Category Archives: language and linguistics

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction

In Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize-winning book Hellgoing, one of my editorial colleagues has spotted the following sentence:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

Does that look quite right? Are you not quite sure? It’s the sort of sentence that you might not think much about unless you stop and look at it, but if you do stop and look at it it might start to drive you a little crazy.

So let’s go into this little Hell and take apart this sentence and see how it works.

Core subjects and verbs:

She tried . . . but she wasn’t succeeding.

Tried what?

…tried not to stare…

Not to stare at whom?

…not to stare at Marco…

I’ll abbreviate “She tried not to stare at Marco” as STNSM. It’s syntactically fine, I think we can agree.

Now: when?

STNSM while he spoke…

OK, spoke to whom?

…he spoke to X

where whoever X was, he was speaking to him.

So X was the person he was speaking to. Whoever that was.

Now here is how that plays out in that bit of the sentence. We need a relativizer:

…he spoke to {the person} {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}

What happens is that {the person} is replaced by the whole {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}.

The relativizer is “whoever” or, as the case may be, “whomever”:

…he spoke to {whoever {he was speaking to [him]}}

The “him” at the end moves up and merges with the relativizer, giving it accusative case (i.e., making it the object) (see the bottom of this post for more on this):

…he spoke to {whoever [+him] he was speaking to}

…he spoke to {whomever he was speaking to}

That’s where the confusion happens. The raising and merging into “whomever” is something that can confuse just about anyone until they learn about the underlying movements.

It could have been

…he spoke to the person to whom he was speaking

Then “the person” stays put and it happens this way:

…he spoke to {the person} [relativizer] he was speaking to {him}

The relativizer would become just “whom”, moved up from the end:

…he spoke to {the person} [whom] he was speaking to

But the “to” typically follows it up in this case:

…he spoke to {the person} [to whom] he was speaking

Notice there are two “to”s in both versions.

So let’s look at the whole sentence again and match the parts:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

What are the verbs?

tried … (not) to stare … spoke (to) … was … speaking (to) … wasn’t … succeeding

The conjugated verbs have subjects:

She tried … he spoke … he was … she wasn’t

Let’s add the complements:

She tried not to stare

to stare at Marco

he spoke to whomever

whomever he was speaking to [him]

she wasn’t succeeding

There are also the conjunctions “while” and “but”, and that makes the whole thing.

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

So there are actually no surplus words. Each verb “speaking” requires a “to”: “spoke to” and “was speaking to”. Formal English often frowns on stranding the preposition at the end, but it’s always been an available feature of English; indeed, it requires less syntactic movement. Raising the preposition with its complement is a funny thing to do from a syntactic perspective, and linguists call it “pied piping” because it’s as though the object is a pied piper getting the preposition to come dancing along with it.

Most of that is of course rather complex and more than the average person is inclined to want to know. But editors aren’t average persons, so I have put it here for your enjoyment.

Now, here’s the bit more about the “whoever” becoming “whomever”: The reason “whoever” is “whomever” is because it’s merged with the “him”. The entire relative clause is the object, and the case doesn’t penetrate inside it. Here’s proof:

He looked at whoever was speaking to him.

It would not be correct to say “whomever was speaking to him” because the “was” requires a subject, and that is “whoever.”

As it happens, I talk about how case assignment doesn’t automatically percolate into phrases in my latest article on, “‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’.”


I like the look of this word, that’s for sure: could be shrugging shoulders, perhaps with an upturned hand in the middle; could be two upside-down cups and one rightside-up, perhaps awaiting a fill or perhaps revealing that the little ball is not where you thought it was and five dollars please, want to try again?

I like the sound, too. It’s about the only word in English that you can really say actually ends in [h] – at least some of the time. It comes in on a breath, pops out that shortest and most neutral of vowels, and then drops off to breath again. It makes me think of “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson, a song full of unanswered questions, misty cultural references, and non sequiturs – and huh (o, do watch it on YouTube:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word huh is “A natural utterance, expressing some suppressed feeling. Also as an expression of interrogation.”

Huh? A natural utterance? What’s that?

Well, according to Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield, huh is a sort of universal word.

That doesn’t mean it’s the exact same in every language. Indeed, the vowels vary over a sort of fan between the mid central [ə], the mid front [e], and the low central [a], and may be nasalized and/or move into a diphthong that ends high front (as in “hi”); there may or may not be an opening consonant, though it’s [h] or a glottal stop if there is one. Read more at “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?

