. They still retained their own preterite and past participle forms, though, so at one point in Early Modern English hang–hung–hung existed alongside hang–hanged–hanged.

Once the two verbs started to collapse together, the distinction started to become lost too. Just look at how much trouble we have keeping lay and lie separate, and they only overlap in the present lay and the past tense lay. With identical present tenses, hang/hang began to look like any other word with a choice between strong and weak past forms, like dived/dove or sneaked/snuck. The transitive/intransitive distinction between the two effectively disappeared, and hung won out as the preterite and past participle form.

The weak transitive hanged didn’t completely vanish, though; it stuck around in legal writing, which tends to use a lot of archaisms. Because it was only used in legal writing in the sense of hanging someone to death (with the poor soul as the object of the verb), it picked up the new sense that we’re now familiar with, whether or not the verb is transitive. Similarly, hung is used for everything but people, whether or not the verb is intransitive.

Interestingly, German has mostly hung on to the distinction. Though the German verbs both merged in the present tense into hängen, the past forms are still separate: hängen–hing–gehungen for intransitive forms and hängen–hängte–gehängt for transitive. Germans would say the equivalent of I hanged the picture on the wall and The picture hung on the wall—none of this nonsense about only using hanged when it’s a person hanging by the neck until dead.

The surprising thing about the distinction in English is that it’s observed (at least in edited writing) so faithfully. Usually people aren’t so good at honoring fussy semantic distinctions, but here I think the collocates do a lot of the work of selecting one word or the other. Searching for collocates of both hanged and hung in COCA, we find the following words:



The hanged words pretty clearly all hanging people, whether by suicide, as punishment for murder, or in effigy. (The collocations with burned were all about hanging and burning people or effigies.) The collocates for hung show no real pattern; it’s simply used for everything else. (The collocations with neck were not about hanging by the neck but about things being hung from or around the neck.)

So despite what I said about this being one of the odder distinctions in the language, it seems to work. (Though I’d like to know to what extent, if any, the distinction is an artifact of the copy editing process.) Hung is the general-use word; hanged is used when a few very specific and closely related contexts call for it.


The Enormity of a Usage Problem

Recently on Twitter, Mark Allen wrote, “Despite once being synonyms, ‘enormity’ and ‘enormousness’ are different. Try to keep ‘enormity’ for something evil or outrageous.” I’ll admit right off that this usage problem interests me because I didn’t learn about the distinction until a few years ago. To me, they’re completely synonymous, and the idea of using enormity to mean “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” and not “the quality or state of being huge”, as Merriam-Webster defines it, seems almost quaint.

Of course, such usage advice presupposes that people are using the two words synonymously; if they weren’t, there’d be no reason to tell them to keep the words separate, so the assertion that they’re different is really an exhortation to make them different. Given that, I had to wonder how different they really are. I turned to Mark Davies Corpus of Contemporary American English to get an idea of how often enormity is used in the sense of great size rather than outrageousness or immorality. I looked at the first hundred results from the keyword-in-context option, which randomly samples the corpus, and tried to determine which of the four Merriam-Webster definitions was being used. For reference, here are the four definitions:

1 : an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act enormities of state power — Susan Sontag> enormities too juvenile to mention — Richard Freedman>
2 : the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich — G. A. Craig>
3 : the quality or state of being huge : immensity
enormity of the universe>
4 : a quality of momentous importance or impact
enormity of the decision>

In some cases it was a tough call; for instance, when someone writes about the enormity of poverty in India, enormity has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t seem right to substitute a word like monstrousness or wickedness. It seems that the author simply means the size of the problem. I tried to use my best judgement based on the context the corpus provides, but in some cases I weaseled out by assigning a particular use to two definitions. Here’s my count:

1: 1
2: 19
2/3: 3
3: 67
3/4: 1
4: 9

By far the most common use is in the sense of “enormousness”; the supposedly correct senses of great wickedness (definitions 1 and 2) are used just under a quarter of the time. So why did Mr. Allen say that enormity and enormousness were once synonyms? Even the Oxford English Dictionary marks the “enormousness” sense as obsolete and says, “Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” Perhaps? It’s clear from the evidence that it’s still quite common—about three times as common as the prescribed “monstrous wickedness” sense.

It’s true that the sense of immoderateness or wickedness came along before the sense of great size. The first uses as recorded in the OED are in the sense of “a breach of law or morality” (1477), “deviation from moral or legal rectitude” (1480), “something that is abnormal” (a1513), and “divergence from a normal standard or type” (a1538). The sense of “excess in magnitude”—the one that the OED marks as obsolete and incorrect—didn’t come along until 1792. In all these senses the etymology is clear: the word comes from enorm, meaning “out of the norm”.

As is to be expected, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on the topic. It notes that many of the uses of enormity considered objectionable carry shades of meaning or connotations not shown by enormousness:

Quite often enormity will be used to suggest a size that is beyond normal bounds, a size that is unexpectedly great. Hence the notion of monstrousness may creep in, but without the notion of wickedness. . . .

