Worst Comes to Worst? Or Worse Comes to Worst?
Posted by June on March 20, 2023

I try not to cringe when people use language in a way that seems wrong to me. My idea of what’s right, as I’ve learned the hard way, isn’t necessarily right. So who am I to judge? But though I can hold my tongue, I can’t just turn off my cringe impulse at will, as evidenced by my reaction when I hear people say, “If worst comes to worst.”

To me, that first T is like nails on a chalkboard. How can worst come to worst, I wonder, if it’s already worst? Clearly, the fear is that something already bad — a worse thing — could go even further downhill, all the way to its worst possible state. So obviously, people who use two “worsts” in this expression are botching up the logical original wording, “if worse comes to worst.”

So I scoffed and I sniffed and I silently judged every time I heard the version with two “worsts” until the year 2023 when, after about 20 years of writing about grammar, I finally looked it up.

Good thing I held my tongue. “The traditional idiom, evidenced by the Oxford English Dictionary consistently from the 16th century, is worst comes to worst,” writes Garner’s Modern English usage.
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage reports that the expression “worst comes to worst” seems to have first appeared in print in 1597, its meaning identical to the way people use it now: “if the worst that can possibly happen does happen.” It wasn’t till more than a century later that the expression I assumed was the original, “worse comes to worst,” appeared in print.

“Presumably it was the desire to make the phrase more logical that gave rise to the variant ‘if the worse comes to the worst,’ which was first recorded in 1719, when it was used (in the past tense) by Daniel Defoe in ‘Robinson Crusoe,’” Merriam’s writes.

Interestingly, when I searched a version of “Robinson Crusoe” online, I found on page 183 “if the worst came to the worst” — with two Ts — meaning that sometime between the publication of the edition Merriam-Webster referenced and the edition I saw, someone had changed Defoe’s “worse” to “worst” in order to make it correct according to the standards of his time.

This back-and-forth supports Merriam’s central point about the two forms of this expression: “In the centuries since, this phrase has shown a stubborn unwillingness to settle into fixed form.”

Here's more in my recent column.

Feel positively or feel positive? Why the New York Times made the wrong call
Posted by June on March 13, 2023
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“Many older adults said they feel positively about their lives,” the New York Times reported recently.

That sentence probably sounds as acceptable to you as it did to the Times editors. But what if they wrote instead: “Many older adults feel happily about their lives”? The structure is identical, but suddenly the grammar seems wrong. The adjective “happy” would seem like a better choice — many adults feel happy — than the adverb. So “happily” makes a good test of whether the New York Times’ sentence required an adverb or an adjective.

Well-informed people can disagree about whether the Times should have used “positive” instead of “positively.” But in my view, they made a mistake. They should have used the adjective “positive.” To understand why requires a quick look at which verbs are modified by adverbs.

We were all taught in elementary school that adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns: Happy adults sing happily. That’s true, but there’s more to the story.

There’s a whole category of verbs that take adjectives, not adverbs, as their complements. They’re called copular or linking verbs, and they either refer back to the subject or deal with the senses.

The most common copular verb is “be,” along with its conjugated forms including “is,” “am” and “are.” Native English speakers understand intuitively that “be” works differently from other verbs. Think about these sentences: He is nicely. We are hungrily. I am sadly. In every case, an adverb comes after the verb and in every case that’s obviously the wrong choice. All those sentences need an adjective: He is nice. We are hungry. I am sad. That’s because the verb “be” is a copular verb. It refers back to the subject. And because subjects are nouns or pronouns, they’re modified not by adverbs but by adjectives.

And there's more. Here's my recent column on which verbs take adjectives instead of adverbs.

Is the older of two also the oldest of two?
Posted by June on February 27, 2023

If you have two children, ages 10 and 12, is the 12-year-old the oldest? Or is she the older? Can you say she’s your eldest child? Or must you say she’s the elder child?

The answer, believe it or not, is very controversial. Some people say that when you’re comparing only two things, you can’t use the superlative — the “est” form — and that only the comparative — the “er” form — will do.

Even the language bosses are bitterly divided.

“When two items are being compared, a comparative adjective is needed, ‘the greater of the two’; when more than two are being compared, the superlative is needed, ‘the greatest of the three,’” says the 2003 edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, which calls it a “blunder” to use the superlative in comparisons of two.

Other experts make a strong case that superlatives are fine for comparisons of two.

“No one will misunderstand you if you say, ‘She is the oldest of the two,’” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “The rule serves no useful purpose at all. It is therefore a perfect shibboleth, serving no practical function except to separate those who observe the rule from those who don’t.”

Here's more in my recent column about how to navigate this language issue.

Can you say 'more clear' instead of 'clearer'?
Posted by June on February 20, 2023

“When is it grammatically correct to use ‘more clear’ in place of ‘clearer’?” an internet user asked on Quora last year.

There are some problems with this question. The first is that the writer was under the impression that “more clear” is the grammatically correct wording in some contexts, while “clearer” is correct in others.
Second: The writer posted this question in a public forum, where people who don’t know the answer can pretend that they do and where, as a result, people contradict each other with absolute certainty.
“‘More clear’ is not English,” one user replied. “The expression is ‘clearer.’”

“The use of either one is grammatically correct,” said another.

No one teaches us in school where to turn with questions like this. Even I found this matter tough to research. So you can’t blame the questioner for seeking out help on the internet, where you can get good answers and bad answers, with no way to know which are right, served with a generous helping of spam ads for stock market tips and software products.

So what’s a well-meaning English speaker to do? First, toss out the idea that there’s only one correct way to write or say something. English is pretty flexible, so more than one wording can be grammatical. Think about “aren’t I” and “amn’t I” and you’ll see what I mean.

Second, understand where correctness comes from in English. There’s no Grammar Penal Code — no official list of what’s right and wrong. Instead, there are three elements that determine correctness: syntax, dictionary definitions and common usage.

Syntax means the grammatical mechanics of sentences, for example how subjects should agree with verbs. You don’t say, “We knows how,” you say, “We know how.” “Know” is the correct conjugation for the first person plural, so “knows” is ungrammatical when paired with “we.”
Dictionary definitions are more straightforward. If you say “dog” when you mean “cat,” you’re using the word “dog” wrong.

The third arbiter of correctness in English, common usage, tells you whether a structure is so well established that it’s considered idiomatic — correct despite being ungrammatical. “Aren’t I” is the best example. The pronoun “I” usually pairs up with “am,” not “are.” But at some point, “aren’t I” became standard idiom, so it’s correct even though it’s ungrammatical.

So how does all this apply to the choice between “more clear” and “clearer”? Here's my recent column explaining why both are acceptable.