You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘reader questions’ category.

Today I get to pretend to be a big-time radio DJ, a regular Casey Kasem or Delilah*, by sending out this post by request to Mike Pope, one of this blog’s earliest followers. (If you’ve got a similar simmering question, drop a line at motivatedgrammar at gmail dot com and I’ll try to look into it.) He suggested I look into the debate between all of a sudden and all of the sudden, and it turned out to be a pretty interesting topic.

To state the situation briefly, all of a sudden is the undisputed champion in contemporary English. Whether you’re looking at Google Books N-grams, Google N-grams, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), or the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), it’s a sudden by far. The gap between the two seems to widen as the formality and amount of editing increases. Google N-grams, composed of web data, has the smallest ratio between the two, while Google Books N-grams, composed of polished published works, has the largest:

Google: 12.5 a suddens per 1 the sudden
Google Books: ~50 a suddens per 1 the sudden

Part of this is that the sudden seems to be a recent option. It started blowing up on Google Books only since 1985, and doesn’t appear at all in COHA until the 90s. Furthermore, there isn’t any complaint about it in any of the grammar books on my bookshelf, so that suggests that it wasn’t much of a concern before 2000, when the most recent book I looked at was published. (Garner’s Modern American Usage mentions it in the 2003 edition.) But it is definitely a concern for Internet grammarians:

Urban Dictionary: “All of the sudden: A stupid variation for ‘all of a sudden’, which people who are stupid use.”

“All of the sudden” and “all the sudden” are not correct phrases. They are slang.

“All of a sudden” is the correct and only way to say it. “All of the sudden” is bad grammar and wrong. […] What’s ‘the sudden’? And what’s ‘all of’ it anyway? Sudden is an adjective. So, I use All of a sudden.

Of course, that last argument makes no sense; if the sudden is an ungrammatical usage of an adjective as a noun, there’s no reason why a sudden would be acceptable. Not that it matters; all of a/the sudden is an idiom and thus grammaticality becomes of secondary concern. If an idiom is acceptable, then it’s acceptable, whether or not the grammar predicts it would be.

So let’s set aside the specific insults for a moment and look at why the sudden is thus maligned. Some claim that all of the sudden is regional, and place it in various low-prestige localities. In this discussion, for instance, various commenters localize it to either Cajun Louisiana, the general Southern U.S., the Midwestern U.S., or northern England, all of which have little in common except for grammaticasters’ disdain for their Englishes as lazy and uneducated.

But I don’t see much evidence of localization in contemporary (American) English. The first two celebrities I found using the sudden were Matt Lauer and Michael Douglas, both born in the New York/New Jersey area. To test the claim a bit more fairly, I compiled a quick map of the 100 most recent American examples of all of a sudden and all of the sudden from Twitter. The red dots represent tweets containing the phrase, with darker dots indicating more tweets from that town.** Before you look at the caption, can you tell which map is which phrase?

[Twitter maps]

Maps of tweets containing all of a sudden (left) and all of the sudden (right).

I see no evidence here of regionality. That’s not to say that the sudden was never regional at any point in its history, but I think that right now the sudden is merely informal and/or non-standard, rather than regionalized.

Speaking of history, the interesting thing is that, even as we now say that the sudden is the new form, it was also the earlier form. The Oxford English Dictionary shows the sudden as the earliest — and now archaic — form, appearing in examples such as:

I thinke, that none can iustly account them selues Architectes, of the suddeyne. [1570]
I was‥compelled‥to answere of the sodaine vnto such articles. [1590]

Of course, the history doesn’t matter now, but I do love when a variant that’s now considered improper used to be the standard. Maybe in a couple hundred years, the two options will have switched again.

Summary: All of a sudden is the standard idiom in contemporary English. All of the sudden is a newer non-standard variant that does not appear to be geographically localized. Interestingly, the sudden is the original form if you go back to the 1500s.

*: I actually was a radio DJ for 25 minutes late one spring night in 2002 on WPRB 103.3 Princeton. Unable to find enough familiar songs in the station’s archives, I was forced to play a track from Spokane’s soporific album Leisure and Other Songs alongside the pounding metallic God Inside My Head by the Catherine Wheel. It was a daring juxtaposition that I hope was appreciated by the three or so people listening to college radio at 2 in the morning.

