protest of

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Back on 9 March, Daniel Schorr peeved on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday about five of what he viewed as media sins against English, the last of which was:

Finally, the commonly used "protest of" some action — wrong. To protest is to proclaim or announce, as methinks thou dost protest too much. What you mean is to protest against.

It's not at all clear what usage Schorr was ranting about here: transitive uses of the verb protest (as in to protest the war, discussed in my posting on approve); intransitive uses of this verb with the (oblique) object marked by the preposition of rather than against (protested of the war); or uses of the derived nominal protest (accented on the first syllable) with the complement marked by of rather than against (a protest of the war). At first, I thought he was talking about the nominal protest of — because he referred specifically to "protest of", and the verbal protest of was new to me (in fact, I find it unacceptable). But then his later references to the word were clearly, in context, to a verb.

So now I'll discuss all three.

If it's transitive protest he's complaining about, I'm baffled. As I noted in my approve posting, transitive protest is widespread in the U.S. And the usage isn't new or particularly journalistic; the OED has cites from 1887, from a variety of sources (the most recent a 2005 quote from the New York Review of Books: "He successfully protested the expulsion of a fellow student"), and MWDEU has more. Perhaps this is an idiosyncratic prejudice on Schorr's part. People do sometimes take a dislike to particular usages and end up insisting that certain words can have only one meaning, despite evidence that many educated and articulate people think otherwise. But I'm guessing that Schorr's problem is with nominal protest of, not transitive protest. I'll get to that in a moment.

As for verbal protest of, it's infrequent, but there are instances:

Martin Luther protested of this practice, and as a consequence, was excommunicated by Leo X on January 3, 1521. (link)

… a suit related to mental health treatment at Tamms on behalf of four prisoners who protested of excessively harsh conditions; … (link)

(MWDEU lists at, about, and over — but not of — as occasional alternatives to against with intransitive protest.) I don't think this variant could be fairly described as "commonly used".

Nominal protest of is another matter. Though MWDEU lists at as an alternative to against with the derived nominal, it characterizes of and to as only occasional variants. But that's no longer true for of; there are huge numbers of webhits, most of them in journalistic contexts, for example:

Every step he takes is a protest of China’s abuses. (link)

Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews in London, New York and Washington DC demonstrated in protest of the atrocities in Gaza… (link)

And especially in headlines, where of is a space-saving alternative to against:

Cities jammed in worldwide protest of war in Iraq (link)

Gaza protest of Israeli blockade yields disappointing turnout (link)

I'll assume that this is the usage Schorr was objecting to. And I'm here to tell you that in American English nominal protest of is exactly what you should expect as an alternative to (not a replacement for) nominal protest against.

I alluded to the crucial fact above: American (but not, in general, British) English has transitive protest. Everything else follows from this.

Here are the generalizations (familiar to English syntacticians and discussed on Language Log, in a different context, here):

(1) The "derived nominalization" related to a verb has a syntax largely "inherited from" that verb.

(2) Derived nominalizations, like English nouns in general, have PP (not NP) complements:

I  appreciate your words. [NP complement to V]

*I appreciate of your words. [PP complement to V]

*my appreciation your words [NP complement to N]

my appreciation of your words [PP complement to N]

(3) If the verb selects an oblique object with some preposition P, the derived nominalization preserves that P in its complement (it "inherits" this bit of syntax):

I adhere to your principles. [PP complement, with to, to V]

my adherence to your principles [PP complement, with to, to N]

(4) If the verb takes a direct object, the derived nominalization has a complement with the (default) P of (to satisfy (2)):

I accept your principles. [NP complement to V]

my acceptance of your principles [PP complement, with of, to N]

That's it. All done. In American English, protest can take either an oblique or a direct object:

I was protesting against the war.

I was protesting the war.

From which we predict, according to (3) and (4), two alternative nominalizations:

a protest against the war [by (3)]

a protest of the war [by (4)]

I don't know what's going on for Schorr. If he lacks transitive protest, then he should have protest against rather than protest of as the corresponding derived nominalization. Maybe that's it. Maybe he's just an enthusiast for One Right Way. He's entitled to his tastes, but he should back off from telling the rest of us that protest of is just flat wrong.



  1. Jamie said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    I'm sort of confused by how at the top you say (of verbal "protest of"), "I find it unacceptable" but then at the bottom you say (of nominal(?) "protest of"), "he should back off from telling the rest of us that protest of is just flat wrong".

    I'm sure it's not what you mean, but it sounds like you're saying that you find "protest of" unacceptable but you also find it unacceptable for someone else to say that they find "protest of" unacceptable, as if you're the only one allowed to proclaim that it's unacceptable. That seems, to me, unacceptable.

  2. jlr said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

    Dude, he's 91 years old, give him a break. I'll be lucky if I'm half as cogent, or even half as alive, at that age. I'd lay more blame on his editors at this point.