It also doesn’t mean it’s innate. Babies don’t make the sound, as Dingemanse, Torreira, and Enfield point out. It’s learned. You need it once you have speech that you may not hear or understand clearly. It’s part of what linguists call a repair strategy: there has been a disruption in the flow of communication due to someone speaking unclearly or saying something difficult to process, and so it quickly requests a reiteration or clarification. And it seems that it’s similar between languages because of convergent evolution: it just happens to be the best kind of sound for that purpose.

Huh. Whaddya know. Mind you, DT&E don’t talk about that other function of huh in English, or whether it is paralleled in other languages: that bit that the OED calls “expressing some suppressed feeling.” Typically it expresses the act of assimilation of unexpected information – an expression of wonder or a shrug or shake of the head. A quick repair of a rip in reality. An equivalent (at least in the English I know on a daily basis) is “Hm!” – which is more convenient if your lips happen to be closed.

That non-questioning (or perhaps rhetorically questioning) huh is actually the one I use more. If I haven’t heard something clearly, I will more likely – as my wife will attest – say “What?” Which is the other common repair strategy. But somehow we still have huh. Huh, it must be useful. Uh-huh.


A colleague today mentioned that her copyediting professor had said the Mazda “Zoom Zoom” slogan was incorrect because zoom implies upward motion, as with a plane or rocket.


I am not happy that someone who is teaching editing would insist on a false restriction such as this. Why do people zoom in on one specialized sense and take it as the whole picture?

Here is why that instructor thought this was a real restriction: in aircraft slang, as of 1917, to quote the Daily Mail (from the OED), “‘Zoom’..describes the action of an aeroplane which, while flying level, is hauled up abruptly and made to climb for a few moments at a dangerously sharp angle.”

So the instructor is right? No, of course not, for two reasons.

First, that is a specialized sense and not the original – the original sense, dating to 1892 at the latest, is, per OED, “To make a continuous low-pitched humming or buzzing sound; to travel or move (as if) with a ‘zooming’ sound; to move at speed, to hurry. Also loosely, to go hastily.”

And second, what matters is not how the word was used in 1917 or 1892; what matters is how the word has come to be used and generally accepted in the most recent decades. Usage determines meaning, and current usage – like much non-specialist usage for the past century – allows zoom to refer to speed more generally, as in the original definition, and certainly to automotive speed.

But oh, oh, oh, some people just have to, have to, have to come up with restrictions on language. They don’t want to see the big picture. In the field of meanings they look and discover an “original” sense or see some “technical” meaning, zoom in on that, and decide that that must be the true sense and all the others are wrong. The etymological fallacy runs rampant. Conversational trump cards. Learn a new rule, feel more superior – or anyway learn a new rule and have new mental furniture to structure your existence. (Many, perhaps most, people actually love rules and restrictions, even if they don’t always adhere to them. As Laurie Anderson sings, “Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it.”)

But isn’t the specialized sense the more accurate sense? They’re specialists, after all!

No, that doesn’t make it more accurate. That makes it more of an exception. Look, in medical speech, indicated means ‘considered the appropriate treatment’ – as in “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are indicated in clinical depression,” which means “drugs such as Prozac are considered appropriate treatment for depression.” But in everyday speech, that’s not what we mean by indicated, and you’re not required to be talking of berrytherapy if you say “He indicated the berries on the table.” So with technical terms generally. This includes biological classifications. The botanical class called berries includes bananas, but in ordinary life bananas are not berries.

I’m put in mind of a guy I knew in university who said that Calgary wasn’t a city because it didn’t have a cathedral. He based that on the idea that in medieval times a city was a city if it had a cathedral. He was, of course, wrong for several reasons: Calgary has a cathedral; we are not in medieval times; the medieval definition of a city that he was calling forth was not the original definition nor in any way a reliable definition, and it certainly is not the current definition. In short, he needed to zoom out. And get with the times and the facts, too.

