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I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.

Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.

How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:

(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.

So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:

(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. [1659]

(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. [1722]
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? [1709]

But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.

So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:

The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”

Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.

Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.

But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.

Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…


*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.

**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.

**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.

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Gizmodo ran an article last week by Sam Biddle, titled “How the Hashtag is Ruining the English Language”. And, as I’ve begun to realize articles titled “How X is doing Y” tend to do, it forgets to explain how exactly the hashtag* is ruining English; at best, it presents a mildly convincing case that the hashtag has become an overused catchphrase.

So what’s wrong with hashtagging? It’s not that Biddle’s against categorizing tweets; he’s against a recent semantic expansion of hashtagging. Many people have taken to what I’m going to refer to as meta-hashtagging, where hashes are used not as category labels but rather as paralinguistic markers. Biddle doesn’t care for it, largely because he thinks that “the hashtag is conceptually out of bounds, being used by computer conformists without rules, sense, or intelligence”.

But is that the case? The use of the meta-hashtag is certainly noisy; some people use it incompetently, and others idiosyncratically. But if we look at the general usage patterns, I think there’s actually substantial structure to it. The primary usage of the meta-hashtag is to make meta-commentary — that is, commentary on what you’re saying, often from a slightly different point of view. This is not something new; Susan Orlean discussed it on the New Yorker‘s site in June 2010.

For instance, @ourboldhero is the guy that I really learned the meta-hashtag from, when he posted things like:

Scare quotes on Wikipedia may be my new favorite thing: Smelting involves more than just “melting the metal out of its ore” #ohwikipedia

Morning Dan knew that if he threw out the last of the toothpaste I’d have to go shopping at some point tonight, and buy him milk #wellplayed

In both of these cases, if I were reading them aloud, I’d say the hashtagged material in a different voice from the rest of it, complete with hand gestures and overwrought facial expressions. These hashtagged phrases can function like a narrator or, as @EllieTr neatly put it, a chorus in a Greek play. They can offer the author’s opinion on someone else’s writing, as in the first tweet, or a just change the point-of-view from the tweeter to a more neutral, narrator-like view, as in the second. (Also, note that these hashtags double as reasonable category labels.)

There are many different applications of the meta-hashtag. I can’t put together an entire ontology of meta-hashtagging, but let me talk about two additional prominent uses that show there is more going on than just a confederacy of dunces misusing the pound sign because they think it makes them cool. (This is going to overlap a bit with Language Log’s post on hashtags.)

One use is to indicate a general sense of the preceding material. Biddle does this in his opening paragraph: “Unfortunately, the hashtag is ruining talking. #NotGonnaLie”. This type of usage was probably the spawn of the meta-hashtag — it’s category-like in that it classifies the tweet, but it’s also adding information about the tweet itself.

Another common use I’ve seen is to indicate irony, as discussed at some length by Ben Zimmer. Biddle’s article targets #winning, the meme that took off as everyone chuckled as Charlie Sheen’s mental health flew apart in front of our eyes. Biddle objects:

“#Winning. It took off as the lowbrow badge of choice across Twitterdom, signifying success without showing it. You could say the saddest heap of shit, add #winning, and that seven letter thumbs up would make it OK.”

But the truth is that it isn’t serious. #Winning has never been the same as winning. No one thought Charlie Sheen was really winning when he said he was; he was falling apart. When people tweet that they’re #winning, it generally doesn’t seem to be for something honestly great. It’s used ironically, for something falling somewhere on the spectrum between mildly good and actually embarrassing:

Just bought 75 glow sticks for $5 #winning. New Years is gonna be awesome. It’s the #simple things in life that make me happy.
my dad is cooking ribs tonight!! #winning.
My longest trip for the past week has been from my bed to my couch #winning

There are a variety of other uses I’ve seen, from adding emphasis to suggesting a pause between sentences. As a result, I disagree with Biddle’s classification of the meta-hashtag as “without rules, sense, or intelligence”. There is a pattern to it, and one that is, I suspect, increasing its clarity rather than decreasing it.

