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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.

I picked up an old paperback version of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage at a used bookstore some time ago. It was $3, and I was pretty sure someone I held in some esteem had recommended it to me. Now I believe only the first part of that sentence; I don’t suspect anyone would have recommended it. I’d thought the book was going to be somewhere between the good-if-somewhat-too-conservative Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the wonderfully accurate Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). Instead, it’s largely a series of unsupported statements from Partridge that this or that is unacceptable and dismissals of certain usages out of hand.

That’s par for the course with prescriptivists. Sometimes Partridge goes one step further and tries to cite evidence, although this often devolves into a contradiction. Case in point: alright. My take on alright is that, well, it’s perfectly all right. (MWDEU feels the same.) The word has been around for 100 years now, it has a different meaning and intonation pattern than all right for many (most?) people, and it follows by analogy from altogether, although, already, and almost. Partridge does not agree. His entry on alright starts off with

alright is an incorrect spelling of all right and an illogical form thereof.”

Now, Partridge was writing in the 1940s, and at that point the form alright had less of a pedigree, so it’s not fair to judge him through 21st-century eyes. Thus, I’m not going to argue the claim that, at that point, alright was an incorrect variant spelling of all right, although I do believe he is wrong about that. Instead, let’s look at his claim of that alright is “illogical”. Six of the seven paragraphs of Partridge’s entry on alright are from a 1938 letter to The Observer, which Partridge quotes without stating what it is intended to show. The letter is informative in a way that Partridge’s opinions are not, discussing the process of single words being formed from multiple words, and actually bothering to justify (some of) its positions. Let me reproduce just the concluding paragraph of the letter; the rest of the letter gives the evidence for the opinion the writer holds:

“I have personally no doubt that there is a single word alright, with a somewhat fluid meaning, but distinct from that of all right. This word, however, is a colloquialism, very convenient in everyday intercourse but of no importance whatever in literary composition. I find that I use it regularly in ordinary conversation, but never have occasion to write it except in familiar correspondence. When I do write it, I spell it as two words!”

Of course, I’d dispute the claim that alright is of no literary importance, and I don’t understand why the author would write it as two words, given the lengths he goes to in the letter to establish that it is a single word, but those are just quibbles. The key point here is that Partridge asserts that alright is illogical, then quotes, without comment, a six-paragraph letter establishing that, actually, alright is a perfectly logical word. There’s even a point in the letter in which the author says “Obviously, if alright represents a compound word which actually exists, it has a certain justification.” (That justification having been given just before.) Partridge could as well have said “The Sun revolves around the Earth” and then cited Copernicus. Sure, Partridge might have an argument somewhere up his sleeve that alright really is illogical, but he omits that argument and instead delivers its exact antithesis. That, I believe, is an example of an illogical formulation. Alright is not.

It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if prescriptivists believe that illogical is a generic adjective meaning “bad for some unspecifiable reason”, much in the same way that they complain about us kids using cool or nice as a generic adjective for something pleasant. Given the prescriptivist penchant for insisting that words must have very clearly defined meanings and their obsession with precision in language, it just seems weird how cavalierly they toss illogical about.

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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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