Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Doug’ Category

Conditional Imperfection

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2013

“Rocco was doing it again today,” Adam told Doug at supper one night. His classmate Rocco has a habit of making contrarian claims, seemingly just for the purpose of arguing about them. “He was saying that Jews can be atheists.”

Maybe Rocco had some kind of idea that an atheist Jew would be something like a fasting carnivore, or a celibate homosexual (or heterosexual or bisexual), and hadn’t quite grasped the concept of criterial definitions. Or maybe he was thinking of Jew in a more cultural sense, like I just read about in this Wikipedia article. Whatever he had in mind, Doug and Adam weren’t buying it.

Adam tried to explain Rocco’s argument, not very satisfactorily, but that was because of the material he had to work with. He and Doug were laughing as they tried to dissect Rocco’s reasoning.

“You’re a Jew,” Doug said, “if and only if you believe in God!”

Well, you can’t say “if and only if” to a semanticist and expect it to pass unexamined. “So … Muslims are Jews?” I asked.

“No, Dad,” Doug explained. He then summarized for me the concept of only if, concluding, “You’ve out-literaled yourself!”

Later on, I drew a truth table for if and one for only if, and showed them to Doug. He found that, after all, he and I agreed about the meaning of only if. So what’s the difference between only if and if and only if, I asked.

“I don’t think there is one,” Doug said.

I drew up the table for if and only if, and Doug understood it, but in his opinion, in ordinary conversation, if and only if was just an emphatic way of saying “only if”.

“I’m with Doug on this one,” my wife offered. In a casual, dinner-table conversation, I shouldn’t have taken Doug’s if and only if in this technical sense.

Technical sense? This was my first inkling that there was more than one sense!

This weakening of if and only if to mean just only if is an interesting opposite to a pragmatic effect that Mike Geis and Arnold Zwicky named conditional perfection. Here’s the canonical example:

“I’ll give you $5 if you mow the lawn” taken to mean “I’ll give you $5 if and only if you mow the lawn.”

Now, in the opposite direction, we have

“You’re a Jew if and only if you believe in God” to mean “You’re a Jew only if you believe in God.”

I’m not totally convinced it’s real yet, though. I checked the spoken segment of COCA for if and only if and got a measly three hits. For what it’s worth, they all seem to have been used in the technical sense:

  1. Republicans in the house are embarking on their own effort, promising to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling if and only if both Houses of Congress vote for a balanced budget amendment in the coming days.
  2. We simply should never have been in the business of saying to a 16-year-old girl,’ If and only if you have a child out of wedlock, we’ll send you a check in the mail.’
  3. we may have now a normative principle that that action is legitimate if and only if it proceeds on this model through the U.N.

What do you think? Have you used, or heard others use, if and only if to mean only if?

Posted in Conditionals, Doug, Lexical semantics | 9 Comments »


Posted by Neal on October 13, 2013

One day in August, I picked up Doug and a couple of his friends from band rehearsal (remember Ken and Holt?). It was a special day, because after a couple of weeks of anticipation, the band members’ bibbers had come in. Doug, Holt, and Ken were each carrying a plastic bag with a folded black garment in it. Those, I presumed, must be the bibbers. I had never seen or heard of a bibber before.

Well, correction. Whatever a bibber was, I had probably seen one any time I watched a marching band perform. I was interested to see exactly what Doug’s looked like when we got home. It turned out to look something like this:

Bibbers, doing some serious bibbing

During the next couple of weeks, we adjusted the straps, pinned and hemmed the legs, then washed and hung up the bibber. Doug has now been wearing it for the halftime shows at the football games, and the marching band competitions that his school has participated in. So I figured I was pretty well familiar with bibbers, until one Friday early this month, as Doug was getting ready for the evening show, he asked his mother, “Mom, have you seen my bibbers?”

She asked me, “Neal, do you know where Doug’s bibbers are?”

“It’s hanging in the laundry room,” I said. “Why do you two keep calling it a ‘bibbers’?”

“For the same reason I don’t say I put on my pant,” Doug told me.

Oh! I suddenly got it! Like pants, and shorts, and jeans, and trousers, and undies, and other words for other items of clothing that “have two holes, one for each leg,” bibbers was a plurale tantum. Shoot, even overalls is a plurale tantum, and when I got my first look at Doug’s pair unfolded, I’d thought to myself, “Oh, a bibber is like a pair of overalls!” Why hadn’t I made the connection?