And then there’s the fellow – a former English teacher, yet – who disputed the semiotic use of the word icon to refer to something that signified by resemblance. An icon, he declared, is an Orthodox religious image, and any other use is an abuse! Ah, dear, dear, dear. The word icon comes from Greek for ‘image’, so if you want to talk about commandeering a word for a specialized sense, it would be the Orthodox usage that does so…

Zoom is a perfectly usable (even if currently somewhat commandeered by Mazda) word in relation to speed, especially engine-driven speed, and it has a nice taste to it. We can ask ourselves why “zoom” specifically. There are similar sound words, too, like va-va-voom and the vroom vroom of an engine. The sound a piston engine makes (and, more particularly, made a century ago) seems best matched with a voiced fricative to start with, but the depth of the roar can call forth the high mid-back vowel [u], and the sustain and echo of it can be represented by [m]. Compare zip – much quicker and less substantial. Compare it with other sounds such as “shing” – that would be a sword being unsheathed, not an engine, no? Perhaps “brrrr”? No, that could be an engine, but one that’s just holding steady. You really do get a sense of something moving rapidly past and into the distance with “zoom.” Even the movement of your mouth, with the tongue moving from front to back while the lips purse and then close, reinforces this.

Oh, and why do we “zoom in” and “zoom out”? There’s that rapid motion again. When camera lenses capable of quickly and smoothly changing focal length came in, the effect of the focal length shift from the viewer’s perspective was experienced – as it still is – as being like rapid motion towards or away from the subject. As zooming towards or away from the subject – into or out of the frame. So there’s another one for the rapid motion sense. Oh, and that’s a technical sense, too. It’s also been around for more than 60 years. So there. Now zoom out again.

A synaesthete’s letter tastings

Mary Hildebrandt tastes words more literally than most of us do. She writes the following:

The first time I heard about synaesthesia was in Vladimir Nabokov’s book Speak, Memory. He associates letters, on the printed page and in his mind’s eye, with colours. I can remember how he describes the various blue tones of different “sh” sounds in Russian and in English. I am not sure if I made the connection between my own synaesthesia right away, but I was very interested, and I read about it on Wikipedia. I noticed there was an entry on “Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia.” I wondered, before clicking on the link, whether it was about the experience I have of taste-sensations with words, and indeed it was.

Some of my own tasting-notes of words and letters:

Ks, are hard and dry, like tannins, or like chalk. I remember being a child and thinking that the yolk of hard-boiled eggs never felt quite as pleasant as the tannic feeling of the word itself

Ls are chewy, like chewing gum, or sometimes soft… like a thick layer of melted cheddar cheese. “Chelsea” overwhelmingly, extremely reminds me of cheese, because of the “l” and how it’s offset by those vowels, even evoking a cheesy smell.

“Tortellini,” a word like “Minelli” (as in Liza), is very soft, and you could compare it to pasta.

Rs are similar to Ks and other hard consonants. But when offset with a soft “p,” hard vowels can also be very pleasant. I remember a glimmer of my unconscious synaesthesia when I had a teenage conversation with a friend about the “creamiest” word, which I thought was “prepare,” like liquid cream being stirred, almost like the soft Ps are being stirred by the hard Rs.

Yes, my tasting notes of “P” are certainly soft. A word like “petal” is like the soft, supple, juicy petal of an exotic flower, like how it would be to bite into it, or the mouth-feel of its thick, soft shape.

I never really thought about it until I was older, but I think I assumed that everyone “tasted words.” To me, it seems natural – you say letters with your mouth, the same place where you have different taste and texture sensations with your mouth while you’re eating.

I’m always interested to learn more about lexical-gustatory synesthesia if any of your readers have any tips for further information, or comments.

Thanks, Mary!


Look at all the ascenders in this word: three tall l’s, a b, two dots on i’s – like a tongue reaching up in the mouth, perhaps. And just one descender, on the g. It has those three liquids on tongue tip; in between them you have the tongue touching at the back once, and the lips meeting once. It has a nice balance: six consonants and six vowel letters – you might say the uo is really a diphthong, though you probably won’t say ai as a diphthong. And it’s three of each for each half of the word. What’s more, the two morphemes that make this word meet at exactly the halfway point. It’s like a sound that’s, say, half tongue and half lip.

Which is what linguolabial refers to. The labial refers to the lips, as you likely know. The linguo refers to the tongue – it’s a root that gets around: linguistics is the study of languages, and even language traces back to that tongue root. It is not your vocal cords or even your lips that make the speech, nor is it in this presentation your brain; it is your tongue, that most lithe and lively little muscle, that is the heart and soul of language.

