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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the bus stop where I catch the campus shuttle each morning, there are two benches, each of which usually has an ad on it. One of the benches has an ad right now that I find to be grammatically strange:

"Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home"

(If the picture doesn’t load or it’s too blurry, the ad reads “Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home”.)

When I first saw this ad, I’d only heard of short selling as something in finance, a way of profiting off of a stock or commodity that you expect will drop in value. You sell somebody something that you borrowed, and wait for its value to drop, then buy back the borrowed thing and return it to the person you borrowed it from. It’s a dangerous form of speculation, and the excitingly-named “naked short sell” maneuver has been banned in a number of countries. Short selling in finance, therefore, is not very popular in the public mind.

A short sale in real estate, on the other hand, is a rescue maneuver. It’s designed to allow a homeowner who can no longer afford a mortgage the opportunity to sell the house at market value, even if that is less than the remaining balance on the mortgage. I don’t entirely understand how this is so different from a regular house sale, since it usually still leaves the original homeowner on the hook for the amount of the mortgage above the sale price, but hey, that’s why I parlayed my degree in math into linguistics and not into finance. And the details are irrelevant to the present issue, which is: why did Gary Kent or his copywriters choose to treat short sale as a verb? Why not use short sell as the verb?

The decision struck me as especially strange since it goes against parallelism; not three words earlier in the sentence, the verb sell is used. It certainly seems like a conscious choice to have used short sale as the verb and not short sell. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon choice to make. Google says there’re around 1 million hits of the phrase “how to short sale”, and “short sale your house” gets another 3.6 million. Here’s something especially crazy: the corresponding versions of these phrases using short sell are substantially less common, getting only 150,000 and 26,000 hits, respectively. Short sale is actually a more common verb than short sell!

So it’s probably not a mere error, which means that the psycholinguist in me can come out and wonder why people behave in this grammatically strange way. Why would one prefer a backformation of a verb from its nominal form, short sale, to its “standard” verb form, short sell? I don’t know, but here are four possible explanations I’ve come up with for why people might do this.

Compounding. It might be that the addition of short to sale changes the morphological properties of sell. People go back and forth on whether compound or affixed nouns and verbs are morphologically opaque. You might have encountered this if you’ve ever had a debate with yourself as to whether the plural is passers-by (morphologically transparent) or passer-bys (morphologically opaque)? Or mongeese versus mongooses? Or what about the past tense of forgo? (Personally, I avoid forgo in the past tense because I think both forwent and forgoed sound crummy.) It’s not always clear whether a compound form should be opaque to morphological processes. One possible explanation, then, is that the copywriter thinks of short sale as an opaque compound, and they won’t go in and change the form of just one of the component words. That forces the use of a null morphological transformation to create the verb from the compound noun, rather than going into the compound and changing the component noun sale back into the verb sell.

Differentiation. I mentioned above that I only knew short selling from finance. I imagine many other people are more familiar with the finance meaning as well. The problem is that short selling in finance has a bad reputation; it is widely viewed as a contributor to the market crash of 1929 that set off the Great Depression as well as the crash that led to our current recession. A real estate short sale is designed to help a homeowner get out of the recession, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid making people recall the financial construction that threw them into their current predicament. Using a different verb form sets the two meanings apart a bit, perhaps reducing a seller’s discomfort with the transaction.

Idiomatic Avoidance. To “sell oneself short” is an idiom with a fairly negative connotation, meaning that you aren’t advertising your abilities properly, or you aren’t getting your money’s worth. To suggest that they would sell your house short, then, is something that no real estate agent would want. So the copywriter might have avoided “short sell” to avoid triggering “sell short” in people’s minds.

