commoner

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James L., in a comment on Mark Liberman's "Concerning" posting:

"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.

Every so often on Language Log we discuss inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives, and the topic has come up again and again on ADS-L and sci.lang, often in response to someone's claim that some particular inflectional form X is just wrong.

Sometimes the claim rests on a belief in One Right Way, in this case the assumption that an adjective or adverb takes inflection or periphrasis, but not both as alternatives. If you also judge X to be not what you would say, then it must be wrong and the periphrastic variant must be right.

Even if you don't subscribe to One Right Way, you might still project your personal dislike of X onto others.

In every case I've seen where a complaint about X has been lodged, it turns out that X is attested, in fact attested in serious writing, and in many cases X is also listed in reputable dictionaries. Both things are true for commoner.

There are two sets of cases, not always crisply distinguished. In the first set, X is relatively rare but nevertheless attested. Geoff Pullum looked at some examples of this sort a while back. He noted that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language included the monosyllabic adjectives cross, ill, and real in a list of lexical items lacking inflectional comparatives and superlatives, but on reflection that judgment seemed wrong; things like realer are not very common, but they are attested in careful writing.

Somewhat later, Ben Zimmer mentioned in passing some items that evoke "grey-area judgments", with some speakers having no problem with inflectional variants, judging both variants to be acceptable; other speakers having a preference for one of the variants, while allowing both; and still others having trouble making judgments. The items he mentioned were the adverb often and the adjectives common (yes, common) and pleasant — all with well-attested inflectional variants for comparison, variants listed in NOAD2.

This posting of Ben's was about stricter, which a Language Log reader had been told (by an editor at the newspaper our correspondent worked for) was "not a word". Ben observed that this is spectacularly not so, and went on to look at vaster and fonder as well.

A bit later, Ben took up bitterest, which a letter to a Guardian editor had labeled an error.

So it goes. Back in August 2005, Jon Lighter reported on ADS-L about Fox News anchor E. D. Hill, who maintained vehemently, on camera, that cleverer was not a word. Later she stated on air that a colleague had found it in a dictionary, so it was after all a word. But then (as Lighter wrote),

… in a surprising twist that left linguists in the viewing audience reeling, minutes before the show ended, Hill laughed as she said, "We've received an email from a viewer [name unintelligible] who has a doctorate, and she writes as follows : " 'Cleverer' is not a word. It is not a verb and cannot be declined or inflected.' " Hill concluded, "So I was right all along ! It's not a word ! "

It is to weep.

I have many more cases in my files.

I'm not denying that there are people who dislike, sometimes strongly, certain inflectional variants. They're welcome not to use them. But they shouldn't be insisting that other people have to do as they do.



51 Comments

  1. Rubrick said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    I'm curious how these lines are being drawn cognitively. There's clearly an aversion to adding -er to already-inflected forms (*seriouser, *churlisher), and I suspect the source of people's uneasiness about words like "cleverer" is that they sound already-inflected, even if they're not. This hypothesis doesn't seem to apply to cases like "stricter", though.

    I'm sure there's plenty of literature on the subject, but as a non-linguist I feel permitted to speculate idly instead of seeking out citations. :-)

    [(amz) There's an appallingly large literature on the subject, going back over a hundred years. A recent contribution is the observation that some derivational suffixes are inimical to inflectional comparatives and superlatives, and others are fine with it.]

  2. Amy Reynaldo said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    Hill's correspondent with a doctorate is, of course, incorrect. I regularly engage in clevering and have been a cleverer my whole life. I do have trouble using "cleaver" as the past tense. It just sounds wrong to me.

    (That's a joke.)

  3. Edmund said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    What about the case of "fun"? Superficially "funner" and "funnest" should be fine, fun being monosyllabic, but any English speaker over the age of about 6 most likely finds those forms ungrammatical.

    [(amz) Fun is another topic entirely. People who object to funner etc. are objecting to fun used as an adjective (as well as a noun).]

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    When faced with this sort of thing I just get crosser and crosser, and I'm sure I'm cleverer than most.
    On the other hand I don't say "iller" or "realler".

    If I'd been asked about this before, I'd have said my usage was just standard, and it would never have occurred to me to outlaw "crosser" or "cleverer." The truth is obviously more interesting.

