The Word

Seeing the future

We've been 'looking to' for a long time

By Jan Freeman
September 27, 2009

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IN LAST WEEK’S NEWS, the United States was ”looking to move on” in its relations with Britain, Yahoo was looking to improve the search experience, Harrah’s was looking to dump debt, and Vladimir Sobotka was looking to make a big impression at the Bruins training camp.

All this would count as bad news for reader Elizabeth Thompson. In the past couple of years, she said in an e-mail, she has noticed that writers no longer discuss, organize, dream of, ponder, or anticipate events; instead, more and more often, they turn to the vague, all-purpose ”looking to” when they talk about the future.

Her note was my first inkling of a ”looking to” problem, but the American Heritage Dictionary, it turns out, has also grown suspicious of the expression. In the latest edition of the dictionary, this sense of ”look to” is flagged as a problem for the first time; in 1997 the usage panel narrowly rejected it, by 52 to 48 percent. In the usage note, AHD claims that ”look to” ”has recently developed the meanings ’expect to’ and ’hope to,’” as in ”I’m looking to sell my car in July.”

Not quite. The ”hope” is new, but the ”expect” meaning is actually 500 years old. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation comes from Thomas More’s ”Richard III,” circa 1513: ”these last words that ever I look to speak with you” (spelling modernized). Hobbes and Housman, Southey and Harriet Beecher Stowe used ”look to” meaning ”expect.”

And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ”looking to” appears in reports of legal proceedings: ”From the time I heard Homuth was looking for me I was looking to be killed all the time” (1893). Webster’s Dictionary editions of 1828 and 1913 listed ”look to” as meaning ”expect,” the former quoting the Earl of Clarendon (”He must look to fight another battle”), the latter Spenser (”Looking each hour into Death’s mouth to fall”).

It’s true, however, that ”look to” has evolved since the mid-20th century. Use of the participial form, ”looking to,” has come to dominate, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and the sense has expanded to include ”hope and intention as well as expectation.” In 1994, MWDEU predicted that dictionaries would soon be listing a new sense for ”looking to,” reflecting the broader meaning. And Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate does just that.

But the spread of ”looking to” apparently provoked a backlash, as is common with newly popular words. Some people--including half the AHD’s usage panel--thought resistance was in order. (Their distaste may have been fueled by the prevalence of ”looking to” in sports reporting, a realm where many a buzzword or catch phrase first puts down roots.)

So Thompson has spotted ”looking to” at a turning point. We may be kicking off a hatefest that will see ”looking to” pilloried, banned, and denounced in the next few years. More likely, I’d guess, this is just a minor setback for a usage that’s already well established. But I may be biased. In 1997, just as the AHD panel was voting to censure the usage, I was embracing it: In the very first Word column published, I used the phrase ”looking to derogate.”


NOT THAT AGAIN! Yes, the zombie rule that it’s wrong to use that as a pronoun for a person is still undead. I’ve had several recent complaints from readers who think ”the person that cuts the lawn” and ”the woman that arrived before you,” where that refers to a person, are improper English.

But no. This isn’t even a bona fide zombie rule, because it never was fully alive. That has been applied to people for at least 1,000 years, and usage books have never said it shouldn’t. But somehow, the notion that it’s bad English stays in circulation.

There was a time, in the later 17th century, when the relative pronoun that fell out of favor among the literati, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The dislike wasn’t aimed at that for people, but at all uses of the relative pronoun; as late as 1752, an anonymous grammarian was still urging writers to avoid that entirely. But they didn’t, and the fad was forgotten.

Of course, not every relative who or whom can be replaced with that. We no longer use that in nonrestrictive clauses, so we don’t say ”my father, that I resemble” or ”Jane Smith, that is in my biology class.” But in the usual formulations--”women that succeed,” ”friends that gather each week,” ”the boy that I was”--that has always been standard English.

There is no real debate about this; in the new Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says, ”It’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.” And that’s that--or at least it ought to be.

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