Biddle is right that meta-hashtagging is often used incompetently — but the same could be said of humor, of rhetorical devices, of all of language. Do we ban analogies because many writers offer bad ones? No, we grit through the bad and wait for the good.

Meta-hashtagging has been and will continue to be used infelicitously. No question there. But it’s also used cleverly, and I find that the good uses outweigh the bad. Even if you don’t share my opinion that the meta-hashtag is an interesting addition to language, surely you can agree that it’s a serious underestimation of the strength of language to suppose it could be ruined by something so insignificant as the pound sign.

And on that point, I have to ask why Biddle thinks that the meta-hashtag is going ruin English. Here are the five reasons I found in his article:

  1. It’s used without an obvious pattern
  2. People could just use regular words
  3. It’s an inside joke amongst Twitter users
  4. It’s a “lazy reach for substance”
  5. Noam Chomsky doesn’t use it

I don’t agree with these points, especially the first. But suppose we take them at face value. How do these five points lead to the conclusion that meta-hashtagging is ruining English? They’re limited little things that can’t do anything to the rest of the language. In fact, I suspect that Biddle knows this and that he’s just going in for a bit of cheap hyperbole — the exact same sort of cheap hyperbole that he’s accusing the users of #winning of doing. As Biddle himself might have said,

“You could complain about the tiniest bit of English, add ‘it’s ruining the English language’, and that five word thumbs down would make it unacceptable.”


*: For readers who aren’t familiar with hashtagging, it’s when someone writes a word prefaced by a pound sign (e.g., #eating). Hashtags arose on Twitter as a way of classifying tweets. Suppose you want to see what everyone’s saying about something really cool, like, let’s say, grammar. If you just search for “grammar”, you’ll get false positives from “grammar school” and junk like that. But if someone put #grammar in the tweet, they’re saying “this tweet is about grammar”, so searching for #grammar drops the false positives substantially. Hashtags function as categories within Twitter, but it’s a very ephemeral category structure, since the tags are generated by users. If you haven’t before, try searching for something in its hashtagged and nonhashtagged forms before continuing.

Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook, has been generating a ton of buzz in its brief invitation-only phase. That’s about all I know about it; I’ve intentionally been avoiding investigating further. It doesn’t have FarmVille, so what’s the point? But I’m on Twitter too much to avoid Google+ entirely. I’d been getting 140-character updates about its importance or awesomeness from a variety of sources, but what finally got me to look into it was an update from an unexpected quarter: Ben Zimmer, with a tweet about the morphology of +1.

The +1 button on Google and Google+ is basically a generalization of Facebook’s “Like” button, indicating “what you like, agree with, or recommend on the web.” The trouble is that users are going to want to use +1 in more general contexts, treating the word* +1 as a stand-alone noun, verb, and so on. This already happened with Facebook’s Like, and there it was a pretty seamless process, since the new meaning of like could piggy-back on the morphology of the existing word like, resulting in likes, liked, liking, etc.

+1 doesn’t have this same ability, at least in text. Plus-one exists as a word in English, referring to “A person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited” (OED) — e.g., your date for an event. This word has its morphology basically worked out (plus-ones is used in the OED’s first attestation, back in 1977, and here’s an example of “plus-oned the alloys”, whatever that means). The trouble, though, is that the word isn’t written plus-one; it’s written +1. The pronounced forms are all worked out, but the written form is unestablished.

Credit is due to Google for recognizing this and wanting to establish the conventions. In their +1 help, they explain their spelling conventions, in which the morphologically complex forms are formed with apostrophes — +1’s, +1’d, +1’ing — rather than the plain forms +1s, +1d, +1ing. In so doing, they raised the hackles of some grammarians, so let’s look at each of the forms individually to try to explain the choice.

+1’s. Apostrophe-s is a standard way to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms, or abbreviations. This introduces ambiguity with the possessive form, but it avoids other ambiguities (such as pluralized a looking like the word as) and often looks better (I think Ph.D.s looks weird). Thus we see mind your p’s and q’s, multiple Ph.D.’s, and Rolling 7’s and 11’s. +1 ends in a numeral, so it’s not unusual to write it as +1’s instead of +1s, although either is acceptable. (For more on apostrophes in plurals, see this old post.)