Recognition/SEO. One last possibility I’d consider is that the use of short sale is intended to ensure that the viewer of the ad will recognize what’s being talked about immediately. (The asterisks certainly suggest that the copywriter was trying to call attention to the short selling aspect of the ad.) This is especially important in the online world, where some browsers don’t perform stemming (looking for other morphological forms of a search term); if a searcher looks for “short sale”, some engines wouldn’t return an ad saying “sell or short sell your home”. The mild ungrammaticality is well worth the extra traffic, as any Search Engine Optimization consultant could tell you. And you would get extra traffic; Google Trends shows around 10 times as much traffic for “short sale” as for “short sell” over the last year and a half:

Google Trends Stats

What do you think? Do you have any other ideas, or maybe even inside information from a real estate office, on the use of verbal short sale? Information on why a short sale without debt forgiveness is different from a regular house sale would also be appreciated.

(By the way, this is also a good example of why I’m a descriptivist. Trying to figure out why people go against grammatical standards a lot more rewarding than just condemning them for it.)

I know it’s become common over these last few posts for me to discuss etymological fallacies, but that’s only because they’re so easy to disprove. They’re like a little vacation for me, a pathetic little vacation I take without moving from in front of my computer.

The current etymologically-motivated complaint I’ve grown tired of is the claim that you can’t say center around. This one’s fun because it involves geometry. (I must confess that I never actually took a geometry class. Instead, I took topology, which is sort of like geometry where the entire world is made of infinitely flexible rubber. This is why I can think of geometry as fun.)

Suppose you have a circle O. The circle gets its name from its center, O, so you might want to say that the circle O is centered at point O. But at the same time, the circle is located all around point O, so I can’t see anything unreasonable in saying that the circle is centered around point O either.

Other people, though, can. And they do. I especially like the exhortation of that last link:

“How can you center around anything? You cannot. You can center on or focus on something, but not around it. Think about it!”

So I started to think about it.  And try as I might, I couldn’t see how you could center on something. Take, for instance, that king of three-dimensional objects, the sphere.  Suppose the sphere X is on point O. Then the sphere X must be above point O, by the definition of on.  To have point O as its center, sphere X must extend equally in all directions from point O.  (More generally, point O must be the average of all points in object X.)  But it can only be the case that X is on O and X has O as its center if X is an impossibly droopy sphere; otherwise the center of X will have to be above O. Even if we move beyond spheres, it’s really only inverted bowl-type mathematical objects that could rest on their own centers. So really, isn’t center on illogical, too? Oughtn’t it to be center at?*

Please tell me you’re thinking that this discussion is really stupid.  It is, isn’t it? After all, if geometric logic really determined the proper choice of preposition in an idiomatic construction, we’d all be saying that this debate centers at a contentious point. And of course, we don’t. The Google n-gram corpus has 4858 examples of “debate centers on” and 1763 of “debate centers around”, but does not have a single attestation of “debate centers at” in a trillion words. Language isn’t geometry, and there is no reason to try to make it so. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) puts it, “[…] questionable or sound, logic is simply not the point. Center around is a standard idiom […]”

So let’s stop dismissing center around out-of-hand for “logical” reasons and look at it dispassionately. How standard of an idiom is it? Well, it’s a fairly old construction; the OED first attests it in 1868 in Edward Freeman‘s solidly scholarly The History of the Norman Conquest:

(1) “It is around the King..that the main storm of battle is made to centre.”

Google Books has some even older attestations:

(2a) “Clouds of deep crimson centered around him, and one would think, by the glory of his parting, he was loath to deprive the earth of her light […]” [1824]
(2b) “[…] I occasionally acted as chaperon to Miss Jameson, but as my hopes centered more trustfully around one object, my taste for general society diminished […]” [1840]
(2c) “His thoughts returned to Miss Percival; his hopes again centered around her.” [1840]

Is center on any older? Not much. The OED’s first attestation of center on comes from 1789, but this usage is based on the obsolete definition “to converge on”. If we don’t accept that example because of the (subtle) difference in meaning, the next attestation is in 1867. That puts it contemporaneous with the first attestation of center around. Google Books has some older attestations, although they might fit better with the “converge on” meaning:

