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A recent email from the Modern Language Association directed me to a piece of usage advice from Barney Latimer: "Versus or Against?":

When The New York Times ran with the front-page headline “Trump Urges Unity versus Racism,” many readers questioned the accuracy of this assertion, but none pointed to its glaring grammatical error—its misuse of versus. The fact that this mistake went unremarked may testify to its increasing prevalence.

Or it might testify to the fact that the headline involved no "glaring grammatical error" at all?

What's the grammatical rule that the NYT violated? According to Mr. Latimer, you're not allowed to use versus to join noun phrases as the object of a "verb of action":

In some cases, the misuse is obvious to the point of absurdity. It is unlikely, for instance, that anyone would write the following:

I leaned my back versus the wall.

In most cases, however, the misuse is less extreme but no less wrong. For instance:

The 2019 Women’s World Cup final pitted the United States versus the Netherlands.

In both cases, the pair of nouns (“my back” / “the wall” and “the United States” / “the Netherlands”) are preceded by a verb of action and should be joined by against.

This rule can also be explained using more strictly grammatical terms. If you are wondering whether to join two nouns, A and B, with against or versus, you can ask yourself if noun A is a direct object of the verb—that is, if it takes the action of the verb. If the answer is yes, then use against to join them. In the Times example, for instance, noun A, “Unity,” receives the action of the verb, “Urges.” Hence, against should be used here, not versus.

An obvious alternative diagnosis for "*I leaned my back versus the wall" is that (as the Wiktionary explains) versus means "in opposition to" or "compared with, as opposed to", not physical adjacency or support.

It's true that the usage of versus (overall and versus against) has been increasing:

And a bit of web searching easily turns up many thousands of examples of the "glaring grammatical error" under discussion, e.g. in Hugh MacDiarmid's poem "The International Brigade":

And even so will the future see
The Upper Classes versus the Working Class;
The defrauded, dauntless People of Spain on the one side;
Monarchy, Wealth, Superstition, and traitor soldiery on the other.

In the scientific literature,  e.g. here:

Pairwise follow-up t tests comparing nicotine versus placebo PATCH differences (in the absence of varenicline under placebo pill conditions) and assessing varenicline versus placebo PILL differences (in the absence of nicotine under placebo patch conditions) were Bonferroni-corrected.

Or here:

To highlight the role of the current density, the inset of Fig. 2A shows resistivity versus temperature plotted at different current densities.

Or in mass media, e.g. here:

It's really different for me; making music versus videos is such a different part of my brain and part of the way I work.

I checked a few usage guides, and as far as I can tell, this "rule" (forbidding NP1 versus NP2 as the object of a verb) is Latimer's invention — perhaps an example of micro-syntactic variation in action (real or hallucinated)? Commenters will tell me if some other self-appointed grammar maven got there first…

So what we need now is a word for the invention of a grammar rule to (try to) explain someone's idiosyncratic usage intuition(s). And also a word for people who invent such rules and preach them to the public.



  1. Keith said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

    Your example of Hugh MacDiarmid's poem the two factions in opposition almost as if they were two teams playing a match against one another.

    I remember as a child that the word "versus" was verbed, with a present tense of "versing" meaning "to play against, to oppose at a sporting event".

    In town with two football (soccer, for the Americans) teams, one might be called Someplace Town and the other Someplace United. It would not be unusual for there to be supporters of both teams in the same school In the event of a local derby a supporter of Town would say to a supporter United "we're versing your lot next Saturday".

  2. Terry K. said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 1:56 pm

    There's something odd about the notion of a "glaring grammatical error" in a headline.

    It does strike me as ambiguous, and that against, if it actually fits the meaning, would be better for that reason. I see that for other reasons it did get changed… to: ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS

    The headline seems to have created quite a stir, but not for reasons having anything to do with grammar.

  3. Michael M said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 2:11 pm

    The show 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' had a very funny and novel usage – the characters, unable to comprehend doing something without it being adversarial, exclaim 'Who versus? Who are we doing this versus?!'

  4. Adam H. said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 2:24 pm

    In the case of the headline, using “against” rather than “versus” would change the meaning slightly, or at least the emphasis, I think.

    "Trump urges unity versus racism" means that he urges unity rather than racism. Unity and racism are framed as alternatives.

    "Trump urges unity against racism" means that racism should be opposed and unity is the means of that opposition. That is, let's all join together in opposition to racism.

    It's, "Instead of being racist, we should unify" and "We should unite in our opposition to racism."

  5. Cervantes said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 3:05 pm

    There is certainly nothing grammatically wrong with the headline, but you could argue that it creates a bit of ambiguity that "against" would not. Does it mean, choose unity rather than choose racism, or choose unity (i.e become united) in opposition to racism? It seems to me that "against" more clearly signals the latter, which is what is intended. But it's not a grammatical issue.

