February 9, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: why or how come & reference or refer to

Posted in reference/refer to, why/how come at 6:51 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Why or how come

A reader writes:

Do you have anything in your archives on the origins of the phrase “how come?”  It drives me nuts when I hear this rather than just “why.” Now my 8 year old daughter is starting to use it, and if I correct her, I want to make sure I’m standing on solid ground!  Is it me or is “how come?” completely improper. How come people use this phrase all the time?  J

Thanks to this reader, I now know more about ‘how come’ than I ever imagined. I’m grateful, but sadly I have to tell the reader that ‘how come’ ISN’T completely improper. But on the other hand, it ISN’T completely proper either. I think everyone has had a teacher who went berserk upon hearing ‘how come,’ and that resulted in many of us being hypersensitive about the issue.

This is what I will say about ‘how come.’ It is an idiom and, thus, has a place in our language. It should NEVER be written; it is purely for casual, spoken communication. There is, of course, dispute about its origin: some say it is a shortened version of ‘how did it come to be,’ and others pitch alternatives, such as ‘how come you by this notion,’ of which I am particularly fond. No matter.

I’ve read arguments about slight differences in meaning between ‘how come’ and ‘why,’ but I don’t really buy that. You can interpret the words any way you want. I read part of a scholarly paper on ‘how come,’ but only part—I wasn’t that dedicated, and I think you have to be to make it through. Here’s the first paragraph:

Why and how come are very similar in usage and meaning: they are both inquire about the reason or cause. Some syntactic differences; however, have been discussed (Collins, 1991). A suggestion was made at the end of Collins’s paper that how come could presuppose the truth of its complement, endorsed by a factivity analysis by Fitzpatrick (2005). I follow up on this claim, and show that it is the only analysis that can account for the wide range of data. In this paper, I present additional English data, and show that a factivity analysis can account for the number of differences between why and how come with a few modifications. Additionally, this modified analysis is capable of explaining distributional facts concerning come mai in Italian, lending cross-linguistic support to the hypothesis.

© 2006 Anastasia Conroy. University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics 14, ed. N. Kazanina, U. Minai, P. Monahan and H. Taylor, pp. 1-24. College Park, MD: UMWPiL.

See what I mean about the need for dedication? Holy moly!

The bottom line is that it is important to be able to distinguish formal and informal communication, to know that only ‘why’ should be used in writing and in any formal, spoken communication. If the reader’s daughter has a clear sense of that, then I wouldn’t get on her case about her use of ‘how come.’ I figure there have to be other, more important issues to worry about; she’s eight, after all.

Tip 2: Reference or refer to

A reader writes:

I keep hearing the word reference used as a verb (usually in the past tense).  Most recently it was on Morning Edition, when a reporter said something like “So and so referenced President Obama’s concern about unemployment.”  It seems to me that the proper usage would be to say “So and so referred to President Obama’s concern about unemployment.”  What say you about this?

This is a terrific example of the evolution of language. Originally, ‘reference’ was only used as a noun, and the verb form, as the reader wrote, was ‘refer to.’ However, over time, its use as a verb has grown sufficiently that it has become largely accepted. I have to admit that ‘reference,’ the verb, doesn’t bother me. I also freely admit that I am completely inconsistent in my opinions—I still hate the so-called verb, ‘orientate,’ for example. This doesn’t mean that it is okay to be inconsistent in your writing (I think—be consistent in your use of x—is one of my most common comments); opinions are one thing; scientific writing is distinctly another.

You all know I am a big fan of Bryan Garner. In his Modern American Usage, he rates the extent to which language changes and new or evolving words are widely accepted. He rates words on a five point scale of stages where stage one represents the usage as roundly rejected up to stage five at which point, the usage is fully accepted. Garner considers the use of ‘reference’ as a verb to be at stage four which he describes this way:

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).

I couldn’t resist looking up ‘orientate’ to see where he ranked that, and I was very pleased to see that we shared a similar view. He ranked it at stage two, which he describes like this:

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Yes! Now, I am not calling our writer a die-hard snoot, but if the shoe fits…

By the way, if you want to know what a snoot is (it really is what it sounds like), I refer you to David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. Even if you don’t care what a snoot is, I recommend this book—it’s absolutely great.

1 Comment »

  1. Warsaw Will said,

    I broadly go along with your comments on ‘How come …’, but how come it should it NEVER (your capitals) be written? The majority of writing these days is informal, in emails, blogs etc. You yourself use contractions in this blog. Why must we forever be in thrall to the idea that ‘written’ means ‘formal’?

    In any case MWDEU quotes several written examples, mainly from journalism. They finish by saying ‘Writers simply seem to find ‘how come’ sassier than ‘why.’ They do admit, however, that they haven’t found any examples in more ‘elevated’ writing.


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