It’s spelled thn, homies. Or it at least it should be. Hear me out.
I know a lotta people hate when they see someone use than in a place which calls for then (and vice versa). There are even memes about it:
But the thing is, there wasn’t always a difference between than and then. “What the what?!” I hear you saying. The OED lays it out:
Ok, so people made the distinction a looong time ago. But still, it’s interesting to know that these words come from the same place. Maybe all those people on the internet (the ones that you think are a bunch of dinguses because they misuse than and then) are just keeping it OG.
And really, it’s only spelling that people are complaining about. Sure, they have different meanings (than is a conjunction and then is an adverb), but they sound the same when in spoken language. Complaining about spelling is pretty lame sauce. I mean, of all the things to complain about with language, spelling is waaay down the list. We should be complaining about how supposed grammar professionals don’t follow their own advice.
Speaking of spelling, these two words were almost spelled the same. The OED explains:
When the adverb was reduced to þen, from the 15th cent. spelt then, there was a strong tendency to spell the conjunction in the same way, which during the 16th cent. nearly triumphed; but in the 17th cent. the tide turned, and by 1700 or a little later the conjunction was differentiated from the adverb as than. As the latter was, and is, pronounced /ðən/, it is manifest that it might be written either then or than with equal approximation to the actual sound.
Now, aren’t you glad English doesn’t make a spelling distinction between the voiced and voiceless dental fricatives, ð and θ? (These are the different ways you say the th sound in the words than and thin) We all know the internet doesn’t need more reasons to complain.
So there’s a news article about language and the journalist interviewed… linguists! Actual, real life linguists! I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Does this mean the field of linguists has finally made it? May Helena Plumb put it perfectly:
Wait, someone had a question about language in society, and they asked a linguist? Huh. Who'da thunk. https://t.co/DboRsjTH65
I’m joking around, but the article, which appears in the Huffington Post, is really good. It’s about the decline of the phrase you’re welcome and the article does a great job in explaining the ins and outs of phatic expressions and the social uses and meanings of the things we say.
But is you’re welcome really on the decline? Are no worries and no problem really on the increase? There weren’t any figures in the article to back this up, so I thought I’d have a look. The first thing to notice is the claim that you’re welcome as a response to thank you is relatively new. Linguists call this form of you’re welcome a minimizer. According to the Huffington Post article, which is citing other sources, the term first appears in writing in 1907 (cited in the OED). Of course, the phrase you’re welcome as in you’re welcome to come over anytime is older than that, but why doesn’t the minimizer you’re welcome (as a response to thank you) date back any further than that? It seems like such a natural part of our language, doesn’t it?
I was able to find two hits in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA) that might predate the OED’s 1907 citation. I say might because I’m not a lexicographer, so take these with a grain of salt. We all know what happened last time I tried to predate a dictionary entry. (The citations here don’t predate the OED by much anyway).
The first one is from 1862, in a play called Davy Crockett written by Frank Murdoch (redo my COHA search here). Apparently the play was first shown in 1872. You can see the keyword in context result from COHA by following the link. I was able to find the script in a book called Davy Crockett & Other Plays (ed. by Goldberg and Hefner). That book is from 1940. Here are the lines in question:
This one looks an awful lot like the minimizer you’re welcome. It’s even said in response to thank you very much.
Then there’s this hit for “you are welcome” from 1848 in a book called Anecdotes for Boys by Harvey Newcomb. (Redo the search here) The book is online at the Internet Archive here (just flip to page 98). A screenshot of the page in question is below. This one also looks like the minimizer you’re welcome.
Lynne Murphy, a professor and linguist at the University of Sussex, has a theory that replying to thank you with you’re welcome might come from Irish English. In her post on the topic, she also has this insightful paragraph:
Reading around a bit on the topic now, I’m interested to see that several researchers (all cited in Schneider 2005) have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a ‘minimizer’ like no problem, my pleasure, or you’re welcome. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Britain thank you/thanks is often used for purposes other than thanking, or maybe it doesn’t. (It depends on how the research was done–and I don’t have access to all of it at the moment.)
Maybe the minimizer you’re welcome isn’t so natural. Murphy might be on to something with the Irish connection though. After all, the playwright cited above has the Irish-sounding name Murdoch. He was born in Massachusetts, though, and it seems the name Murdoch ultimately comes from Scotland (according to my crack search engine research), but maybe the Murdochs in question picked up the minimizer thank you on their way through Ireland?
Figures of minimizer you’re welcome
Now let’s try to see if minimizer you’re welcome is really on the decline. This one is tricky to research because the form which is used in constructions like you’re welcome to VERB will muddy the results. But let’s see what we can do.