But how often does tongue meet lips? In speech in English and many other languages, while we require the lips to set the boundary of the resonating space in the mouth and the tongue to configure the resonances within that space, we keep them working indpendently, like distant colleagues in separate offices. But a few languages (some in the Pacific islands and some in Africa, for instance) bring them together, in close contact, to make consonants.

Say “mmmm.” Your lips are closed and your tongue is relaxed. Now say “nnnn.” Your lips are open and your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth. Now put your tongue against your upper lip, all the way across, and say whatever version of “mmmm” or “nnnn” it will allow. And what version is that? What is that sound? Even the International Phonetic Alphabet has two ways of writing it. The symbol for “linguolabial” is a little double-humped thing, like a pair of wings or a top lip, that is put below the consonant symbol. But which consonant? Is what you’ve just made a linguolabial [m] or [n]? Well, yes. Both and neither. So either may be used, with the linguolabial diacritic (the symbol I just mentioned). The same goes for voiced and voiceless stops and fricatives and liquids.

I’m actually not sure if any language uses a linguolabial liquid, which would be [l] with the tongue against the upper lip rather than the roof of the mouth. But you can make one: just lick your tongue across your upper lip and, when it’s in the middle, stop and just make a sound with your voice.

Of course, even speakers of languages that don’t have linguolabials do put their tongues to their lips – just not for making sounds that go into words. The colleagues from different offices (tongue and lip) may not work directly together for their jobs, but they get together recreationally.

But speaking of getting together recreationally, here’s a thing to try if you have the opportunity. The sounds we make are affected by the shape of the articulatory space as determined by the tongue position. Wouldn’t you like to know what difference it would make if the tongue were coming from the opposite angle? Find someone with whom you are on kissing-on-the-lips terms, or are about to be. You know what a linguolabial sounds like when you make it with your tongue and lip. See what sound you get if you use your tongue on the other person’s lip, or vice versa. You won’t be able to do a stop or a nasal, because you can’t block the other person’s airflow (with bilabial-bilabial you can, but that’s not in the IPA because it requires two-person articulation and what language would require that?). But you can try a liquid, that linguolabial [l]. Try it a few times. What do you hear?

Clichés and picturesque language

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0008.

At first glance, English may seem to be going through a paradigm shift, with a  dizzying array of ways to put lipstick on the pig. This naturally provokes some push-back, even withering criticism, as we struggle to wrap our heads around it. But the upshot remains to be seen. Should we just run with it? Or should we step up to the plate and think outside the box? If you talk about the elephant in the room, will that mean you’re not a team player? Will you get thrown under a bus? And, on the other hand, at the end of the day, are we even truly at a crossroads?

More to the point, did that paragraph provoke you to hyperemesis?

We Anglophones have an apparently inexhaustible facility for creating clichés. A sharp turn of phrase or a particularly engaging image sparks interest and spreads like wildfire, and soon enough it’s tired and stale. This is not a new thing. Some hackneyed clichés of yesteryear have become so cemented that we continue to use them even though we no longer quite remember the literal reference. The result is sometimes what are called eggcorns: misconstrual of idiomatic words or phrases into things that make more sense to the modern eye and ear. This is how just deserts becomes just desserts, tide me over becomes tie me over, strait-laced and strait and narrow get straightened, sleight of hand gets slighted… Forget about trying to nip these in the bud in the nick of time; many of them are as old as the hills. You may look for the silver lining and try to make lemonade, but…

What? Oh, fine, I’ll stop. What I’ve really been doing is illustrating a central point of all of these: they’re all picturesque. They all involve metaphors. But in many cases the imagery is etiolated. The words are still there, and we could play with the images if we want, but for general use they are like posters or pin-ups that have been on the wall too long and are now faded to pale shades of cyan.

But that is how language works. Most language you use is made of metaphors and images that have lost their vividness and, in many cases, are no longer recognizable as imagery at all. Let us look at some “plain” words that could replace the clichés. Going through a paradigm shift – well, we could say changing, but that comes (much changed!) from a Latin word for bartering and exchanging, and may deriver further from an older word for bending or turning back. We could replace push-back with rejection, but reject is from Latin for “throw back.” If we prefer to understand rather than wrap our heads around, it ought not to take us too long to see the under and stand in understand. And if we go with comprehend? There’s the Latin again, meaning “grasp, seize” (remember that anything that can grab things is prehensile, from the same root). If you prefer betray to throw under a bus, you may want to know that the tray in betray conceals a Latin origin in trans plus dare, meaning “hand over.” And so it goes. Look back over this paragraph and try to find one verb I have used that isn’t a figurative use of a word with a physical reference: work, make, look, go… even prefer comes from Latin for “put in front, carry forward.”