+1’d. Apostrophe-d for the past tense is not as common as apostrophe-s for the plural, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Fowler’s Modern English Usage favors it for words ending in a fully pronounced vowel — forming mustachio’d instead of mustachioed, for example — in order to avoid a strange collocation of vowels clogging the end of the word. However, this appears to be a minority position; mustachioed generates about 35 times more Google hits than mustachio’d.

"Wait, lads! Am I being shanghaied or shanghai'd?"

Apostrophe-d used to be a more general suffix, up until around the middle of the 19th century (judging by the Corpus of Historical American English). In Middle English, the -ed suffix was always pronounced with the vowel, and in Early Modern English, the vowel was optional in some words where today it is obligatorily omitted. If you’ve ever heard someone described as learned, pronounced /learn-ED/ instead of /learnd/, you’ve seen one of the few remaining vestiges of this alternation. With variation, it was useful to have different written forms to indicate whether the vowel was pronounced or not.

I first learned of this reading a Shakespeare play in which certain words were written as, for instance, blessèd, with an accent indicating that the second e was to be pronounced so that the meter of teh line was correct. To clarify cases where the vowel was not to be pronounced, poets and playwrights would sometimes vanish the e into an apostrophe. This edition of Hamlet, for instance, includes both drowned and drown’d on the same page when different characters are talking about the death of Ophelia:

Queen: Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Clown: Argal, she drowned herself willingly.

But historical usage is dead, so perhaps the more relevant comparision is looking at other numerical verbs. The only one that’s coming to my mind is 86, meaning to eject or reject something. Looking around, I see both 86’d and 86ed used, with 86’d appearing to be a bit more common. The Wikipedia entry for 86 only has 86’d attested, and there’s also a book titled 86’d. At the very least, 86’d is an acceptable variant, and seemingly the more common as well. In that case, it’s not surprising that Google would choose +1’d over +1ed or +1d.

+1’ing. Lastly, we have the present participle. There isn’t a historical component to this usage like there was for the past tense. The apostrophe-ing form is attested for 86, appearing in the book Repeat Until Rich, but 86ing without the apostrophe looks to be a little bit more common on the web as a whole.** The trouble is that 86(‘)ing just isn’t well-attested in either form. Unlike the plural and past tense, there isn’t much of a precedent for apostrophe-ing, and in fact there doesn’t seem to be much of a precedent for the present participle of a numeral in general. I think that the choice to include the apostrophe in the present participle was made strictly for consistency’s sake; I doubt many people would prefer the paradigm +1’s, +1’d, +1ing to the more consistent one they chose.

The future. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what Google says, just as it doesn’t really matter what Strunk & White or Fowler or I or any other language commentator says. Language is what people do with it. Personally, I suspect that the apostrophes will disappear fairly quickly. Even in typing this, I kept on being annoyed that I had to send a finger out in search of an apostrophe. When you’re writing something often, you want to toss out unnecessary stuff — Facebook is a good example of this; when I first ended up on it back in 2004, you still had to type thefacebook.com to get to it, but that unnecessary the was quickly lost. As people become more familiar and comfortable with +1 and its inflected forms, the need (and the desire) for the apostrophes will ebb, and I think we’ll see +1s dominate. In fact, even typing +1 is kind of a pain (I keep accidentally typing +!), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see plus-ones, or even pluses, eventually become the standard.

*: I’m going to call +1 a word in this post, though you may find it more of a phrase. The key point is that it has a specific meaning that is not a simple sum of its component morphemes (plus and one), and that makes it word-like for my purposes.

**: 86’ing doesn’t appear in the Google N-grams corpus, suggesting it appeared less than 40 times in a trillion words. 86ing appears there with 962 hits.