On first glance, you’re welcome doesn’t seem to be declining. Most of the hits for you’re welcome in the 1800s were for the you’re welcome to VERB kind, not the minimizer kind. Of the decades in the latter half of the 20th century, I did a rough check for minimizers and came up with the following stats:
Minimizer thank you / total (%)
Freq. per million words
Remember that these are very rough numbers. I didn’t have time to check all of the expanded displays and I tried to exclude any insincere minimizers of you’re welcome (where it seems like you’re welcome was said sarcastically). But it looks to me like minimizer you’re welcome is not in decline.
The COHA data should be taken with another grain of salt because it’s written English rather than spoken English. Maybe people really are saying you’re welcome less often these days. If we look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), it seems that the phrase is slightly on the decline, but the frequencies for the 2010s are still higher than the early 1990s. A cursory glance at the concordances shows that most of the hits are for the minimizer you’re welcome and not the you’re welcome to VERB. Things were the opposite in the COHA texts. If I ever get the time, I’ll go through the 2,000+ hits. (Redo my search here)
The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA is taken from television news and news opinion shows, so it’s not a perfect representation of spontaneous spoken language. It’s sometimes scripted and most of the time formal. But that second fact is maybe a positive – I would expect to see the (sincere) minimizer you’re welcome show up in more formal registers. For a more accurate look at spoken data, we can head across the Atlantic and check out the British National Corpus (BNC). In the BNC’s SPOKEN section, 21 of the 41 hits are for minimizer you’re welcome. That’s fewer overall hits than I expected, but more hits for minimizer you’re welcome than I expected. Its frequency per million words is 2.1.
The spoken data from the BNC was recorded between 1991 and 1994. For a more modern look at things, we can check out the BNC 2014, which has spoken data recorded between 2012-2016. In the BNC 2014, there are 111 hits for you’re welcome in 85 different texts, of which 57 hits come after the words thank you. I didn’t have time to read through all of the expanded contexts, so I’m not sure of the situations in which these were used. But the results mean that just over half of them look like minimizers. Of the 57 you’re welcome minimizers in the BNC 2014, 15 were recorded in 2012, 9 in 2014, 19 in 2015, and 14 in 2016. The frequency per million words for the hits overall is 4.99. That’s higher than the BNC data from the 1990s.
In comparing the rate of minimizer you’re welcome, it would be good to look at a few of the phrases which the HuffPost article claims are replacing it. The minimizer no problem is tricky to search for because it can also be used in phrases such as “I have no problem with X”. There are 1,788 hits for this phrase in the SPOKEN section of COCA and I just don’t have time to go through them for this blog post. Instead, let’s look at no worries. There are only 59 hits for this phrase in COCA’s SPOKEN section and from my rough review, only four of these are minimizers in response to a thank you – three from 2017 and one from 2014. That’s not a lot. I’d be hesitant to say that this phrase is replacing you’re welcome. But again, COCA doesn’t capture casual and spontaneous speech as well as we would like it to. So these numbers are far from definitive. The other minimizers, such as okay, sure and anytime, would be even harder to search for because of how many other roles and meanings they can have besides being minimizers. And I don’t have the time to go through them for this post.
So where does that leave us? First, I’m not sure we can say that the minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. But people clearly think it is. They may be right that people are saying minimizer you’re welcome less these days, but I would worry that that’s a case of recency illusion. I’d say it’s possible that the other minimizers (no worries, no problem, etc.) are on the rise and making it seem like minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. It’s possible that minimizers in general are on the rise. Or, as the HuffPost points out, the minimizer chosen is becoming more dependent on context and situation:
When you’re in a more formal setting, it makes sense to say “you’re welcome” rather than something like “No worries.” In more informal situations, like a text message conversation, the reverse is true. […] So it seems the politeness formula may simply be shifting in many situations, from “thank you” → “you’re welcome” to “thank you” → “no worries”/”no problem”/”sure thing”/etc.
As always, you’re welcome to comment on this post. But please don’t say “thank you”. I can’t take the pressure of choosing which minimizer to respond with.
Just kidding, we all know that English should have only one minimizer: fuhgeddaboudit.
The following is a sentence on an exam I gave my student this semester. It’s a lyric from the totally awesome band The Go-Go’s (who are too punk rock to care about using your lame apostrophes correctly). Read it and decide which part of speech you think sealed is: verb or adjective?
In the jealous games people play, our lips are sealed.
I first thought that sealed is clearly an adjective and that it functions as the subject complement of the sentence (a subject complement is an element required by copular verbs, such as be and seem, which does not encode a different kind of participant to the subject in the phrase in the way that an object does). But many of my students analyzed it as a verb. This calls for some weekend grammar research (while listening to the Go-Go’s of course)!
