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At various points in my life, I finished up a task and excitedly, dutifully, or resignedly announced its completion by saying “I’m done”. And most of the times, this was met with a congratulation, or at least warm indifference. On rare occasions, it was met with a succinct rebuke:

“Cakes are done. People are finished.”

That was all; no explanation given, and me left sitting there wondering why, if the subject of cake was going to be broached, it wasn’t to give me one as a reward. Because the response was so untethered to rational explanation, I would quickly forget about it, only to be reminded each time that I bothered to tell this person that I was done.

Well, I’m done. And so’s the rule. Let me turn the floor over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

Done in the sense of ‘finished’ has been subject to a certain amount of criticism over the years for reasons that are not readily apparent.”

The reasons aren’t unreadily apparent, either; they simply aren’t. MWDEU traces the prohibition against humans being done to MacCracken and Sandison’s 1917 book Manual of Good English, which offers no explanation for its impropriety. In the near-century since, no one else has found a reason for it either. What passes for a justification is that one-liner I quoted above; for instance, in one professor’s list of “errors to avoid“, we’re given this explanation, posted in its entirety:

“30. If something has been completed, it is finished–it is not ‘done’. Remember, cakes are done; people are finished.”

It looks to me that the real reason why people started complaining about this usage is that it had two signs of the prescriptivist devil: it was a new usage, and it was a non-standard usage. To be done, the MWDEU reports, supplanted to have done for states of being starting sometime in the 1700s or earlier, which on a prescriptivist timescale somehow counts as “new”. Furthermore, the OED classifies this usage as chiefly Irish, Scottish, American, and dialectal, which to a prescriptivist is just a long way of saying improper. And usually finished sounds fancier than done, which no doubt contributed to the distaste for done.

But unless you believe in 300-year-old grudges, there’s no reason to be against people being done. According to the OED, Thomas Jefferson used it, as did Jeremy Bentham (the philospoher, not the Lost character) and others. There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different, either. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto, this injunction would long ago gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.

Summary: Cakes are done; people are finished? Nope. Cakes can also be finished and people can also be done. And stop mentioning cake if you’re only teasing me.


It seems as though every time I’m directed to the Huffington Post, it’s to see an article that someone was complaining about. My most recent trip was no different, as I was directed to an article about “Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up Or Mangles” thanks to Daughter Number Three. It offers as either a mix-up or mangling (I’m not entirely clear which) shined and shone, which battle for the position as past tense and participle for the verb shine:

Shine is one of those ‘strong verbs’ that had an irregular past tense and past participle (shone) but later acquired a regular form ending in –ed as well. Some people use the forms interchangeably, but there is a pattern that most people follow to keep them distinct. Shined takes a personal subject and an object: I shined the flashlight at the bear. Shone is used of light sources and does not take an object: The moon shone over the harbor.”

But DNT didn’t think this fit with her usage, and I don’t think it fits with mine, either. Let’s break down the claims and see how they stand up. But first, let’s briefly talk about past tenses, because they’re going to be important later on, and I think the English tense system isn’t adequately taught in school. A verb in English has two basic past tense forms, the simple past and the past participle. Consider the verb speak. It has two past forms, spoke and spoken:

(1a) He spoke of New World Orders and death panels.
(1b) Afterward, I wished we had never spoken.

Spoke is the simple past form, which occurs without any auxiliary predecessors (e.g., had). Spoken is the past participle, which occurs with an auxiliary (had in (1b)). The past participle is also the form that is used in the passive, and for certain adjectival forms of the verb:

(2a) The words were *spoke/spoken in the style of Sy Greenbloom, owner of Spatula City.
(2b) Justin Bieber’s new *spoke/spoken word album is expected to sell tepidly.

For most English verbs, these two forms are the same (talked, slapped, etc.), but many common verbs have two different forms. These two-form verbs include eat, beat, bite, and do. And, possibly, shine. Okay, enough digression. Let’s examine the claims.

