Grammar Moses: I've lost the great space debate

  • Reader Casper Menes points out repeated misspellings on his building's garbage chute.

    Reader Casper Menes points out repeated misspellings on his building's garbage chute. Courtesy of Casper Menes

 
 
Posted3/27/2022 5:30 AM

For those of you who think journalists give little thought to the words we choose, I say we certainly do -- and we even have long conversations debating the spaces between them.

No, I'm not talking about reading between the lines but rather whether there should be a space between "a" and "while."

 

I started out this morning as always checking my overnight email.

Neil Holdway, who runs our night operation, had come up with a design for a weekend front page. Over a Burt Constable column was the headline "Yes, masks will be around awhile."

Hmmm, I thought. Is it "awhile" or "a while"?

I'm not usually very sharp at 4:30 a.m., so I started doing some research. I can never remember the rule, and when I am told the distinction it's still a bit fuzzy to me -- even at an hour when normal people are awake.

Not 90 minutes after I questioned Neil's headline, Merriam-Webster sent me an email that provided a primer on when to use "a while" and when to use "awhile."

I've been looking over my shoulder since, wondering whether Merriam-Webster editors have joined Mark Zuckerberg and Vladimir Putin in watching my every move.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Neil, after reading M-W's primer, said, "So it says normally 'awhile' follows a verb, including 'stay.' It may be fuzzier after 'be.'"

Citing research I'd done, I noted that in the simplest terms "a while" is used as a noun and "awhile" is used as an adverb.

Neil countered with: "I wrote, 'Yes, masks will be around awhile.' So is it a noun or adverb? I vote adverb modifying 'around.' If I didn't have 'around,' I think I'd go two words."

At that point, I relented -- not because I'd tired of the conversation but because Neil was right.

Do we sometimes miss the forest for the trees? Sure. But this ought to tell you something about our attention to detail.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Enamor

A reader named Margaret writes: "This morning I asked my daughter whether 'enthralled with' or 'enthralled by' is correct. She Googled to report which is more common. Common is not the same as right, is it? I was taught people are 'enamored OF' each other, not 'by' or 'with,' so if most people say something other than 'of,' does 'of' become wrong?"

The simple answer, Margaret, is no. It doesn't make 'of' wrong. But you didn't come to me for simple answers, did you?

What's correct is a matter of perspective.

Ask a prescriptivist, and he/she/they will tell you "enamored" takes the preposition "of," not "with."

Linguist Bryan Garner is one of those who says "enamored of" is the correct form, but because of common usage "enamored with" is nearing full acceptance in word nerd circles.

Ask a descriptivist, and he'll tell you "enamored with" is perfectly fine to use because of its ubiquity. Language changes over time based on usage, and since we're the users and shapers of the language we determine the rules.

Were language to never change, we'd still be speaking in grunts and with more hand gestures than in a scene from "The Godfather."

According to a comparison of "enamored of," "enamored with" and "enamored by" in Google's Ngram viewer, which collates words and phrases in books published from 1800 to 2019, you'll find that "enamored of" has always led the pack in terms of usage.

In 1856 it spiked to both its highest use and its highest margin of use over the other two phrases -- five times that of "enamored with."

Something changed around 1960, though, because "enamored with" has been closing the gap ever since. It's running just behind "enamored of" today.

"Enamored by" has always lagged behind and only since the 1990s has been showing any growth.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at

grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.