On the exam, students had to mark the function (subject, predicate, object, etc.) of each clause in the sentence. In the grammar that we’re using (English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed., 2006, by Downing and Locke), only verb phrases can be included in the predicate. This means that if sealed is a verb, the phrase consists of only a subject (Our lips) and a predicate (are sealed).
Two dictionaries list sealed as an adjective: the OED and Macmillan Dictionary. The OED’s citation which mirrors this construction is a bit out of date though. It comes from the 1611 printing of the King James Bible: And the vision of all is become vnto you, as the wordes of a booke that is sealed. Macmillan Dictionary only offers “a sealed box/bag/envelope” as an example. Four other dictionaries (Merriam-Webster’s, Dictionary.com, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, and Oxford Dictionaries) do not list sealed as an adjective, only as a transitive verb (i.e. it needs an object). Strangely, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary has this example sentence under the second entry for seal as a verb:
The organs are kept in sealed plastic bags.
In this case, sealed is definitely an adjective modifying a noun (plastic bags). This must be an oversight by the editors. More importantly, though, is the fact that sealed in Our lips are sealed does not have an object. What gives?
Well, sealed is more of a participial adjective than anything else (some grammars use the terms verbal adjective or attributive verb). It’s an adjective that has been derived from a verb. Participial adjectives look like verbs but they function grammatically like adjectives. I know. Welcome to the Twilight Zone. These are the cases which really show that there are not sharp limits between the parts of speech, but rather very hazy boundaries. Sometimes it is easy to tell whether the word in question is a verb or an adjective. For example:
This is the sealed envelope that you mailed. = adjective
I sealed the envelope with a kiss. = verb
Other times – such as the one under discussion here – things are not so clear cut. Downing & Locke (p. 479) say that “past participles may often have either an adjectival or a verbal interpretation. In The flat was furnished, the participle [furnished] may be understood either as part of a passive verb form or as the adjectival subject complement of the copula was.” This means that sealed could be a passive verb that is simply missing its object. The object is presumably missing because we know that the person who owns the lips is the one who seals them, so it would sound ridiculous to say Our lips are sealed by us (although maybe not as ridiculous as the similar phrase My lips are sealed by me).
I want to argue that sealed is definitely an adjective, but like so much else in linguistics, it is hard to be definite about this. The verb analysis works just as well and sealed might be semantically closer to a verb in that we can think about the sealing of lips as resulting from an action taken. If we compare it to Our lips are chapped there isn’t as clear of an action present, except maybe the action of the weather. But I don’t like talking about verbs as action words.
For what’s it worth, 19 out of 25 people in my Twitter poll said that sealed is an adjective.
Grammar people! Which part of speech is "sealed" in the phrase "Our lips are sealed"? Please share. Thanks. #grammar#linguistics
Over on Change.org, there is a petition to change the definition of marriage to “reflect the reality that there is only one kind of marriage — one between two loving adults, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
This petition highlights a few fascinating things about dictionaries and the power of lexicographers. There are, however, a few things to understand before we get into the harmless drudgery of what’s at stake here.
First, many dictionaries these days are written using a corpus, or a large data bank of texts. The words in the texts are tagged for their part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) to make the corpus more easily searchable. Lexicographers then use the corpora to not only help them define a word, but also (and this is key) to help them rank the different senses of each word’s definition. The more often a sense of a word is used, the higher it will be in the list. This is why Macmillan lists the “financial institution” sense of bank before the “raised area of land along the side of a river” sense.
That’s a very broad way to define what lexicographers do. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out Kory Stamper’s excellent blog, Harmless Drudgery. She is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and her posts are a joy to read. What’s important to know is that lexicographers try to be as impartial as possible and they use computers to help them with this. As Ms. Stamper notes in a post full of advice for budding lexicographers, “The number one rule of lexicography is you never, ever intentionally insert yourself into your defining. Your goal as a lexicographer is to write a definition that accurately and concisely conveys how a word is used without distracting the reader with humor.” Or, in this case, malice.
Second, the petition says that “Currently Dictionary.com has two separate definitions for the word marriage — one for heterosexual marriage, and one for same-sex marriage.” That’s not entirely true. Dictionary.com has at least ten definitions for marriage. What the petition is referencing is the two senses of the first definition of marriage. Here’s the screenshot:
Third, the definitions in Dictionary.com come from both “experienced lexicographers” and over fifteen “trusted and established sources including Random House and Harper Collins.” According to them, they are “the world’s largest and most authoritative online dictionary.”* The definition for marriage does not say which dictionary it is pulled from, so I think it’s safe to assume that the lexicographers at Dictionary.com wrote it. It doesn’t really matter, as this post is about lexicography as a whole.