**: By the way, I’m putting this utility together on a website that I’m intending to launch next Wednesday, so you can do similar comparisons yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully. Good gravy, why are there so many misguided souls up in arms over this innocent little word? I received a comment about it recently:

You may be correct about the word “loan” Gabe, but your credibility is damaged by your incorrect use of the word “hopefully”.

The “incorrect” usage he mentions?

(1) Hopefully my phrasing of the question tipped you off that this was a trick.

Now, this commenter was obviously quite polite about it, but I’ve seen others who are quite different. They see a usage like (1), of hopefully as a sentential adverb meaning something between “I hope” and “With luck”, and then they start a tirade about how that’s not what hopefully means, about the sad state of grammar in our modern world, and on and on. This argument, as far as I can tell, runs as follows: hopefully started its life as an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and that’s how it was used up until the early 20th century, as in (2):

(2) […] in the late revival a number of persons were hopefully converted in Scituate […]

But then hopefully gained a related usage as the sentential adverb.  The OED first notes this usage in 1932, in a pretty high place: the New York Times Book Review. And, interestingly enough, this newer meaning has pretty well replaced the original meaning, so much so that many people my age (myself included) do not have the original meaning available in our lexicons. Which is why it struck me as a little strange when someone first insisted to me that hopefully couldn’t be used in the only way I naturally used it. I dismissed that claim as an eccentricity. But then another person said it, and another. I started to think that maybe there was something wrong with hopefully. Then still more people complained about it, in really stupid posts about hopefully, and I realized that there couldn’t be anything wrong with it.

I’ve only ever seen two coherent arguments against hopefully as a sentential adverb.  One is that hopefully is an adverb, and as we learned in elementary school, adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  A sentential adverb is asked to modify a sentence — instead of modifying the verb, it modifies the entire proposition — and that, we’re told, just isn’t done.  Except, of course, that it is.  Often, and uncontroversially:

(3a) Happily..they intended Neptune, or I know not what Devill. [1614, Purchas, cited in OED]
(3b) Luckily..our speculations are supported by facts. [1762, Kames, cited in OED]
(3c) Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [1939, Gone with the Wind]

Now let’s say that you want to be completely absurd and try to argue that these adverbs somehow are modifying the verbs intended, supported, and give.  (They’re not; don’t bother.)  Or maybe you’re going to claim that you don’t like those sentential adverbs either.  Whatever.  There are still lots more sentential adverbs that are absolutely unambiguous in what they modify and absolutely beyond reproach:

(4) Perhaps it was not me who broke the lamp.

That perhaps is an adverb is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s clear that perhaps in (4) modifies the whole proposition. (What would it even mean for perhaps to modify only the verb?)  So it’s not that sentential adverbs don’t exist, nor is it that they are considered uniformly bad in any variety of English I have ever encountered.  Clearly, (note the sentential adverb) this is not a valid argument against sentential adverb hopefully.

On to the second argument, then, which is that the original meaning of hopefully was “in a manner full of hope”, the meaning intended in (2).  But this is just as simple-minded an argument as the first.  Yes, from its first discovered usage around 1639, all the way up to sometime around 1900, this was the only meaning of hopefully.  And then it gained a new meaning.  I know, prescriptivists; that’s just another example of the fallacy of common usage.  So what if everyone uses hopefully wrong; if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?

But look, if you’re not willing to use a non-original meaning of a word, you’re going to have to excise a substantial portion of your vocabulary.  How much?  Well, glass, snack, and naturally for starters; they all started their lives with different meanings from those they are now uncontroversially allowed to have. A discussion of some words like these, and how their meanings have shifted — to show that hopefully isn’t the only one — will be the next post. Hopefully.

[Update 01/28/10: The follow-up post is now posted; check out how glass, of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.]

[Update 05/17/12: Fred Shapiro tracked sentential hopefully back even further, to Cotton Mather in 1702. More on this, plus the AP’s acceptance of it, in a new post.]

