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I love fortuitous coincidences. I’d been fretting all week because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Or rather, that I’d thought of around 15 things to write, and all of them turned out to be mind-meltingly dull when I wrote them. (And if there’s one thing we can’t let grammar become, it’s dull.) But then, thankfully, a comment came that I was compelled to answer. Regarding the previous post, about how Philadelphia Flyers fans use exclamation points where a Penguins fan would use a question mark, commenter Duncan asked:

Shouldn’t that be “Flyers’ fans” and “Penguins’ fan”?

My answer is no. But to the related question “Couldn’t that be…”, the answer is yes.  Let’s start by looking at the apostrophized version. Penguins’ fan is a noun phrase, with the possessive Penguins’ serving as a determiner. “Determiner” is basically a more general term for “article”, which is what they teach you in school that the and a(n) are. Determiners include articles, demonstratives (this, that, these, those), and possessives (my, your, Leon Czolgosz’s), among others. The general rule with determiners is the opposite of the Lay’s Potato Chips Rule: you can’t have more than one.

(1a) *I broke the her glass menagerie.
(1b) *I read the Grant’s paper.

Yet I have no problems with saying

(2a) I saw a Flyers fan engage in morally reprehensible actions.
(2b) Those Penguins fans just solved world hunger!

So it appears that Flyers and Penguins aren’t functioning as determiners in these situations. Instead, they’re the first half of the compound nouns Flyers/Penguins fan.  Each of these consists of two nouns that have been grouped together. In this respect, a Flyers fan is like a tennis shoe. Compound nouns are common in English for referring to something that is related to someone, but not possessed by them; there’re Gibson girls, the Marlboro Man, Bush backers, Obama supporters, and so on. Furthermore, this is the standard form of these phrases; “Marlboro’s Man” has 172 Google hits, compared to more than 900,000 for “Marlboro Man”; “Bush’s backers” has 3,600 to the 30,000 for “Bush backers”; and so on. So too with sports fans; 8 of the first 10 Google hits for “penguins fans” are without the apostrophe.

Further evidence of this is supplied by the acceptability of the phrase Penguin fan, which is well-attested (albeit more rarely than Penguins fan), and sounds perfectly normal to me. There, all the ambiguity disappears; it’s definitely a compound noun, not a possessed one.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use the apostrophe. Penguins’ fans can also be used as a whole noun phrase that gets its own determiner. This puts two determiners in a row, but that’s acceptable in some situations:

(3a) To reach the The Simpsons Ride, visitors walk through the mouth of an 8-foot-tall, 36-foot-wide Krusty head. [link]
(3b) But I wanted the Marie Callender’s pie. [link]

Basically, you can use two determiners if the second one has a really close association with the head noun. Then the determiner and head noun form a noun unto themselves (rather like a compound noun).  And I think you could argue that Penguins’ and fan have such an association pretty easily. In summary, both with and without an apostrophe are okay, but it seems without the apostrophe is preferred. Well, I prefer it, at least.

So where’s the fortuitous coincidence in all this? Because it dovetails nicely into a comment I’d wanted to make about another post. Anyone who read the Wall Street Journal Blog Watch article is familiar with GrammarBlog. They’re the good kind of prescriptivists, the kind that are complaining, by and large, about really egregious errors — ones that stand in the way of understanding what people are saying. For instance, one of the recent posts is about a sign at a fish ‘n chips shop declaring the special to be “Fish few, chips few, peas”. I still am not certain what this means, although I assume it’s that the special is fish with a few chips and peas. But with those commas where there are, it’s maddeningly unclear.

The reason that I bring up GrammarBlog is that I’ve been meaning to point out a post of theirs that is just great, and is all about this same issue: which is the best choice for National Singles/Single’s/Singles’ Day? This was one of those posts where I realized in the course of reading it that it was exactly what I thought, for exactly the same reasons, only I hadn’t realized it until then.

Summary: Penguins fans is a compound noun, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe. That doesn’t mean it can’t take an apostrophe, but it does seem to be dispreferred.


