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Friday, November 27, 2015

Tailing off or trailing off

A Wordlady correspondent writes as follows:
A student in my copy editing class was browsing the second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and came across "tail off." Its meaning is very similar to that of "trail off," and she's asked me if one is essentially a bastardization of the other--and which is "more correct."
It warms the cockles of my heart to hear that someone is browsing my dictionary! 
Browsing a dictionary: the best people do it

But indeed the dictionary is not as helpful as it might be:

trail, v.
  • 5. [intransitive] [usu. foll. by away, off] peter out; tail off.

tail off (or away) diminish gradually; decrease in intensity, output, production, etc

These two phrasal verbs seem to have arisen at about the same time in the 1850s. They are simply based on words that are very similar in form (tail, trail) and, coincidentally, both evoke images of something that gradually diminishes in size. One is not a corruption of, or less correct than, the other. 

(By the way, I can't help pointing out in passing that the verb "tail" started out as a NOUN). All right, off my hobbyhorse now...

Despite their similarities, these words are not used interchangeably, of the same types of activity. If you consult Oxford Dictionaries online, which is a free resource (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com)
and, being online, has more room for examples from the real world than a paper dictionary like the Canadian Oxford, you immediately notice the difference:
  • The discussion gradually tails off as the wiki entry now represents the shared knowledge of the community represented by the discussion participants.
  • For normal papers, the rate of citation peaks in the second to fourth years after publication and gradually tails off thereafter.
  • But if the upper speed limit tails off more gradually, then other factors are more likely responsible.
  • He felt the magic start to fade and the voices trailed off.
  • Her voice trailed off as she disappeared around the corner, headed for the children's bedrooms.
  • ‘My God, it could happen to any of us,’ and her voice trailed off.
This very close association of "trail off" with the sound of a voice is something most native speakers of English would understand intuitively, if given some time to think about what sorts of things "trail off". Dictionaries intended for native speakers often don't make these things explicit.

But even native speakers sometimes lose their intuition temporarily, especially if they are editors, confronted day in and day out with English that sounds not quite right (or even terribly not right), or translators, suffering from interference from their second language.

If you are one of those and need a "native speaker intuition" boost, I can recommend the following tools:
1) Oxford Dictionaries online, which will give you three sample sentences, taken from a corpus of authentic English, for each meaning
2) A dictionary for ESL users (even if you aren't an ESL speaker). These also give more information about typical collocates (what words/concepts are likely to associate with the word you are looking up, and the circumstances in which it is used) than native speaker dictionaries do. Oxford Learner's Dictionaries also have a free online version: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ Here, for instance, is its entry for "trail off/away"

trail off  trail away

(of somebody’s speech) to become gradually quieter and then stop His voice trailed away to nothing.
+ speech ‘I only hope…’, she trailed off
 This dictionary also suggests that "tail off" is especially British, but I am not sure it is right. Also bear in mind that learner's dictionaries focus only on the most typical usages in the language.
3) Online corpora. If your word isn't in either of the dictionaries listed above (ESL dictionaries tend to have much smaller word lists than native speaker dictionaries), you can also use a free online corpus. Here's a huge collection of corpora: http://corpus.byu.edu/ If you use the KWIC search function (keyword in context) you will see the patterns of language use emerge in brilliant colour.
 Time for me to trail off now...

If you are interested in a new session of my History of the English Language course starting in January, please let me know.

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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.