  6. Batchman said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 3:40 pm

    The referenced rule "if noun A is a direct object of the verb—that is, if it takes the action of the verb" doesn't seem to apply in the two uses of "versus" quoted above:

    In MacDiarmid's "… see The Upper Classes versus the Working Class", the object of "see" is more accurately construed as the phrase "the Upper Classes versus the Working Class", i.e. a struggle between two groups. One does not "see" something "against" some other thing.

    Likewise, whoever said "making music versus videos" meant it as an elision of "making music versus making videos". "Making music against videos" could be conceivably done (e.g. by The Buggles), but that's almost certainly not what was being said here. Thus, there is no action verb applicable here, but a subject compound gerund phrase.

    In short, both of those uses of "versus" seem entirely apt.

    [(myl) But "The 2019 Women’s World Cup final pitted the United States versus the Netherlands" is ungrammatical? And likewise "plot X versus Y"? ]

  7. Paul said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

    Both the Trump headline and "The 2019 Women’s World Cup final pitted the United States versus the Netherlands" feel jarringly wrong to me, so I guess at least my intuition jibes with Latimer's. The evidence for whether that's just an idiosyncrasy is mixed… I searched Google for the string "pitted * versus" and found many, many examples of the same pattern online, often in (presumably) edited news media:

    "the battle over sanctuary cities pitted the state versus local control"
    "Donald Trump's Dating Show Pitted Rich Versus Poor for Omarosa's Heart"
    "the final of the Junior Debating Society's Inter-House Competition pitted Laxton versus Crosby"
    "This race was a three-team event for both the girls' and boys' teams that pitted Great Oak versus Murrieta Valley and Chaparral"

    Certainly online it's widespread enough. Using Google's Ngram Viewer, though, shows a different picture for printed contexts. I tried "pitted * versus" and "set * versus". No hits at all for the former (plenty for "pitted * against", though) and vanishingly few for "set * versus" (excluding results such as "set-up versus running costs" and other false results).

    I found 3 or 4 that came close to the relevant pattern; all were 21st century, all were in technical books (eg "Another big advantage of application virtualization is the far fewer resources and less time it takes to set up versus bringing online.").

    I don't have access to many corpora. This 5-minute research project, though, suggests to me that Latimer's intuition is probably grounded in *something* more than idiosyncrasy, but equally that usage has changed / is changing. I know no one cares what I think, but since I got intrigued enough to look it up, I thought I might as well share what I found.

  8. David L said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 5:36 pm

    I agree with Paul above, although I wouldn't say I find the examples "jarringly" wrong. They just grate on my ear a little, like a bum note on the piano. In any case, I don't see any grammatical problem. I would call it a matter of style or idiom, and I can well believe others would see it differently (or hear it differently, perhaps).

  9. KevinM said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

    When my kids did high school debate, they and their peers used to to verbify "versus" thus: "I versed him in the semi finals."

  10. CD said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 6:42 pm

    There should be a term for "this is not done in my idiolect." My own usage matches Latimer's, but so what? The meaning of these versuses is clear and language, well, changes. The weird part is that people make "grammar" stand for anything they wouldn't write.

  11. FM said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 6:48 pm

    I'm with Keith and KevinM: US kid slang reanalyzes "versus" as the 3rd person present of a verb "to verse" (or at least did when I was a kid).

  12. Chester Draws said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 6:54 pm

    "To verse" is pretty much universal among school children in New Zealand too.

    I regularly get asked things like, "Mr Draws, who are we versing this week?"

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 7:27 pm

    I was tempted to read the headline as Trump urging SCOTUS to take up the case of Unity v. Racism.

  14. Brian C Clark said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 8:17 pm


  15. D.O. said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 11:31 pm

    So what we need now is a word for the invention of a grammar rule to (try to) explain someone's idiosyncratic usage intuition(s).


  16. Haamu said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 11:53 pm

    a word for people who invent such rules and preach them to the public


  17. RfP said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 3:34 am

    Idiologism and idiologist (or idiologue)

  18. Rachael Churchill said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 5:10 am

    People mentioning the backformation "to verse": do you pronounce "versus" the same as "verses"? I don't – I pronounce "verses" with /ɪz/ but "versus" with /əs/ (same as other -us words like "bonus" or "Celsius").

    @myl, I don't think Batchman is disagreeing with you about Latimer's rule being nonsense, just pointing out the invalidity of two of the citations you used against it. If, say, you were defending the acceptability of split infinitives and used someone saying "I object to always being ignored" as evidence, it would be correct to point out that "I object to always being ignored" isn't a split infinitive, even if the person pointing that out agreed with you that split infinitives are acceptable.

