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“Poisonous—often confused with venomous—means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. Venomous means capable of injecting venom. A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.”

This is number six in Laura Hale Brockway’s list of “8 words that may not mean what you think they mean” on PR Daily. And it’s true that poisonous may not mean what you think it means, but this also implies that it may mean exactly what you think it means, and as it turns out, it does.

Though this was the first time I heard this complaint, it turns out to be mildly common. Paul Brians mentions it in his common errors — in fact, Brockway seems to have lifted half of her complaint from his. You can find a number of other online objectors, of course, but it’s uncommon in printed usage guides; of the seven within my reach at the moment, only Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right complains about poisonous.

Conveniently, my edition of Write it Right is Jan Freeman’s excellent centennial edition, which means that each of Bierce’s complaints is accompanied by her research into it. About this issue, she writes:

“As usual, Bierce would like to fence the overlapping words into separate pens. But while venomous does describe rattlesnakes and other animals that poison victims with a bite or sting, poisonous has always been a broader term. Samuel Johnson knew both words, but in his Dictionary (1755) he referred to ‘a poisonous serpent,’ ‘a poisonous insect,’ and ‘a poisonous reptile.'”

It’s not just Johnson, either. The Oxford English Dictionary cites The Indian Queen, a play by Robert Howard and John Dryden (he of “no final prepositions” fame), with “poisonous Vipers” in 1665. Google Books can supply you a vast array of hits for “poisonous snakes” from the 1800s, if you need convincing of the lineage. Here’s my favorite, as it’s very clearly talking about snakes with venomous bites; it’s written by someone studying the venom of the snakes, so this isn’t some casual imprecise usage but the considered usage of a professional; and it’s from 1839, so there’s no arguing that this is some sloppy modern usage.

In short, the two words do not have distinct meanings; rather, one has a subset of the other’s. This is common in English; I’ve previously written about jealousy/envy, verbal/oral, and compose/comprise, all of which display this to some degree.

In the case of venomous and poisonous, this oughtn’t to be surprising, as their stems have this same relationship. A venom is one kind of poison, and similarly, being venomous is one way that an animal can be poisonous. The biggest clue that we aren’t all wrong for using poisonous in place of venomous is that it’s very rare to see the opposite extension. When people talk about “venomous plants”, for instance, they’re usually talking about plants that literally do sting, like stinging nettles or the gympie gympie. If people are just stupid or underinformed, they ought to make their errors symmetrically; here, the supposed error really only goes one way. (I’d expect asymmetric errors if one were much rarer than the other, but venomous isn’t particularly rare.)

So poisonous and venomous overlap in general usage, and I’m having trouble seeing why anyone would expect or even want them to be separated. The only situation where it would potentially be worth having distinct definitions is if you’re regularly dealing with things that contain poisons delivered by different methods. But if that’s the goal, poisonous and venomous don’t supply enough categories. Having poisonous describing anything but venomous is just strange, given that it doesn’t make presumably critical distinctions between the poisoning methods of, say, tree frogs (touch) and pufferfish (ingestion).

Summary: Poisonous and venomous aren’t totally distinct. It’s fine to call a snake poisonous, even if it’s its venom that’s dangerous. But it’s rare (and generally incorrect) to call something with a non-venom poison venomous. This is how it has been for hundreds of years in English. Objections to the subset relationship between poisonous and venomous are pretty rare, and outside of specialized contexts, pretty unfounded.

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.

Prescriptivists are sometimes like kids. The thing about kids is that they’ll sometimes come up with a really clever argument for why something is the way it is, but they won’t think about its consequences. A kid might, for instance, claim that milk must be good for you because very fit people advertise for it. But then they won’t think of all the other things that are advertised by very fit people but that are unquestionably bad for you (e.g., fast food, pop, beer). Prescriptivists will often do the same thing: they’ll come up with a seemingly reasonable argument to back up the position they hold, but for the argument to be valid, you’d have to ignore some obvious counter-examples.

On that point, let’s look at the issue of gerundive subjects (which sounds much more exotic than it is). Remember that a gerund is a present participle of a verb (the -ing form) that is being treated like a noun:

(1) Swimming is one of my favorite activities
(2) I enjoy eating cakes

The issue of gerundive subjects comes up in a sentence like (3), where the question becomes whether me or my is the better choice:

(3) My roommates are rather concerned about me/my dancing

The representative I’ve chosen for the prescriptivist opinion on this is Patricia O’Conner, from her book Woe is I. (Other prescriptivists, such as James Kilpatrick, agree with her opinion, but she’s the one who’s at least given some justification for her stance.) O’Conner describes gerundive subjects as the “Gordian knot of possessive puzzles”, by which I figured she meant that the solution is to cut the sentences in half with a sword. But no! That’s not at all what she was getting at. O’Conner has a nice neat and tidy solution to this issue — not unlike Alexander the Great’s solution to the original Gordian knot. And, like Alexander’s solution, O’Conner’s solution ignores the essential subtleties of the problem.

