Grammar Grump

I find myself today worrying about the disappearing ed. The oldest example I know is the infamous “fine toothed comb”. As this venerable expression is often heard and rarely written, most folk find themselves thoughtlessly talking of a “fine tooth comb”. Most days you just let this glide past, and then suddenly you stop your conversation partner and grumpily enquire ‘What sir precisely is a toothcomb ?”

Unfortunately for the grammar grump, some dictionaries give “fine-tooth comb” as a valid alternative to “fine toothed comb”. But more distressing, the toothcomb is no longer alone. I read a restaurant menu offering Cumberland sausage with “mash potato”. A few days later I saw an advert for Lipton’s “ice tea”. Ed’s friend ing can go too. I heard someone saying they were going for their drive test.

Standing back from life, I know this is language evolution in action. And of course, evolution is always driven by errors. So its all good.

But I still can’t help harrumphing.

22 Responses to Grammar Grump

  1. telescoper says:

    Don’t you comb your teeth in the morning? It’s much more fun than brushing.

  2. Steve says:

    I think this is one of those examples where “grammar grumps” are trying to correct a non-error. Fine-tooth comb is actually the preferred variation in the dictionaries I checked, and that seems like the older variant. Google books finds about 1500 hits from 19th century works with “tooth” and only 440 with “toothed,” and the only pre-1800 usage it picks up is for “fine tooth comb.” Evolution indeed, but not in the direction that you presume.

    • telescoper says:

      According to the OED, the earliest occurrence of “fine-tooth” (as a compound adjective) is 1839; it also gives “fine-tooth-comb” as a verb. “Fine-toothed” is relegated to a subsidiary entry. Chambers doesn’t even list “fine-toothed”.

  3. John Womersley says:

    These are just the correct American English expressions (of course, you can also be a grump about the use of Americanisms). My wife, who is American, finds it hilarious that in England, you are apparently supposed to refer to sour cream as “soured cream” – as if “sour” is a verb and not an adjective.

    • telescoper says:

      “Sour” does exist as a verb (both transitive and intransitive forms are listed in the OED, going back to the 14th Century). However, “soured cream” is not listed in the OED nor in Chambers while “sour cream” is listed in both. There are lots of web references to “soured cream”, but I’m not sure that it’s normal British usage.

      Andy, I think you’re grumpy because you’re an old soured puss.

  4. andyxl says:

    Steve – thanks as usual for your erudition. Grump properly squashed.

    John, “sour” is indeed an adjective, and I would find “soured cream” awkward. I would vote with your wife that “sour cream” is better.

    But “mash” is a verb, and “ice” is a noun. I would be genuinely interested to know if your wife would argue that “mash potato” is more logical.

  5. Steve says:

    Aahh, but now you’ve mentioned ice… ‘ice cream’, ‘iced cream’? As opposed to sour or mash, ice ends in a vowel – I wonder if this makes a difference?

    • telescoper says:

      OED gives “ice-cream”, with “iced cream” as an “earlier term”. I think ice-cream is good because it’s a composite noun. Ice can also be a verb, but I don’t think you ice cream to make ice-cream.

      I think “potato mash” would be more sensible that “mash potato”, but “mashed potato” is best – even for the dance (which I’m obviously too young to remember).

  6. John Womersley says:

    and how about Hawaiian “shave ice”?

  7. Chris Evans says:

    Andy, in a conference summary a decade ago you made the point that “extincted” is one of your pet hates. Does this still induce harrumphing, or have you acquiesced? [Extinguished doesn’t quite work for me either, so usually resort to ‘xx mags of extinction’]

  8. Grumpy Old Woman says:

    Do you harrumph over “math” instead of “maths” as well? That’s one of my pet peeves ……… Along with the nucular weapons that everyone seems to talk about these days ……………….

    • andyxl says:

      Dear fellow grumper – no problem with “math”. Thats just a genuine US-British difference. As for nucular, well lets just say we should all be grateful America got round to electing someone with more than a few brain cells.

  9. astrologerthe says:

    “October 1797 Mr. Bundy took out the first patent for a comb-making machine. It consisted of a number of circular saws on a mandrel with the comb-blank being mounted on a carriage and pushed into the saws by means of a screw.”

    “While comb cutting machines were being used by the 1820s detailed ornamental combs continued to be carved and cut by hand. Such was the skill of these craftsmen that some could have as many as 45 teeth per inch.”

  10. “Unfortunately for the grammar grump, some dictionaries give “fine-tooth comb” as a valid alternative to “fine toothed comb”.” I think the former is actually better.

  11. parv says:

    “Ed’s friend ing can go too.” is too grating for me to understand. Does anybody care to give a clue?

    • He’s referring to the disappearances of the suffixes “ed” and “ing”. I have to admit, when I first read it I thought Andy had slipped into Scots for a moment.

      Which reminds me: what’s the difference between Scots, Scotch and Scottisch? Extra points for the right answer before looking it up.

      • parv says:

        Ah! Now that you used lower case “ed”, I no longer have a problem with the sentence. Thanks much.

  12. Alan Heavens says:

    “Fine-toothed comb”, surely, not “Fine toothed comb”? The latter presumably means a good example of a device for orienting your locks, with aforementioned device possessing teeth. The “toothed” in this case is redundant, since a toothless comb could hardly be described as fine.

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