In this way (as in a few others) English is like Chinese. I’m not talking about the Chinese use of imagery and metaphor, which is considerable; I mean the written form, the Chinese characters. People who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters may think of them as pictograms, resembling closely what they refer to. People who try to learn Chinese find very quickly that the characters generally give the reader nothing obvious to grab onto. This is because the characters are like our words and phrases that have had the imagery worn off them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Look at the character for “look”: 看. Does that look like looking? How about after I tell you that it’s made of two parts, and the 手 was originally a hand (see the fingers? it has changed somewhat) and the 目 was originally an eye (it rotated 90˚ a long time ago; make the outside box curved and see the inside lines as making the edges of the iris)?

Now look at the character for “good”: 好. How does that look good, or like anything good? Well, the 女 part is the character for “woman,” and originally looked like a line drawing of a standing woman with her hands held in front of her. The 子 part is the character for “child,” and if you curve the top part and bend the crossbar down, you might begin to see an infant in swaddling clothes. It seems that, to the scribes who determined this character, the epitome of goodness was a mother and child.

Such is the way it goes, too, with our picturesque language. Time and tide, change and overuse, leave the imagery behind. But if you know how to look, it’s still good – and not altogether lacking in character.

100% of these usages is wrong

I have just seen an infographic (heaven help us, yes, an infographic – generally now not actual charts but just text tarted up) with the following statements:

46% of all U.S. workers claims that they are less productive without coffee.

61% of the workers who need coffee to get through their day drinks 2 cups or more each day.

49% admits to needing coffee while on the job in the Northeast where the workday coffee ritual is the strongest.

Let’s ignore all the other issues in those sentences and just focus on the most egregious, unnatural usages: 49% of workers claims; 61% of the workers drinks; 49% admits. Ick. Just ick.

This is a classic overthink error. I see it mainly in newspapers and similar places where the writers are trying to enforce their understanding of “proper” grammar and are going against their normal speech instincts in doing so.

Percentages can apply to unitary or mass entities and they can apply to populations of entities. When you’re talking about mass or unitary entities, it’s right to use the singular: “50% of this cake is chocolate”; “50% of this collection is action figures.” Moreover, when you’re talking about average (or consistent) percentage of each individual in a set, you may use the singular, though it can sometimes be awkward to phrase it thus: “40% of her cupcakes is sugar.”

But when you’re talking about the portion of the individuals in a set of individual entities, percents are plural quantifiers. You don’t say “46% of the people here drinks coffee” unless somehow each employee has a body 46% of which (perhaps on average) drinks coffee and the other 54% of which abstains. Would you say “Half of the employees here drinks coffee”? How about “A lot of the people here drinks coffee”? Hey, a lot is singular, you know!

Which is just the point. A lot may be singular, and 46% may be a discrete quantity, but their effect on the nouns they describe is a plural quantification. Remember that a dozen is also a singular construction and a discrete quantity, and a hundred likewise, and yet you don’t invariably conjugate verbs in the singular after them: “A dozen people is coming over”? No. (But you can say “A dozen eggs sits in the basket” because you know that’s a carton.) You can say “A bunch of flowers sits by the window” because in that case a bunch is a unitary object; if you say “A bunch of people sit by the window” it means that the people may or may not be together as a unit, but there are a fair few of them in any event. (And “A bunch of people sits by the window” is an almost amusing image of a set of people so together in their grouping that they even sit as a single unit.)

It’s easy enough to see how people can get confused. Many of these things can take singular or plural depending on what are sometimes very fine nuances of meaning. I can say “100% of these usages is wrong” and mean that each usage is 100% wrong, and I can say “100% of these usages are wrong” and mean that every last one of them is wrong. But there are cases where your ear just screams: “46% of workers claims”?! No. Just no. A percentage of a population of individuals is a plural.

And really, if your analysis of grammar leads you to write something that sounds staggeringly wrong, stop and reconsider your analysis.

