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Oh, I love Thanksgiving! It’s such a silly holiday, where we kid ourselves that we’re counting our blessings when we’re really counting how many plates of food we can devour. It’s a day that proclaims that it’s awesome to get along with one another and to trust each other and to share, when the real message of the First Thanksgiving is that doing those things will only result in your land, livelihood, and lives being taken away from you. Wait, that’s not a good holiday at all! But I get to pardon my gluttony for one day, so it’s all right, I guess.

["The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe]

"And, God, please deliver unto me an Xbox 360 with a Kinect for less than $200 tomorrow at 4 a.m."

Anyway, let me tell you a little about my upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Suppose I confessed to you that I anticipate that the overall quality of the dinner will be high, despite the fact that I am in charge of preparing a not-insubstantial portion of the meal. Would I be correct in my confession? Specifically, I’m wondering if I’m justified in my use of the word anticipate, which I’ve used rather like expect.

To hear prescriptivists tell it, I wouldn’t be. They say that anticipate can be used only when the subject has prepared for the expected event. For instance, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd edition, 1965) insists that:

“The use of anticipate as a synonym for expect, though very common, is a slipshod extension. The element of forestall present in anticipate ought to have been preserved and is still respected by careful writers.”

Ambrose Bierce similarly asserts in Write It Right (1909, but I’m using Jan Freeman’s 2009 edition):

“To anticipate is to act on an expectation in a way to promote or forestall the event expected.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage finds this claim first made in 1881 by Alfred Ayers, who was something of a giant in the world of 19th century grammaticasters. Ayers justified his claim through Latin etymology, which is never a valid argument. And now a bunch of people parrot it.

Well, are they right and I wrong? Am I right and they wrong? Well, in the cheerful spirit of the forthcoming holiday, let’s say we’re both right. Some of the definitions of anticipate do have a substantial preparatory component. Among these are (I’m paraphrasing the OED’s definitions here) to spend income in advance, to deal with before another actor has a chance to, to forestall, to observe in advance of the due date, to cause to happen earlier, and to take into consideration before the appropriate time.

Now, most of these are fairly uncommon usages for anticipate in contemporary English. I’d wager that few people would now say “I’ve anticipated my wages after taking out the payday loan,” using the “spend income in advance” definition. Same with “I anticipated the fall of the Jenga tower by bumping into it,” using the “cause to happen earlier” meaning.* Of the preparatory definitions listed above, the two I see most commonly are “to forestall” and “to take into advance consideration”:

(1) I played with one new player who asked what dice to roll every time he was instructed to roll for initiative. After the fourteenth time, I anticipated his question and handed him a 20-sided die when combat started.

(2) He anticipated the question “What was the last movie you saw?” but not, “What was the most recent favorite movie you saw?” This interviewee was stumped.

This last definition of anticipate is already pretty close to that of expect. Because you expect something to happen, you consider it in advance. The question here — one noted by Jan Freeman in her discussion of Bierce’s opinion — is what counts as preparation or consideration. If you expect something to happen, you’re almost certainly going to prepare for it, even if only mentally. And in some cases preparing for an event involves a specific type of inaction. For instance, I expect that my friend who told me he was going to get me Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on DVD will follow through, so I have anticipated this action by not watching the movie. The line is blurry, and that’s a good thing.

Why? It gives us flexibility, at least in my idiolect. Using anticipate when there isn’t obvious preparation triggers an implicature that the anticipater has undergone some sort of mental preparation for the event, even if nothing more than psyching oneself up for it. The OED lists “to look forward to” as a definition of anticipate. Expect, on the other hand, is far more neutral in its view of future events. That’s why fans anticipate their favorite bands releasing a new song, in addition to expecting it. There’s also a related sense in the OED of anticipate meaning expect as certain.

And I think that’s the trick with anticipate. People don’t generally use anticipate as a mere synonym of expect. I see it as “expect-plus”, where the addition can be positive feeling, preparation, certainty, or a range of other things. The “slipshod extension” Fowler mentions is not anticipate as mere expect, but anticipate with a wider range of preparations.

I’ve one last sentence, from Jack Lynch, to offer if you remain worried about anticipate and expect fraternizing:

“William Blake certainly didn’t expect Modernist poetry, but in some ways he anticipated it by doing similar things a century earlier.”

The meaning of this sentence is obvious even to someone like me, for whom the primary meaning of anticipate is “expect-plus”.

*: Are there words for either of these meanings (“spend in advance” or “cause to happen earlier”) in contemporary English? If you know of any, let me know, because I want to use them.

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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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