In many instances the notion of great size is colored by aspects of the first sense of enormity as defined in Webster’s Second. One common figurative use blends together notions of immoderateness, excess, and monstrousness to suggest a size that is daunting or overwhelming.

Indeed, it’s the blending of senses that made it hard to categorize some of the uses that I came across in COCA. Enormousness does not seem to be a fitting replacement for those blended or intermediate senses, and, as MWDEU notes, it’s never been a popular word anyway. Interestingly, MWDEU also notes that “the reasons for stigmatizing the size sense of enormity are not known.” Perhaps it became rare in the 1800s, when the OED marked it obsolete, and the rule was created before the sense enjoyed a resurgence in the twentieth century. Whatever the reason, I don’t think it makes much sense to condemn the more widely used sense of a word just because it’s newer or was rare at some point in the past. MWDEU sensibly concludes, “We have seen that there is no clear basis for the ‘rule’ at all. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half.”


Funner Grammar

As I said in the addendum to my last post, maybe I’m not so ready to abandon the technical definition of grammar. In a recent post on Copyediting, Andrea Altenburg criticized the word funner in an ad for Chuck E. Cheese as “improper grammar”, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!”

That’s not entirely accurate, of course, as Matt Gordon pointed out to me on Twitter. The objection to funner was originally grammatical, and the Copyediting post does make an appeal to grammar. The argument goes like this: fun is properly a noun, not an adjective, and as a noun, it can’t take comparative or superlative degrees—no funner or funnest.

This seems like a fairly reasonable argument—if a word isn’t an adjective, it can’t inflect like one—but it isn’t the real argument. First of all, it’s not really true that fun was originally a noun. As Ben Zimmer explains in “Dear Apple: Stop the Funnification”, the noun fun arose in the late seventeenth century and was labeled by Samuel Johnson in the mid-1800s “as ‘a low cant word’ of the criminal underworld.” But the earliest citation for fun is as a verb, fourteen years earlier.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “A couple [of usage commentators] who dislike it themselves still note how nouns have a way of turning into adjectives in English.” Indeed, this sort of functional shift—also called zero derivation or conversion by linguists because they change the part of speech without the means of prefixation or suffixation—is quite common in English. English lacks case endings and has little in the way of verbal endings, so it’s quite easy to change a word from one part of speech to another. The transformation of fun from a verb to a noun to an inflected adjective came slowly but surely.

As this great article explains, shifts in function or meaning usually happen in small steps. Once fun was established as a noun, you could say things like We had fun. This is unambiguously a noun—fun is the object of the verb have. But then you get constructions like The party was fun. This is structurally ambiguous—both nouns and adjectives can go in the slot after was.

This paves the way to analyze fun as an adjective. It then moved into attributive use, directly modifying a following noun, as in fun fair. Nouns can do this too, so once again the structure was ambiguous, but it was evidence that fun was moving further in the direction of becoming an adjective. In the twentieth century it started to be used in more unambiguously adjectival roles. MWDEU says that this accelerated after World War II, and Mark Davies COHA shows that it especially picked up in the last twenty years.

Once fun was firmly established as an adjective, the inflected forms funner and funnest followed naturally. There are only a handful of hits for either in COCA, which attests to the fact that they’re still fairly new and relatively colloquial. But let’s get back to Altenburg’s post.

She says that fun is defined as a noun and thus can’t be inflected for comparative or superlative forms, but then she admits that dictionaries also define fun as an adjective with the forms funner and funnest. But she waves away these definitions by saying, “However, dictionaries are starting to include more definitions for slang that are still not words to the true copyeditor.”

What this means is that she really isn’t objecting to funner on grammatical grounds (at least not in the technical sense); her argument simply reduces to an assertion that funner isn’t a word. But as Stan Carey so excellently argued, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument”. And even the grammatical objections are eroding; many people now simply assert that funner is wrong, even if they accept fun as an adjective, as Grammar Girl says here:

Yet, even people who accept that “fun” is an adjective are unlikely to embrace “funner” and “funnest.” It seems as if language mavens haven’t truly gotten over their irritation that “fun” has become an adjective, and they’ve decided to dig in their heels against “funner” and “funnest.”

It brings to mind the objection against sentential hopefully. Even though there’s nothing wrong with sentence adverbs or with hopefully per se, it was a new usage that drew the ire of the mavens. The grammatical argument against it was essentially a post hoc justification for a ban on a word they didn’t like.

The same thing has happened with funner. It’s perfectly grammatical in the sense that it’s a well-formed, meaningful word, but it’s fairly new and still highly informal and colloquial. (For the record, it’s not slang, either, but that’s a post for another day.) If you don’t want to use it, that’s your right, but stop saying that it’s not a word.