July 30, 2009

Language Tips: Renown or renowned & wait on or wait for

Posted in renown or renowned, wait for or wait on at 6:00 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Renown or renowned

When reviewing a proposal recently, I came across this:

‘My primary mentor is a world reknown expert in…’

Oh dear. This was a terrible moment for me. My heart started thumping madly; sweat beaded on my forehead; I could not feel my feet; the room began to spin…okay, a small exaggeration maybe, but still, it was a dreadful moment.

What’s wrong with the statement? Well, first, while we associate the word ‘ know’ or ‘known’ with ‘renown,’ there is really no such word as ‘reknown.’ So, delete the ‘k.’ There is no ‘k’ in renown! For that matter, there is no ‘u’ in renown either. ‘Renoun’ is not a word.

So problem solved, right? Well, not so much.

‘Renown’ is a noun, meaning ‘fame’ and cannot be used as an adjective. The correct form to use in our example is ‘renowned’ which is an adjective.

So problem solved, right? Well, almost but not quite.

‘World’ is used, in the example, as an adjective modifying ‘renowned’ (I am using the correct spelling now). Because it is modifying another adjective rather than a noun, it creates a compound adjective with ‘renowned.’ And we all know that compound adjectives should be hyphenated. So the correct wording which would have saved my mental and physical anguish, is this:

‘My primary mentor is a world-renowned expert in…’

Ah, much better.

Tip 2: Wait on or wait for

A reader writes:

I’ve been meaning to ask you about this one for a while, but had forgotten until I saw this:

Meanwhile in the Senate, everyone is waiting on Max Baucus of Montana. Nothing is going to happen on health care without the approval of Baucus, whose vast authority stems from the fact that he speaks for both the Senate Finance Committee and a state that contains three-tenths of one percent of the country’s population.
(From NYT July 24, 2009)

Until maybe 10-15 years ago, “waiting on” was something a waiter did. “Waiting for” was something you did while someone was getting ready. As in “Waiting for Godot,” not “Waiting on Godot.” With the exception that “waiting on” was sometimes used by African-Americans as synonymous with “waiting for.”

Today, the distinction seems to have disappeared. I never hear that anyone is waiting for anything; they’re always waiting on. In fact, waiters don’t wait on tables anymore, they “wait tables.”

Can we start a Save the Preposition Society?

Amen, reader.

While the use of ‘wait on’ as a synonym for ‘wait for’ has become ubiquitous, I agree that such usage is wrong and should not be found in our formal writing. I won’t go so far to say it should never be used, because it is found in certain dialects, and who am I to deny a dialectal use. But if you are not from the South or someplace where ‘wait on’ is used this way, don’t.

‘Wait on’ means to serve or to attend. The University of Victoria’s writing guide puts it succinctly:

You wait for people or events, and you wait on tables.

Of course, you can also wait on customers and wait on your employer if you are a servant. But that’s pretty much the gist of it.

As for the Save the Preposition Society, it’s a good idea but I have to go with my heart on this one, and I really, really want to save the hyphen!


From the NY Times in its quasi-eulogy to the hyphen <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/weekinreview/07mcgrath.html>



  1. Anonymous said,

    It seems that the difference between “wait in line” vs the now popular “wait on line” has been left out. Can you provide clarification here, please?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I had not heard the expression ‘wait on line’ before. ‘Wait in line’ is the standard expression. My first thought was that maybe it was somehow connected to the computer age, and the term ‘online’ has become so ubiquitous that some were transferring it to the physical act of waiting in line. But after doing a little research, I found that this was not the case.
      The use of ‘wait on line’ instead of the more common ‘wait in line’ is a regionalism of the New York area (some say of the whole Northeast). The story, which may very well be apocryphal, goes that the expression ‘wait on line’ stems from days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ellis Island served as the entry point for most immigrants to the US. In order to be processed to enter the country legally, immigrants had to literally wait on a line painted on the floor of the processing facility as they moved from station to station. Thus, the regionalism, ‘wait on line’ was born. I don’t know if it is true, but it is a good story and a reasonable explanation.

      • lancethruster said,

        Your regional reference seems accurate because I first heard it used that way when Howard Stern (NYC DJ) was talking about people waiting “on line” for a particular book signing. I’ve since heard it used that way for other book signings regardless of region, or even people waiting for movie tickets.

        Thanks for your response.


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