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To a linguist, there is an obvious difference between verbal and oral: only the first word can be used to mean “pertaining to a verb”. But for people who don’t talk about parts of speech so often, the more relevant question is whether verbal can refer to spoken language (as opposed to written language), or if it can only refer to the more general sense of all language:

(1a) The written warning is primarily the verbal warning put in writing […]
(1b) […] general verbal skills, such as verbal fluency, ability to understand and use verbal reasoning, and verbal knowledge.

Some people insist that verbal can’t be used as in (1a). Verbal is derived from the Latin verbum, meaning “word”, and that means that it only distinguishes things involving words from things not involving words. This is the usage in (1b), where verbal reasoning is implicitly differentiated from mathematical reasoning, or spatial reasoning, or any other form of reasoning that is not based in words. Clearly this is a valid usage of verbal.

And, while we’re at it, we can quickly agree that oral would be inappropriate for the usage in (1b). “Oral knowledge”, for instance, is specifically knowledge that is spoken aloud, and I really can’t see that being the intended meaning. I think we can also all agree that oral is definitely appropriate for the usage in (1a). So what we have a is 2×2 chart, with three of the values filled in:

using words spoken
verbal YES (1b) ? (1a)
oral NO (1b) YES (1a)

The only remaining question is whether verbal is allowable in that last cell, with the meaning “spoken”. And the answer is yes, and it has been almost since verbal‘s first appearance in English. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests verbal in 1483, but at that point it modifies people. William Caxton writes:

We be verbal, or ful of wordes, and desyre more the wordes than the thynges.”

The first attestation of verbal meaning “composed of words” comes between 50 and 100 years later, in either 1530 or 1589.* And the first attestation of verbal meaning “conveyed by speech” comes in 1617:

“The Chamber of the Pallace where verball appeales are decided […]”

This meaning has persisted. I looked at the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) for the most common nouns to follow verbal over the past 200 years. The two most common collocates were communication and expression, each with 43 hits. Unfortunately, looking at the contexts in which these were used, it’s hard for me to tell which meaning was intended. But the third most common collocate, message, appears 40 times, spread out over the past two centuries. And these are pretty unambiguously examples of the “spoken” meaning, because it’s rare that you’d need to distinguish message delivered in words from those that aren’t. For instance:

“His reply was this verbal message: ‘Wait — and trust in God!'” [1875]
“The verbal message is the key to the written one.” [1909]

I don’t have numbers on the relative usage of the two meanings of verbal, so I’m not going to try to say that one is more common than the other. But it is pretty clear that the “conveyed by speech” meaning is valid.

Does this acceptability mean that you should unquestioningly use it in this way? Not necessarily; there is a potentially significant ambiguity here, so it’s not the best choice in all situations. On occasion, it will matter whether verbal means “conveyed by speech” or “involving words”. If I write to a tutor and ask them to improve my verbal skills, it may be ambiguous as to whether I’m looking for instruction in public speaking or vocabulary building. That’s a trivial example, but in legal contexts, it’s probably better to refer to oral contracts, warnings, etc. than verbal ones, just to avoid the ambiguity.

In most cases, where this ambiguity is small or unimportant, you can and should use whichever feels better to you. You can freely swap between the two meanings in different contexts, as I do. A lot of the time, the context (especially what noun verbal is modifying) will clarify things. So in the end, our chart becomes:

using words spoken
verbal YES YES
oral NO YES

Summary: Verbal can refer either to anything delivered in words or something that is specifically spoken. This latter usage is sometimes condemned as modern sloppiness, but it’s been persistently attested for 400 years. The ambiguity is generally not sufficient to be problematic, so it’s only in cases where precision is paramount that the latter usage should be avoided.


*: The 1530 attestation is listed under this definition, but its usage seems to me identical to Caxton’s usage, modifying people. The 1589 attestation is unambiguously referring to language, referring to “verbale sermons”.

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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?

A couple of pieces of language news have come through the pipes lately. I only have a little bit to say about each of them, so I figured, why not combine them? (The answer, as any SEOer worth their salt could tell you, is that presenting them separately will drive additional traffic to the site. But you are worth far more to me than mere traffic stats, dear reader, and so I’ll present them together in a more efficient package.)

The first bit of news is that the AP has at last caved to the present and changed their stylebook to request email over e-mail. Some people made quite a bit of fuss over this, but it really doesn’t matter. The AP Stylebook no more determines the English language than any else does. The stylebook is reacting to modern English, not shaping it. John McIntyre and Arnold Zwicky and Jan Freeman have more on how much this doesn’t matter.

I'm very sorry to report that this sweet animated gif is now out-of-date around the AP offices.

The second bit of news is that the Oxford English Dictionary has a new update out, including revised “R” words, foods, Australian slang, and a couple of Internet initialisms: OMG and LOL. People also are freaking out over this. To clarify, the inclusion of LOL in the OED does not mean that it should be used in formal writing, it does not mean that the folks at the OED necessary like it, or anything more than that they believe it is a sufficiently common and important word in contemporary English that it should be recorded with its definition. No more, no less. They join other popular initialisms as BFF, IMHO, TMI, and everyone’s favorite, WTF. This was met with a wide range of misinterpretations on Twitter:




[The “some words are based on people’s opinions” line just keeps on making me laugh.]

The third bit of news is that the OED has added a new verbal sense (i.e., definition) to heart, meaning to love or be fond of. (This, by the way, is not the only verbal definition of heart; one definition, to embolden, dates back to 897 AD.) Contrary to what some have reported, it is not entered into the OED as <3, nor as ♥. It is simply a new sense for the five-letter word heart.

I repeat, as even some actual newspapers have claimed otherwise, that the symbol ♥ is not in the OED. Try, if you have a subscription to the OED, searching for ♥ online. You will find no such entry.

Furthermore, there are articles announcing that ♥ would be the first symbol in the OED, but that’s not right either. Under the heading C, one finds the symbol ©. So, no, ♥ is not in the OED, but even if it were, that wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Keep calm; English carries on.

This concludes the language news for today. Good night and good luck.

A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version (http://www.oed.com). And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

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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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