Concerning

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Reader Ileana D. asks about the use of concerning to mean "giving cause for anxiety or distress", in examples like.

I find her behavior very concerning.
The growing National Debt is concerning to me.

She notes that she sees this as a substitute for "of concern", says that she finds it "grating", and suggests that

This usage is increasing. I first heard it used in this way many years ago, but only by southerners. It has been creeping into formal usage (on the news, on NPR).

I'll leave the "grating"  part aside for now — that sort of thing is between you and your spiritual and aesthetic advisors — and get right to the history.

The first thing to say is that this use of concerning is not new. The OED gives the gloss "That gives cause for anxiety or distress", and cites

1741 RICHARDSON Pamela II. 159, I cannot bear anything that is the least concerning to you.

The second thing to say is that it's commoner in spoken registers, but not very common anywhere, at least according to COCA. Here's the pattern for "very concerning" (numbers are frequencies per million words):

and for "concerning to me":

In 26 million words of conversational speech indexed at LDC Online, "very concerning" occurs just once (in the speech of a young man from the U.S. midlands region), and "concerning to" doesn't occur at all.

In the NYT index since 1981, "very concerning" occurs 24 times, all in quotations. By five-year interval, there are 2 hits in 1986-1990, 4 hits in 1991-1995, 4 hits in 1996-2000, 10 hits in 2001-2005, and 4 hits so far since 2006. In the same index, "concerning to" gets 17 hits: 1 in 1981-1985, 1 in 1986-1990, 1 in 1991-1995, 4 in 1996-2000, 6 in 2001-2005, and 4 so far since 2006. Most are in quotations, but not all, e.g. "But advancing issues led decliners by a weak 13-to-11 margin on the New York Stock Exchange, and, more concerning to some, the broad market showed signs of fatigue."

That's all consistent with the view that the frequency has increased somewhat in recent years, but I don't see any indication, in a quick scan of the story contexts, of an association with southerners.

Searching the NPR site turns up 10 instances of "very concerning" and 8 instances of "concerning to", compared to 620 instances of "of concern" and 73 of "of concern to".  If concerning is really going to take over from of concern, Ileana is thus facing years of gradually increasing gradations of grating.

So here's some spiritual and aesthetic advice. Why not just give up, get over it, and look on the bright side?  Concerning has plenty of standard precedents ("This is troubling/annoying/terrifying/grating") where a prepositional-phrase version would be odd (?"This is of trouble/annoyance/terror/gratingness"). In fact, of concern is a bit of an outlier, so you could see the change to concerning as a move in the direction of linguistic consistency.

This sort of advice is easier to give than to act on, of course.  It rarely helps someone to get over an irrational aversion to point out that their aversion is, in fact, irrational. Still, there are some areas where cognitive therapy has been shown to have some efficacy,  and anecdotal evidence suggests that this may be one of them.

And then again, some people enjoy watching the decay (as they see it) of everyone else's language. If you're one of them, then never mind, and many happy returns of the peeve.



11 Comments

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    Concerning concerning (I couldn't resist the obvious pun, and I commend Mark for having the strength to do so): the verb concern has two very distinct meanings, and a simple clause like this concerns me is altogether ambivalent, while this is concerning to me is not.

  2. Rachael said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Personally, I have no objection to this meaning of concerning, but I do remember being confused when I first encountered the meaning "regarding" or "with reference to".

  3. James L. said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    "The second thing to say is that it's commoner in spoken registers…"

    Shouldn't that be "more common"? I ask, fully expecting to be proven incorrect.

  4. rpsms said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    would "disconcerting" contribute to this usage? Same meaning, same usage, similar sound.

  5. Bloix said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    "Concerning" is a euphemism for "troubling" in exactly the same way that "issues" is a euphemism for "problems." It's a way that a professional can express that there's something that needs to be addressed without being emotional or judgmental about it.

  6. dw said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    I would be interested in a similar study of "as far as X". I am pretty confident in saying that I had never heard this locution until I came to the USA: in the UK it would always be "as far as X is concerned".

    I now expect someone to tell me that "as far as X" occurs in Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible :)

    [(amz) Well, no, not that far back -- but there is Jane Austen (and Herman Melville, and more). The classic reference is

    Rickford, John R.; Thomas A. Wasow; Norma Mendoza-Denton; & Juli Espinoza. 1995. Syntactic variation and change in progress: Loss of the verbal coda in topic-restricting as far as constructions. Language 71.1.102-31.

    Topic-restricting as far as really picked up in the mid-20th century, and it is more American than British.

    Oxford A-Z, p. 14: well established in American usage and is a useful shorthand for the older as far as ... is/are concerned. Nevertheless, many more conservative British speakers are likely to object to it, so it is best avoided with a British audience.

    ]

  7. John Lawler said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    @Cory: This concerns me is ambiguous only in writing; in speech the two sentences would have different intonation and rhythm. For instance, the one that means "This is of concern to me" would stress the last syllable of concern, while the one that means "This is about me" would stress me. Speech has much broader bandwidth than writing.

    @James: It seems like common matches the pattern for two-syllable comparative {-er} allomorphs. Normally -er goes on one-syllable adjectives or adverbs – flatter, bigger, louder – and on two-syllable adjectives and adverbs that end in a light syllable like a vowel, especially /i/ (easier) or /o/ (narrower). The final syllable in common is an unstressed syllabic nasal resonant, and that's light enough, apparently.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    @James L., @John L.: Commoner (along with oftener, pleasanter, etc.) falls into a gray area where acceptability judgments differ. But some people can get very doctrinaire about such judgment calls. See my post, "A stricter prescriptivism."

  9. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    I thought the use of "concerning" as a synonym for "troubling" was an Americanism, but I find it in today's news:

    "Justice Minister Simon Power, who initiated the review in April, said the report was very concerning and the Government would implement its recommendations quickly."

    The redoubtable Dame Margaret Bazely has exposed the corrupt practices prevalent in the NZ legal aid system.

  10. Emmy said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    This may be yet another example of the English (language) attachment to prepositions. When we change "[so on and so forth] is/was of concern to me." to "[so on and so forth] is concerning to me," we knock out 'of.' Perhaps this is what upsets us so. That 'of' belongs to us, and we want it BACK.

    I didn't notice until I started learning Finnish how much English speakers love prepositions. We love them so much, we want to marry them.

  11. Shannon said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Late comment, but I couldn't resist. As an undergrad about ten years ago, I had an answer marked as incorrect on a test because the dimwitted TA interpreted "concerning" in the question as the "troubling" meaning, whereas I had interpreted it as the "with reference to." Not a problem until she refused to accept my interpretation and insisted it only had one meaning. I don't usually have language peeves, but refusing to acknowledge accepted definitions of words is certainly one of them!

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