  5. The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Commoner and Cleverer said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    [...] just read a Language Log post on the recurring debates about whether the “Xer” comparative form of various adjectives is [...]

  6. Ellen K. said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Rubrick, how is "serious" an inflected form? Seems to me it's all root.

  7. Faldone said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    @Amy Renaldo

    I do have trouble using "cleaver" as the past tense.
    That's because the past tense is clover.

  8. Sili said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    Of course you do, Amy. The past tense of "clever" is "clover" (ppP "clobbered").

    I'd like to know where that viewer bought their doctorate.

  9. Laurel MacKenzie said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    I'm perplexed by the use here of the phrase "It is to weep," which I find completely ungrammatical in isolation like that. Is that the point? Is this a quotation from something that I'm unaware of? A google search turns up many hits where it's used the same way it is in this post (including an older Language Log post, here, where it's augmented with "and gnash one's teeth"), but I can't find any explanation of it anywhere. The strange syntax makes it sound to me like a non-nativism, or even a lolcat-ism — but if that were the case, I'd expect there to be some explanation out there on the internet somewhere.

    [(amz) Mark L. has given a few pointers to information about the source of the idiom. But it is an idiom, so fretting about its syntactic structure is pretty much beside the point. I use it because it's a familiar idiom in my variety of English. I don't need to know its history to defend my use of it, though I'm sorry I puzzled you.]

  10. Faldone said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    @Laurel MacK

    I believe it's a structure borrowed from Yiddish. The form "It is to [inf. verb]" is fairly common in some circles.

  11. Laurel MacKenzie said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    @Faldone: Thanks for your answer. I still think it's weird that searches for various combinations of "it is to verb," "it is to infinitive," "Jewish", Yiddish", and "borrowing" bring up nothing. I'm embarrassed that my first reaction was that it sounded like something a lolcat would say, but a little less embarrassed given that my Jewish mother didn't recognize it either!

  12. Spectre-7 said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    @Laurel MacKenzie

    I'm not sure of the phrase's provenance, but a quick search reveals scattered citations throughout the 20th century. I'm using a a generalized form of "it is to" + some emotional response (i.e. weep, laugh, cry).

    Here's one from The Souther Medical Journal, Volume XIV, dated January 1921.

    It is to laugh: a book of games and stunts By Edna Geister with a reported publication date of 1922.

    And Daffy Duck apparently delivered the line "Ho ho, very funny; Ha ha, it is to laugh." in 1958's Robin Hood Daffy.

    I have the impression that it's a reference to some specific older work, and the phrase has always struck me as Victorian, but I haven't any idea why. Anyone else have some clue here?

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    By the way, how old is the "It is to weep" construction? Not very, is my guess. It means something like "It's enough to make one weep".

    As for "cleverer", etc., isn't it true that inflected comparatives and superlatives used to be — I mean, centuries back — much commoner than they are now? And could be combined with the periphrastic forms, as in the notorious "most unkindest cut of all"?

    [(amz) On the historical trends in inflection vs. periphrasis: yes, there seems to be a long-range, though slow, progression for periphrasis to supplant inflection. But there's also a counter-tendency in colloquial English to develop, or revive, inflectional variants.]

  14. Faldone said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    @Laurel MacK

    I might be wrong. The standard German constructionis Es geht zu [inf. verb]. But even that's not too common by Google. I only get five hits for "es geht zu lachen". And it might not be all that standard German. I seem to remember the construction from high school German classes, FWIW.

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    The rule of thumb I was taught by a non-native speaker, who I presume had in turn been taught it rather than derived it from observation, is that one- and two-syllable adjectives generally inflect and longer ones generally take periphrastic constructions.

    [(amz) In that enormous body of literature on inflectional vs. periphrastic comparatives, this is a rough rule of thumb, but it's not a rule, and for two-syllable adjectives/adverbs, the subgeneralization is that those with first-syllable accent are more friendly to inflection than those with final accent. But these are only tendencies.]

  16. Mark P said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    I was about to mention "it is to laugh," which I remember from long ago. Maybe I heard it in a cartoon, as Spectre-7 said. I think I saw a few in 1958.

  17. Forrest said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    I didn't realize that having a doctorate was all that was needed to remove words from the lexicon, to make them not be "words." I guess that would have made 1984 a bit less interesting, though; if they'd simply hired a bunch of PhDs to shrink the newspeak dictionary, well, that would have shed a hundred pages.