Now that we have an idea about how dictionaries are written and what’s going on at Dictionary.com, we can see the curious nature of the petition. Dictionaries do not tell society how words are defined, rather, for the most part, it is the other way around. If you want to be pedantic about it, you could say that society and dictionaries inform each other. (Let’s not get into the whole prescriptive/descriptive nature and history of dictionary, ok?) So at first the petitioner would seem to be mistaken.
And yet, he has a point. Here’s why.
The difference between a male/female marriage and a male/male or female/female marriage is just that: plus or minus a few letters on either side of the slash mark. No dictionary would list separate senses for marriages between Caucasians and African-Americans or for those between a blue-eyed and green-eyed people, so why bother splitting the definition in terms of gender?
There is also the fact that dictionaries do have some authority. People could defend what’s currently in Dictionary.com’s definition of marriage by saying that it merely reflects the lexicographers’ research into how the word is used (which may be based on a corpus). But with over 100,000 signatures on the petition, dictionaries clearly mean more to people than just a reflection of how we use words. In fact, Stephen Colbert – no stranger to defining words – mentioned this issue on his show in 2009 when he noted that Merriam-Webster’s had included the “same-sex” sense of marriage in a 2003 update to its dictionary. When lexicographers define words, people notice (after six years).
On the other hand, 100,000 speakers of English equates to anywhere from 0.03% to 0.005% of the total population of English speakers worldwide (wildly speculative numbers based on Ethnologue’s estimate of primary speakers to Britannica’s estimate of total speakers). Either way, that’s nowhere near a majority. We should be happy the “same-sex” version of marriage is in there at all.
And then there’s the fact that native speakers do not need a dictionary to define marriage for them. If I told another native speaker over the age of fourteen that Adam and Steve got married, they would understand what I meant and, depending on their political bent, view this as, well, however they wanted to.
But this points out the dilemma that lexicographers face. In my mind, putting the “same-sex” sense of marriage second does not amount to a “brush off” or “blurb” as the petition would have us believe. I wouldn’t accuse lexicographers of doing either for any word in a dictionary, but I would assume they had a good reason to separate the two meanings; namely, the separate but similar (not equal) uses of the word. And yet, some people would take offense because the state of marriage right now is a hot button issue in the United States. Lexicographers are like referees in at least one way: someone is always going to hate them.
The lexicographers for Dictionary.com were most likely well aware that some people may take offense to how they defined marriage, but what were they supposed to do?
Here’s how some other dictionaries handled marriage:
Macmillan left gender out of the definition, saying just “the relationship between two people who are husband and wife.”
Merriam-Webster is in the same boat as Dictionary.com, separating the senses in a very similar way.
The American Heritage Dictionary included the “same-sex” sense in the first sense with an explanation of it being only “in some jurisdictions”
Oxford English Dictionary included a note to how the term is “sometimes used” today (screen shot below, since it’s behind a pay wall):
Would any of these satisfy everyone? More importantly, do we really want our lexicographers using politics to define words? Haven’t they got enough on their desks already?
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Collins Dictionary defines marriage in the first sense as “the state of being married; relation between spouses; married life; wedlock; matrimony.” It makes you wonder why Dictionary.com didn’t didn’t use that definition and call it a day.
*My apologies to the lexicographers and word smiths who just spit their drink all over their computer screen. That “most authoritative” part was apparently not a joke. Now, let’s all pick our jaws up off the floor and go back up to where we were.
Speaking of the OED, filed under People Who Win the Internet is the Amazon reviewer who goes by the simple moniker person. I first stumbled upon this person when I was looking at the OED on Amazon. I noticed that someone gave it a one-star review. Who gives the OED one star, I thought. Then I read the review:
Very slow I’m at the ABs, and I still can’t get a grip on the plot. Characters enter, are introduced in exhausting detail and then disappear again! Very frustrating. The only time an old character shows up again is in another’s history! Perhaps things will become clearer when we meet Oxford, English or Dictionary — clearly three key figures.
If you have some time, I recommend reading some of person’s other reviews. They’re hilarious.
Unfortunately, person says that they are not allowed to write reviews anymore. From now on they will be handled by reviewer Pirate the Cool. So be it.
On the bright side, this type of snarky reviewing happens a lot more than I was aware of. Here’s the A.V. Club on some of the more famous examples. Included in that list is a product called Uranium Ore (“for educational and scientific purposes only” butofcourse). Person’s review of the product:
Not very practical Every time I try and use this, the Libyans show up and steal my DeLorean.
Maybe these reviews are a little ahead of your time. But you kids are gonna love ’em.