  19. George said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    I read it as Adam H. did (i.e. that unity and racism are alternatives to be chosen between and that unity is the preferable one), so I didn't see a problem. But if what is meant is that we should unite against racism, then 'versus' does strike me as wrong, not least because it is ambiguous. Had the headline been something like “Trump Urges Unity versus Poverty” (implausible, yes, but probably no more so than the actual headline), it would have immediately struck me as wrong but at the same time would have been unambiguously clear in meaning.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    I take it that those comfortable with the deprecated examples of "versus" still accept that "versus" cannot be freely swapped in to any sentence where "against" would be acceptable? What's the alternative broader account of the current scope of "versus" in English that still leaves it narrower than "against" and allows these examples while disallowing others? How does the proposed account deal with examples such as the following:

    ?Tom was leaning versus the wall.

    ?When I lower the door frame into place one side will not sit flush versus the wall.

    ?Push back versus the age as hard as it pushes versus you.

    ?Versus stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.

  21. Terry K. said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 12:19 pm

    Replying to Rachael Churchill's comment.

    I definitely pronounce both versus and verses with a voiced sound at the end, /z/, though the unvoiced /s/ in versus also strikes me as quite normal. I'm less sure on the vowel. There may be a small distinction, but nothing I'd expect others to notice. Both definitely more /ɪz/ than /əz/ for me.


    March 12, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    I like D.O.'s suggestion of "Drydenism." But then again, I enjoy obscure historical references. Another possibility is an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's "snoot." Wallace meant it more favorably, as a self-deprecating "Yes, I am pedantic, but I am right." Extending the word here would remove the second half of that, which was never accurate anyway.

  23. Batchman said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 1:44 pm

    @Rachael, you are right that I was not expressing an opinion on Latimer's rule but challenging the profferred counterexamples. FWIW, the "pitted … versus" also feels not right to me, so fundamentally I am sympathetic to Latimer's view.

    Frankly, what is far more troublesome to me is the prevalence of "between … or", as in "People are having to choose between paying the rent or taking care of their health."

  24. D.O. said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 1:51 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I suggest (very preliminary, without investigation) that versus, though it is classified as preposition, in widely acceptable uses is similar to conjunction. That is, 1) it must be in "A versus B" structure, thus, "I came to Paris versus his will" won't fly and 2) A and B should be in some relevant sense comparable. Thus, "Mike is in a losing struggle versus age" is unaceptable because Mike and age are incomparable. Once again, this is very preliminary.

  25. Cervantes said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 2:04 pm

    As I said before, versus signals a conflict, a combatant relationship. It's used in the law, regarding the contending parties in litigation; and in sports, regarding the competitors. X versus Y means that X and Y are contending with each other in some way. Could be used abstractly to refer to contending hypotheses or propositions. It's really that simple. No need to overthink it.

    Against, however, can mean that, but has additional meanings.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

    D.O.: I think an expression like "It was Mike versus old age, and old age won" sounds perfectly idiomatic. Maybe that's a metaphorical extension from "A v. B" situations where A and B are more literally "comparable" as literal competitors or antagonists? But it's an easy metaphorical extension, which might be why it doesn't sound odd.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 2:30 pm

    I should have added that my last two "?" examples arguably exhibit such metaphorical extensions of literal A. v. B. competition or conflict, making reactions to their grammaticality (or at least idiomaticity) particularly relevant.

  28. D.O. said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 3:10 pm

    J.W.Brewer, I agree with your Mike example. As for the last two ? examples, I don't know what to say. They just look weird, but if someone insists on speaking like that, I guess there is no principled way to say "no". The question is whether "real people" already speak like that. Maybe outside the construction "A v. B" in conventional types of confrontation (legal, sport, politics) versus remains a marked choice and needs some justification for use?

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    D.O: "they strike me as unidiomatic-sounding" is a perfectly useful datapoint. I would agree with it myself, but I wasn't sure if my own ear was up-to-date. Maybe some of the structures would be odd even in a "core" context like sports. "Versus the Yankees, the Red Sox are undefeated this season" seems a bit off to my ear. Although maybe the conjunction-not-preposition analysis you suggest above helps illuminate that?

  30. James said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    @Michael M,

    That episode was the first thing I thought of. It's the one where Charlie writes a musical:

  31. Vance Koven said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 5:06 pm

    It's not so much a matter of grammar as it is of pompous usage, just a way to make something commonplace seem more significant than it is. No need to use (or misuse) a Latin word ("a Latin word, a Greek remark, and one that's French," as W. S. Gilbert put it) in a new context when there's a perfectly good English alternative.

