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Having noticed my pants fitting a bit too snugly, and having foolishly counted the number of times I ate at the combination Taco Bell/KFC in one week (around 4), I have recently been considering trying to get into shape. (My recent use of our new fryer to create fried Oreos and fried cinnamon buns has added to these concerns as well.) Part of that involves renouncing the siren song of the Beefy 5-layer Burrito and steering myself toward salads and junk like that, what one might call “healthy” food.

Or mightn’t one? Some people insist that one mustn’t. Healthy, in these people’s world, means only possessing good health. Healthful is the only correct form for food and other objects that induce good health in others, they say.

And, as you might have supposed, they’re bonkers. Obviously, healthy and healthful are both valid in their respective meanings given above — good job on that front, at least — but there’s nothing wrong with using healthy to mean “promoting or inducing good health”. MWDEU says that the whole notion that something’s wrong with that usage can be traced back to 1881, when a fellow named Alfred Ayers declared it so in a book called The Verbalist. (Google Books has the 1909 edition online.) The trouble with Ayres’s declaration is that it spit in the face of at least 330 years of usage; the OED’s first citation for healthy, in 1552, defines the two words identically, and both meanings for healthy are attested all the way up to Ayres’s book’s publication. (Here’re a few examples, from 1744, 1793, and 1828.)

So unless you think Ayres knows something about English that no else does, you can safely ignore his broad-cloth assertion. It’s fine to use healthy to mean “promoting good health”, and the prescribed restriction is poppycock.

But there is a small seed of truth to Ayres’s belief: healthful has all but lost its ability to mean “possessing good health”. That’s weird, because healthful, following the commonest meaning of the -ful suffix, would be expected to mean “full of health”. But that meaning has been largely lost to healthy. “Healthy people” has 2,030,000 Google hits, “healthful people” only 4,960 — a 400:1 ratio. “Healthy food” has 3,590,000 Google hits, “healthful food” has 99,300 — a 36:1 ratio. In both cases, healthy is more common, but healthful is less overwhelmed in its “promoting health” meaning than in its “possessing health” meaning. I find this a nice counter-example to any claim that English suffixation is obligatorily logical.

And if you’ll excuse my ending on an aside, this is one of the weirdest pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: it’s wrong to use healthy as a literal adjective meaning “promoting health”, but it’s fine to use it to mean “metaphorically promoting health”. So (1a) would be wrong and (1b) would be fine.

(1a) I’m eating some healthy foods. [“BAD”]
(1b) I have a healthy fear of viruses. [“GOOD”]

That, my friends, is daft.

Summary: No matter what prescriptivists say, healthy can mean “possessing health”, as in healthy people, or “promoting health”, as in healthy food. Both meanings have been attested for 450 years, and the claim against the latter was an unjustified assertion from 1881 by a prescriptivist otherwise lost to the sands of history. Healthful can mean “promoting health” or “possessing health” as well, although the latter usage is nowadays rare.


When I was talking about sentential hopefully, I said that hopefully meaning “in a hopeful manner” had pretty much fallen out of my idiolect. It turns out I was wrong.  I would definitely say this headline, “Obama Speaks Hopefully of Movement on Jobs Bill“, without a second thought, and without difficulty of interpretation.

The position of the adverb is crucial to the interpretation, though; if the sentence were “Obama hopefully speaks of movement on jobs bill”, I’d get the sentential meaning much more readily than the “full of hope” meaning. (If you’re a syntax nerd, the reason is that the position of hopefully in the sentence affects the dependency structure of the sentence, limiting what nodes hopefully can attach to.)

At the turn of the new year, I wrote post about Tom Torriglia, who’d managed to get a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle stating his opposition to pronouncing the year 2010 as “two thousand ten”. Torriglia, as it turns out, is the head of a group he calls NAGG (National Association for Good Grammar). He is also in the process of writing a book about all the various companies that NAGG has complained to about the grammar of their advertisements, and how (strangely) no one at the companies ever really listened. A draft of the book is available online. So I looked through it, and I can see why the companies never listened to his complaints: they’re mostly rubbish. A few examples:

Ordinal dates for cardinal dates – Torriglia complains about a Fox Sports Net ad for the MLB All-Star Game that had a date written as “March 5th”. Torriglia claims that the cardinal “March 5” is the only acceptable form in writing, and that the ordinal “March 5th” is speech improperly transcribed. If this were an error, it would be one with a long history: here is an example from the front-page of a 1740 sermon, here is an example in a 1773 from Colonel Burgess Ball, and here is a series of examples in an 1832 letter from Charles Darwin. It sure seems acceptable.

Me replacing I – The next complaint is about a children’s show called Buster and Me. Torriglia claims that this ought to be Buster and I. His rationale is a quote from “Subject pronouns are used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence”, but this point is completely irrelevant because Buster and Me/I is not a sentence. The default case for English pronouns outside of sentences is the accusative (or object) case (me, him, her, etc.). If someone asks “Who wants ice cream?”, you can either reply with a full sentence “I do!” or the single word “Me!” Note that you cannot reply with the single word “I”, because it is not in the default case. In the absence of a full sentence* to assign a case to the noun phrase Buster and Me — as in the title — accusative me will be preferred over nominative I.

dead body is redundant – His rationale: “[T]he Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines body as a corpse.” If that is the only definition for body in the RHUD, then it’s not a very good dictionary; the online Oxford English Dictionary lists more that 30 definitions of the word, only one of which is “Short (or euphemistic) for ‘dead body’, corpse.” Yes, body can mean “corpse”, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s just one example of a live body:

(2) “whilst all the rest of my body is sore with cold.”

Strangely, Torriglia follows up his claim that dead body is redundant by noting that a body can, in fact, be alive. Perhaps the dictionary he’s using, in addition to defining body as “corpse”, defines redundant as “clarificatory”.

Slow is not an adverb – It is. See an earlier post on this matter if you don’t believe me.

Torriglia’s book is riddled with errors and absurd claims, so why am I confident that the book will be a best-seller? Simple: a successful popular grammar book is required to contain as many erroneous and unsubtantiated claims as possible. Plus, Torriglia’s got the style down just right. He starts by noting that “This book is a [sic] light-hearted in approach but serious in intent”, and adds the disclaimer “No advertising copywriters were harmed during the writing of this book although I really hope I get to strangle each and every one of them someday!”, as well as noting, in response to a poorly-written email, that “The grammar police had to snuff that guy.” Lynne Truss, you’ve got a competitor in anger!

*: Technically, it’s not a full sentence that assigns the case, but rather a case governor like an inflectional phrase (IP).

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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