I went to buy something the other day using a credit card, but I screwed up somehow and the machine ended up cancelling the transaction. It announced this to me in a message that persisted on the screen for an interminable twenty seconds as “The transaction has been canceled.” For those twenty seconds, all I could think about — aside from my lingering fear that perhaps my card had been disabled and now I was never going to be able to get whatever doubtlessly important object I was trying to buy — was that that message just didn’t look right to me.

I’ve always written the past tense of cancel with two L’s. It’s cancelled to me, cancelling as well. Because I’m not as familiar with the canceled spelling, it occasionally triggers a strange “can-sealed” pronunciation in my head. This is presumably because my brain follows one of those standard heuristics of English pronunciation, that a single vowel followed by a single consonant and an e means to make the first vowel long and silence the e. That’s what we have in such words as rile, smote, or gale. And it’s especially prominent to me since it’s in my first name (Gabe).

This pronunciation heuristic is generally followed in tense changes as well; the verb pan becomes panned in its past tense, with two n‘s, to maintain the short a sound. Without the double n, it’d be paned, which I’d pronounce, well, like paned (as in double-paned glass).

And yet I’ve noticed more and more over the years that my countrymen disagree with me. In error messages I see a single l, leaving me even more depressed about the error. The AP Stylebook disagrees with me too. But why? What caused Americans to move away from the general English spelling heuristic?

"Cancelled" written on a chalkboard

Ah, much better.

I didn’t know, but if there’s anyone who could shed light on this, it’s Ben Zimmer. He puts it at the foot of Noah Webster, the American Samuel Johnson. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American English, and consciously sought to distance American English from British English, which he saw as corrupted by the aristocracy. Because Webster was codifying American English as a dialect separate from the standards of British English, this gave him the ability to make the changes he saw as appropriate to the American forms.

One of the major changes he wanted made was spelling reform, and so in Webster’s first dictionary (1828, available in searchable form here), we see the beginning of many Anglo-American debates: colour appeared as color, centre was switched to center, and our target cancel was listed with past tense canceled, present progressive canceling, and noun form cancelation.* His idea here was to push for easier or more natural or more accurate (relative to pronunciation) spellings. The u doesn’t get pronounced in colour? Gone. Centre isn’t pronounced cent-ruh? Switch it. Cancelled doesn’t have a double-l sound? Smash ’em together.

Some of Webster’s revisions took over pretty quickly. A quick glance at Google N-grams shows color surging in AmEng in the 1830s, and surpassing colour by 1850. Center took longer, but still surpassed centre by the turn of the century.

But others, like canceled, stayed on the sidelines. Oh, canceled grew in popularity, but it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the two forms evened out, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that canceled finally asserted itself as the more common form.** Personally, I think that sluggishness is because this spelling change doesn’t make as much sense as the others. The second l may be silent, but it tells you not to change the stem vowel’s pronunciation, and thus it has something of a purpose.

Google N-Grams chart of the slow rise of "canceled"

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that Webster was primarily a descriptivist, compiling a dictionary wherein he was looking to accurately capture the American form of English. But he prescribed a new spelling for a large set of words, and now his changes, which for years were held in lower esteem, are becoming the thing that prescriptivists demand adherence to.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to simplify matters, Webster introduced new confusion. I don’t see how it’s easier to remember not to put in an extra l when all the similar words double their last letter. And worse, Webster’s changes didn’t fully take. Sure, canceled and canceling are doing fine, but cancelation never caught on. Thus the AP Stylebook (and many other usage guides) have the inflections of cancel as canceled, canceling, cancellation, which is needlessly complicated in my mind.

And so that’s the deal. In American English, single-l canceled is the common form, almost thrice as common as cancelled according to Google N-grams. There will probably be a day where the double-l form will look as old and affected as centre in American English, but that point isn’t here yet. Use whichever form you like more. Me? I like the across the board double-l forms. (Of course I do; I was born just before canceled surpassed cancelled.)


*: Webster also included the fun adjectival form cancelated, which I hope to incorporate into my speech in the future.

**: I hope the non-Americans in the audience will forgive my focus on American English. None of these Websterian changes have surpassed the original form in the British English portion of Google N-grams, and I don’t have enough personal experience in non-American Englishes to say anything more than these numbers do.

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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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