O’Conner’s solution is to say that my (the genitive form) is always right, and me (the accusative form) is always wrong. She claims that while a gerund has certain trappings of a verb, it is actually a noun. This is based on the distributional properties: a gerund in a position like this can be easily replaced by things that are unambiguously nouns:

(4) My roommates are rather concerned about *me/my dance.

If the gerund is a noun, then it must take a genitive possessor, because that’s how nouns work. You can’t say me dance, so you can’t say me dancing. As I mentioned earlier, O’Conner’s not the only one to hold this opinion. James Kilpatrick, in his laundry list of complaints, agrees that gerunds are “nouns in drag” and thus require a genitive subject.

Boy, this would be a great, simple solution to a knotty problem, if only it ended up working. But of course it doesn’t, or else I wouldn’t be taking such a smug, self-satisfied tone in this post. So let’s look at the evidence that gerunds aren’t just plain nouns:

(5) My roommates are rather concerned about me dancing spastically.

Huh? What the devil is spastically doing there? That’s an adverb, it’s modifying dancing, and everyone knows that adverbs can’t modify nouns! You can’t replace dancing with dance in this sentence. (You might note that this sentence could be re-written with my spastic dancing, where dancing does behave like a noun, but all we’re trying to show here is that the gerund sometimes conducts itself in a manner unbecoming a noun.)

(6a) I enjoy eating/consumption.
(6b) I enjoy eating/*consumption cakes.

(6b) is another example where a noun can’t replace a gerund, even though it could in (6a). The problem here is that the verbiness of the gerund means it can take arguments (i.e., the direct object cakes), which a noun definitely can’t. Okay, so maybe it’s not that we users of English have been duped into thinking gerunds are verbs – maybe they really are verbs (or at least they have some characteristics of a verb). That’s one of the central points in Rob Malouf‘s thesis/book (which I think I mentioned earlier): gerunds aren’t verbs or nouns, they’re both. Malouf describes gerunds as mixed-category items, items that simultaneously display verbal and nominal properties, as in (7):

(7) His repeatedly visiting Mike angered me

The gerund here is modified by an adverb (one point in the verb column) and has a direct object (another point for verbdom), but is the subject of the sentence (one point in the noun column). So it’s painting with an overly broad brush to claim that the gerund is just a noun and that one must therefore use the genitive form (my dancing). And in fact there’s a number of situations where you oughtn’t to use the genitive form, such as:

(8) #My roommates are rather concerned about my dancing at their party tomorrow

Something about this sentence just seems wrong. Using my dancing seems to imply that the act of dancing has already occurred, since you’re referring to it as a noun, but the act has not yet happened, so that’s bad. Using me dancing instead makes it okay if this act of dancing has not yet occurred.

Okay, let’s review. Gerunds aren’t just nouns, they’re a mix of verbal and nominal properties; you can’t always replace a gerund with a non-gerundive noun; and sometimes you can’t use a genitive subject for a gerund. It looks like the prescriptivist position that only possessive subjects are allowed is a vast oversimplification of the state of the world.

Now we’re back at square one, with seemingly no insight about which form is correct, accusative [as in (5)] or genitive [as in (7)]. Except we have gotten one insight out of this – and it’s a big one. The answer is that both should be considered correct in most cases. To me, and I think to most people I’ve run this by, the difference in the two forms is that the genitive form (9a) seems to address the singing as a thing, while the accusative form (9b) addresses it as an event and focuses more on the person doing the singing. In most situations, this is a minor difference, so it’s okay to use either form. In some situations, like those in (8) or (9b), one form is a bit better than the other (at least to me), but these are surprisingly few and far between.

(9a) I object to his singing; he’s horribly off-key!
(9b) I object to him singing; this is my concert!

So my solution is as follows: use the genitive version (his singing) when you want to focus on what’s being done, and the accusative version (him singing) when you want to focus on the person doing it. If the focus doesn’t matter to you, then just pick whichever sounds better to you. If anyone objects, teach ’em a little bit about mixed categories for me.

[Full disclosure: in O’Conner’s defense, her prescription (always use the genitive) is followed by a sidebar in which she says “another complication is the kind of sentence that can go either way” (i.e., where the accusative form is also okay).  However, she doesn’t specify how to tell these sentences apart from the earlier sentences, which people think can go either way, but can’t (in O’Conner’s opinion).  So that’s not a terribly useful hedge.]

I don’t spend all that much time in the children’s section of the bookstore, so I guess I oughtn’t to be surprised that I never noticed this series of books. It’s called the “Words are Categorical” series, in which children are taught that words fall nicely and neatly into categories. Everything’s a verb, or a noun, or an adjective, or one of a few other parts of speech. These divisions are completely natural, and clearly distinguishable.

I disagree with all three of these claims, and I’m going to follow up the Preposterous Apostrophes series with a new series about the non-categoricality of parts of speech. This is by no means an uncontroversial or decided point, and in fact it happens to be my main line of current research. For instance, consider cleaning in The couch needs cleaning. Try to come up with a principled reason why this word is either clearly a verb or clearly a noun.

As it turns out, non-categoricality is rampant in language, and I’ll try to both justify this claim and explain its consequences in future posts.

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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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