  18. Mark Liberman said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    As for "it is to {laugh|weep}", there's some discussion here and here.

    Jack London's play Theft has this passage:

    Chalmers [Thomas Chalmers]
    (Firmly and harshly.)

    This man Knox must be covered with ridicule, swamped with ridicule, annihilated with ridicule.

    Hubbard [Ellery Jackson Hubbard]
    It is to laugh. Trust the great American people for that. We'll make those little Western editors sit up. They've been swearing by Knox, like a little tin god. Roars of laughter for them.

  19. ArthurDent said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    "In British law, a commoner is someone who is neither the Sovereign nor a peer," according to wikipedia. Is it possible that dislike of this particular inflectional comparative is caused in part by the fact that it invades a semantic space that was already claimed?

  20. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

    I believe native speakers employ a variety of tacit "rules" when choosing between the inflected or periphrastic version. This is why the matter is so hard to pin down. Most of these "rules" are probably aesthetic, involving sound and association rather than anything logical.

    Eg, Ellen K asks how "serious" is an inflected form. Well, it's not, at least not in English. But -ous is a common suffix and even a quasi-suffix (contagion, contagious), such that "serious" sounds as if it's been inflected, and that seems to be what matters in this instance, rather than the actual derivation.

    I am likewise jarred when my students produce "funner," but I'll be damned if I'll take them to task for it.

  21. naddy said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Faldone:

    The standard German constructionis Es geht zu [inf. verb].

    You are confused. The German construction is "es ist zum [verb]". So "it is to weep" exactly parallels "es ist zum Weinen".

  22. fiddler said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    I still have scars from a Scrabble fight over "orangest." You can imagine.

  23. arc said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    So, Miz Doctor also presumably denies the wordship of 'whiter', 'brighter', and 'tighter' on the basis that 'white', 'bright' and 'tight' aren't verbs?

    In fact, doesn't this reasoning apply to all non-verb inflections in English, including noun plurals?

    Or is the argument based on the fact that 'whiten', 'brighten' and 'tighten' are verbs, and 'cleven' isn't (or, at least, if it is, it has to do with cutting and not cleverness)?

    I'm confused.

    [(amz) I suspect that Ms Doctor was just deeply confused about parts of speech.]

  24. arc said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Zwicky:

    Surely some inflectional forms aren't attested in serious writing. What about 'intelligenter'? Doesn't appear in the OED, turns up a lot of German pages on google (it is a word in German, it seems), a quick eyeball through the first few pages only seems to yield 'More Intelligenter', which looks like a joke to me.

    [(amz) You're mis-reading me. I only said that when people object to inflectional variants, they are, in my experience, off-base. There are tons and tons of inflectional forms that are virtually never attested in serious writing and are generally rejected by native speakers; I never claimed that these were fine.]

    Or is it more that inflectional forms produced by native standard English speakers when they are being serious are just unlikely to produce seriously idiosyncratic inflectional forms, so if you object to an actual usage case, you're likely to be wrong?

    [(amz) I might not have framed it quite that way -- see above -- but: yes.]

  25. mike said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

    >they shouldn't be insisting that other people have to do as they do

    Sadly, I think this summarizes about 95% of what passes for language and "linguistic" discussion. I maintain that unless you are speaking exclusively with 100% bona-fide linguists, any discussion of language will devolve within mere minutes into "I really hate it when people say …" and, of course, "… that's not even a word!"

  26. svan said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    [(amz) Fun is another topic entirely. People who object to funner etc. are objecting to fun used as an adjective (as well as a noun).]

    I disagree entirely. I am perfectly content with fun as an adjective, but require (as do, I think, most native speakers I associate with) the periphrastic comparative and superlative forms.

  27. Abi said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    "we discuss inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives"

    (Some?) Scots dialects use both the periphrastic and the inflection together, as in: more calmer, more sorer, etc. I hear that combination fairly regularly.

  28. Alex said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Assume for a second that the word "cleverer" had never been uttered before or used in writing etc. And then someone (X) used "cleverer" in a sentence to this Fox guy, who then proceeds to claim it isn't a word. In such a situation, isn't the Fox guy engaging in a futile argument, since hasn't "cleverer" become a word by the very fact that X has used the word?

