Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Why do people 'drop' a new single? How to pronounce 'often.'

Episode Summary

918. Since "drop" can mean both "to release" and "to cancel," it can get confusing. We look at how this confusion came to be (and how to avoid it). Plus, we wade into the debate about whether there's a right or a wrong way to pronounce "often."

Episode Notes

918.  Since "drop" can mean both "to release" and "to cancel," it can get confusing. We look at how this confusion came to  be (and how to avoid it). Plus, we wade into the debate about whether there's a right or a wrong way to pronounce "often."

| Transcript:

The "often" segment was written by Edwin Battistella and originally appeared on the OUP Blog. Read the original here.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. This week, we’ll talk about using the word “drop” to mean “release,” how to pronounce the word “often” (or is it “off-ten”?), and I have the winning poem from the ACES National Grammar Day poetry contest.

But first, I have a correction to last week’s episode about parallelism. I said you can use a single article before a list of nouns like this: “We gave Ashley an iPhone, ring light, and Instagram account,” but you actually shouldn’t use just a single article in a sentence like that because some of the items take “a” and others take “an.” It’s “an iPhone” and “an Instagram account,” but “a ring light.” 

You can only have one article apply to the whole list when they would all take the same article. You could write about “a phone, ring light, and TikTok account” because all the nouns take “a,” or you could write about “an iPhone, external monitor, and Instagram account” because all the nouns take “an.” But if you’re mixing and matching, you have to put the article in front of each noun. So it would be “We gave Ashley an iPhone, a ring light, and an Instagram account.” I’m updating the audio in the original episode too. And thanks to Dorothy for calling this to my attention. I appreciate it!

‘Drop’ to Mean ‘Release’

by Mignon Fogarty

A listener named Paul recently asked about the use of the word “dropped” to  mean “released,” as in “The album will drop tomorrow.”

He said, “I first noticed this in the field of rap [and] hip hop music. … This usage seems to have crept into mainstream use somewhat recently. The problem I have with this term is that ‘dropped’ can also mean ‘canceled’ as in ‘Season 6 of the program has just been dropped’ — does this mean ‘released’ or ‘canceled’?”

I’ve actually faced the same confusion seeing the word “dropped” a couple of times, but the use is much older than Paul or I thought, as is so often the case.

Urban Dictionary has an entry from 2004, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry from all the way back in 1988.

And Paul is right in that “dropped” does seem to have started in the rap and hip hop music scene. That Oxford English Dictionary entry from 1988 is a comment from Joseph Simmons, better known as Run from the hip-hop group Run-DMC, in “Spin” magazine. He said, “I think that I should be able to drop records when I want.” And the earliest, 2004, Urban Dictionary example is about rap: “the new jay-z album dropped last week.” 

"Drop" is a super old word going back to Old English: “dropa.” It was a noun first, to refer to a globule of liquid, and then by about the year 1,000, it was a verb referring to liquid falling as drops or globules, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

And like a lot of old, simple verbs, it has a bunch of meanings. Think of dropping in on someone, telling someone to drop dead, to drop back into your old habits, to drop a hint, to drop the search for a missing person, to drop behind in school, to drop $20 on extra fancy cheese, to drop off to sleep, to drop one O from "loose" and get "lose," and so on. So it's not actually unusual that it would also take on the meaning of releasing a record or a podcast episode. It's not even much of a stretch, since dropping a physical record, like out of your hands onto the floor, could also be described as releasing it from your hands.

“Releasing” isn’t how we’d typically describe physically dropping a record on the floor in conversational English, but everyone would still understand what you mean. So “drop” already means to literally release something in some situations. 

Rappers also talk about dropping rhymes, as in singing or rapping their lyrics, and that seems to go back to the late 1980s too. And now I feel like I'm about 80 years old … those whippersnappers used to talk about "dropping rhymes..."

Interestingly,  the OED doesn’t  seem to have an entry for "drop" to mean "canceled," like I will never forgive Fox for dropping "Firefly," which makes me think the usage might be newer than I’d imagined. They have it specifically for sports teams releasing a player. "Streten is playing too well to be dropped!" from 1951 for example, but nothing about TV shows.

So to sum it up, it looks like “drop” to mean something like a record is being released isn’t as new as it might seem, but you should be careful when you use “drop” to talk about something that can be canceled, like an ongoing series, so you don’t give people the wrong impression. 

Thanks for the question, Paul!

Oftener and Oftener

This next segment is written by Edwin Battistella.

