All the married ladies: unravelling the puzzle of plural titles

MarriedLadies

I recently saw a photo of my cousin, her two sisters-in-law and her mother-in-law at what looked to be a lovely evening out with family. The photo was tagged ‘Four Mrs Jenkins’, and my cousin had asked where the apostrophe went. It took me a moment. I knew right away there was no apostrophe, because it was a straight plural, not a possessive. It wasn’t in the same category as ‘All the cats’ whiskers’, which is the full set of whiskers belonging to all the cats, or ‘All the archers’ bows’, the full set of bows belonging to all the archers.

But was it Jenkinses? That didn’t seem right either. For one thing, it would be ‘Four Mrs Jenkinses’ and that sounds like ‘Four Misses Jenkinses’, which was a clue to play around with the title instead of the name. ‘Misses’ is the plural of ‘miss’. It made me wonder what it would have been if we were talking about all the husbands instead of all the wives.

That was easier: they would be the four Misters Jenkins. It seemed right, but it made me think about which was the noun and which the adjective, as nouns get pluralised, but adjectives (at least, in English) don’t. You can use a person’s name as a noun, as in ‘That boy really is a Jenkins!’ which makes it seem as if ‘Jenkins’ is the noun.

But Mrs is a title, which is a noun, and other titles turn into count nouns when you pluralise them. For example, ‘Justice Davies, Justice Smith and Justice Andrews [The justices] have all declared their support.’ ‘Jenkins’ in ‘the four Misters Jenkins’ isn’t taking a plural, which means it’s functioning more as a modifier to the title. If you didn’t have a title getting in the way, you could easily pluralise ‘Jenkins’: ‘The Jenkinses will be coming over for dinner tonight.’

The reason it took a bit of working out is that we still use the French for the plural: Mesdames. So that’s the answer: ‘Four Mesdames Jenkins.’ I hope they all had a wonderful time at their party. Bon soir!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs.
http://learnersdictionary.com/qa/plural-form-of-mr-and-mrs
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-make-family-names-plural?page=2
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Provide me food: dependent prepositions

Figs

Over the last year or so I’ve noticed some language change happening to the word ‘provide’ and how it’s used with prepositions – the words that tell you the relationship between the nouns (and pronouns).

A verb like ‘provide’ can be transitive, intransitive or ditransitive. That is, it can work:

  1. without an object (intransitive): We hope the state will provide.
  2. with an object (transitive): They provided food.
  3. with an object and an indirect object (ditransitive): They provided her with food (or They provided food to her).

The third example has the preposition ‘with’ or ‘to’, depending on what order you put the nouns in, but the rule is that the noun that comes second uses a dependent preposition, and if the recipient is the indirect object, then this element is optional.

‘Provide’ has a few dependent prepositions:

  • Provide (someone) with (something) (from #3 above)
  • Provide (something) to (someone) (also from #3 above)
  • Provide for (something or someone)
  • Provide against (something)

What I’ve been seeing recently is examples where the author clearly meant to use the ditransitive version, but didn’t add the preposition:

They provided her food.

The preposition is now missing. This changes the type of sentence it is, from being a ditransitive example to a transitive example, and changes the relationship between the nouns, therefore changing the meaning of the sentence.

The original sentence, ‘They provided her with food’ means that someone has given a woman some food.

If we take the preposition out, ‘her’ is acting possessively to modify ‘food’. It was her food, not his. Or: ‘The food that is her was provided by them.’ The focus can vary, but what’s important here is that the food is hers.

Here’s another example:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

This sounds like it was supposed to say either ‘customer service’ or it’s a possessive that is missing its apostrophe. Was it meant to be ‘customers’ service’? If we put the preposition in, it’s clearer:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers with service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

The reason I’m uncomfortable with the form that omits the preposition is a question of geography. It’s not acceptable in British or Australian English, but it is acceptable, apparently, in American English. Forms such as ‘provide me food’ are found in the US, which to my Australian ears just sounds like someone being lazy in saying ‘my’.