    And as to versing, I'd hate to see it become prosaic.

  32. Philip Anderson said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 7:14 pm

    I agree with Cervantes that “X versus Y means that X and Y are contending with each other in some way”, i.e. both are competing equally. So although it does jar, I would have to interpret “pitting V versus Y” as “pitting X and Y against each other”, which is not I think the intended meaning.

    But I wouldn’t say it’s ungrammatical – an Americanism maybe.

    “To verse” on the other hand is just one of those weird Americanisms that make me agree with Oscar Wilde :-)

  33. Viseguy said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 10:25 pm

    "Over" would have worked better than "versus" in the Times headline, IMO. Never use Latin when English would do, is my motto. Ceteris paribus.

  34. Bloix said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 12:28 am

    Did versus traditionally function as an ordinary preposition? I don't think so.

    I think it was used exclusively to create a title or caption that could function as a compound noun. The initial usage was as a caption of legal cases. "Brown vs. Board" is a leading civil rights case. This is no different than "Fanny and Alexander" is a Bergman film.

    From there it moved to sports – to boxing, first, I think.

    And then more broadly, versus can be used to create a compound noun involving two alternatives or a competition (literal or metaphorical) between two entities or concepts.

    This is the kind of use in the only example that Barney Latimer gives as correct:

    "The novel explored the theme of nature versus nurture."

    Here, "nature versus nurture" is the name of a theme – that is, it's a compound noun. In the not-too-distant past, it might have been written in quotation marks.

    I think that treating versus as an ordinary preposition is a modern development. You can see, in the objectionable sentence, how the change comes about:

    "The 2019 Women’s World Cup final pitted the United States versus the Netherlands."

    Here, "the United States versus the Netherlands" is in fact the caption of the competition, but it doesn't quite function that way in the sentence. If "pitted" is replaced by "featured" we have the traditional use – the title of the match functioning as a compound noun. And this is what Latimer is willing to accept.

    I think the use of versus as an ordinary preposition is novel – enough so that a peever can justify considering it an error.

  35. Julian said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 1:24 am

    Back-formed 'who are you versing in the game this week' – ditto Australia. It would be interesting to know whether this is adoptuon or independent invention.

  36. Bloix said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 1:25 am

    PS- the science examples are similar to the US vs Netherlands in that the author is imagining (or referring to) graphs captioned "x vs. y." In the first example, "Pairwise follow-up t tests" provide graphable results once they are "Bonferroni-corrected." In the second, we are literally directed to a graph that is shows, and presumably is captioned, "resistivity versus temperature."

    And the Hugh McDiarmid poem writes of the class struggle as a competition in which a personified future sees an event captioned "The Upper Classes versus the Working Class."

    The only clear example of versus as an ordinary preposition is the Billie Eilish quote, where it means, not against, but compared with. And this is from an interview, which is full of the slightly ungrammatical phrasings found in all but the most formal spontaneous speech.

  37. Julian said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 1:26 am

    This recalls for me the competition that someone (Language Log?) Held a few years ago to invent the most plausible fictitious prescriptive grammar rule.

  38. Bill said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 8:29 am

    Wouldn't this fall under Zombie Rules?

  39. djw said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 10:51 am

    Rachael Churchill, in my idiolect (and those I hear around me in central Texas), "verses" ends like "is" and "versus" like "us."

    But I taught for a couple of decades in an engineering program here, where students always referred to graphs plotted with "x-axis vs. y-axis" (and yes, Bliox, they wanted the caption to read "x-axis vs. y-axis," which I found entirely ridiculous–I want captions to tell me how you *interpret* the curve, not what you plotted!), so I'm sure "vs." is completely ingrained in the science/engineering realm. (And I'm okay with it just about anywhere where 2 things are contrasted/pitted against each other.)

    And in my last several years of teaching, I saw and heard more and more of the verb, which the students spelled and often pronounced like "verses," as in "our school verses their school in all kinds of sports." Drove me to retirement!

  40. reader_not_acedeme said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 5:18 am

    The versus -> to verse back-formation sheds entirely new light on the verb 'to converse.' I propose that "converse" is a problematic word. It violates the "language hates redundancy" rule because "con" obviously already expresses the oppositionality that's conveyed by "verse."

    I therefore declare it a grave usage error (and general bad form) to ever use "converse" again, especially as a semantically aberrated way of saying "to talk with."

    A single, specific usage is still accaptable: to describe the actions of a swindler who have cheated their way into a competition to play against an opponent. E.g. "Ricky Jay first conversed Terry Gross in a 1987 episode of Fresh Air."

  41. NaBUru38 said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    I guess that "versus" has been popularized in the past century by sports journalism, and then it spread through other forms of journalism.

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