When I was growing up, someone in authority told me that the way to pronounce "often" was "offen," like "off" with a little syllabic "n" at the end. "Often" was like "soften,” “listen," and "glisten," I was warned, with a silent "t." I was young and impressionable, and the "t"-less pronunciation stuck with me. 

Later I learned that the pronunciation with the "t,” “off-ten," was completely acceptable: the preference I had developed for "offen" was just a bit of linguistic prejudice someone had saddled me with.     

Over the last several years, some colleagues and I have been surveying West Coast students about their pronunciation of "often" (and other things as well). What we found is that the pronunciation "off-ten," with the "t," is vastly preferred. Speakers report using it by about three to one, though some noted that they might pronounce the word either way. In class discussions, a few students also report an experience similar to mine—being warned against that telltale "t."

It seems clear that the pronunciation of "often" has shifted away from the idea of a "t"-less "offen." Listen and you’ll probably notice the change too. So where did the prejudice against "off-ten" come from? 

Historically, "often" is from "oft," so it had a "t" originally. The writers of pronunciation guides in the 16th and 17th centuries (called orthoepists) were split on the right pronunciation. During the 17th century the "t" pronunciation was widely adopted by educated speakers, perhaps as a spelling pronunciation. (That’s the phenomenon where speakers pronounce a word according to its spelling, like saying "salmon" with an "l.") Over time, the pronunciation with a "t" came to be treated as a hypercorrection, and the first edition of the "Oxford English Dictionary" even said that the pronunciation "off-ten" “which is not recognized in dictionaries, is now frequent in the south of England, and is often used in singing.”

Henry Fowler’s "Dictionary of Modern English Usage" spared the singers, but called "off-ten” a pronunciation practiced by “academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbors … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Other writers were just as snarky, but more concise: Henry C. Wyld called the "off-ten" pronunciation “vulgar” and “sham-refined” in his 1932 "Universal Dictionary of the English Language," and Alan C. Ross in his 1954 paper on social practices in England simply said that "offen" was upper-class pronunciation and "off-ten" was not. In the United States, "The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage" (from 1975) was flat out prescriptive: “‘Often’ should be pronounced OFF-un, not OFF-tun, though the latter pronunciation is often affected, especially by singers.” They must have consulted the OED.

Today’s Merriam Webster online dictionary is more realistic and, thankfully, less judgmental. It cites the pronunciation as "offen" and "off-ten," with what looks like a “divided by” symbol before the “of-ten” pronunciation. That symbol (called an obelus mark) indicates “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” 

When people speak in public, my ears are tuned to how they pronounce "often." From what I hear, "off-ten" is the predominant form, and I sometimes notice speakers switching from one pronunciation to the other. Perhaps there is even a pattern to the switching. That’s something to investigate down the road.

It is only a matter of time, I suspect, before Merriam Webster drops the obelus and recognizes "often" as one of those polyphonic words with alternative standard pronunciations. Like "either,” “economics," "apricot," and "pajamas."

That segment was written by Edwin L. Battistella, who taught linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he served as a dean and as interim provost. His books include Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others?, Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, and Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump. It originally appeared on the OUP blog and is included here with permission.

Finally, I have the winning poem from the National Grammar Day poetry contest run by ACES: The Society for Editing. The poet is Jay Waters, who is retired from advertising, and for the past eight years has taught advertising strategy at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

I grade grammar, guiltily.

Ill-suited for

the task, only steps

ahead of my students, my 

own writing treated with disdain

by Grammarly.

Oh, that IS better, 

the removed confusion 

settling like mud out of lake water, 

leaving only what I meant

to say.

Not only does Waters grade a lot of student writing, but he says he also works among “some hugely talented writers — best-selling authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, AP Style experts — so I am constantly trying not to embarrass myself with my writing.”

He said he turns to Grammarly, a popular software application that provides some general writing advice.

Congratulations, Jay. You definitely did not embarrass yourself today. The judges loved your poem, and I’m sure a lot of Grammar Girl listeners will find it relatable too.

And today Squiggly, the yellow snail, is back for the credits. 

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. I want to give some extra special thanks to those great people that make all this happen starting with our audio engineer Nathan Semes, and our editor, Adam Cecil, who says he really loved that thing in elementary school where the teachers would pretend that leprechauns wrecked the classroom on St. Patrick's Day and left little fool's gold behind. And he thinks we should do that at the offices, too. Wow, and I thought my school was wild!

Our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, and I love all our listeners because when they listen, I get nibbles of chocolate … oooh … Grammar Girl, can we get an ad about chocolate?

I'll mention it.

Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

Thanks, Squiggly. 

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.