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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]

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.

I hate when someone starts a monologue by needlessly invoking a dictionary definition for some word. Few openings can ruin a graduation speech faster than “Webster’s defines ‘scholarship’ as …”. (Even the Yahoo! Answers community knows this.) For most common words, the dictionary definition is just a simplified, neutered form of the rich definition that native speakers have in their heads. There’s no need to tell me less about a word than I already know.

Unfortunately, I simply can’t come up with another way to start today’s post. I recently ran across this analysis of can’t help but, an idiom that (if you can believe it) the author finds illogical:

“Try to avoid the can’t help but construction. While it has been around for a while, most grammarians agree that it’s not the most logical construction. It’s considered to be a confused mix of the expressions can but and can’t help.”

Before we try to “logically” analyze idioms, let’s reflect for a moment what an idiom is. Here it comes — The Oxford English Dictionary defines an idiom (in its third noun sense) as:

A form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.”

I’ve bolded that last bit because that’s the key point: an idiom is an idiom when its meaning is well-known among users of the language but does not come from strict interpretations of the words themselves. If you say someone has idiomatically kicked the bucket, there’s no bucket, there’s no kicking motion, and it actually means they died. Logical analysis of kick the bucket won’t get you anywhere near the actual meaning.

With that in mind, let’s look at can’t help but. Surely, most fluent English speakers — including those who disparage it as “illogical” — know what it means. If that meaning can be deduced from the words and syntax of the construction, then hooray, it’s fine, because it’s grammatical. If that meaning cannot be deduced from the words and syntax of the construction, then hooray, it’s still fine, because it fits exactly the definition of an idiom. It doesn’t matter if the meaning is deducible or “logical”, whatever that means. (For some thoughts on why I put “logical” in quotation marks when talking of grammatical logic, see Emily Morgan’s post on the logic of language.)

You might think that I’ve done some rhetorical sleight-of-hand in the last paragraph by saying that can’t help but either makes sense or is an idiom. What if it isn’t an idiom, but just an illogical corruption of can help but? I’ve got two thoughts on that.

The first is a simple matter of history. The OED records the use of can’t help but starting in 1894, but I’m finding it in Google Books further back than that. Here are examples from 1852 [Uncle Tom’s Cabin], 1834, and 1823. Similar investigation antedates can help but around the same time, 1842 and 1834. There’s no clear evidence that one form predates the other, so there’s no evidence that cannot help but is a corruption of the correct form.

The second point is that the supposedly logical alternatives can help but and can’t help make no more sense than cannot help but. I don’t understand the above claim that can’t help but is “not the most logical construction”. Maybe it isn’t; I’ll grant that it’s not as immediately interpretable as “I am walking” or something. But if can’t help but isn’t logical, why are the alternatives can help but and can’t help logical? What meaning is there for help that makes can’t help eating the cake mean “can’t stop myself from eating”? Whatever it is, it’s strictly idiomatic; you couldn’t, for example, write “I am helping eat the cake” with the meaning “I’m stopping myself from eating the cake”. In fact, it means exactly the opposite!*

For confirmation, I checked in the OED, and this meaning occurs only in these idioms. So can help but and can’t help aren’t “logical” either; they’re the result of people applying idiomatic knowledge to the interpretation of the construction. As soon as you expect help to mean something other than its standard aid-related usages, you’re going idiomatic, and logic pretty much goes out the window.

This is a long way of arguing that can help but and can’t help but are both grammatically reasonable. Shouldn’t we decide on one form over the other? Well, no. I know that prescriptivists love doing that, but it’s not the way language really works. The fact of the matter is that both are common, and in the opinion of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, both are standard.

But if that still won’t placate you, if you simply must be told which one is better, the perhaps surprising answer is that it’s the “illogical” can’t help but. The Corpus of Historical American English has 243 examples of can not help but to a mere 6 of can help but, and Google N-grams shows cannot help but dominating since 1840. (And personally, can help but doesn’t exist in my idiolect.) If you want to write the more common form, go with can’t help but. If can help but seems better to you, go with that.

Summary: Can’t help but is a perfectly standard idiom, meaning “can’t stop myself from”. It’s also the more common choice, historically and contemporarily, over can help but, even though both options are grammatical and standard in English. (Can’t help Xing is fine too, of course.)

*: Furthermore, doesn’t can’t help Xing have the potential to be even more confusing than can’t help but? If I say “I can’t help putting together your bike today”, am I saying that I can’t do it or I can’t stop myself from doing it?

I saw this interesting headline on Google News recently: “DEA seeks Ebonics experts to help with cases“. And since an old friend and recent commenter had put African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics (I’ll just call it AAVE) in my mind, the story came at just the right time to convince me to click on it. (I was also motivated by that slight twinge of a fleeting thought that perhaps I could pass as an expert, since I am familiar with variation in American English, before I remembered that I don’t know anything about AAVE.)

The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:

“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”‘”*

More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:

(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.

The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.

But I’m not pointing this story out solely because it’s interesting or because I think the tense system of AAVE is kind of beautiful. I’m pointing it out because there is idiocy afoot, as always seems to happen when AAVE is discussed.

Back in 1996, the Oakland (Calif.) school board passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics/AAVE as a language. It was to be treated similarly to other non-English languages for the purposes of instruction — i.e., students raised speaking AAVE instead of SAE could receive some of the same programs that other English as a Second Language students. Speaking as a linguist, this is a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, ignorance of the specifics, and imprecise wording on the resolution, the pretty good idea seemed like a horrible one to most people. Many people thought that children were going to be taught AAVE in place of SAE, which would have been a bad idea. Some thought the resolution stated that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to use AAVE over SAE.** And a lot were just appalled that AAVE could possibly be thought of something with any distinctive structure, since everyone knew it’s just defective English.*** But the key lesson here is that a good idea lost out because of widespread misinterpretation and a misguided protectionism for Standard English.

Returning to the DEA-looking-for-translators story, we see history repeating itself thanks to the lobbying group English First:

“Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.

‘Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,’ said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.

‘I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,’ he said. ‘I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.'”

None of what Hogan says here makes any sense if you actually are familiar with the DEA’s goals. His quotes are talking about something else entirely. How is it going in the wrong direction to find someone who can convert essentially coded communication into a form that can be entered as evidence? Does English First support drug dealers? Judging from Hogan’s response, yes. He wants drug dealers pursued if they’re using code words, but apparently not if they’re speaking another language or dialect. Excuse me for shouting, but as a lobbyist, THIS GUY GETS TO TALK TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES MORE EASILY THAN YOU DO.

I don’t know what sort of fantasy world Hogan lives in (probably one where he and not Hulk is the most famous Hogan in the world), but saying that a language is of questionable merit doesn’t make it go away. If it did, the USSR would have eliminated a lot of Central Asian languages as less important than Russian. Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it. Hogan’s pigheadedness would only hamstring the DEA. I don’t see how he doesn’t see that.

*: Yes, that’s six apostrophes there. The quote was four-levels nested, sot here are two single quotes and two double quotes. I do believe this is the most apostrophes I have ever used at once and I am kind of excited.

**: The culprit there was the phrase “genetically based”, which was interpreted as referring to people’s knowledge of a language when really it was referring to the relationship between languages.

***: I am embarrassed to say I fell into this camp, although that was because I had had no linguistic training yet and also was 13 and thus an idiot.

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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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