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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.

If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.


*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

If you believe the grammar doomsayers, the English subjunctive is dying out. But if this is the end of the grammatical world, I feel fine — and I say that even though I often mark the subjunctive myself.

The most talked about use of the subjunctive is in counterfactuals:

(1) Even if I were available, I’d still skip his party.

For many people, marking the subjunctive here is not required; either they never mark it, using the past indicative form was instead, or they (like me) sometimes mark it with were, and sometimes leave it unmarked with was. For this latter group, the choice often depends on the formality of the setting. I’m calling this “not marking” the subjunctive, rather than “not using” it, because it seems less like people making a choice between two moods for the verb and more like a choice between two orthographic/phonemic forms for it.

It’s similar to the alternation for many people (incl. me) of marking or not marking who(m) in the accusative case, discussed by Arnold Zwicky here and here, and Stan Carey here. That said, I believe that (at least some) people who never use were in (1) do not have a grammatical rule saying that counterfactuals trigger the past subjunctive, and I’m not worried about that either.

[Gee! I Wish I Were a Man!]

For being such a foolish war, World War I did generate some artistic propaganda.

This blitheness about the subjunctive does not go unmourned. I recently found myself being Twitter-followed by someone whose account just corrects people who fail to use the subjunctive in sentences like (1).* And Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, annually rants about people failing to mark the subjunctive. Consider one of Corbett’s calls to man the ramparts, which he begins by quoting, in its entirety, a 90-year-old letter complaining that the subjunctive must be saved from impending destruction.** Corbett continues:

“[…] despite my repeated efforts to rally support for [the subjunctive] the crisis has only grown. For those few still unaware of the stakes, here is a reminder from The Times’s stylebook”

What are the stakes? What would we lose without the subjunctive? Corbett cites sentences such as these:

The mayor wishes the commissioner were retiring this year.
If the commissioner were rich, she could retire.
If the bill were going to pass, Secretary Kuzu would know by now.

If these were the stakes, I’d ditch the subjunctive. Corbett points out that in each of these we’re referring to a counterfactual condition, which should trigger the subjunctive. But note that using the indicative/unmarked was doesn’t make that any less clear. There is nothing to be gained from using the subjunctive in these cases but a sense of superiority and formality. (Not that I’m against either of those.)

But here’s the weird thing: all this defense of the subjunctive, all these worries — they’re all only about the past subjunctive. And the past subjunctive is weird, because it’s only marked on be, and it’s just a matter of using were for singular as well as plural. For everyone worrying that this is some crucial distinction, please note these sentences where it is insouciantly the same as teh indicative form:

(2a) The mayor wishes the commissioners retired last year.
(2b) If the commissioner wanted to, she could retire.
(2c) If the bills were going to pass, Sec. Kuzu would know by now.

If anything, the loss of past subjunctive were strikes me as regularization of English, the loss of the last remaining vestige of what was once a regular and widespread marking system. Losing the past subjunctive makes English more sensible. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

And anyway, the subjunctive probably isn’t going to disappear, not even the past subjunctive. The past subjunctive is, to my knowledge, necessarily marked in Subject-Auxiliary Inversion constructions:

(3) Were/*Was I a betting man, I’d say the subjunctive survives.

A quick look at Google Books N-grams makes it look like were subjunctive marking has been relatively constant over the last 40 years in written American English, so maybe this is all just a tempest in a teacup.

Plus all of this worry about the subjunctive ignores that the present subjunctive is going strong.*** I’ve written about sentences where the present subjunctive changes the meaning (though I wrote with a dimmer view of the subjunctive’s long-term prospects), and Mike Pope supplied an excellent example:

(4a) I insist that he be there.
(4b) I insist that he is there.

In cases where marking the subjunctive is important, it’s sticking around. In cases where it isn’t important, and the subjunctive follows a strange paradigm, identical to the indicative for all but one verb, it may be disappearing. This is no crisis.

Summary: People who write “if I was” instead of “if I were” aren’t necessarily pallbearers of the English subjunctive. It may be regularization of the last remaining irregular part of the past subjunctive, with the present subjunctive remaining unscathed. And if the past subjunctive disappears, there will be, as far as I can tell, no loss to English. Go ahead and use it if you want (I often do), but to worry that other people aren’t is wrinkling your brow for nothing.


*: I do respect the tweeter’s restraint in seemingly only correcting people who’re already talking about grammar.

**: That this destruction has been impending for 90 years has somehow not convinced the ranters that their panic may be misplaced. Also, Corbett keeps titling his posts “Subjunctivitis”, which I think sounds great, but not in the same way he probably does. -itis usually means an unwelcome inflammation of the root word, and I can’t help but see all this as an unhelpful inflammation of passions over the subjunctive.