My world shifted just a little bit, as I reconciled this new knowledge about bibbers with my previous experience with them. I realized that up until this conversation, the only time I’d seen bibbers when I was learning the word was when there was more than one pair at a time. “The bibbers are here!” “Come get your bibbers!” My bibber was a backformation, pure and simple. Just to confirm, I did a Google search for bibber, and all I found was a handful of proper names, and a most likely bogus Urban Dictionary definition: “A self described big-penised man who in reality isn’t.”

It took me a while to feel natural calling Doug’s “bibber” his bibbers. I knew I’d succeeded, though, when Doug came home from a long day of two band competitions yesterday. He staggered in, unlaced his shoes and dropped them on the kitchen floor. He slipped out of his bibbers, and opened up the pantry door so he could hang them over it. If he had his way, they’d be hanging there for a week, keeping the pantry door hanging open, blocking my view of the TV screen from the kitchen table. And I’d told him not to do it at least twice before. As Doug reached up to put the straps over the pantry door, I nipped things right in the bud, saying, “Don’t you put those there!”

Those, not that! In an unplanned utterance! Re-coding complete.

Posted in Backformation, Doug, The wife | 3 Comments »

Only One Cause

Posted by Neal on June 16, 2013

“Whoa, Dad,” Doug said, turning away from his online summer English class. “Ambiguity strikes!” Of course, I couldn’t ignore that. I went over to check out his computer monitor. As it turned out, he was right. Here was the question from the quiz in the unit on “Plot”:

There can be only one ... can't there?

“Effects do not occur within a bubble”? What kind of bubble? I thought there was a lot of science about the kind of things that went on in soap bubbles. Yeah, that one was probably false.

Oh, wait, they meant figuratively. Effects have other effects, or something like that. Well, in that case, it would be true. However, that wasn’t the ambiguity Doug was talking about. He’s got no problem with the literal-figurative thing. He was looking at item D.

“An effect can … have only one cause,” he explained, “or it can have … only one cause.”

I rephrased in linguist-talk: “It’s possible that an effect has only one cause, or there is only one cause that any event can have. Wow, that’s a nice scope ambiguity.”

I remembered the scope ambiguity I encountered in a biology test when I was about Doug’s age–another one involving can, but interacting with a negation instead of only. Anyway, the ambiguity in this question turned out not to pose much of a problem. With wide-scoping can, i.e.

It is possible that an effect has only one cause.

Well, that’s probably true. And so are items B and C, which would mean that all four items are true, leaving Doug with no false statement to choose. Unless item A was talking about actual bubbles after all, in which case we should really look into the physics of bubbles… On the other hand, with wide-scoping only, i.e.

There is only one cause that any event can have.

the answer is clearly false. Bingo!

What a difference context can make, though. When my college friend Cali made me go and see Highlander with him, there was never a question whether can or only was supposed to take wide scope in the tagline “There can be only one.” Wide-scoping can would have really deflated the conflict, which Doug’s English course has taught him is an essential for any plot.

Posted in Doug, Movies, Scope ambiguity | Leave a Comment »

Steaming Piles

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I don’t even remember which cat we had brought in that day, although it was probably Nick, with his chronic nasal problems. What I do remember, and what Doug and Adam remember, is a terrier with curly black fur, a terrier they now refer to simply as Smelly Dog. Smelly Dog was agitated, whining and restlessly shifting side to side while his owner tried to calm him down. Then, suddenly…

Maybe you’ve seen fountains of blood spurting from severed arteries in some of the gorier videogames, or in the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or in real life. That’s what it was like in the vet’s waiting room, except that the blood wasn’t shooting out of a brachial, femoral or carotid artery, but Smelly Dog’s rear end. And it wasn’t blood. It squirted, and squirted, and squirted. As we watched in disgusted fascination, the smell reached us.

“Aww, do you feel better now?” Smelly Dog’s owner cooed, while Doug and Adam scrambled for the exit.

Every now and then Doug or Adam will remember that story and reminisce with his brother, or me. The last time it happened, I was busy heating up a serving of chana masala for the wife, who’d gotten home after we’d had supper.

“… until there was just a big, steaming pile of liquid!” Doug said as I pulled the bowl out of the microwave.

“More like a puddle,” I said.