Shined is the newer form. More or less right, but neither one’s new. Shine is originally a Germanic word, and its past tense was formed using ablaut, a kind of morphological vowel mutation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Old English the infinitive was scínan, with simple past forms scán and scinon. The past participle form is apparently unattested in Old English (if I’m correctly understanding what the OED is telling me).

In late Middle English and Early Modern English (1300-1700), according to the OED, shone (from OE scán) and shined split time as the simple past, and shined was the common form for the past participle. Shone, if it did indeed come from scán, is technically older, but shined was standard throughout the period in both usages:

(1a) “No man she saw & 3it shynede the mone” [simple past; Chaucer c1385]
(1b) “Then shined foorth indeede all loue among them.” [simple past; Sidney a1586]

(2a) “The mone is alway halfe shyned of the sonne.” [past participle; Trevisa 1398]
(2b) “It is god..which hath shyned in oure hertes, for to geve the light of knowledge off the glorious god.” [past participle; Tindale 1526]*

It’s not clear that shine originally had shone as its past participle; the OED notes that sinen appeared once as the past participle in Middle English, but that shone is only first attested as a past participle in 1566. It may well be that shined was the original past participle, but I lack sufficient knowledge of the history of English to state this as anything more than a hunch. The key point is that the relative ages of the forms are irrelevant; both have been around for centuries.

Shined takes a personal subject. Nope. I searched for shined in Mark Davies’s excellent and free Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)**, and found 166 instances. In 47 cases, the word preceding shined was shoes, but shoes were rarely the subject. The sentences were mostly things like “I just had those shoes shined!”, so let’s overlook them for now as irrelevant to the claim. The next most common predecessor, though, was light, which appeared 10 times, each time as a subject. Same with the five times sun shined appeared and the two times for eyes shined. There were another 14 inanimate subjects that only occurred once, bringing the total to 31. By comparison, there were only 18 occurrences of human subjects with shined.*** No evidence there for requiring a personal subject.

Shined takes an object. Not necessarily. Again, we’ll overlook the cases of shoes shining for now. But in each of the cases with inanimate subjects listed above, there was no object of the verb shine. The sentences were instead “The sun shined like his smile” and such. Since inanimate subjects were more common in this sample, lacking an object was more common than having an object, so there’s no evidence for this claim either.

Shone takes a light source as its subject and no object. On shone, the claim held up better. COHA returned 3753 instances of shone preceded by a noun, and of those, 906 are sun shone, 633 are eyes shone, 418 are light shone, and 312 are moon shone. These alone account for 60% of the results. In fact, the top 100 subjects all appear to be light sources (although some, like eyes, are only metaphorical). I failed to find a single instance in COHA of shone taking an object.

However, this preference for light-source subjects and no objects may only be the case in written or historical English. A quick Google search shows “she shone” and “she shined” are comparably common (64K to 84K hits), so while there may be a preference for inanimate subjects with shone, there’s clearly no prohibition against animate subjects.

So what’s the real difference? It’s not about light sources or who’s doing the shining. It’s about shoes. shone is hardly used in the context of shining shoes; “shined shoes” has 34K Google hits, while “shone shoes” has 1K. On COHA, shoes is the most common noun to appear next to shined, with 74 examples. shoes doesn’t appear in the top 500 nouns on either side of shone, meaning that there is at most one instance of shoes shone or shone shoes in COHA. This is where the shined/shone difference actually shows up. Don’t get so distracted by the light.

I’m betting that there is also a formality/tone difference. For me, as a relatively young speaker of American English, The light shone in the darkness sounds almost poetic compared to The light shined in the darkness. My belief in this tone difference is bolstered by the fact that shone is far more common in COHA than shined is, but only twice as common on Google. That’s hardly conclusive, of course.