Here are some ngrams for the phrase ‘provide me (with) food’ according to English, American English and British English. It’s clear that the phrase using the preposition is much more common than without. But interestingly, the two forms are closer together in British English than in American English. Ngrams are only looking at published works, most of which will have been through some kind of editorial process and therefore will conform more closely to standard.

English1950_2008BrEnglish1950_2008AmEnglish1950_2008

I had thought that a straight internet search would show up more occurrences of the version without the prepositions, but “provide me food” returns 11,400 results, and “provide me with food” returns 84,000 results, which is approximately 7 times the results returned without the preposition.

It will be interesting to see how this changes in the coming years, but for now I’m staying with the ‘with’ team.

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Dashing through the alphabet

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Christmas 2017 Dashing to the end of the year, and what a year it’s been! You can see here on the work section of the site what’s been keeping me busy: among other things, I’ve edited reports about the Great … Continue reading

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Oh, the dilemma!

Rock Hard PlaceI was recently asked by a friend about the difference between ‘choose’ and ‘decide’. She felt that ‘choose’ implied more personal agency and that ‘decide’ is what you do when you have less personal agency and you’re left with having to select between someone else’s choices. She asked this specifically with regards to how animals in captivity might be limited in their choice of opportunities, such as where they might like to rest. She told me that animals in the wild have a high degree of agency and choose from a wide range of opportunities such as exactly how much dappled light they might lie in. Confined animals have notably less options, often having to decide between sun or shade, inside or outside, the rock or the dirt. I love that these questions of word choice come up in the most interesting fields!

Anyway, my linguistics study, many moons ago, included the topic of semantics, where we had whole assignments on the difference between a cup and a mug, between happiness and joy. For those assignments we needed to look carefully at the evidence of how both these words are used, starting with definitions.

Macquarie has this for ‘decide’:

–verb (t) 1. to determine or settle (a question, controversy, struggle, etc.) by giving victory to one side. 2. to adjust or settle (anything in dispute or doubt). 3. to bring (a person) to a decision: *The appearance of the woman decided me at once –oliné keese, 1859. –verb (i) 4. to settle something in dispute or doubt. 5. to pronounce a judgement; come to a conclusion.

and this for ‘choose’:

–verb (t) 1. to select from a number, or in preference to another or other things or persons. 2. to prefer and decide (to do something): she chose to stand for election. 3. to want; desire.

Neither definition mentions agency, although ‘decide’ has more meanings that imply an external party.

After looking around a bit further, I think the word that conveys the lack of freedom of choice is ‘dilemma’. There are a number of different types of dilemma (including, but not limited to ‘ethical dilemma’), but the main definition is ‘a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable’.

The problem with ‘choose’ vs. ‘decide’ is that while ‘choose’ definitely conveys the possibility of two or more choices, it can equally be used to describe limited choices. We have a lot of expressions for this (from that wiki page linked to above): ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’; ‘Lesser of two evils’; ‘Between a rock and a hard place’, since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough; ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’.

But none of these tell us if we would use the verb ‘choose’ or ‘decide’ for them. For that we can go to ngrams, which track word and phrase usage over time. Here are the links to where I ran a couple of these.

  • lesser of’ shows ‘choose between’ on the chart; ‘decide between’ doesn’t even appear.
  • between the devil’ is the same.

If you accept that ‘between’ means that the choices are only two (and therefore limited), then you can run an ngram on ‘choose between’ and ‘decide between’, which shows that ‘choose between’ is far more common than ‘decide between’. All this suggests that ‘choose’ can be used even when agency is limited.

The other problem with putting ‘decide’ as the option where an individual doesn’t have agency is that while some of its meanings are about external authority, the meaning also specifically includes instances of personal agency. We also have positive connotations in English for that word; for instance, you might prefer to read a job application where the applicant describes themselves as decisive rather than indecisive. It has strong connotations of personal agency.

Also, ‘choose’ and ‘decide’ are in many instances interchangeable, and only in some instances not:

  • ‘humans choosedecide what possibilities are available and the animal must decidechoose which to utilise’
  • ‘animal had agency then it may choose [maybe interchangeable here? but less so] something completely different.’
  • ‘tripe or brains for dinner? I wouldn’t choose [can’t change this one] to eat either … I must decidechoose between what’s available’.