“That’s why I said ‘of liquid,'” Doug answered. I didn’t pursue it, because I was busy getting a napkin and a spoon for the chana masala. As I handed it to my wife, I said, “OK, here’s your hot, steaming pile of–“

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!” she blurted out.

“What are you talking about? Here’s your hot, steaming pile of chana masala!”

So did my wife have a point? Is the string steaming pile of enough to warrant disgust? Clearly, it was for her, but that was with some vivid priming from Doug and me. The association was strong enough for Doug to forgo the word puddle to call the spreading brown mess on the waiting room floor a “steaming pile of liquid.” In a thread on the online Word Reference Forum, one participant asks what steaming pile means, and another, “In many situations the ‘steaming pile’ alluded to is a steaming pile of bullshit, horseshit or just shit,” and another adds, “If the author of that had only said My life is a steaming pile, I’m fairly sure that most native English-speakers would have easily been able to supply the missing [of shit].”

A COCA search for “steaming [pile] of”, looking for the most common words within four words to the right, brings in only about two dozen hits, but seven of them are guano, excrement, scat, poop, dung, and shit. COCA will let you sort results by mutual information, which is a statistical measure of how closely associated with each other two words are. In the extreme case, if the probability of word B appearing after word A is no different than the probability that word B will appear anywhere, then these words’ probabilities are independent, and their mutual information will be 0. On the other hand, if word A always occurs with word B, and word B always occurs with word A, their mutual information will be much higher. According to the COCA tutorial page, a mutual information score of above 3.0 generally indicates “semantic bonding”.

Steaming pile(s) of and shit within four words of each other have mutual information 9.48. Pretty good, given the 3.0 threshold, right? But in fact, there’s only one example with shit:

They’ve left a steaming pile of dog shit on my desk, and now it belongs to me.

The word that yielded the highest mutual information score was actually another singleton hit, roadkill, at 15.87. Guano followed closely, with 15.85.

For comparison, I did a search with a string that I thought would have higher mutual information with shit, namely lying sack of, limited to words that occurred immediately to the right. That got eight hits, four of them with shit, one with manure, one with (censored), and two left incomplete. The mutual information with shit was 14.18, more than the 9.48, but still less than the score for steaming pile(s) of followed by guano. It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions.

But back to our steaming piles, I found that the steaming pile of chana masala I served up to my wife was not without precedent in the Corpora of Contemporary and Historical American English and in Google Books:

  • His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. (2009)
  • there was a steaming pile of peas and a casserole of sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows on top. (1995)
  • The pot had been drained of water and dumped on its side; they sat close to the steaming pile of potatoes, hunched over, ripping off the salt-stained skins with small knives. (1957)
  • They returned to the tent just as the last streak of daylight disappeared from the western horizon and at once set about the consumption of a steaming pile of boiled mutton and huge bowls of dough strings floating in mutton broth. (1918)
  • Isidora saw that Bill had the food he liked best for breakfast; a steaming pile of buckwheat cakes trimmed round the edges with crisp brown lace, and oozing syrup at every pore. (1910)
  • It was not the time — just after tea — to eat an immense dish of coos-coosoo, or a steaming pile of hot mutton and raisins, cooked in oil,
  • “Naw, Amy ain’t took wid no spell no sich a thing,” interrupted Caroline, as she placed another steaming pile of eggs on Sam’s plate. (1886)
  • he will hereafter be held in grateful remembrance around many a steaming pile of Saur-Kraut and Speck. (1869)
  • they rushed upon the steaming piles of meat like half-famished wolves.

I also found, in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, steaming piles of rubble:

  • in no more time than it takes for a tangle of tubes and drums to fly up and fall down again, the whole plant is a steaming pile of brick, mortar (1937)
  • The wall crashed down, demolishing the office completely and leaving nothing but a steaming pile of bricks and debris. (1917)
  • the lovely mother, who had led him to behold her son as he slept, at this moment a blackened corse under the steaming pile [of a burned-down house] before him. (1832)

The earliest example I’ve found in which steaming pile refers to excrement is from 1890, in Light on the Cloud, or Hints of Comfort for Hours of Sorrow, by Minot Judson Savage:

It is not the fault of the sunlight that, beneath its shining, a bed of flowers lifts up its fragrance to God, and that, beneath the same shining, a steaming pile of filth reeks offence and disease in all nostrils.