Lastly, there might be a past tense versus past participle distinction. I think that I prefer shined as a past participle but shone as a past tense. Other people might too. In fact, the OED lists shined as an American, dialectal, or archaic form for the past tense, but standard and current for the past participle, so I think (some) Brits might agree with me.

How could we settle this? Logistic regression over attested and labelled corpus examples would probably be the best way, allowing us to control for all the various variables proposed here and in the Huffington Post article. Then we’d know which ones are really significant preferences and which ones are idiosyncratic to either me or the author of the Huffington Post article. Until then, let’s fight it out in the comments!

*: This section as a whole has been substantially reworked thanks to points raised by Ryan, HR Freckenhorst, goofy, & The Ridger. Amongst other problems, both of the examples I’d given before were of shined as a simple past tense. goofy supplied the two past participle usages to complete the point I’d only partially made.

**: I’m using COHA here because of the claim that people are currently mixing up the words, so presumably we want to look back a bit to before this confusion hit. It also has higher quality texts than the average Internet hit, and some useful part-of-speech tagging.

***: These numbers come from a quick perusal of the data, so I ignored subjects that did not immediately precede shined, and probably miscounted a bit. Think of them as nothing more than vague estimates.

It seems that there is a group of mistaken prescriptivists who insist that you cannot use the ‘s possessive with inanimate objects. One argues that the ‘s possessive grants human qualities to the inanimate object that it surely does not deserve. This may sound familiar; I discussed a similar (if reversed) argument a few months ago that using that in a relative clause that refers to a person is somehow de-humanizing and surely at least highly indecorous, if not outright illiterate. Others just state as fact that inanimates and ‘s possessives are a Jet and a Shark; never the twain should meet. At first blush, the rule might seem reasonable:

(1a) I had the time of my life last weekend!
(1b) *I had my life’s time last weekend!

(2a) I spent the weekend painting the side of the house magenta!
(2b) *My wife has just informed me that I’m spending next weekend re-painting the house’s side white.

But I’m going to argue that the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b) is epiphenomenal. First, note that (1a)’s time of my life is an idiom. It’s rare that you can change the form of an idiom and retain its idiomatic meaning. For instance:

(3) *That new record album is the meow of the cat!

That’s nonsense, unless the album literally contained caterwauling. But if you switch in the cat’s meow, suddenly it’s comprehensible — if a bit dated. So (1b) doesn’t sound bad because it’s got an inanimate with ‘s; it sounds bad because you’ve botched the idiom. As for (2b), I agree it is bad, and it’s bad because it is an inanimate object possessing an inalienable part. But even that’s not always a problem. The extreme southwestern tip of Great Britain is called “Land’s End“, so-named at least back to 1769; the phrase itself has been used generally since at least 1400, according to the OED. Similarly, there’s a hotel called The Cliff’s Edge in Hawaii.

In general, aside from idiomatic avoidance and a few special situations, this rule is rubbish. The Gregg Reference Manual wants you to think that there is something wrong with saying the terminal’s lower level, or its edge, or leaf’s color but I can’t see it:

(4a) […] you see it’s just people trying to survive,” he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal’s lower level […]
(4b) […] bring the hoe in a direction perpendicularly to its edge […] (from 1787, by the way)
(4c) Three substances contribute to a leaf’s color

Summary: In the case of inanimate possessors using ‘s, there’s historical usage of such phrases, there’re modern attestations, there’re idioms with it. There simply isn’t any evidence that there is or ever was a rule of English saying that inanimate objects cannot take an ‘s possessive.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

Okay, it’s been a while, but at last here’s the second half from the earlier post about the use of that as a human-referring relative pronoun (HRRP). The issue before us is determining whether it’s all right to say something like:

(1) Everyone that knows me likes me

The point of contention is not whether this is too egotistical to be said, but rather whether the relative pronoun that is too demeaning to the humans composing everyone.  Are we required to revise (1) to

(1′) Everyone who knows me likes me ?