All of this makes me want to spend days gathering a ton of data from various corpora about exactly where these phrases are used and exactly how much agency is implied in every usage and do a comparison over time … but instead I will choose to keep going on my more immediate editorial tasks. Happy new year!

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Everyone’s a critic: beware Muphry’s Law

OneDoesNotSometimes you see people taking to the streets, vigilante style, to right wrongs and solve the world’s problems, especially those very important problems, like grammatically incorrect graffiti. Sometimes, stories like this even make it around the world, as when a couple of grammar pedants in Quito, Ecuador, recently made news for The Guardian paper in the UK. They take their correcting cannisters and add accents, cut commas and modify misspellings.

Quito

I loved this story, even though the vigilantes in question have to carry out their crusade under the protective cover of darkness and behind Twitter handles like Diéresis (Spanish for ‘diaeresis’, the name of the two dots that go over the second vowel in a pair to signal a syllable change, such as in ‘naïve’) rather than their own names. It’s subversive stuff, correcting grammar in Ecuador. Despite the perils, they’re doing a public service – supplying corrected copy for the benefit of all those passersby and even the original poster, as it were.

It’s one thing to be pointing out errors in graffiti; the public shaming that goes on whenever someone makes a grammatical error on the internet seems another kettle of fish entirely. Judging by the number of memes about this, it appears to have become the fallback position of losing arguers (meme-counting is valid quantitative data collection, isn’t it?).

Muphry'sMemes

It can also get revoltingly rabid. Errors often arise from a literacy problem (but does anyone have the stats on how public shaming of poor literacy improves literacy? I thought not). But it’s not always about literacy: it turns out there is a reason why people who know that they know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ are still typing the wrong one. This research describes how our brains take shortcuts to get the job done, choosing high frequency routes sometimes over the correct route. For example, you might type ‘I’m going, to’ when you mean ‘I’m going, too,’ because you’re probably more used to typing ‘I’m going to [the shops/check/be there, etc.]’.

Both of these stories remind me of Muphry’s Law. You probably know of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong); Muphry’s Law says that if you criticise the writing/editing/proofreading of a work, there will be writing/editing/proofreading mistakes in your criticism. Some time ago I saw an unfortunate instance of Muphry’s Law in action. Taped to the back of a toilet door on a university campus, I found an ad for an editor who was offering to help people with their assignments. Unfortunately, the ad itself had an error in it.

EditorError

This isn’t an exact example of Muphry’s Law, in that the editor wasn’t directly criticising any written work, but obviously there is an implication that student work will have errors and will therefore need editing.

You have only to go to any site about grammar or language use to find that Muphry’s Law is strong. Writing something about the state of grammar teaching in particular will bring out the critics in droves, each of them lamenting the old days when we could all parse a sentence and express our ideas with eloquence and grace, yet somehow failing to do it themselves. In the comments for this article from The Age about teaching grammar in schools I found someone who is not concise in urging writers to be concise:

I’m not a grammar nazi, like so many old fogies who have few other achievements in their lives to hang on to but understanding past perfect participles and wrestling subjunctives into submission, but as someone who wasted years trying to teach writing to uni students who didn’t know a noun from a verb, a subject from a verb, a comma from a hyphen or a sentence from a jumble of clauses or phrases, I am all for enough traditional grammar to enable people to say what they mean with clarity and conciseness.

And then there’s this, from a WBC picket notice:

WBC

Muphry’s law aside (which is always good for a laugh), shaming people on the internet for poor grammar or spelling is the least effective use of your time there. Instead, why not get some grammar giggles?

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Help me to assist you

One of the hallmarks of formal writing in English seems to be that it uses Latin words even where there is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) synonym; in fact, changing Latin words to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents is one of the tools in the ‘paramedic method’ of editing. The push to plain(er) language in business and science writing means that we’re seeing much less of ‘annum’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘employment’ and more of ‘year’, ‘enough’ and ‘work’.