***: In fact, and I think this is pretty cool, (Master!) Jonathon Owen directed me to a classmate’s corpus work suggesting that for at least some verbs, marked subjunctive usage is increasing.

If someone were to lend me a time machine and ask me to go back and figure out exactly what first set me down my road to dedicated descriptivism, I would first ask them if perhaps there wasn’t a better use for this marvelous contraption. But if they persisted, the coordinates I’d start with would be my elementary school days. I suspect it was some time around then that I first asked for permission to do something and was met with one of the archetypal prescriptions.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”, I surely must have asked, and just as surely a teacher must have answered, “I don’t know, can you?”

The irritation that I felt at this correction was so severe that even though I can’t remember when this happened, nor who did it to me, I still can call to mind the way it made me seethe. It was clear to me that the pedant was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to explain it. So, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to settle a two-decade-old grudge, let’s look at whether it makes sense to correct this. I say that the answer is no — or at the very least, that one oughtn’t to correct it so snootily.

Let’s examine the “error” that the authority figure is correcting.  Can, we are told, addresses the ability to do something, whereas may addresses permission.  Mom said I can count to ten means that dear ol’ Mum believes in my ability to count to ten, although she may not want me to do so; Mom said I may count to ten means that Mum is allowing me to do so, although she need not believe that I am able to.*

At any given time, there are a lot of things that one is capable of doing (can do) and a lot of things that one is permitted to do (may do), and a few things that fall into both categories.  The prescriptivist idea is that there is a fairly clear distinction between the two categories, though, and so it is important to distinguish them.

Except, well, it’s not so important after all; can and may were tightly intertwined in early English, and were never fully separated.  The OED lists an obsolete usage [II.4a] of may as meaning “be able; can”.  This is first attested in Old English, and continues through to at least 1645.  Furthermore, may meaning “expressing objective possibility” [II.5] is attested from Old English to the present day (although it is noted as being rare now).  Examples of these are given in (1) and (2).  So we see that may does not always address the issue of permission, that may has encroached upon can‘s territory at times in the past and continues to do so to this day.

(1) No man may separate me from thee. [1582]
(2) Youth clubs may be found in all districts of the city. [1940]

As for can, there’s no historical evidence I found of it referring to permission in the distant past.  Back then, may was apparently the dominant one, stealing usages from can.  The OED gives a first citation for can meaning “to be allowed to” in 1879, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and does call the usage colloquial, at least on the British side of the pond.  But still, we’ve got it attested 130 years ago by a former Poet Laureate of the UK.  That’s a pretty good lineage for the permission usage.

Furthermore, I think (at least in contemporary American English) that the may I usage is old-fashioned to the point of sounding stilted or even affected outside of highly formal contexts. Just to back up my intuition, here’s the Google Books N-grams chart comparing May I go and Can I go:

can-may

You can see there’s a changeover in the mid-1960s, when the usage levels of May I finish plunging and Can I starts rocketing away. As you well know, this sort of fairly sudden change in relative frequency tends to generate a backlash against the newly-prominent form as a sign of linguistic apocalypse, so there’s no real surprise that people would loudly oppose permissive Can I. As always, the loud opposition to it is one of the surest signs that it’s passed a point of no return. By my youth, Can I was ensconced as the question of choice, and nowadays, I doubt many of our kids are getting being corrected on it — though it remains prominent enough in our zeitgeist to function as a set-up for a range of uninspired jokes.

So historically, what can we say of can and may and permission and ability? We’ve seen something of a historical switch. In the distant past, may could indicate either permission or ability, while can was restricted to ability. Over time, may‘s domain has receded, and can‘s has expanded. In modern usage, can has taken on permission senses as well as its existing ability senses. May, on the other hand, has become largely restricted to the permission sense, although there are some “possibility”-type usages that still touch on ability, especially when speaking of the future:

(3) We may see you at Breckenridge then.

The can expansion is a bit recent in historical terms, but that still means it’s been acceptable for over a hundred years — judging by the Tennyson citation — and commonplace for the last fifty or so. The recency explains the lingering resentment at permissive can, but it doesn’t justify it. Permissive can is here to stay, and there’s no reason to oppose it.**

*: Not to telegraph my argument, but even here I find Mom said I can count to sound more like a statement of permission than ability.

**: I have some thoughts on whether it’s really even possible to draw a clear line between permission and ability — in essence addressing the question of whether the smearing together of can and may is an accident or inevitability. I’ll try to put them together at some point & link to them, but given my history of failing to follow through with follow-up posts, I’m not going to leave it as only a possibility, not a promise.

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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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