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Suppose, dear reader, that you’ve end up on the receiving end of a rather severe paper cut.  At first, there’s nothing but a line on your skin to explain the searing pain, but then slowly the line darkens and a tiny bit of blood seeps out.  Fearing that more will follow that, you rush off to the medicine cabinet to obtain a bandage.  If someone were to obstruct your path, would you yell (1a) or (1b)?

(1a) Out of my way! I have to staunch the flow of blood!
(1b) Out of my way! I have to stanch the flow of blood!

(Please ignore the fact that no normal person would say either in this situation.)  Up through a few days ago, I operated under the assumption that (1b) was the more proper form, but that many people would say (1a) because of the rarity of stanch.  As you might have guessed from the qualifying statement “up through a few days ago”, it turns out that that assumption was wrong.

I found this out by reading through Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [Sic], which I’ll be reviewing in the near future.  In it, Brockenbrough writes:

“Although ‘staunch’ can be used to stem the flow as well, the Society believes words are more powerful when their meanings are narrow. […] The word ‘nice,’ for example, has been used to mean ignorant, foolish, dainty, timid, slutty, or strange. […] It would be… nice to stanch this tide before we lose another fine word.”

Now, you may be wondering why someone telling me not to do something I already preferred not to do would make me realize that it was alright to do it.  The answer, of course, is that the reason not to do it is stupid.  Brockenbrough is worried that by using one word (staunch) as both a verb and an adjective, we’ll no longer be able to tell what we mean in a given situation.  I am going to make a hyperbolic statement here and guess that there is no sentence in which staunch is ambiguous between verb and adjective.  The problem with nice is that every one of its potential meanings is adjectival, so if you say Timothy is a nice young man, you have very little information about which meaning of nice is intended*. (The smart money’s on “slutty”, of course.)  Compare that to the following sentences containing staunch:

(2a) After staunch resistance, NAT may come to IPv6 after all.
(2b) Stimulus Aims to Staunch Industry Job Losses
(2c) Calgary Meals on Wheels could not function without the more than 46,000 hours of donated time given each year by our staunch and loyal corps of some 650 volunteers.
(2d) […] some brandy was applied to staunch the bleeding of his cheeks […]

I doubt you had any trouble with any of them.  What’s more, it’s not verbal usage that’s depriving staunch of a single narrow meaning — the OED lists six definitions for adjectival staunch, each attested since at least 1650.  And, lest you still cling to the idea that clarity will somehow be affected down the road, I’d like to point out that Brockenbrough herself has used one of these verb-or-adjective words in her argument against verbal staunch.  She used mean, which can function either as a verb meaning “denote” or as an adjective meaning “ill-tempered”. I bet you could immediately tell which meaning was intended when you read the quote.  The lesson here is that multiple meanings are fine, so long as context can be used to disambiguate them.

But all that shows is that the argument against verbal staunch for the sake of clarity is specious. We need to take it one step further and show that verbal staunch (and adjectival stanch) are okay.  I’ll defer here to others: MWDEU, the American Heritage Book of English Usage, and the Columbia Guide to Standard American English. All of them say the same thing, that stanch is the more common verbal spelling and that staunch is the more common adjectival spelling, but that the two are interchangeable. Whether you use them or not, there’s no prohibition against staunching the flow of blood, nor against assembling a collection of stanch friends.  Personally, I’m going to continue differentiating them in my usage, but I wouldn’t hold anyone else to that.

Summary: Although staunch is the most common spelling of the adjective meaning “firm” and stanch is the most common spelling of the verb meaning “stop (the flow)”, both spellings are acceptable for both meanings.

*Assuming that you buy into all those meanings of nice, of course.  In my lexicon, though, nice almost invariably means “pleasant” or “good”, and certainly doesn’t mean any of those things Brockenbrough listed. As a result, Timothy is a nice young man is pretty unambiguous, if a little vague.

Should be apparent from his stunning takedown of the “uninformed bossiness” of Strunk and White in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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