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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 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.

I have something of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It came out in my later college years and was awesome and useful, helping me keep in touch with old friends scattered at other colleges, organize meetings, and find people with shared interests. (“Hello, ludicrously attractive girl. I note that you list ‘The O.C.’ as one of your interests. As luck would have it, I’ve recently obtained the first season on DVD, if you’d like to watch it in my room.”)

Since then, Facebook introduced a bunch of features that effectively ruined the experience for me, from a feature that allowed other people’s farm animals to wander into my profile to a feature that allowed random websites to access information about me through my friends. But I still have a profile on there — rarely updated — because sometimes I have to use Facebook to access invitations or other junk that my friends have posted.

One of many exciting invitations I've received.

Oh, really? I can't wait to find out how much you think I'm worth, guy-I-think-I-knew-in-high-school.

I’m not the only one with these complicated feelings toward Facebook, of course; people who regularly use the site have far stronger emotions about it. And a common one of these emotions is the need to complain loudly about Facebook’s every last grammaticality issue.

When I was still on Facebook a lot, I remember people complaining about the fact that when someone hadn’t specified their gender, the system would say things like “Lenny Dykstra has updated their profile picture,” instead of his or her or some more awkward construction. A little later, the verb “unfriend” led to a disproportionately large amount of venom directed at social sites for creating a word that, really, they didn’t create.*

Now there’s a new complaint. Facebook has a “Like” button, which you can click to indicate that you like something, like a group or product. For instance, I just found out through this wonderful system that a friend I knew in Seattle a few years ago likes dried cranberries. (Me too, OMG!) But introducing a “Like” button introduces with it a linguistic quandary. What should you call it if you decide to not like something anymore? What if, for instance, your were disappointed with Taylor Swift’s new album and no longer wish to pledge your allegiance to her?

Well, Facebook has an “Unlike” button that you can press to stop formally liking something. That makes a lot of sense, right? Much like you might untie your shoes, unbutton your shirt, or unwrap your birthday present.

But oh no! Not to the grammar police! One fellow — a Yalie, I’d like to note — writes:

Mark Zuckerberg, ‘unlike’ is not a verb. At all.

And someone started a Facebook group to address unlike, writing:

Not wishing to be a pedantic f*cktard, so correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not), but surely the opposite of ‘Like’ is ‘Dislike’. ‘Unlike’ is an entirely separate preposition, meaning ‘dissimilar to’.

And Scott McGrew, a tech reporter for NBC Bay Area, registered similar displeasure with the word:

Once you click “like,” the button changes to “unlike.” But Merriam-Webster says “unlike” is defined as “a marked by lack of resemblance.” […] What Facebook should have used if they were looking to please the proper grammar-conscious is “dislike.” We contacted Facebook to ask about this egregious attack on English, fully expecting them not to comment. Or in Facebook-ese “uncomment.”

Alas, grammar police, your sirens are misguided. First off, I know that there is an extant form of unlike that is not a verb. But English allows for the same word to have multiple meanings, usages, and sometimes even different etymologies. My favorite example of this is mean, which has 12 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, in four different parts of speech. Multiple meanings can be problematic when they lead to ambiguity, but verbal unlike won’t get confused with adverbial unlike.

Second, dislike isn’t appropriate for this situation (a point that some commenters made on the Facebook group’s wall and here). Both un- and dis- are prefixes that can be put onto verb to mean “to stop or reverse”, so either unlike or dislike could mean “to stop liking something”. But dislike already has a verbal meaning that would introduce ambiguity; stopping liking something is distinctly different from disliking it.** If you’re really being conscious of word meanings, as McGrew claims he’s trying to be, you’d surely not want to use dislike so cavalierly.

Third, unlike predates Facebook. The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for unlike as a verb meaning “to give up liking; to cease to like”, complete with an attestation from 1761:

My heart is not in a disposition to love… I cannot compel it to like and unlike, and like anew at pleasure.

So it’s settled. I will unlike the next person I see disliking unlike.

*: First, Facebook uses “remove from friends” instead of “unfriend” or “defriend”, and it was their users (i.e., us) who introduced these words. Second, unfriend already existed (although it was rarely used) before Facebook, as in this 1659 attestation from the OED: “I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.” In fact, there are around 4,000 hits for unfriended in Google Books before Facebook’s founding in 2004.

**: As a Michael Jackson fan said when asked about Justin Bieber: “I don’t like him, but I don’t dislike him.”

On the message board of a Facebook group complaining about Facebook’s use of “unlike” as a verb:

Free advice: if you’re saying that you’re in support of grammar because you refuse to use the neologism “unlike”, then you really oughtn’t to use “win” as a mass noun right beforehand. Also, gloating that 16 people joined a Facebook group is like gloating that you breathed 16 times today.

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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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