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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.

To a linguist, there is an obvious difference between verbal and oral: only the first word can be used to mean “pertaining to a verb”. But for people who don’t talk about parts of speech so often, the more relevant question is whether verbal can refer to spoken language (as opposed to written language), or if it can only refer to the more general sense of all language:

(1a) The written warning is primarily the verbal warning put in writing […]
(1b) […] general verbal skills, such as verbal fluency, ability to understand and use verbal reasoning, and verbal knowledge.

Some people insist that verbal can’t be used as in (1a). Verbal is derived from the Latin verbum, meaning “word”, and that means that it only distinguishes things involving words from things not involving words. This is the usage in (1b), where verbal reasoning is implicitly differentiated from mathematical reasoning, or spatial reasoning, or any other form of reasoning that is not based in words. Clearly this is a valid usage of verbal.

And, while we’re at it, we can quickly agree that oral would be inappropriate for the usage in (1b). “Oral knowledge”, for instance, is specifically knowledge that is spoken aloud, and I really can’t see that being the intended meaning. I think we can also all agree that oral is definitely appropriate for the usage in (1a). So what we have a is 2×2 chart, with three of the values filled in:

using words spoken
verbal YES (1b) ? (1a)
oral NO (1b) YES (1a)

The only remaining question is whether verbal is allowable in that last cell, with the meaning “spoken”. And the answer is yes, and it has been almost since verbal‘s first appearance in English. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests verbal in 1483, but at that point it modifies people. William Caxton writes:

We be verbal, or ful of wordes, and desyre more the wordes than the thynges.”

The first attestation of verbal meaning “composed of words” comes between 50 and 100 years later, in either 1530 or 1589.* And the first attestation of verbal meaning “conveyed by speech” comes in 1617:

“The Chamber of the Pallace where verball appeales are decided […]”

This meaning has persisted. I looked at the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) for the most common nouns to follow verbal over the past 200 years. The two most common collocates were communication and expression, each with 43 hits. Unfortunately, looking at the contexts in which these were used, it’s hard for me to tell which meaning was intended. But the third most common collocate, message, appears 40 times, spread out over the past two centuries. And these are pretty unambiguously examples of the “spoken” meaning, because it’s rare that you’d need to distinguish message delivered in words from those that aren’t. For instance:

“His reply was this verbal message: ‘Wait — and trust in God!'” [1875]
“The verbal message is the key to the written one.” [1909]

I don’t have numbers on the relative usage of the two meanings of verbal, so I’m not going to try to say that one is more common than the other. But it is pretty clear that the “conveyed by speech” meaning is valid.

Does this acceptability mean that you should unquestioningly use it in this way? Not necessarily; there is a potentially significant ambiguity here, so it’s not the best choice in all situations. On occasion, it will matter whether verbal means “conveyed by speech” or “involving words”. If I write to a tutor and ask them to improve my verbal skills, it may be ambiguous as to whether I’m looking for instruction in public speaking or vocabulary building. That’s a trivial example, but in legal contexts, it’s probably better to refer to oral contracts, warnings, etc. than verbal ones, just to avoid the ambiguity.

In most cases, where this ambiguity is small or unimportant, you can and should use whichever feels better to you. You can freely swap between the two meanings in different contexts, as I do. A lot of the time, the context (especially what noun verbal is modifying) will clarify things. So in the end, our chart becomes:

using words spoken
verbal YES YES
oral NO YES

Summary: Verbal can refer either to anything delivered in words or something that is specifically spoken. This latter usage is sometimes condemned as modern sloppiness, but it’s been persistently attested for 400 years. The ambiguity is generally not sufficient to be problematic, so it’s only in cases where precision is paramount that the latter usage should be avoided.

*: The 1530 attestation is listed under this definition, but its usage seems to me identical to Caxton’s usage, modifying people. The 1589 attestation is unambiguously referring to language, referring to “verbale sermons”.

Let’s continue the S-Series by talking about beside and besides. I’ve heard a lot of people kick up a fuss over these two, but having thought through their usage, I’m rather surprised. I don’t think a lot of native English speakers really confuse the two forms anymore. The two used to be pretty interchangeable, like toward and towards, but beside generally ceded its non-literal meanings to besides sometime in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get good statistics on the prevalence of different meanings of a word, so I’m basing what I say here what the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and (to the least extent possible) my brain have to say on the matter. I’ve added corpus statistics where possible.

Next to: beside. The most literal meaning is also the primary meaning of beside in modern English. If you’re talking about physical positioning, you definitely want beside; the last attestation of physical-position besides in the OED is from 1440.

(1a) The purple couch beside the road
(1b) I am slightly concerned about the hungry tiger standing beside me.

Idiomatic nearness: beside the point. The “next to” meaning of beside is not limited to physical proximity; there are also idiomatic usages, the most prominent of which is beside the point. The alternative, besides the point, is rarely attested both historically and recently:

Adverb: besides. The OED reports that beside was once a standard adverb, but now it’s become obsolete in most of its adverbial usages and archaic in the rest. So use besides in sentences like:

(2a) Men? Sure, I’ve known lots of them. But I never found one I liked well enough to marry. Besides, I’ve always been busy with my work.
(2b) … lost her social position, job, and husband, and was broke besides. [MWDEU]

If you’re using it as sentence modifier, as in (2a), or as a clear adverb (i.e., without a noun following it (2b)), you probably want besides.

In addition to: besides. Now let’s return to prepositional usages. In modern English, the “in addition to” meaning almost always uses besides:

(3) There was no need to install additional software besides the game itself.

Beside used to be common in this usage, but it seems to have become rare in modern English (although I feel like it may be a common local variant in some places). I’ve found it only rarely in modern American writing, such as “Did Glenn mention anything beside the names I dropped?”, from COCA in 2002.

Other than: besides. A similar usage to the last one, again with besides as the primary modern form. Here I’m talking about using the word to mean something like “except”, as in:

(4a) Having been lost in the forest for days, I began to forget whether I’d ever eaten anything besides acorns.
(4b) Will Los Angeles ever be something besides a “suburban metropolis”?

Summary & caveat

So, in general, beside is used for literal and figurative nearness, and besides takes pretty much everything else (especially all other metaphorical usages).

That said, there is an important point here: each of the suggestions I’ve made above is still a bit fluid, since the distinct usages often didn’t start ossifying until the 19th century. Different usages and different people will vary on how much one form is preferred over the other. Adding an s in (1b) is straight out for me, but dropping the s in (3b) just sounds dialectal. And the further you go back in English, the more the usages will blend together.

Lastly, the promised caveat: it’s very hard to get clear data on the usage patterns of different senses of a word, so while I’m confident that these rules of thumb are accurate for my own idiolect, and fairly confident that they apply to standard American English, I’m not sure how well they reflect non-American Englishes. Use them at your peril.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” […] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad […]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[…] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ […]”

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.

*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

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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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