    [AMZ: I have the power, as a Language Log blogger, just to delete your left-handed nasty comment, but I've decided to leave it as a kind of precious flower of snarkiness.]

  3. Rubrick said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    The NY Review of Books citation, "He successfully protested the expulsion of a fellow student", is interesting. I think the presence of "successfully" makes a difference here. To me, the sentence in its current form implies that his protest had the desired result, and the student was reinstated. "successfully protested against the expulsion" would be less clear; it might instead mean that his particular act of protest (say, marching with a sign) was successfully carried out (perhaps not stopped by the police).

  4. goofy said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    Jamie: I think he's just saying that verbal "protest of" is not part of his dialect. That doesn't mean it's wrong. He's not saying it's unacceptable to everyone – there are uses of it, as he points out. It's just not something he would say.

  5. Andrew Clegg said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    'protest' with no prep sounds ambiguous to me. Recently in London there was a demonstration about the Human Embryology Bill – or rather two demos, one with scientists and medics protesting FOR the bill and another with religionists protesting AGAINST the bill. If you just refer to people protesting the bill, how do you know which side of the police line they were on?


  6. Kris Rhodes said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    Arnold: Jaimie was asking why you could call one usage "unacceptable" while, concerning the other usage, saying others should not tell us usages are "flat out wrong." I take it the answer to this question is that you don't mean "flat out wrong" when you say "unacceptable" but I'll let you elaborate.


  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

    To Kris Rhodes. who said:

    Arnold: Jaimie was asking why you could call one usage "unacceptable" while, concerning the other usage, saying others should not tell us usages are "flat out wrong." I take it the answer to this question is that you don't mean "flat out wrong" when you say "unacceptable" but I'll let you elaborate.
    I mean "unacceptable to me". I recognize that such judgments are personal, and I don't intend to impose them on other people.

  8. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

    Interesting. I (a native AmE speaker) consider verbal "protest of" to be unexceptionable, if rare. It has a slightly different connotation to me than "protest [against]" does, but I'm hard put to explain precisely what it is. Ah… OED3 says (at 6a): "Originally: to make a formal (often written) declaration against a proposal, decision, etc.; to complain, remonstrate. Now usu.: to express disapproval or dissent; to object to something." For me, at least, "protest of" means specifically "complain", as opposed to "protest against" which absorbs the other senses. (Compare the figurative use in OED's sense 6f, "to make a creaking noise in reaction to pressure.")

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    I think your nominal "protest of" examples are qualitatively different from each other. Going by, "in protest of" is somewhat more common in journalism than "in protest against," but "a protest of" is not nearly so common as "a protest against"; so I think that perhaps "in protest of" is actually "{{in protest} {of …}}" rather than "{in {protest {of …}}}." I'm not sure if Schorr objects to one, the other, or both.

    Personally, I find the "a protest of" examples to be odd, but not Earth-ending.

  10. Breffni said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    I find transitive “protest” just about OK in journalistic contexts, maybe because I’ve heard it from American sources (I’m Irish). But “a protest of the war” is definitely unacceptable to me. I think it’s because Arnold’s rule (4) – "verb+DObj -> noun+of" – doesn’t apply consistently to stress-shift nominalisations like “protest”:

    He researched fish kills
    his research into/on/*of fish kills

    He conducted the orchestra
    his conducting/*conduct of the orchestra

    The accused was convicted
    the conviction/convicting/*convict of the accused

    He invited me.
    #I got an invite
    his ?inviting/*invitation/*invite of me

    He progressed the plan
    His progressing/*progress of the plan

    He permitted the scheme.
    His permitting/*permit of the scheme

    I think this in turn is because these nouns are a closed class with established meanings that aren't systematically predictable from the verb. Instead they refer to some artifact, outcome or other entity, sometimes related to one specific sense of the verb but not others, as in the case of "CONduct" and "INvite".

    So just as a permit isn’t an act of permitting, for me "a protest" doesn't mean an act of protesting (it means a gathering or an utterance) and it can’t take a complement of any kind.

  11. Breffni said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:31 am

    "it can’t take a complement of any kind"

    Correction: of course it can – a complement headed by against.

  12. Briony Shaquebender said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 2:48 am

    "…your left-handed nasty comment…"

  13. Chris Crawford said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    I would add to the soup the expression "I protest my innocence!", which uses transitivity in a completely different direction.

  14. Cole said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 2:52 am

    So Arnold's response to Jamie invokes speaker relativism? How fitting!

  15. old maltese said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    The intransitive 'protest against the dean's ruling' is clear enough.

    However, 'protest of the dean's ruling' is much broader. It means 'protest regarding the dean's ruling'.

    It might be against the timing, the wording, etc., without being against the substance at all.

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