But it seems that ‘assist’ is really hanging in there. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘to give support, help, or aid to in some undertaking or effort, or in time of distress.’ The Anglo-Saxon equivalent ‘help’ is defined as ‘to cooperate effectively with a person; aid; assist’. They definitely mean the same thing.

Yet I almost never see ‘help’ in the reports I edit, whereas ‘assist’ is very common. There seems to be reluctance by writers to use the more direct word, as if perhaps the Latin word keeps a polite distance and an assumption of equality between the giver and recipient of the aid. This view seems to be borne out in other articles I found, such as this from a coaching company (they did not link to their source of this definition):

When we give or offer to ‘help’ someone, we are generally working from the assumption that the person in question is unable to resolve their own problems. We may take on the solution to the problem when we offer help … On the other hand, when we make ourselves available to ‘assist’ another person, they continue to own the project, goal, or problem – we simply make ourselves available as an additional resource that they can make use of along the way.

and this from a business communication site:

In a strict sense, ‘assistance’ implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that ‘help’ does not … Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).

Macquarie Dictionary does not make this distinction; nor does Oxford Dictionaries. That description from Webster’s given in the quote above isn’t online anywhere (but that’s not to say it isn’t in a paper copy), and the standard Webster’s online dictionary doesn’t say anything about subordination being part of the meaning of ‘assist’. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says that ‘assist is a formal word, and means to help someone by doing part of the work for them, especially the things that are not very important’, but this still doesn’t say anything about whether ‘help’ assumes helplessness of the recipient or a patronising attitude of the helper.

Is this a word undergoing meaning shift? Or is it just that people feel they should use the more formal word in more formal contexts? In this case, the message is clear with ‘help’. ‘Assist’ doesn’t add anything that ‘help’ doesn’t already have. No need, however, for ‘help assist’, as in this, from George Bush in January 1990: ‘I informed President Endara that we’d arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.’ That’s just too much.

Thanks to Pleated Jeans for the image, which originally came from Izifunny, and probably from somewhere else before that.
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Get amongst it

GetAmongstIt

Just as new words come in (twerking, anybody? don’t worry, the link is the very SFW OED’s online quarterly update of new words), some words draw a resigned last breath and fade away. It may be that the thing they refer to no longer exists:

snollygoster: a 19th century American word for ‘a dishonest or corrupt politician’. Or, to take an original definition from the editor of a Georgia newspaper: ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’.

Or that we have found a new word for this thing:

gelicide n 1656–1681:  Frost. ‘Unfortunately, the flowers were killed too soon by an early gelicide.’

Some words, such as ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, are in the act of disappearing as we speak. Both the -st forms are old, coming out of Middle English (12th–15th centuries), but not as old as the plainer forms ‘while’ and ‘among’, which come out of Old English (up to the 11th century).

There is now a lot of geographical variation in the use of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, which are used more in British English than by Australians and Americans. Yet the Brits, Aussies and Americans all prefer ‘while’ and ‘among’ over ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’.

Caution: data ahead

A search for ‘whilst:while’ and ‘amongst:among’ in Brigham Young University’s GLoWBE (corpus of Global Web-based English) shows these occurrences for each word in the US, Australia and the UK.

  • In the US, ‘while’ occurs around 50 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 13 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In Australia, ‘while’ occurs around 8 times more often than ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In the UK, ‘while’ occurs around 5 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.

GAI_T1

The GLoWBE corpus shows a more contemporary use and a larger range of use than might be found from books, but Brigham Young University also have data generated from the text found in Google Books. These would have more consistently conformed to the publishing standards of the day and can be compared by date, so you can see how the relative use of the ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ forms has dropped:

GAI_T2

But why all the fuss about these two slowly disappearing words?

I still see a lot of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ in my work, and to conform with the style guides set by my clients, I normally change it. There are two main concerns people have about changing to the more common form:

  • some people feel that the ‘-st’ forms are more grammatically correct
  • some people worry that there is a difference in meaning between the two forms, so that each must be used within a particular context.

Grammatical correctness

To check for grammatical correctness, I go to dictionaries and style guides.