And on that inspirational note, I leave you to your own steaming piles, whatever their composition.

Posted in Doug, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The wife | 7 Comments »

Father’s Day Polysemy

Posted by Neal on June 20, 2011

Yesterday I sat and opened the Father’s Day gifts (yes, plural) that the wife and the boys had gotten me. Most of them were shirts and shorts. Doug was saying he thought at least one of those boxes would have been clothes that were just disguising the real gift, but no, every box with clothes in it was actually a gift of clothes. I explained that clothes really were a good gift.

“Do you know what happens when people don’t give you clothes as gifts?” I asked.


“It means you have to go out and buy them yourself. Or if you don’t, the clothes you have keep getting more worn out and crummy-looking, and then you have to buy more clothes yourself anyway.”

Yes, for me, a gift of clothes is as much a gift of time as a gift of stuff to wear. But as it turned out, my family had one more gift after all the clothes were stacked on the table and the wrapping was lying on the floor with cats crawling underneath it.

“Doug got annoyed with me,” my wife said, “when I kept saying things like, ‘Let’s give your dad his Father’s Day.'”

“I’d say, ‘Do you mean Father’s Day presents?'” Doug explained.

“Ah, nice polysemy!” I said.

My wife picked up again. “But Adam, meanwhile, would say things like, ‘After Father’s Day, we’re going out to lunch?'”

Wow, even more polysemy! In addition to referring to the day itself, my family was using Father’s Day to refer not only to gifts given for the occasion, but to the giving and receiving of those gifts, too. And most interesting of all, I thought, was that it wasn’t Adam, on the autism spectrum, who was insisting on the more literal meaning, but Doug. Adam was extending the polysemy even further than his mother was taking it.

Posted in Adam, Doug, Polysemy, The wife | 1 Comment »

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Pronouns, Variation | 15 Comments »

Doug Visits the Lost and Found

Posted by Neal on December 22, 2010

Last year, Doug started to get a reputation among his friends as a guy who will do crazy things. At the end-of-school pool party, his friend Ken dared him, for $5, to eat a slice of pizza that someone had dropped on the ground. Doug ate it and collected an easy $5. (When my wife found out, she was so horrified that she told him, “The next time that happens, come to me! I’ll give you $5 for not eating it!” Doug and I agreed that if that policy had been in place, he would have tried to get an offer of $20 from Ken before refusing.)

At the end of a course of eight weekly lectures on drug abuse and how to resist peer pressure, he resisted the peer pressure (and teacher pressure) to write an essay that concluded with his pledge not to abuse drugs. He wrote that the program had provided some good information, but could be improved by not glossing over issues like medicinal marijuana, and that although he didn’t plan to abuse drugs, it wouldn’t be because of a pledge that was involuntary and therefore meaningless. According to Doug, it was the only essay to get a round of applause from the students.

Last Friday, Doug came into the lunchroom carrying a green glove that his friends didn’t recognize. As he sat down to eat, Ken asked, “Where’d the glove come from?”

Doug said, “I picked it up at the Lost and Found.”

“You just took it from the Lost and Found?”


Ken began to laugh. This was crazy! He turned to the others at the table. “Hey, guys, Doug just took this glove from the Lost and Found!”

They laughed in disbelief. You just never knew what kind of random stunt Doug would pull. But after a minute or so their amusement turned to concern.

“Doug, you can’t just go taking stuff from the Lost and Found!”

“Doug, why would you want that glove?”

“Doug, this is not cool, man!”

“Well,” Doug said, “it is mine….”

I had been less than happy when Doug came home with only one of his new green gloves on the very first day he wore them. Good for him for taking the initiative to look for it at the Lost and Found. And way to violate the Maxim of Quantity for fun and laughs!

Posted in Doug, Quantity and Relevance | 6 Comments »

You Don’t Shoot ‘Em and They Fall Over

Posted by Neal on September 17, 2010

Perhaps you remember Doug’s campaign to get some rated-M first-person shooter games. Well, now he has one. He’s been playing Metal Gear Solid, and even now, with the game in his possession, he still likes to mention the game’s redeeming features. The protagonist smokes, but his health suffers for it. If you have him spend too much time in combat, he begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re penalized if you kill too wantonly, and rewarded if you avoid doing so. And instead of always shooting with an ordinary gun, a lot of the action is done with a tranquilizer gun. Doug was telling me about what happens when you shoot enemy soldiers with a tranquilizer:

You don’t shoot ’em and they fall over. They still chase you around for a minute.

