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Give another listen

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 18, 2008 01:31 PM

RCA.jpgSo there I was, waiting for takeout in the parking lot of Lobsta Land in Gloucester, and I switched on the radio, just in time to hear Bill Littlefield, of WBUR's "Only a Game," read a listener's e-mail.

The writer was castigating Littlefield for saying people could "take a closer listen" to the program online. Listen is a verb, not a noun, he said.

And he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now, I understand that people send off these protests in haste, consulting their dudgeon rather than their dictionary. But why, I ask every time, why do their targets meekly accept such rebukes, instead of checking the facts?

Bill gets partial credit, since he didn't actually apologize. Still, by airing the letter he implicitly conceded that the critic's point, thus helping reinforce his error.

Here's the scoop: Listen was a noun as early as 1788 (the online OED's oldest citation). In 1817, Jane Austen's sister Cassandra used it in a letter: "But that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house." (Thanks to for the text.)

Listen, n., was in Webster's Second Unabridged 50 years ago (and probably earlier, but that's my edition), with a quote from Kipling: "I listened, and with each listen the game grew clearer."

Even if this listen weren't in our dictionaries, that wouldn't make the usage wrong, of course -- but that's another point, one Erin McKean made so effectively in a recent column that I don't need to restate it here.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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