Hillary unwavers?

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If a desert island is uninhabited by humans, it doesn't follow that humans uninhabit it. Likewise, if half the money was unaccounted for, that doesn't mean that anyone unaccounted for it. And you can say that someone's support was unwavering, but you can't say that it unwavered.

But wait a minute, maybe you can after all.

At least, it seems that someone writing headlines at the LA Times can:

I saved a screenshot because I figured they'd correct it quickly. And they did: the headline is now "SAT scores nationally unchanged from 2007".

Examples like "uninhabited by humans" have long been used as an argument for the lexical nature of adjectival passives in English, under the term unpassive (e.g. Joel R. Hust "The syntax of the unpassive construction in English", Linguistic Analysis 3(1): 31-63, 1975).  As CGEL explains  on p. 1436:

There is a large-scale overlap between adjectives and the past participle forms of verbs, and since the verb be can take complements headed by either of these categories we find a significant resemblance, and often an ambiguity between a verbal passive and a complex-intransitive clause containing an adjectival passive as a predicative complement. Compare:

[32] i   The kitchen window was broken by the thieves. [verbal: be-passive]
[32] ii  They were very worried. [adjectival: complex-intransitive]
[32] iii They were married. [ambiguous]

(For some additional context, see "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006.)

Forms like "unwavering" make a similar point. English expresses progressive aspect in active verbs with the auxiliary be + a following gerund-participle, as in "I was reading Language Log when the phone rang". But forms in -ing are often simply used as adjectives, as in "Bankers are less daring these days". And words of the form un+V+ing are generally adjectives, in which the prefix un- expresses negation: unassuming, uncaring, uncomplaining, unvarying.

Of course, there are some genuine verbs with the prefix un-, expressing reversal or deprivation: unwind, unpack, unmask, unearth, and so on. And these have normal gerund-participle forms, and normal uses for those forms, including the progressive.

So it's not surprising that someone might make a mistake and assign one of the un- adjectives to the wrong category. If there were a verb unwaver that was to waver as unwind is to wind, then most of the uses of "unwavering" would still make sense. For example, when Coleridge wrote

… all objects there will teach me
Unwavering love, and singleness of heart.

we would take him to mean that my love used to waver, but now it is (or soon will be) stabilizing.

And then you could say that SAT scores unwavered this year, or that Hillary Clinton's speech last night expressed unwavering support for Barack Obama.

Oh wait, you could say that anyhow.


  1. John Cowan said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    What is it with you linguists and your technical terms in un-? First unergative and unaccusative and now unpassive too.

    Next thing you know, you'll be inventing terms that are distinguished from other terms solely by their (typographical) case….

  2. KYL said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    This seems a kind of error mainly made by non-native speakers. The distinction between the progressive aspect and adjectival uses of a verb seem to me pretty deeply "intuitive" to a native speaker, for lack of a better word. Anybody have anecdotal or real evidence to confirm/refute my theory?

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    John Cowan: First unergative and unaccusative and now unpassive too.

    I'm not sure, but I think that unpassive might have been first. Anyone know the dates of first use?

  4. Brett said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    I couldn't help but wonder whether their headline writer was moonlighting for minitru.
    times 8.27.08 reporting clinton dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling.

  5. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    I'm waiting for the backformed verb derwhelm.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    John Cowan: Next thing you know, you'll be inventing terms that are distinguished from other terms solely by their (typographical) case….

    Once, leaving a talk, Roman Jakobson remarked "I support the study of linguistic form. And I tolerate the study of the form of linguistic rules. But I draw the line at the study of the calligraphy in which rules are written."

  7. Sili said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

    Well, politics is there already, mr Cowan. Witness how people refer to themselves as "small ell libertarians".

    I like Faldone's suggestion. I'm pretty sure I've seen jocular uses along the lines of "I am decidedly whelmed".

    That whole "un"-fix is nothing but trouble as the saga of "still unpacked" has already informed us.

  8. mollymooly said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    KYL: does the native confusion of adjective "past" with participle "passed" count? Granted it's passed tense rather than present tense.

  9. Lance said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    For those who missed mr. cowan's joke above (as Sili did, pointing out that politics is there already): linguistics is there already. Specifically, "case" and "Case" are distinct technical terms–neither, mind you, referring to typographical case.

  10. Chris Waigl said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    There's a rather interesting short thread in the Eggcorn forums on "unyet", which, I believe, has been as unyet analyzed by the linguistic blogosphere.

  11. James said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 2:43 pm


    As are “language” and “Language”, “agreement” and “Agreement”, and a few others.

    A phonologist friend recently stated “I refuse to work in a field where distinctions are made solely by typographical status.”

  12. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    The practice of defining of uppercase terms contrasting with lowercase terms is by no means limited to the field Lingustics. Mathematics and many other fields have a long tradition of use of capitalization as a contrastive feature.

  13. Tim Silverman said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    But mathematics is well-known for its extensive use of typography (not to mention alphabets). I don't think that's quite fair as a comparison.

  14. kamper said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    Is it at all significant that unwind, unpack, unmask, and unearth are all (or at least all can be) transitive verbs that represent changes of state in their objects, while waver is intransitive? Seems to me that would be the intuition to which KYL was referring.

  15. KCinDC said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    This is related to the ambiguity of the word "undone", which can be "un-" plus "done" or the past tense of "undo". "My work is undone" can mean that someone undid it or just that I haven't done it yet.

  16. Grep Agni said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    Tim Silverman said

    But mathematics is well-known for its extensive use of typography (not to mention alphabets). I don't think that's quite fair as a comparison.

    Also, mathematical symbols are not really words. At least I don't think they are.

  17. marina said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    Theologically speaking, may I just mention the distinction between the catholic church and the Catholic Church?

  18. James Wimberley said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    Grep Agni:
    I once shared digs in London with a German postgraduate mathematician who asked me to check the English of a paper he'd written (as I recall, on the total curvature of meromorphic functions, whatever they are). I couldn't of course understand the expressions, but they clearly had parts of speech; anything with =, was a sentence, while expressions with sum or integral operators were noun phrases. So I was able to check whether the English text in which they were embedded was well-formed or not.

  19. Todd said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    Let's not forget the difference between discourse and Discourse. Foucalt's impact on discourse analysis by mention of Discourse analysis remains to this day.

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