Qua

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Last night, with some diffidence, for the first time since Barbara's death, I made an attempt at cooking the excellent mushroom risotto that she used to do. I knew how to do it in broad outline. But through a careless fumble when adding more olive oil to the pan at the sauteeing stage, I put way too much olive oil in — like about half a cup too much. Barbara (mistress of delicious low-fat cooking) would have thrown the whole mess in the bin. I made a different decision. I decided to reconceptualize. This was not going to be Barbara's mushroom risotto at all; this was an olive oil risotto with mushrooms. Qua mushroom risotto it would not have ranked highly, but qua olive oil risotto it wasn't too bad.

What is this word qua that is so crucial to what I just said? It's a borrowing from Latin. It means something like "in the capacity of", or simply "as". And I was surprised to discover recently that the Oxford English Dictionary miscategorizes it. They call it an adverb. Baffling — unless they were influenced by their account of the word's origin in Latin: it is claimed to originate as an adverbial use of the singular feminine ablative form of qui "who". But it is quite clearly a preposition in English, as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) points out (p. 638).

The OED admits it is "Usu[ally] with following noun." Adverbs never take noun or noun-phrase complements, whereas qua, like the most prototypical prepositions, always does. To be more specific, it takes a predicative noun phrase, in the same way that as does.

The OED has just one quotation that could be said to look like an exception to what I just said: "A body corporate, quà corporate, cannot make an affidavit." This is from a 1776 court document (part of the supplementary papers that figured in an Indian conspiracy trial). It is legal jargon, and appears to assign qua (spelled with a grave accent!) an adjective complement, corporate. To my ear it is ungrammatical. I'd be prepared to dismiss it as simply a mistake, or as a use of corporate to mean corporate body, or as evidence that in the 18th century lawyers used qua to mean "considered as being" (a passive verb phrase meaning, you'll notice, not an adverb meaning).

But suppose corporate really is an adjective complement of qua in the 1776 example. The generalization would then be that qua takes a predicative complement that is nearly always a noun phrase but occasionally may be an adjective. That doesn't in any way tell against it being a preposition. CGEL notes examples like I took him for harmless and The situation went from bad to worse, and we also have idioms in which prototypical prepositions take adjective complements in fixed phrases like at first, at last, for certain, for free (American), for sure (American), in brief, in full, in private, in short, in vain, of late, of old. All the underlined words in this paragraph are adjectives.

All the other OED quotations use qua with a following noun, just like the most central cases of prepositions.

The most unusual thing about qua as a preposition is that it takes a bare noun phrase complement — just a nominal (such as olive oil risotto) with no determiner (the traditional term for a noun phrase with no determiner is anarthrous). In an OED example like Philip Larkin was unquestionably better loved, qua poet, we find qua poet rather than *qua a poet, and in what I wrote above we see qua olive oil risotto rather than *qua an olive oil risotto. But this is not unattested elsewhere. I said above that qua takes a predicative noun phrase complement. Notice that predicative noun phrases are often anarthrous in English: He was elected president, Julia Gillard was named prime minister of Australia, Elizabeth became queen in 1952, Philip was created Duke of Edinburgh, etc.

Qua is clearly and plainly a preposition in English. Calling it an adverb is one of the most egregious cases I have ever seen of using "adverb" as the wastebasket category for the little words that one hasn't a clue about. The OED should fix this in its next edition. Webster's Third New International Dictionary gets it right, and says "prep" for this word's part of speech.

[Update later: I was very pleased to hear from Jesse Sheidlower after he read the above that the OED people plan to make the correction in the next online release of the entry for qua.]

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