Australian: The Style manual doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. Pam Peters’ Australian English Style Guide says ‘whilst’ is ‘conspicuous by its absence in the daily press in Australia and Britain, and is most formally represented in formal and literary nonfiction’. ‘Amongst’ also appears more frequently in ‘more rhetorical and literary styles, in religious writing as well has higher-brow fiction and humour’. Of ‘while’, the Macquarie Dictionary says ‘conjunction while [earlier whilest, from whiles + inorganic -t, as in amongst]; of amongst, it says ‘preposition among’, and also describes how ‘amongst’ is part of the verbal phrases ‘get amongst’ and ‘get amongst it’.

British: Both editions of Fowler’s (1926 and 2000) have ‘whilst’ as a variant of ‘while’, noting that it is not used in American English, and go on to describe all the ways people incorrectly use ‘while’ – for example, to mean ‘and’ – without drawing any distinction between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’.

American: The Little, Brown Handbook doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. The Associated Press Stylebook Online says this:

Q: Does AP have a preference between the use of “while” vs. “whilst”? – from 75251, Texas on Thu, Jan 27, 2011; A: AP stories use while. Whilst is a chiefly British form.

All this checking shows that there really is no difference between the two forms; the ‘-st’ forms are used interchangeably with the non ‘-st’ forms, and both are grammatically correct.

Usage

However, the ‘-st’ forms seem to lend a certain tone to writing, which in British English might be called ‘formality’ and in American English might be called ‘snootiness’.

The best explanation I could find for how these -st forms even came about is from World Wide Words, which basically says that the possessive form ‘-s’ was added so the conjunction could be used adverb, and then the ‘t’ was added in southern England in confusion with the superlative ‘-est’ addition (such as in ‘gentlest’).

Having checked all the sources I find reputable, I then started looking at other sites and found a bit more explanation of regional use, and also some (unsourced) views about what ‘some’ grammarians apparently think.

Grammar monster has this paragraph about ‘whilst’ as a conjunction, but I didn’t find any evidence of this in the grammar sources I checked:

Some grammarians engaged in the while-whilst debate claim that, in the meaning during the time that or at the same time as, whilst should be used for a short period of time and while should be used for a longer period of time. Building on this idea, some claim that whilst is like when and while is more like during. Some try to formalise this idea a little more, stating that while should be used with the past progressive tense.

Also, this site did explain how ‘while’ can be a noun, a verb and a conjunction, whereas ‘whilst’ can only be a conjunction:

  • “I’ll be there in a while.” (noun)
  • “I’d while away the hours.” (verb)
  • “I’ll sleep while/whilst you’re shopping.” (conjunction)

And in some regional dialects there is a real distinction, as shown in these responses to a Guardian ‘Semantic enigmas’ question:

The while/whilst distinction is made in several dialects, mostly those of the South. The distinction being between substantive and adverbial/conjunction. I find that contempt for this minor feature of the English language is most often harboured by those who believe it, even though a dialectal feature, to be a sign of pretention.

Rurik Greenall, Trondheim, Norway

In some Midlands dialects, there has been a distinct difference – “whilst” meaning “during the time when” and “while” meaning “until, up to point when”, e.g. “Look after this whilst I’m gone” or “Look after this while I come back”. Sounds wrong to the purist, but in Rutland they would know what you meant.

S Killingworth, Wimbledon

The upshot is that it’s equally correct in terms of grammar to use ‘while’ or ‘whilst’ (as a conjunction), and ‘among’ or ‘amongst’, but it will mark your writing as being British, formal, possibly pretentious.

And note that while you can set the cat ‘among’ the pigeons just as easily as ‘amongst’ the pigeons, you can only ‘get amongst it’. You can’t have that any other way.

___________________________________________________________________________

Sources

AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Oxford Dictionaries blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/august-2013-update/.
The Phrontistery Compendium of Lost Words: http://phrontistery.info/clw.html
Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php.
Grammar Girl: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/although-versus-while?page=all
World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-whi2.htm
Grammar Monster: http://www.grammar-monster.com/easily_confused/while_whilst.htm
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/09/mark-forsyth-the-horologicon-top-10-lost-words
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-5498,00.html
And the image: poly-mer on Tumbler.
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