This business of verbing

I was just reading a post on a web forum wherein the author is griping about his boss emailing him the following treat: “My concern is that the … team might consens on something that the operations … people think is a bad idea.”

Consens. I’m sure, like the author of the post, you’re thinking, “Yikes! My thoughts are that ‘consensus’ is not a verb, no way Jose!” It’s so egregious, he declares, that “it puts ‘contact’ to shame.” He then asks people to send him real-life examples of misuse of nouns as verbs. “I don’t know why it fascinates me,” he says; “I guess it’s like rubbernecking at a fatal car wreck.”

Well, if you like to rubberneck at such things, you don’t need to wait for someone to email or phone you; you can Google all the examples you want as easily as skipping a rope (or roping a skip). Or, uh, you could start with that sentence you just read. Rubberneck, email, phone, Google: all are recent verbings (well, rubberneck has been around for a century). Other conversions such as rope have been around for centuries longer. (Oh, and contact? In the modern verb use, about a century.)

In fact, the English language is full of conversions (that’s a more proper linguistic term for it) – noun to verb, noun to adjective, adjective to verb, adjective to adverb, verb to noun – and the great majority of them are well established and pass unremarked. They’re very easy to do in modern English, with its minimal use of inflections (just an s here and there, some eds and ings, a few other little bits and pieces) – you don’t need to change anything about a word’s basic form to use the same form in another word class. One might well argue that our conversions epitomize the flexibility that has helped English be so successful.

But perhaps looking at all the verbings that have been handed down over the centuries clouds the matter, distances us from the real issue, perhaps even silences concerns unduly. (Yes, all those italicized words are verbs that were converted from nouns at one time or another.) There are some conversions that don’t really seem to bother us, and there are some that bother some of us but not others, but there are some that are almost universally loathed among language nerds. There must be a reason for that, yes?

I think it has a lot to do with the attitudes they bespeak and the milieu they represent. Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And, I would say, the verbings we loathe most impact us most (ouch!) because they come from business-speak.

Business-speak really is a special genre. It is as susceptible to fads as teenage slang, but its fad usages show not how cool you are but how conversant you are with the latest popular ideas in the business literature. It makes more use of overt metaphor than just about any other genre (at the end of the day, touch base, low-hanging fruit…). It often uses noun-heavy structures to sound important, but is also known for converting all sorts of things to verbs in order to sound active – or just to save effort while still accessing impressive-sounding vocabulary (consensus is more important-sounding than agree, but build a consensus takes three words, so why not use consens). It tends, perhaps even more than undergraduate essays, to try to use hifalutin locutions to impress. As a result of that, it has quite a lot of what linguists might gently call “variant usages” – and everyone else would call misuse, errors, bad English. Above all – and this is surely its primary sin – it’s self-important.

Why else, after all, would anyone use leverage as a verb? “We will leverage our core competencies to innovate bleeding-edge solutions.” Look, that whole sentence is obnoxious, not just the verbing. What are core competencies? Their strongest or most basic skills. Why bleeding-edge? Because leading-edge used to be good enough but then someone started using this version (actually borrowed from the printing industry and not really all that exciting in the original) and it sounds so, um, edgy. Why solutions? Because that is what everyone, everyone, everyone in business is now in the business of providing: the customer has a problem and you’re in business to provide the solution. (The only solutions I go to stores for are aqueous solutions of ethanol.) And why leverage? The term showed up in business originally in reference to using borrowed capital to produce profits greater than the interest, and it spread from there; now people use it because they like the image it presents of a lever, which allows a small person to move a big rock, and the age ending sounds so, you know, technical and financial and important.

The remaining word in that sentence is also fad-popular but is a time-honoured usage (borrowed from Latin centuries ago), and is the only really useful word in the sentence other than “We will.” Strip it all out and say “We will innovate” and you have it nicely. But that doesn’t jangle the ring full of keys to membership in the corporate in-group.

And that is why certain verbings impact us so much (sorry!): they’re self-important and in-groupy and they pretend to have much more substance than they really do. It’s not that they’re verbings. Sure, some people are uncomfortable seeing a word used in a way that doesn’t match its entry in their mental dictionary. But they may only really stop and fuss about that if something else draws their attention to the word – something like its reeking of business-speak. I’m sure you can consens with me on that…