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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 9, 2014

Whereabouts: singular or plural?

Hard though it may be to believe, Toronto's Bad Boy mayor Rob Ford is a constant inspiration to Wordlady. At least he keeps giving me ideas for posts. First there was the burning question, "How do you spell 'drunken stupor'?", then there was the question of just how "incontinent" he is, and finally, the interesting origins of the word "lewd". But Rob, with Wordlady as with so many things, keeps on keeping on.

Most recently the hot topic, since he abandoned his re-election campaign, purportedly to go into rehab, has been his whereabouts. So of course inquiring minds want to know: What's correct: "His whereabouts is unknown" or "His whereabouts are unknown"?

"Whereabouts" is an odd word, when you look at it. Most people probably think it's obvious that it's a plural noun; after all, it's got an s on the end. So clearly, "His whereabouts are unknown" is the only correct version. But in fact, that s isn't English's regular plural noun marker, it's actually an adverbial -s, left over from Anglo-Saxon. It turns up in other words, such as "always", and the much castigated "anyways", as well as "forwards" and the other -wards words.  So, when "whereabouts" was first used, in the 1400s, it was, like its cousins "thereabouts" and "hereabouts", an adverb: "Whereabouts art thou?" (which in fact meant "What are you up to?"). It was not until 300 years later that we started using it as a noun synonymous with "location". We haven't effected the same function shift with "thereabouts" and "hereabouts", interestingly.

For the first couple of hundred years after turning "whereabouts" into a noun, we treated it as either singular or plural, but by the 1970s, the force of that final -s exerted itself, and since then it is used much more frequently with a plural verb. Most dictionaries are somewhat weaselly on this point, saying something like "as sing. or pl.", which, though true, doesn't much help the user who wants to know which one to choose. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (wonder who supervised the production of that useful tome!) at least has a usage note to the effect that the plural is more common but the singular is not incorrect. I would venture to predict that within another 100 years or less, it will be used only in the plural. 

You may still come across some usage commentators who insist it has to be singular, but you can ignore them.

And let us all hope that we will never be in a situation where we need to talk about Rob Ford's "hereabouts"!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Lots about "a lot"

This picture, which has been circulating on Facebook, bugs me.


It bugs me a lot.

"Of course it does," you say.  "You're the Word Lady; it must drive you CRAAAAZY when people misspell 'a lot'."

But that's not what bugs me.

What bugs me is the condescending, judgemental, hectoring, "I'm smarter than you" attitude that it reflects. Especially because the people who spell "alot" are actually showing more intuitive sense for the language than the witty person who came up with the absolutely false comparison to "acantaloupe" and "aporkchop" in this image. Ha ha ha, aren't we all smart, we'd never write "acantaloupe"; only idiots would do that. 

But "a lot" is not like "a cantaloupe". "A cantaloupe" is two lexical units, the article and the noun. You can stick any number of adjectives (inexpensive, large, ripe, juicy, Ontario-grown, etc.) between the article and the noun. You can change the indefinite article to a definite one or a possessive adjective: "the cantaloupe", "get your hands off my cantaloupe!" or even not have an article at all: "I love cantaloupe".

You cannot do any of this with "a lot" because it is functioning most of the time as one lexical unit, not as an article and a noun, but as an adverb. 

"I like ballet a lot". 

You can't say "I like ballet the lot" or "I like ballet a huge/great/big lot", though you can say "I like ballet a whole lot" (don't ask me why you can say that, though I am happy to explain why I like ballet a whole lot!).

It's odd that we don't have a one-word adverb that we can use in a sentence like this. Theoretically, we should be able to say "I like ballet much", but we can't even do that idiomatically. We have to say "I like ballet very much", unless we use the jocular "muchly", which started out as quite a respectable adverb.

"A lot" in its adverbial use is fairly recent in English, dating from the mid-19th century. But it has really caught on:

But all the same, you may say, it should still be spelled as two words. It's not as if anyone can think of another example in the English language where an article/determiner and its following noun became fused as the two became perceived as one lexical unit.



Anyone. Another. 

You see, there's nothing to stop us doing this when it makes sense to do so. Oops. "Nothing". There's another one. 

Let me make myself clear. Yes, the correct way to spell "a lot" is -- at the moment -- as two words, not as one. But what determines that it is the correct spelling? Convention, that is all.  Considering "alot" as the shibboleth that identifies the illiterate, ridiculing people who misspell it, and making false analogies involving cantaloupes and pork chops says more about the ridiculers than about the ridiculed.There are better ways to teach correct spelling.

And by the way, the verb meaning "to apportion" is spelled "allot".

For the etymology of "cantaloupe", and a tasty cantaloupe cake recipe, click here.

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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.