    Is the above trivially true, or am I engaging in sophistry in trying to work out when something "becomes" a word?

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    For me, as for many an oldster, "fun" is a non-count noun, but like nouns in general can be used to modify a following noun:

    "Water polo is fun"
    "Water polo is a fun game"

    I can say "It's great fun" or "It's not much fun" but not eg * "It's very fun." and I don't make use of adjectival comparative or superlative forms, because in my idiolect "fun" isn't an adjective at all.

    In my (much hipper) childrens' speech, none of these restrictions apply, and they use "fun" as a perfectly ordinary adjective,complete with "funner" and "funnest."

  30. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

    For me (North American, born 1974), "fun" is a bona fide adjective, so I have no problem whatsoever with "It's very fun" or "It's so fun" or "It's as fun as a barrel of monkeys", but I don't have "funner" and "funnest".

  31. GAC said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    "Commoner" hit me as odd when I first saw it (on Langauge Log, I think), but I got used to it. Still, I probably wouldn't use it myself. To each his own.

  32. Aaron Davies said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 12:43 am

    "it is to <verb>" always sounded vaguely russian to me

  33. slobone said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 1:54 am

    This thread is getting curiouser and curiouser…

    When Barry Commoner ran for president in 1980, he ran a radio commercial that began with the word "bullshit." Apparently the FCC had no authority to ban it because campaign commercials were exempt. Herb Caen in his column wondered "The commoner the better?".

    As for it is to weep, that's mock-French, n'est-ce pas? C'est à pleurer, c'est à rire, etc.

  34. J. Goard said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:03 am

    @Spell Me Jeff

    I believe native speakers employ a variety of tacit "rules" when choosing between the inflected or periphrastic version. This is why the matter is so hard to pin down. Most of these "rules" are probably aesthetic, involving sound and association rather than anything logical.

    I believe you have hit on the basic orientation that currently goes under the names "usage-based model" and "construction grammar" in descriptive linguistics, and is strongly related to connectionist language modeling. Since Bybee (2001) is handy:

    "Generalizations over forms are expressed as relations among forms based on phonetic and/or semantic similarities. New forms can be produced by reference to existing forms, but most multimorphemic words are stored whole in the lexicon."

    From your treatment of serious, you seem to grok this idea. Though I would quibble with your calling it "aesthetic", since it's actually a major theory of linguistic structure (and, I believe, basically the right one).

    The usage-based model would also say that "the actual derivation" is something linguists do after the fact. Language learners/users employ analogy, and even the super-regular "morphemes" like -ing are just cases of super-strong analogy. Plenty of child language research has shown a lag between the mastery of such inflectional morphemes with individual roots, and the ability to extend them productively.

    Concerning serious in particular, it should also be noted that it has three syllables, which is often too many for the suffix. Your point would seem to be stronger for viciouser, noxiouser which I find just as terrible.

  35. J. Goard said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:08 am

    On that last point: in my dialect, vicious and noxious clearly have two syllables, although it seems that for others they have three, or are in-between.

  36. Alon Lischinsky said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 4:18 am

    The "it is to weep" form seems intuitively parallel to Spanish "es para llorar", Portuguese "e para chorar", and Catalan "és per a plorar" to me. I don't think I had ever noticed it before in English, though.

  37. Colin John said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    To me 'funner' is non-standard, but not actually wrong. However, I don't see that thinking so denies 'fun' its adjectivehood.
    On a related note, I had never come across 'a hell of a funny.' (not modifying anything stated) before I met my wife, who is a native of Southern England. Any other sightings of that?

  38. language hat said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    Like slobone, I have always taken the "It is to weep" construction as an imitation of French. I'm fairly sure I've seen early examples where this was made explicit (e.g., put in the mouth of someone with a heavy French accent), but I don't have time to research it now.

  39. Jan Karel Schreuder said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    In 1966 Maunuela und die 5 Dopps had a top hit in the German speaking world with Es ist zum Weinen.

    The construction is very common in German, I would think (I am Dutch). It could be translated, obviously, as It makes you cry But in German this construction is used solely (or mostly) to express strong emotional reactions. Whereas in English you can say it makes you think, es is zum Denken doesn't sound right. So,It is to weep was well chosen to express the reaction to the news anchor 's linguistic 'thoughts'

  40. Jan Karel Schreuder said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I screwed up my italic tags. So this is the correct version

    In 1966 Maunuela und die 5 Dopps had a top hit in the German speaking world with Es ist zum Weinen.