I love fortuitous coincidences. I’d been fretting all week because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Or rather, that I’d thought of around 15 things to write, and all of them turned out to be mind-meltingly dull when I wrote them. (And if there’s one thing we can’t let grammar become, it’s dull.) But then, thankfully, a comment came that I was compelled to answer. Regarding the previous post, about how Philadelphia Flyers fans use exclamation points where a Penguins fan would use a question mark, commenter Duncan asked:

Shouldn’t that be “Flyers’ fans” and “Penguins’ fan”?

My answer is no. But to the related question “Couldn’t that be…”, the answer is yes.  Let’s start by looking at the apostrophized version. Penguins’ fan is a noun phrase, with the possessive Penguins’ serving as a determiner. “Determiner” is basically a more general term for “article”, which is what they teach you in school that the and a(n) are. Determiners include articles, demonstratives (this, that, these, those), and possessives (my, your, Leon Czolgosz’s), among others. The general rule with determiners is the opposite of the Lay’s Potato Chips Rule: you can’t have more than one.

(1a) *I broke the her glass menagerie.
(1b) *I read the Grant’s paper.

Yet I have no problems with saying

(2a) I saw a Flyers fan engage in morally reprehensible actions.
(2b) Those Penguins fans just solved world hunger!

So it appears that Flyers and Penguins aren’t functioning as determiners in these situations. Instead, they’re the first half of the compound nouns Flyers/Penguins fan.  Each of these consists of two nouns that have been grouped together. In this respect, a Flyers fan is like a tennis shoe. Compound nouns are common in English for referring to something that is related to someone, but not possessed by them; there’re Gibson girls, the Marlboro Man, Bush backers, Obama supporters, and so on. Furthermore, this is the standard form of these phrases; “Marlboro’s Man” has 172 Google hits, compared to more than 900,000 for “Marlboro Man”; “Bush’s backers” has 3,600 to the 30,000 for “Bush backers”; and so on. So too with sports fans; 8 of the first 10 Google hits for “penguins fans” are without the apostrophe.

Further evidence of this is supplied by the acceptability of the phrase Penguin fan, which is well-attested (albeit more rarely than Penguins fan), and sounds perfectly normal to me. There, all the ambiguity disappears; it’s definitely a compound noun, not a possessed one.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use the apostrophe. Penguins’ fans can also be used as a whole noun phrase that gets its own determiner. This puts two determiners in a row, but that’s acceptable in some situations:

(3a) To reach the The Simpsons Ride, visitors walk through the mouth of an 8-foot-tall, 36-foot-wide Krusty head. [link]
(3b) But I wanted the Marie Callender’s pie. [link]

Basically, you can use two determiners if the second one has a really close association with the head noun. Then the determiner and head noun form a noun unto themselves (rather like a compound noun).  And I think you could argue that Penguins’ and fan have such an association pretty easily. In summary, both with and without an apostrophe are okay, but it seems without the apostrophe is preferred. Well, I prefer it, at least.

So where’s the fortuitous coincidence in all this? Because it dovetails nicely into a comment I’d wanted to make about another post. Anyone who read the Wall Street Journal Blog Watch article is familiar with GrammarBlog. They’re the good kind of prescriptivists, the kind that are complaining, by and large, about really egregious errors — ones that stand in the way of understanding what people are saying. For instance, one of the recent posts is about a sign at a fish ‘n chips shop declaring the special to be “Fish few, chips few, peas”. I still am not certain what this means, although I assume it’s that the special is fish with a few chips and peas. But with those commas where there are, it’s maddeningly unclear.

The reason that I bring up GrammarBlog is that I’ve been meaning to point out a post of theirs that is just great, and is all about this same issue: which is the best choice for National Singles/Single’s/Singles’ Day? This was one of those posts where I realized in the course of reading it that it was exactly what I thought, for exactly the same reasons, only I hadn’t realized it until then.

Summary: Penguins fans is a compound noun, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe. That doesn’t mean it can’t take an apostrophe, but it does seem to be dispreferred.

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

About The Blog

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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 981 other subscribers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: