boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
The Word

Yankees win

WHEN IT'S TIME to vent about language change, the English have a handy scapegoat. Anything they don't like they can blame on us, their knuckle-dragging, idiom-mangling colonial cousins.

And the Yankspeak-bashing reflex was in fine form last week, when the Guardian's ombudsman, Siobhain Butterworth, invited comment on the acceptability of printing American idioms in a British newspaper.

One reader, she noted, had objected to the use of the phrase "to appeal a decision." He "sent us a terse complaint, summing up his objection in one word - "Americanism." (In the reader's language, one must "appeal against" a decision, keeping the verb intransitive; it's not OK to omit the preposition, which makes the verb transitive.)

Like-minded readers flew to the Guardian's website like moths to the flame: "Writers who cannot distinguish transitive from intransitive verbs deserve beheading," said one excitable bloke. "Every time I read that someone has been 'battling cancer' [instead of 'battling against'] it reduces my sympathy for them."

"'Protest' is worse," declared another. "US English has conflated 'protest' [as in protest our innocence] and 'protest against."'

Have Americans really inflicted this mischief on the mother tongue? Of course not. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeal (in the legal sense) was a transitive verb, "with a thing as obj[ect]" before Columbus sailed west. The first example, dated 1481, comes from the iconically English William Caxton; modernized, it reads "I appeal this matter into the court."

To battle was transitive - with a direct object, without the "against" - even earlier, with the first citation about 1399: "Christ's faith is every day assailed...and battled." If the British prefer it intransitive, that's fine, but the transitive form - "she battled cancer" - is hardly an American caprice.

On protest, it's true, the protesters have a point; the OED lists the transitive form as "chiefly US," dating it to 1904. But in shedding its against, the verb was doing what comes naturally.

Just last month, in a discussion on the American Dialect Society listserv, Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky noted that verbs are regularly converted from intransitive to transitive by "preposition dropping." In such cases, he said, "the preposition can be dropped because it's mostly window dressing; the primary semantic content is in the verb."

That's why the Guardian reader is mistaken in thinking Americans have lost the distinction between "he protested his innocence" and "he protested the decision." We don't need the preposition to know when we're protesting against -and neither does he.

Of course, Americans too are often suspicious of shifting transitivity. Reader Joan Regan e-mailed recently to ask whether it was grammatically proper for bombs to "detonate" and soldiers to "deploy," rather than being detonated and deployed by identifiable agents.

I had similar doubts about the word travel in a recent quote from Katie Couric's boss, who was explaining that she would be going to Iraq: "I don't travel an anchor lightly," he said.

But all these verbs are natural switch-hitters: A bomb can detonate, intransitively, or someone can detonate the bomb, transitively. In fact, the intransitive detonate, meaning "explode," came first. Soldiers deployed (though not quite in today's sense) 200 years ago. And though it sounds like yesterday's jargon, the CBS newsman's travel, meaning "cause to journey," is four centuries old.

This isn't to say that anything goes, transitively speaking; in fact, the verb code of conduct is a dark forest of rules and exceptions, where dropping a preposition barely makes a noise. Our British friends really shouldn't bother fighting it - or fighting against it, either.

. . .

UNUSUALLY STRESSED: I've heard it several times on the radio, and once on TV: a new pronunciation of aforementioned. Instead of the usual uh-FOR-MEN-shund, some people now say AFF-er-MEN-shund.

What's up with that? I asked University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, a phonetician, for enlightenment, and he introduced me to the "thirteen men effect" - a phenomenon that eliminates the chest-bumping of adjacent stressed syllables by shifting the first one leftward.

"Speakers of stress languages like English prefer alternating metrical patterns," he wrote. So when thirteen - normally accented on the second syllable - lands beside another stressed syllable, many speakers change their tune: Instead of thur-TEEN MEN (on a dead man's chest, or not) they say THUR-teen MEN.

Aforementioned is a bit different, but it has those clashing stressed syllables - uh-FOR-MEN-shund - in its midsection, sending speakers in search of a more euphonious alternative. How many speakers? Audible samples are hard to collect, but Google offers some circumstantial evidence: The spellings afermentioned and affermentioned net nearly 400 hits.

So far, however, dictionaries are ignoring the new pronunciation. And aforementioned, however pronounced, is pretty rare in speech; even if no one opposes it, this little mutation may be doomed.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For three weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES