Pay for

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It's common to nominalize already-lexicalized combinations of a verb and an intransitive preposition, like push-up, push-over, hand-out, walk-on, walk-out, and so on. It's less common to see nominalization of a semantically-transparent verb and transitive preposition, but a new one has recently (?) arisen in the halls of Congress. Thus George Nelson, "Brown Touts Benefits Extension, Job Creation Aid", Business Journal 1/8/2014:

“If we’re going to do a pay-for, we ought to look at what kind of pay-for actually creates jobs,” he continued. “The best kind of pay-for is one Senate Republicans have rejected repeatedly, to eliminate tax incentives that encourage companies to close plants in the United States and relocate those jobs overseas, he said.

The political prominence of deficit-reduction has made this a popular coinage:

“We think it shouldn't be paid for, but if the Republicans come up with a pay-for, we'll have to see what the pay-for is,” Hoyer said during a press conference in the Capitol. [link]
The new “pay for” for unemployment benefits would simply extend those mandatory cuts another year much later. [link]
I am vaguely surprised that Section 1341 was not the Senate Republican demanded pay-for for unemployment insurance. [link]
We were not part of the discussion as to the pay-for that the Majority Leader has just put forward. [link]
Democrats win because many of them want to repeal the medical device tax and – but most importantly, they want to pay for the repeal, and so the pay-for that we have developed is one that would enjoy broad bipartisan agreement. [link]

It's commonly used in the plural as well:

Though there is no clear indication as to how things will end up, one thing is certain: neither the House nor the Senate have proposed a package of pay-fors that will satisfy anybody with even the most rudimentary understanding of finance or mathematics. [link]
“Separating policy from pay-fors is somewhat problematical. Because the pay-fors involve policy,” said Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. [link]
“There are a wide range of things that we’re looking at, because the only objections I’ve heard from my caucus on the president’s jobs bill deal with the pay-fors,” Reid said. [link]
Heller agreed that McConnell’s proffer was an unlikely candidate and that the pay-fors discussion would have to focus on finding something “we can all agree on.” [link]

Grant Barrett entered pay-for in his Double Tongued Dictionary back in 2007:

pay-for n. in pay-as-you-go (or PAYGO) budgeting, a spending cut or tax increase that covers the budget for a piece of legislation

In the comments, Erik offers an example from 1999, and Ben Zimmer notes that Grant Barrett also has a 1999 citation. But I don't recall having seen it before this year, and suddenly it seems to be everywhere — though I freely grant that this may be an instance of the Recency Illusion.



  1. Erik said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    An example from 1999:

    "The provision was also used as a 'pay for' (before being dropped in Conference) in the legislation on The Reform and Reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service."

    From International Tax Issues Relating to Globalization: Congressional Hearing

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 10:40 am

    Here is the full entry for pay-for on the original Double-Tongued site before Grant merged it with A Way With Words. He also has examples back to 1999.

  3. Fiddler said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

    I was hoping you guys were going to take a look at this. I don't think I've ever seen a phrase become so ubiquitous (for me) so quickly.

  4. ShadowFox said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    I got examples to 2003 just with plain Google. Didn't look in Google Books, which is where the 1999 example comes from. @Fiddler–doesn't look like it was that quick. It incubated for over a decade before penetrating the daily media.

  5. ShadowFox said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

    I also found a bunch of examples that contrast "pay-fors" with free things, initially with respect to software (i.e., shareware vs. freeware). But it's also applied to other things. Not a lot of Google hits–less than a dozen between 2000 and 2007.

  6. Kapitano said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

    "Intransitive preposition"? That's a new idea to me.

    I've always treated the second part of phrasal verbs – and their nominalisations – as particle adverbs.

    E.g. "push up" – the verb is push, and it's further described as an 'up' type of push, which makes 'up' an adverb.

  7. Goatherd said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 7:12 am


    See section 5 of this paper from LL's own Geoff Pullum, which argues that they should be analyzed as intransitive prepositions.

  8. Ron said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

    Just saw this in (of all places) a LL post:

    Australian scientists have devised a way to pinpoint the causes of the global die-off of bees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops: Attach tiny sensors to 5,000 honey bees, and follow where they fly.

    Since reading this post I have been on the lookout (ha!) for this usage, and I think it's almost exclusively British and Australian. I've seen it in British newspapers from the Guardian to red tops. No idea why or where it comes from, but it sure is becoming a part of everyday writing.

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