    The construction is very common in German, I would think (I am Dutch). It could be translated, obviously, as It makes you cry. But in German this construction is used solely (or mostly) to express strong emotional reactions. Whereas in English you can say it makes you think, es is zum Denken doesn't sound right. So, It is to weep was well chosen to express the reaction to the news anchor 's linguistic 'thoughts'

  41. Adrian said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    FWIW my opinion is that the inflectional and periphrastic options are available for every adjective. If you want to say "beautifuller" or "more nice", go ahead; fill your boots.

  42. Chris said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    "(Some?) Scots dialects use both the periphrastic and the inflection together, as in: more calmer, more sorer, etc. I hear that combination fairly regularly."

    I somewhat often heard the same when I was in college in Baltimore – especially "more better." It irked me at first, but by the time I returned to NJ it made me chuckle more than anything.

  43. sollersuk said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    Curioser and curioser.

    What I was actually taught (English grammar school, late 1950s and early 1960s, teachers who were mostly Oxford and Cambride educated* in the 1920s and 1930s) was that it is basically an aesthetic choice: if it sounds awkward and is hard to get your tongue around, use the "more" construction.

    *I didn't say "graduates" because at the time Cambridge didn't actually give degrees to women.

  44. Mr Punch said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    Like slobone and language hat, I've always thought of "it is to laugh" as a translation of a French phrase, and I too vaguely recall cases in which this is made fairly explicit.

    As to fun: As a sixtyish American, I find "a lot of fun" natural, and "very fun" at best questionable though I think increasingly common (or, if you prefer, ever commoner).

  45. josephdietrich said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    Regarding "it is to [something]" and German usage: I've only been in Germany a relatively short time (<6 years) but I've heard the "es ist zum [kotzen, weinen, lachen, usw.]" construction very often, enough that the translation was immediately obvious to me. Anecdotal, I know, but a data point nonetheless.

  46. language hat said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    I've heard the "es ist zum [kotzen, weinen, lachen, usw.]" construction very often, enough that the translation was immediately obvious to me.

    No one is denying that the construction exists in German; the question is where English got it. Kilometer exists in both French and German, too, but English borrowed it from the former.

  47. Jan Karel Schreuder said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    @language hat

    What actually would the French construction be? I don't know any French construction that literally translates to it is to and is used to express a strong emotional reaction.

  48. more or -er? « Dadge said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    [...] or -er? Language Log is discussing what the rules are for how we form the comparative and superlative of adjectives, or, [...]

  49. Uln said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    "It is to weep" is a very common construction in Spanish used in many cases such as: "es para morirse" (it is to die), "es para darle un premio" (it is to give him a prize), "es para echarse a llorar" (it is to cry), or even the very common: "es para matarlo", (=it is to kill him).

    In all cases it means "it is so (-X-) that it warrants VERB"

    I wouldn't be surprised if it came from Spanish into English. I hope it becomes widespread in English because it is useful, expressive, and suitable for lazy speakers who don't want to think of an adjective in (-X-).

  50. slobone said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 1:25 am

    @Jan Karel Schreuder I'm far from an expert in French. The closest the HarperCollins French-English dictionary has is this example, under "rire":

    c'est à mourir OU crever de rire = it's hilarious, it's awfully funny, you'd die laughing

    And in various usage forums the question of whether it's legitimate French has been hotly debated. However, a search in Google France turns up quite a few hits. "C'est à rire ou à pleurer" is especially common.

    As for English, I found "it is to laugh" as far back as a book of comic dialect stories from 1904, about a character named Chimmie Fadden:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=O_4gAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA166&dq=%22it+is+to+laugh%22&ei=DKEUS_nKCY6MNrecuaAL#v=onepage&q=%22it%20is%20to%20laugh%22&f=false

    It seems to have gained currency as a slang expression in the late 1890's.

  51. Sarah Davies said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    Lewis Carroll used the fact that people dislike, sometimes strongly, certain inflectional variants to great effect with his famous description of Wonderland as "curiouser and curiouser."

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