The way I write, there’s a hierarchical algorithm that I use to determine what punctuation mark to end a sentence with:

  1. Is this sentence phrased as a question? If so, question mark. If not, goto 2.
  2. Is this a sentence that is especially emotional, or that would be better if it seemed emotional? If so, put an exclamation point and goto 3. If not, goto 4.
  3. Be honest. Does this really need an exclamation point? I mean, really? If so, fine, put an exclamation point if you love them so much. If not, goto 4.
  4. Use the old trusty default: a period.

(This omits the subalgorithm into which I go if I decide that possibly a semicolon would be merited, but that’s for the best — there’ve been times I stared at three sentences for ages, trying to decide which two deserved to be joined with a semicolon and which would be separated by a period.) The key point here is that for me, all questions get question marks, rhetorical, excited, or otherwise. That’s how I was trained, and that’s how I assumed other people were trained as well.

The reason I bring this up is because it clearly puts me at odds with the Philadelphia Flyers, who, to rouse their fans during the team’s playoff run, had created shirts that said “Why Not Us!” (As background, the basic idea is that the Flyers sucked last year, but they had a really impressive turnaround this year, made the playoffs and beat the numbers 3 and 1 seeds before being annihilated by the Penguins.) For me, that’s non-standard — a question is a question, and questions get question marks. I don’t care if it’s rhetorical or excited, it’s still getting a question mark. I’m fine with an interrobang (!?), but only if the question is asked in an agitated or bewildered way, not merely to indicate excitement or passion, and certainly not to indicate rhetoricality.

But not all agree with my tyranny over the exclamation point. Back in 1915, William Gardner Hale wrote a paper on classifying sentences (which I may discuss in a later post), in which he offhandedly remarked that exclamation points are used to punctuate rhetorical questions. And now, contrary to my precedence for question mark over exclamation point, I’m wondering if others give the exclamation point a bigger role than I do.

So this is my question to you: is why not us! standard or non-standard? Or more to the point: am I justified in making fun of Flyers fans for this? Gosh, I hope so! (It’s worth pointing out that the Penguins fan displaying the shirt misspelled Fleury, so it’s not like we Pittsburghers are perfect either.  But at least we’re not from Philadelphia.)

[Also, gosh!  As Jonathon noticed, despite its innocence of all things financial, this blog got written up in the Wall Street Journal.  This comes on the heels of Jan Freeman discussing the dance attention/attendance idiom from the Amy Vanderbilt post in her column in the Boston Globe (which also runs syndicated in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).  So probably I should just quit this blog while I’m ahead.]

Some time in the past few weeks (they’ve all blurred together by now), I was discussing some research on syntactic alternations with a professor who’s from Britain but has been living in the U.S. for a while. Discussing such matters with him is always enlightening, not only because he approaches the question from a data mining perspective, but also because he often brings up the British obsession with grammar. Amongst other topics in this particular meeting, we talked about the difference in American English between meet and meet with.

That called to mind a comment I had read a while ago, by John Humphrys. Humphrys wrote the introduction to James Cochrane’s atrociously angry book Between You and I, which I discussed (read: became very angry about) in a previous post. It’s a fitting introduction to this book; Humphrys’s writing is overly sentimental about prescriptivism and Cochrane’s ‘Lost Causes’ of grammar. Plus it urges the public execution and display of the body of a job candidate who used the phrase ‘proactively networking’. Yes, quite fitting.

But more importantly (given my love of prizes), the introduction also contains an offer of champagne:

“We all have our own pet hates. One of mine is the relatively recent and altogether hideous American import ‘met up with’. I have offered a bottle of the best bubbly to anyone who can explain how that differs from ‘met’. The bottle sits in my office to this day.”

Thanks to that earlier conversation, I am now prepared to claim the prize. Here are some of the differences between meet and meet up with. In fact, let’s do one better and differentiate between these two and meet with as well.

Difference 1: meet has a single word, meet with has two, and meet up with has three. To be fair, Humphrys notices this difference himself. This may mean that he technically has first claim to the bottle of champagne. But hopefully he wants a usage difference, in which case I still might get the bubbly with differences 2-4.

Difference 2: meet up with has an informal tone to it, meet with has a formal tone, and meet has neither. Compare the following sentences. The first set are in what I intend to be a formal tone and the second set are in an informal tone.

(1a) I met the agitated CEO in the boardroom.
(1b) I met with the agitated CEO in the boardroom.
(1c) (#?) I met up with the agitated CEO in the boardroom.