In the last post, historical usage revealed that it was historically common to use that as a relative pronoun with people.  (In fact, who wasn’t even a relative pronoun until the 15th century.)  However, history also showed that the behavior of relative pronouns is constantly changing.  So the question is a bit different in this post; we need to know whether the “people need who” rule is valid now, even if it wasn’t valid before.  And with that, we turn to the great repository of language that the world has ever known: the Internet.  I ran some quick Google searches, and here’re the results:*

X = who X = that X = whom
The people X I know 1700 438000 5990
The people X I saw 172 738 64
The man X I know 63 43400 43
The man X I saw 241 19600 18800
The people X know me 93700 36300 18
The people X saw me 2010 63 2

(The man X knows/saw me is omitted because of insufficient attestations.)  The high-level summary is that sometimes who is preferred to that, and sometimes it’s the other way around. On occasion, whom asserts itself as well, although it’s never the most popular form.  Okay, that’s great!  Now we know that that is an acceptable HRRP, just as it has been throughout history (see previous post).  So, prescriptivists, would you mind terribly dropping the claim that who is for people and that is not?  Much obliged.

But what’s more interesting is that there is a clear pattern to the usages. Note that that is most common when the relative clause contains a subject (I) but no object, and least common when the relative clause contains an object (me) but no subject. Who runs the other way, appearing mostly with the know/saw me clauses. If you’ll permit a bit of terminology, this shows people prefer that in Object-Extracted Relative Clauses (ORCs) and prefer who in Subject-Extracted Relative Clauses (SRCs).

(A relative clause can be thought of as a sentence turned inside out; one noun phrase is moved from its position inside the sentence to a position of prominence before everything else. If the subject is extracted, you get something like The man ate the fish -> The man that ___ ate the fish. If the object is extracted, you get something like The man ate the fish -> The fish that the man ate ___. The former is an SRC, and the latter is an ORC.)

This same result, the SRC-ORC distinction, pops up for different verbs (I tested pass as well) and different pronouns (they know/know them worked too). (Unfortunately, I couldn’t test to see if longer NPs in the relative clauses worked the same due to the limitations of online searches, but I’m willing to bet that the same is true for non-pronominal or long NPs.)

What we’re seeing here is that both who and that are acceptable as HRRPs, despite what prescriptivists say. But the interesting thing is that different contexts prefer one or the other.  I’ve got a conjecture about this: who is preferred in simpler contexts, and that in more complicated ones. In a psycholinguistic sense, it’s plausible that who is more complex than that, because that is the default relative pronoun. You have to check when you use who that you’re referring to a person (or other sentient being), but you don’t have to do that with that. When you’re working with a more cognitively taxing context, it’s costly to expend still more effort to use who than to settle for the default that.

There’s been a ton of psycholinguistic research that shows that ORCs are harder to produce and comprehend than SRCs are, so that might explain the differential deployment of who and that. I don’t know. But following on Florian Jaeger and Roger Levy’s work on that-omission being tied to processing and production difficulty, this strikes me as a potentially interesting conjecture. Of course, testing that would require corpus annotation, a controlled study, and all that jazz that I decided to take a break from after my comps paper. So it goes.

Summary: That is a perfectly fine relative pronoun, even for people. In fact, in many contexts, that is more common as a human-referring relative pronoun than who. (“The people that I know”, for instance, is more common than “the people who(m) I know”.) Interestingly, that seems to be more common for more difficult relative clauses.

*: Google uses heuristics to guess how many webpages use a string, so the estimated number of results shown on the first page is often inflated. By clicking a few pages of results down (I went to page 10), you get a substantially more accurate estimate. For instance, Google claimed there were “about 3,090” hits for the man whom I know at first, but when I attempted to access its tenth page of results, it recanted and claimed that there were actually only 43 results. WOW. So all of the numbers reported above are from the tenth, or last, page of results. Even then, these should be treated as highly variable estimates; a difference should be at least an order or two of magnitude before it is trusted.

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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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