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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, May 10, 2013

Premises, premises...

A Wordlady reader has inquired about the use of "premise" to mean "location", instead of the plural "premises". 

It's odd that a word meaning "a starting point for reasoning" also means "a locality". 

This is how it evolved.  

In the Middle Ages, the word meant "the first statement in an argument" (from a Latin word meaning "set before"). Then medieval lawyers started to use it to refer to any foregoing statement in a legal document. In particular,  they used it for the opening statement in a deed or conveyance of property.  In such documents, the things mentioned right off the top were the lands, dwellings, and other buildings, and these were subsequently referred to in the document as "the premises".  Since such things were usually in the plural, or probably referred to in the plural by lawyers just to cover the eventuality that there might be more than one, the plural form took over. 

Gradually, the usage spread beyond the legal profession, and people began to think of "premises" as a synonym for "A house or building together with its grounds, outhouses,etc." [that's "outhouses" in the British sense of outbuildings!]. But there was still a plural notion about it.  Only gradually did the plural noun "premises" come to designate a singular entity like a building or a shop. 

But English just doesn't like plural nouns for things that are (or are perceived as) singular. Stamina and molasses were both originally plural nouns, but have now become singular (it's actually surprising that molasses didn't become molass in the process).  We don't even like singular things having names that sound like they're plural: singular skates, cherise, and pease became skate, cherry, and pea. Under the weight of this pressure, I think it is inevitable that plural "premises" will yield to the singular "premise".

In fact, if you do a Google search on "licensed premise" you find the term in many legal documents, from all over the English-speaking world. 

If this usage bothers you, my advice is: hie you to a licensed premise, drink up, and accept the inevitable.
  1. Complain about a licensed premise
    www.warwickdc.gov.uk › ... › Your CouncilOnline ServicesForms
    Use this form to complain about a Licensed Premise.

  2. www.tabc.state.tx.us/licensing/license_and_permit_description.asp
    Dec 20, 2012 – ... Permit or Wine and Beer Retailer's Permit if food service is the primary business being operated on the licensed premise or to the holder of a ...

  3. www.rld.state.nm.us/.../Special_Dispenser_Permits.aspx
    All laws that apply on a normal licensed premise apply at the location of the SDP or public celebration. For SDP Information Letter 1/7/13, click here. To obtain an ...

  4. www.personallicencescotland.com/scottish-certificate-for-licensed-pr...
    Licensed Premises Staff includes anyone serving alcohol form behind a bar, sales counter or directly to a table from a licensed premise or temporary event ...

  5. www.maine.gov/dps/liqr/regulations.html - United States
    Whoever is found in charge of a licensed premise or making service or waiting on trade in such licensed premise shall be prima facie construed to be a clerk, ...

  6. [PDF] 
    www.qhint.com/.../9-... - Australia
    File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - Quick View
    A customer can remain on a licensed premise when showing severe signs of intoxication if they promise not to drink any more alcohol. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Katherine. I may take you up on your suggestions for dealing with the singular premise.

    ReplyDelete

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.