(3a) “Our hope centered on God in Christ, and our hearts ready to leave the world.” [1775]
(3b) “Had it centered on a monarch, it would have given the means of a vigorous and healthy government; but it never centered on a monarch.” [1834]

MWDEU notes that up through the 19th century, in was the primary idiomatic preposition used with center, alongside a smattering of on, upon, and around. More recent usage has shifted these proportions, with on and around taking precedence in American English and round frequent in British English. (in has really fallen by the wayside.) And between the emergence of center around and grammarians’ first complaints about it in the 1920s, no one seems to have thought it illogical. I guess they just weren’t as good at geometry back then.

Summary: There’s nothing illogical about center around, at least nothing inconsistent with the logic of language. (And center on isn’t a paragon of logic itself.) Regardless of the question of logic, center around has been around for 150 years, and there’s no reason to ditch it now.

*: And while we’re at it, why are prescriptivists willing to accept center as a verb in the first place? Don’t they know the verb center comes from the noun center? I thought they hated all the bastard verbs that come from nouns, like access.

I am not the sort of person who receives an inordinate number of invitations, likely due in no small part to my propensity to swing conversational topics away from things like popular movies or good books and over to the specifics of the language by which one talks about such things. As such, it is not in the cards for me to be picky about the tenor of an invitation. I never understood the people who refuse to go to a party because they were invited at the last minute. My response is always, “I’ll be ready in three minutes, thanks thanks thanks.” This may be because I was — and this may surprise some of you — not one of the popular kids in high school.

Okay, actually, I’m lying. In truth, I am picky about the invitations I accept, just because many of the things that my friends enjoy doing hold no inducement for me. Bars, dancing, sunny day beach trips, all not my cup of tea. Unless there’s cheap food or a thrift store involved, I’m out. But when I reject an invitation, I always have a valid reason: it sounds boring. Some other people do not; instead they complain about the fact that they have not been given an invitation, but rather an invite. This is because those people assume invite is either just a recent truncation of the full and more proper invitation, or the recent co-opting of the verb invite into a noun. In either case, it’s unacceptable. As Eric Partridge writes in Usage and Abusage:

invite for (an) invitation is incorrect and ill-bred and far too common”

A sharp dismissal. Except, wait, what the hell does it mean for a word to be “ill-bred”? The only meaning I can come up with is that the word was formed through improper means. But that’s patently false, as nominal invite comes from verbal invite by the same means as some uncontroversial nouns like command and request, both of which started life as verbs according to the MWDEU. In fact, this method (zero-affixation) of forming nouns from verbs used to be quite commonplace.  Arnold Zwicky has found that nominal request took the place of nominal ask, which first showed up a millennium ago.  Adam Albright found the following words in the OED as nouns:

adorn, disturb, arrive, destroy, relate, pray, recede, announce, ask, think, amaze, depart, reduce, produce, maintain, retain, detain, deploy, retire, acquit, greet, defend, divulge, startle, entertain, vanish

The attestations of these are all in the past; it’s likely few people would consider all (or even many) of these valid nouns nowadays. But I think it gives some evidence that invite isn’t ill-bred; it’s attested back to the 1600s in the OED, and it was formed by what used to be a pretty productive rule. So it’s not incorrect, it’s not ill-bred, and since neither of the first two hold, there’s no reason to complain about its commonness.  Sorry Eric Partridge, but zero-for-three.

Now, there does seem to be some truth to the claim that invite is less formal than invitation; the MWDEU’s historical examples of nominal invite are often from the mouths of lower-class characters or light writing. But being informal is not the same as being bad grammar, no matter how badly the prescriptivists want that to be the case.

Summary: Nominal invite, as in I got an invite, isn’t a recent piece of bad grammar. It’s been attested since the 17th century and it came from a previously common grammatical rule. At worst, it’s informal. I’d use invitation if you don’t feel like a fight, but when you’re in a bad mood, use nominal invite and tear into anyone who dares object.

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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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