While Doug was telling me some further details, I was busy writing down the quotation I set out above. It’s another wide-scoping operator! The negation don’t is syntactically a part of just the first clause: You don’t shoot ’em. But semantically it scopes over both clauses. If this weren’t the case, and you just read these as you would any other pair of clauses joined by and, here’s the meaning you’d get:

  1. You don’t shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over (for no apparent reason).

But that’s not what Doug means. He means:

    It’s not true that:

  1. You shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over right away.

One clause can be true, or the other can, or maybe neither is true. But you don’t get both of them true. So if Doug shoots the soldiers, making (1) true, then (2) has to be false: The soldiers don’t fall over right away. And before they do, they can call for backup, which arrives in overwhelming force and always finds you. In fact, even if they don’t manage to complete the call, headquarters will send reinforcements to check things out when the soldier who made the call doesn’t respond. And most unfair of all, Doug says, is that one time there was a guy who didn’t get hit with a tranquilizer, who went around and woke the others back up!

Posted in Doug, Pop culture, Wide-scoping operators | 5 Comments »

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 Comments »

I Need Addictionary!

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2010

Doug has been pushing for us to let him play rated-M first-person shooter video games. It’s not enough that he gets to play these games when he visits his friends, whose parents (he has often told us) almost all let their kids play them. No, he wants them here in our house, where he can play them any time he wants, and where they’ll generate new conflicts when it comes to whether Adam can play them too.

Ah, the good times he and his friends have had playing these games! There was that sleepover birthday party he went to last month, when they played video games, drank Mountain Dew, and watched Jackass on TV all night. (Literally: There was no lights-out time, not even an exhilaratingly late one like one or two AM.) It was so funny when his character managed to sneak up behind another one and shoot him point blank in the head! And when they threw a sticky grenade at one of the characters and he couldn’t get rid of it in time, watching the expression on that character’s face as he died on the instant replay cracked everybody up.

Details like these weren’t helping Doug’s case, so now he talks more about how some game has killing, but not so much blood. And how he’s learned from a friend that the only reason some other game got an M is a single sex scene. And how you automatically lose some games if you kill an innocent character or someone on your team.

And why is it that rated-M games have become so important to Doug? Well, he’s just discovered, through playing them at friends’ houses, that he really likes first-person shooters. “They’re addicting games,” he says.


In several conversations about video games, the word addicting has come out of Doug’s mouth, so I finally had to ask: Did some of his friends say addicting and others addictive, or did most of them say addicting? Doug didn’t have to think about it: “They all do.” He added that there was also a popular web site called

I was curious how long addicting had existed alongside addictive, so I did some Internet searching, and one of the first things I found was that Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) had done an episode on this topic. Go ahead and read it or listen to it. I’ll wait, and pick up where she leaves off. (But don’t make me wait too long. If you want to read or listen to the episode I wrote for her that came out last Friday, do that some other time, OK?)

So now that you’re back, you know that Fogarty wrote:

Addicting is the participle adjective of the verb to addict, just as annoying is the participle adjective of the verb to annoy. I don’t think anyone would say that you can’t describe someone as annoying, and similarly it is OK to describe TV as addicting.

Right: Addicting is just a present participle, like amazing, boring, interesting, fulfilling, frightening, or Fogarty’s example, annoying. So why should there even be a controversy about it? Why should this episode have attracted comments like this one from a commenter going by Drewmass?

I love that this is debated at all, let alone this hotly! For the first twenty or so years of my life, I never heard “addicting” used as an adjective, so to me, it sounds really, really wrong. It’s like saying someone is “attracting” when you clearly mean that they’re “attractive.” I agree that language should change over time, but using “addicting” as an adjecting — uh, adjective — is a little too inventing for my taste.

Or this one from a commenter named Trish, which expresses a similar thought, but more confrontationally:

the only way the american language “evolves” is when less educated people start beginning to adopt words and misusing them. eventually become more widely accepted by an ignorant society. it’s addictive. i will say that i can see how “addicting” could be used as a transitive verb, but definitely not as an adjective.

The only reason I can see for there being any question about addicting at all is the fact that addictive was already doing the job that addicting is doing now. But why is that bad? Why isn’t there room in this town for the both of them?