(2a) I met my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.
(2b) (#?) I met with my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.
(2c) I met up with my girlfriend in the pit lane of the Go-Kart track.

(#? is linguists’ notation for possibly semantically weird.  We like symbols.) To me, (1c) is weird, as the CEO and I probably aren’t on good enough terms for me to meet up with him, especially if his agitation is directed at me. Similarly, the only time I’ve met with a girlfriend is to discuss the divvying up of things and friends at the end of a relationship, an uncomfortable and formal occasion. Otherwise, it’s always meeting or meeting up with girlfriends.

Difference 3: meeting with someone usually implies that we are holding a meeting to discuss an issue, not just getting together with:

(3a) I’ll meet you at the grocery store to grab some food.
(3b) (#) I’ll meet with you at the grocery store to grab some food.
(3c) I’ll meet up with you at the grocery store to grab some food.

Similarly, (2b), which I had said I found semantically weird, can become normal in the right context:

(4a) I met with my girlfriend in the pit lane to go over our racing strategy.
(4b) I met with my girlfriend to plan our friend’s surprise party.

In the terms of formal semantics, this is suggestion of a discussion is an “implicature”, an assumption that can be negated by the rest of the sentence.  meet and meet up with do not carry this implicature.

Difference 4: probably the most significant difference. I usually meet people I don’t know at all and meet up with people I know quite well. This tendency is especially strong in the past tense:

(5a) I met my girlfriend at a party, where we fell in love.
(5b) (#?) I met up with my girlfriend at a party, where we fell in love.

(6a) (#?) I met my mother at a movie theatre.
(6b) I met up with my mother at a movie theatre.

A swell example of this is the title of the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The show would be about something noticeably different if it were titled How I Met With Your Mother or How I Met Up With Your Mother.

So that’s four differences, and pretty easy ones to come up with if you consult a native speaker of American English. So why does the distinction elude Humphrys?

My guess is that Humphrys’s view of grammar is too black-and-white. You’ll note that I used a fair number of usuallys in my discussion. That’s because there are not categorical differences between the three forms. I can meet someone I already know, meet up with someone I’d never met, and meet with my friends. It’s just that I generally don’t: I usually meet people I don’t know, meet up with people I do, and meet with colleagues. These words have certain tendencies, connotations, and implicatures that can make one more or less fitting for a given situation. It’s not that one form is completely disallowed in a situation, but rather that it’s dispreferred because it sets up a conflict between the actual meaning of the sentence and what you expect the sentence to mean.

Thus the difference (at least for me, as an American English speaker) between these forms is that meet sets up an expectation for an initial encounter, meet with sets up an expectation for a discussion, and meet up with sets up an expectation for friends getting together. I suspect Humphrys will have trouble seeing this difference, because he’s expecting to find a cut-and-dried prescription that marks certain usages as completely unacceptable, rather than merely a bit odd. But the truth of the matter is that the interesting bits of grammar lie in uncovering these expectations and understanding how language users get these intuitions, how they remember them, and how they use them to communicate effectively. (This is the key result of all the work on syntactic alternations I’ve been studying for the last year; if you’re interested in a good linguistic introduction to this idea, allow me to suggest Bresnan & Nikitina’s 2007 paper “The Gradience of the Dative Alternation”.)

I think Humphrys should be celebrating meet up with, rather than vilifying it as an ugly Americanism. As he himself says:

The more elaborate and the more precise our vocabulary, the greater the scope for thought and expression.

Well, having words for the two different senses of meet (to encounter and be introduced vs. to have a meeting with), even if they aren’t completely distinct, adds expressive power to the language. I think that’s a good thing.  So too do you if use both meet and meet up with.  Hopefully Humphrys will think so eventually.

As for the bottle of champagne, I don’t really drink, and my taste buds certainly lack the discriminatory power to distinguish a crummy bottle of champagne from the best. So, assuming the bottle still rests in Humphrys’s office, he’s welcome to it. But I would be willing to accept a sandwich as a prize. After all, I am a poor grad student.

Summary: Meeting with someone usually means you’re getting together to discuss something semi-formally. Meeting someone usually only happens the first time (or the first couple of times if you have a bad memory) that you encounter someone. Meeting up with someone usually only happens after the first time you encounter someone.  But each can be used for the other sometimes.

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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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