Hark back, harken back, hearken back
Posted by June on July 14, 2024

Most people use “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” to mean “recall” or “refer back to” some previous event. But the original meaning of “hark,” “harken” and “hearken” was not to recall but to hear or to listen carefully. Think: “Hark! The herald angels sing.” In fact, you can still use them that way today: Hark my words. Hearken my words. Harken my words.

“Hark” is the youngest of the three, dating back to the 14th century, with “hearken” and “harken” going back another two centuries or so.

Sometime in the 1800s, people started adding “back” to “hark” for the purpose of giving it what was then a figurative meaning: to recall or refer back to. Soon, “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” would become full-fledged phrasal verbs — word combinations that have a different meaning than the root verb they’re based on. For more examples of phrasal verbs, think about the difference between “give” and “give up”; “break” and “break in”; “cut” and “cut off.” In every case, the word combo means something different from the verb when it stands alone. That’s what makes them phrasal verbs.

So unlike “hark,” “hearken” and “harken,” which mean to listen or listen carefully, “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” are phrasal verbs meaning “to go back to or recall to mind something in the past,” according to Merriam’s dictionary.

Merriam’s usage guide claims that, though “hark” is now rare in the meaning of to listen, “harken” and “hearken” are still used that way. Personally, outside of one old Christmas song, I’ve never heard any form of hark or hearken used to mean “listen.” But when I search a books database to compare “hearken” with “hearken back,” “harken with harken back,” and “hark” with “hark back,” I see that all three words often stand alone and “back”-less. They’re all correct, with or without “back.”

So which is the most widely accepted in edited published writing? It’s “hark back” — my friend’s preference. My preference, “hearken back,” which the dictionary prefers, comes in last place in terms of popularity, and it has for most of the last century. Here's more in my recent column.

The poor, the meek, the red: Nominal adjectives
Posted by June on July 8, 2024

Think for a moment about the following adjectives: poor, downtrodden, wealthy, well-to-do, meek.

They’re definitely adjectives, right?

Well, here’s a cool thing about English: Sometimes you can use adjectives as nouns (and, I should add, vice-versa). And when you do, there’s even a name for them. They’re called nominal adjectives.

That is, poor people can be referred to as the poor. And that can work as a noun in a sentence: The poor often live in bad school districts.

Ditto that for the wealthy. The wealthy often live in good school districts.

And everyone knows who shall inherit the earth: the meek.

Even the following use can be considered an example of a nominal adjective in use:

I tried on the blue shirt but bought the red. Here, the red is functioning as a noun — the object of the verb bought — even though it’s just shorthand for the red shirt or the red one.

That’s a little different because the red isn’t as substantive a noun as the poor, which is well-known to be a thing (“things” being members in good standing of the group known as nouns).

And there you have yet another interesting (to some people) trait about the English language …

Rally goer, rally-goer, rallygoer?
Posted by June on July 1, 2024
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Goers drive me nuts. I’m not talking about the kind of goers that so fascinated Eric Idle in an old Monty Python sketch. I’m talking about the goers you add at the end of words like party, beach, festival, mall — you name it. Any place people go, you can tack a “goers” on the end of.

Because I edit feature articles, goers come up quite a bit. And no two writers “goer” alike.

“Festival goers can also check out the 40-plus carnival rides.”

“Beach-goers flock to Santa Monica ever weekend.”

“Partygoers enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.”

Some terms ending in “goer,” for example “moviegoer,” are in the dictionary. Those are easy to deal with. Just do what the dictionary says and make them one word. But when you’re sort of manufacturing a less common term, like if you’re talking about someone who goes to a rally, you won’t find that in the dictionary.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which I have to follow for most of my work, usually has answers for stuff that isn’t in the dictionary. But doesn’t have an entry for “goers.” So after years of working as an editor, I still wasn’t confident in whether to hyphenate “goers,” make attach it to the other word, or make it a separate word.

Then I got the online edition of AP’s guide and everything changed. Unlike the hard copy, which has only official entries, the online version has an “Ask the Editor” function, whose answers come up when you search the site. So when you search for “goer,” you come upon this exchange from 2018:

Question: If we write moviegoer, do we also write rallygoer?

Answer: Yes.

In other words, treat “goer” like a suffix and tack it on to the end of any noun someone is going to: festivalgoer, mallgoer, beachgoer. They’re all correct in closed form, at least in AP style.

Yes, you can use 'like' to mean 'such as'
Posted by June on June 24, 2024

You can use “like” as a synonym of “such as” if you want to. Though, if my own editing work is any indication, writers haven’t gotten the memo.

In a recent two-week period, I edited about 25 articles that used “such as” before a list of examples. Only five used “like.”

“The restaurant serves elevated pub food and satisfying eats such as hand-tossed pizzas and specialty burgers.”

“Some studies suggest that eating chili peppers such as jalapenos can relax inflammation.”

“Wear protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts.”

“He became an illustrator for major magazines such as Life and National Geographic.”

“… to demonstrate qualities such as cooperation.”

None of these is wrong. But it’s a problem that the writers all seem to think they have no alternative.

A lot of grammar myths have easy-to-trace histories. This isn’t one of them. Yes, if you go back to the 1950s or so, you’ll find certain language cops telling people that “like” means “similar to.” And when something is similar to something else, they’re not one and the same. Thus, these people said, “chili peppers like jalapenos,” by definition, excludes jalapenos. It means only peppers similar to jalapenos and not jalapenos themselves. If that were true, you would be required to use “such as” anytime you wanted include jalapenos in the examples.

But it’s not true. Dictionaries define “like” as a synonym of “such as,” meaning you can use either one to set up a list of examples. I explain in-depth in my recent column.