There are two problems. First is something I mentioned in my column at Visual Thesaurus about awesome and awful: “Even today, when two words share just one meaning, speakers look for, imagine, or create meaning differences.” And if they can’t create a difference, it seems, then one of the words will have to go. This tendency has been even more pronounced in people who have made it their business to write about the English language. As Jan Freeman noted in a recent column, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s,

[i]f two words overlapped in sense — admission and admittance, avoid and avert, generally and usually, hurry and hasten, partially and partly — some usage adviser would come up with a rule to guide the choice.

In fact, it has happened with addictive/addicting. A Charles Carson left this comment on the Grammar Girl episode, which posits a distinction between the two words that (I suspect) he just made up on the spot:

I would argue that “addictive” and “addicting” are both acceptable, but they have different meanings. “Addictive” is an adjective used to describe something that causes an addition to itself, as in “an additive drug” or “television is addictive.” “Addicting” is derived from the verb “addict,” which means ‘to cause someone to have an addiction to something else’, as in GG’s example “Amy was addicting Steve to Scrabble.” Therefore, “addicting” is only correct as a predicate adjective if it’s describing a person or thing that gets someone addicted to something else. For example, one wouldn’t say “Cigarettes addict children” but would say “Tobacco companies addict children to cigarettes.” Therefore, “Amy is addicting” in that “she addicted Steve to Scrabble” but “Scrabble is addictive.” It is possible that this subtle distinction will be or already has been lost.

I even entertained the idea of a meaning distinction myself, wondering if Doug and his friends might use addicting for (putatively) harmless things like video games, chocolate, or perhaps love, and addictive for drugs. But when I asked him, he said no, they’d use addicting across the board.

The other problem with addicting is what linguists call morphological blocking. If a word can be derived by regular morphological processes (affixes, compounding, etc.), but a word with the same root with the desired meaning already exists, then the derivation is blocked. For example, even though comfortable could in theory give rise to comfortability or comfortableness, it doesn’t, because the noun comfort already exists.

Make that, the derivation is usually blocked. Sometimes it goes through anyway, as addicting shows.

However, of addictive and addicting, which really came first? The source verb, addict, entered the language in the late 1500s, so it would have been sometime after that. The earliest attestation in the OED for both addictive and addicting is in a single citation from 1939:

1939 Harper’s Mag. Nov. 644 A chemico-pharmacological search for non-addicting drugs to replace morphine and the other addictive ones.

The Google News Archive has earlier results; its earliest attestation for addictive is from an 1853 New York Times article:

Now these truly addictive results having been so long conceded, it is not strange that good people would put an end to the iniquitous sale and abuse of …

As for addicting, it usually appears as a reflexive verb in prior to the 20th century, as in “addicting himself to opium”, in places where we’d usually use the phrase getting addicted these days. (Maybe there’s something interesting to say here about societal opinions of personal responsibility back then. Or about better understanding of addiction now.) The first attestation of addicting as an adjective that I’ve found is just a couple of years before the OED‘s, in a 1937 article in the Hartford Courant:

Of itself, Marihuana is not an addicting narcotic. (link)

Prefixed with non, it appears a few years earlier still, in The New York Times in 1934:

scientists are pushing ahead in efforts to achieve a non-addicting substitute for morphine (link)

So addicting is pretty clearly the newcomer here, as people have thought. But is it suddenly gaining popularity, and displacing addictive? The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 94 tokens of addicting from 1990 to the present. Of them, 28 are from 1990-1994; 36 from 1995-1999; 15 from 2000-2004; and 15 from 2005-2009. Addictive, for comparison, has about 300-400 hits for each of those periods, so addicting is nowhere near overtaking it. Furthermore, if anything, addicting has been used less in the last ten years than it was in the decade before that. It probably just seems like more than that because it’s more noticeable: a case of the Frequency Illusion.

Still, I’m left with the question of why speakers would have created the word addicting. Why didn’t morphological blocking nip it in the bud? Taking a wild guess, I’ll say that maybe speakers were exposed more to the word addicted than to the word addictive. With the word addicted, you can deduce the existence of the verb addict, and from there get to addicting. If you have hypotheses of your own, let’s hear them. And which word do you use? Do you use both?

Posted in Doug, Lexical semantics, Variation | 20 Comments »