Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I’m a Believer That

Posted by Neal on December 22, 2011

In September, Benjamin Barrett posted this message to the American Dialect Society email list:

A non-native speaker of English asks me whether the following is grammatical:

“I’m a firm believer that anyone can have a breakthrough right in her own backyard.”

It’s from an essay of Oprah in the current issue of O Magazine.

It took me about five reads before I spotted anything possibly amiss, but “a firm believer that” definitely appears wrong now that I see it.

I think this must come from a cross of “I’m a firm believer in the idea that” and “I firmly believe that.”

You have to wonder how bad something actually sounds to someone if they had to read it five times before they even identified it as something possibly ungrammatical. Still, as I thought about Barrett’s message, I realized that this agent nominalization of the verb believe was different from those of (other) transitive verbs. For example, the verb find takes a noun phrase (NP) object, as in find the lost wallet. But when you use the noun finder, you can’t just put an NP after it: *finder the lost wallet. You have to use an adaptor of sorts: the preposition of: finder of the lost wallet. (This paper by Mark C. Baker and Nadya Vinokurova discusses this fact for English and Yakuts, and has references to other literature on the subject.)

Prepositional phrase (PP) complements can go with a verb or its agent nominal with no change in form at all. For example, you can regularly listen to a radio program, or you can be a regular listener to Talk of the Nation (an example I found in COCA). (PP adjuncts don’t go so well with agent nominals. I wash with soap, but I’m not a *washer with soap.) I’m not sure about infinitival complements. You can say that Evel Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon, but you wouldn’t say that Knievel was an attemptor to jump it. As for clausal complements, believer shows that they can go with at least one verb or its agent nominal with no change necessary.

Here are some of the relevant examples of believer that that I found in COCA. There were 133 results; I just looked at the first page of 20 and found 18 relevant examples:

  1. I’m a believer that a president looks strongest and best in mid-November to the end of December
  2. I’m a big believer that there are 8-10 teams in the Western Conference that are about equal.
  3. Im a believer that both Peru and Aruba cant wait to ship him back to Birmingh
  4. I’m a firm believer that as long as we have the right science and the right engineering behind it
  5. I’m a firm believer that you should be your best you.
  6. WHETHER you’re an unwavering carnivore or a believer that burgers are only for statin dependents,
  7. I am a believer that the system has gone badly awry and needs massive reform
  8. Yoo is a firm believer that it is better to let each of the departments of the government stake its
  9. Here’s why I’m a Believer that Neil Diamond belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  10. So you’re a believer that your body will tell you what it needs?
  11. I’m always a believer that you would do better to let Microsoft to do a first service pack
  12. I’m always a believer that you would do better to let Microsoft to do a first service pack
  13. I’m a strong believer that each man has a destiny.
  14. I’m a firm believer that a coach is whatever his record is.
  15. I am a firm believer that, if you look good, you might feel better.
  16. I’ve always been a firm believer that hard work pays off
  17. I’m a strong believer that if the state would take the lead, it would make a huge difference
  18. Vygotsky is a firm believer that social interaction and cultural influences have a

There were only 30 results for the plural believers that, of which the following eight were relevant:

  1. people who are interested in alternative medicine even though they aren’t gung-ho believers that it’s a cure-all.
  2. Some bolters are perennial quitters of associations or believers that the grass is always greener elsewhere.
  3. While we’re firm believers that there’s something to love about nearly every beach
  4. Lew and I may be the last of the naive believers that the system works if you get folks involved in it.
  5. people in the chip industry are much more believers that this strain is good
  6. the majority of us who are true supporters and believers that Bob Dole is the next president to lead us into the next century
  7. And I’m pretty sure that I’m turning some of you guys into believers that I can evolve into myself at any given time.
  8. Keith and I are firm believers that what goes around comes around.

For comparison, I also looked for agent nominals of other verbs that take clausal complements, but they’re hard to come by. All the COCA results I got for sayer were proper names. I got a few results for claimer, but none followed by a that clause expressing the claim. Nor with thinker or announcer. I did hit pay dirt with indicator:

Larger breasts sag over time, so it was an indicator that a woman was older.

Can anyone think of others?

Coming back to believer that, I did a search for Barrett’s preferred phrasing, believer in the idea that, and got exactly two results:

  1. Houston appears to be a firm believer in the idea that love can conquer all.
  2. I’m a firm believer in the idea that one person can make a difference

It looks like the shorter believer that option is the clear winner. In a later message, Barrett accepted the phrasing as “idiomatic usage”, but my conclusion is that this is just an ordinary agent nominalization of a verb that takes a clausal complement.


6 Responses to “I’m a Believer That”

  1. Ran said

    I’m with Barrett: “I’m a firm believer that […]” sounds wrong to me. But I understand why people would use it; “I’m a firm believer in the idea that […]” is obviously long and awkward.

    By the way, believer in the [nn1] that, despite its awkwardness, occurs 15 times in COCA. It’s not like “idea” is the only option here.

  2. Fine with both “believer that” (BI) and “believer in the idea that” (BITIT). We could reason that that “firm believer that” is a truncated, idiomatic version of “firm believer in the idea that.” For L1 English speakers in my experience, “believer that” operates with practically the same meaning as “believer in the idea that.”

    This BI vs. BITIT often crops up as a READING problem for Hong Kong Chinese learners of English (Br/Am alike) in the early secondary-school stage. To me, it’s a little odd because the standard Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) phraseology is identical to BI (mainly because BITIT cannot be phrased in Chinese anyway). The trouble for the kids is not over the grammaticality of those two phrases, but rather they think there is an actual LEXICAL difference between the two that represents two different ideas. But the kids get over this pretty quickly.

    I also noticed from the kids that those whose Engish learning kicked off with SPEAKING the language first rather than with reading and writing often have little or no trouble with BI vs. BITIT. (Unfortunately, the educational regime in Hong Kong on English teaching is, broadly speaking, 80% concentrated on the reading/writing part – because this town is terribly exam-oriented. So there.)

    For my money, on a practical everyday basis facing someone with trouble differentiating BI vs. BITIT, I just say BI is a shorter version of BITIT with the proviso that one or the other may have to be used for stylistic, grammmar, contextual or some other purposes in certain types of speaking or writing. That usually serves as a good-enough practical solution for such people until they get to grips more with the quirks of English phraseology later on.

  3. The Ridger said

    My guess is that it took him five readings to spot the problem because he assumed that there was a problem. If one of my non-native colleagues asks me if something is okay or not, I generally give it a couple of readings, maybe three, before pronouncing it fine. Which I would have this, by the way.

    • That’s my sentiment about him also. The much more interesting aspect to me is that he was spending time and effort in concentrating how many times he had to read it for the ‘problem.’ I would just read the thing whatever couple of times and not counting because I’d be concentrating on the task at hand instead of me competing with myself how fast/slow I could spot things.

  4. Glen said

    “I’m a believer that…” sets off a prescriptivist false alarm whenever I see it. That is, it immediately strikes me as ungrammatical or awkward — but then I think about it for a moment, decide there’s not a problem, and tell my inner prescriptivist to shut up.

    In any case, did you try searching for “believe that”/”believer in” as well? Because “believer in” sets off the same kind of false alarm for me.

    • dainichi said

      I get the same false alarm on “believer in”, but I’m not a native speaker, so my intuition isn’t worth much.

      I wonder how people feel about “believer of (the idea that)”, which interestingly hasn’t even been mentioned.

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