Words on the street (Part 2)

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 1, 2012, page 8)

Users of English are beguiled by verbs. We need them to make grammatical sentences, to pledge and commit, to describe things and feelings, to swear convincingly. William Zinsser, in his classic On Writing Well, says “Verbs are the most important of all your tools.”

It’s only natural, then, that so many usage issues should centre on verbs. One pattern familiar to us all is the tendency to verbify, to use a perfectly acceptable noun or adjective as a non-standard (at least, at first) verb. This article looks at a different phenomenon: what happens when we use a perfectly acceptable verb in a new and possibly questionable way.

Grow as a transitive verb with non-living things

Example: This lecture series presents three usage experts’ tips for growing your vocabulary.

Grow is well established as a transitive verb, a verb that takes an object. We grow marigolds and zucchinis and, out here in British Columbia, crops that are better left unnamed in government publications. We grow our fingernails, and some of us (thankfully not all) grow beards and moustaches.

But do we grow our vocabulary, business or economy? I get asked that a lot in workshops, usually by people whose mouths, as they speak the question, are so contorted with cringing that I know the answer they want to hear. Unfortunately, that’s not the answer I give them, at least not nowadays.

Grow in the sense of causing something non-living to increase in size or value is a recent addition to this verb’s meanings. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in their Grammarphobia blog, say the new use “seems to have come out of the 1992 presidential election, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Most language people frown on it, including 80 percent of American Heritage’s Usage Panel.”Footnote 1

That blog entry was from 2007, however, a generation ago in the cranked-up timeline of today’s usage changes, and many reputable authorities have since come to tolerate if not fully accept the new meaning. Back in 2004 the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition) listed this sense of grow with no finger-wagging note to flag the use as disputed, and gave the example of “a plan designed to grow the company’s market share.” The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd edition, 2007) says: “Despite the misgivings of some commentators, the new transitive sense is very well established in financial journalism.” Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition, 2009), puts the new use at Stage 3 in his five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning it’s widespread but best avoided in careful writing.

It’s clear from the opinions of Garner and others that the new use hasn’t fully crossed the line into “standard” territory yet. The style guide of the Guardian newspaper in the UK fairly shudders at it, noting that “horrors such as ‘grow the business’ should only be used when quoting someone.”Footnote 2 And the Grammarphobia authors are on record as “loathing” this sense of grow. But full acceptance is just a matter of time.

Addicting versus addictive

Example: For a look at how working writers and editors view usage issues, there’s nothing more addicting than dipping into newspaper style guides.

If you’d prefer addictive in the sentence above, you have lots of company among language lovers. Addictive is the well-established adjective form of the verb addict, and there’s no question that it’s a safe choice. But what about the upstart addicting, which is increasingly common?

Grammarist, a blog hosted by a group of writers with English-related degrees, dislikes the “-ing” form:

The present-participle adjective addicting is technically synonymous with addictive, but there’s no reason to use addicting when addictive is a perfectly functional and even versatile word. The trend is to use addicting in reference to non-addictive things that engender repeated indulgence (e.g., a great television show or a video game), but there’s no reason why addictive can’t fill this role.Footnote 3

Others echo this view. One reader of the popular (for a good reason) Grammar Girl website posted a comment that takes GG to task for stating that addicting, “as present participles are wont to do,” can function as an adjective and can therefore serve as a synonym for addictive. “Even if it were right,” the reader says, “why would we need another word that means the same thing as a perfectly good one?”Footnote 4 (That sweetly naive question would be best put to Peter Mark Roget, if only the thesaurus author hadn’t died in 1869.)

What may surprise you is that the adjective addicting, for all that it has flourished in recent years, is no newcomer to the language. According to the Grammarphobia website, the word first appeared in a 1932 issue of Science News-Letter: “Morphine, for instance, is strongly addicting.”Footnote 5Addictive is older, but not by much, having entered the language in the late 19th century. Grammarphobia also points out that both adjectives are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which defines addicting as a synonym for addictive.

The Google search tool Ngram Viewer confirms that both adjectives appear in printed material. A search of English-language books published from 1900 to 2011 reveals addictive to be much more common than addicting, but the latter picked up steam around 1950 and has appeared with some frequency ever since.

(In an irrelevant yet intriguing aside, occurrences of the word addictive in published books soared between 1960 and 2000, no doubt mirroring society’s interests. Since the early 2000s, addictive has trailed off considerably. Have we sobered up and moved on to other preoccupations?)

(In a slightly more relevant aside, the non-profit organization TED, in promoting a September 2011 TED Talk lecture about the Ngram Viewer, called the Viewer an “addicting” tool. One reader of TED’s Facebook page wrote: “TED used ‘addicting’. I’m disappointed.”)

Love it or hate it, addicting as an adjective is grammatically defensible, has been part of the language for decades and is accepted by the OED. Idiomatically speaking, it’s still less familiar than addictive, a good reason to prefer the latter in standard writing. But the newer usage is rapidly gaining fans.

Concerning to mean troubling or worrisome

Example: We at Regal Writer magazine find the prevalence of the adjective addicting quite concerning.

As with the other two usages we’ve looked at, the use of concerning as an adjective to mean worrying is spreading fast, and I’m asked about it often.

As with addicting, it helps to understand the grammar of this new word on the street. Concerning, like addicting, is a present participle, and as such is grammatically capable of serving as an adjective. That leaves the question of idiom: is it natural, acceptable English to use concerning that way? If something that troubles us is troubling, something that worries us is worrying and something that disturbs us is disturbing, then why shouldn’t something that concerns us be concerning?

There’s no clear ruling on this usage point...yet. When Grammarphobia’s O’Conner and Kellerman answered a reader’s question on concerning in 2008, they were (surprisingly) unaware of its use as a synonym for worrying. Their opinion: “it’s not considered standard to use ‘concerning’ that way, at least not in modern times.”Footnote 6 They did add that the OED cites examples of concerning used as a participial adjective from 1649 to 1834, including one taken from Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel Pamela: “I cannot bear anything that is the least concerning to you.”

This use from previous centuries is now shaking off the dust and becoming surprisingly widespread. If you google the phrase “that’s concerning,” you’ll get plenty of hits. Granted, most of them involve quoted remarks and blogs—in other words, conversational English rather than the standard written variety. Still, the more we’re exposed to published examples such as the title of a Paxton Record (Illinois) article about a game lost by a local football team—“It’s the manner in which PBL lost that’s concerning”—the more we’re likely, over time, to find the usage inoffensive.

What’s ahead for these words?

In my view, there’s a reason why English is accepting these new usages faster and with less spleen than was involved in, say, the emergence of impact as a verb. Grow has long been used as a transitive verb, so adding a new transitive sense isn’t a big grammatical stretch. Similarly, because addicting and concerning are both participles, it’s grammatically logical to use them as adjectives. Neither is being forced into a new language role.

I find we’re more likely to rail against emerging usages when they distort grammar or syntax, as do the problems discussed in Part 1 of this article. In contrast, we’re more willing to accept new usages when they’re consistent with the established rules. Overall, it seems easier to fit new meanings into the treasure chest of English if there’s a drawer already there for them.

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