March 14, 2004

Why worry of it?

In response to my "Don't worry of it" post, several people have written to suggest that -- never mind the New York Times and Dave Farber -- such phrases are just not English. Well, "suggest" is too weak a term. My correspondents have asserted, insisted or maybe even proclaimed that phrases like "I'm worried of what my friends will say" are completely beyond the linguistic pale, and that I'm being excessively permissive, laissez-faire and generally pusillanimous when I wrote about "learning" a usage that is so far from being a genuine part of the English language.

Now, as a linguistic libertarian, I believe that we should let people say what they want, even if it's wrong. Of course, I shouldn't put it that way, because I also believe that the vocabulary of morality has no place in a discussion of usage. However, though that's what I believe, what I feel is that the sentence "Don't worry of it" is wrong, wrong, wrong.

To keep my inner prescriptivist at bay, I spent a few minutes thinking about where "to worry of it" or "be worried of it" might come from. I came up with two possibilities: generalization from uses of the noun worry; and analogy to certain other verbs and adjectives expressing propositional attitudes, such as think and be afraid.

In expressing a complement of the noun worry, I have no trouble accepting "worry of X" (X the source of worry), as in these random web examples:

I developed alopecia and my hair started falling out with the worry of it all.

Christopher hit the roof when he discovered that Adriana hadn't told him about her worries of fertility trouble.

In 1801 Beethoven confessed to his friends at Bonn his worry of becoming deaf.

Your pet counsellor will help you fit your ferret with the proper size of ferret harness, so your little guy can get some fresh air without the worry of him escaping.

The LED lights keep the bike happy when at idle and eliminate my worry of draining the battery.

"The worry of it all" is a more-or-less fixed expression with special properties: it's at least awkward to substitute about for of, and other variations on the phrase are also odd, such as "my worry of it all" or "some worries of it all". However, there are plenty of regular cases of nominal worry of.

Another possibility is analogy to other verbs such as think, which can take either of or about. There is a slight difference in meaning, or at least in characteristic usage, between thinking of X and thinking about X -- the second one seems to focus more on the process, or something like that. As evidence, consider the following Google counts:

been thinking
just thought

It seems that both constructions are compatible with the different aspectual meanings, but to different degrees. Anyhow, "think of" is very common, and offers another model for "worry of".

Verbal and adjectival synonyms for intransitive worry -- such as be anxious, brood, be concerned, dwell, fret, etc. -- usually take complements with about, over or on, in a mixture depending (as usual) on the particular verb or adjective. Expressing a complement with of doesn't appeal to me as an option for any of these words, but the fact is that most of them also seem to be used that way, at least sometimes by some native speakers. The following are all from what seem to be web pages written by native speakers of English:

Mark McLemore admitted being anxious of going to Japan for the season opener.
Leaning back in his sagging wooden chair, Cyrus brooded of better days, better nights, better love. that he owns a digital camera he can photograph the kids all day without being concerned of running out of film.
Without dwelling of failures, mistakes, or past ill feelings, quickly list the most important accomplishments of your life.
Many have fretted of our generation ever accomplishing anything.

All of these seem ungrammatical to me personally.

Some other verbs and adjectives expressing attitudinally-tinged propositional attitudes are like think -- they regularly express their complements with of as well as with other prepositions, though typically with a difference in meaning.

I'm afraid of you / about you.
He's ashamed of it / about it.

Some others don't, for me -- though again, others differ:

I wonder about that / *of that.
She's annoyed about that / *of that.

For example, "I wonder of" has 4,350 ghits, to 82,200 for "I wonder about". Some of these are typos: "I wonder of it would be easier to just go to 17 digits." Others are different constructions entirely, folded in because Google ignores punctuation: "The first thing I wonder, of course, is if he's using."

Others are antique examples of the meaning "marvel at" rather than the modern "ponder over":

I wonder of their being here together. (Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream)
But I wonder of the scope that Xenophon allowes them. (Montaigne's essays, Florio's 1603 translation.)

However, some are modern and apparently genuine uses (though if you look them over, you'll see a remarkable percentage of uses in bad poems ("As I wonder of his everlasting devotion..." or in self-consciously poetic prose):

I wonder of the danger of glorifying or privileging *physis* over *techne* in music.

A quick sample of 50 ghits (from the 10th, 20th, 30th, etc. screenfuls) found 8 genuine "I wonder of" cases; based on this estimated proportion, there were really .16*4350 = about 696, or about 1% of the number of "I wonder about" cases.

I wonder about the dynamics of this situation, both in individual learning and for the language as a whole over time. There is a a very small, but definitely existing, proportion of "worry of" in the linguistic meme pool. This is probably due to the influence of nominal worry and other verbs like think, which are apparently enough to give some people a different view of specific verb-preposition pairings than most of us have, not just for worry, but also for similar words, such as be anxious, brood, be concerned, fret. Are these oddball complementations correlated? that is, do people who say "don't worry of it" also say "I was concerned of running out of film"?

On a larger scale, is this the leading edge of a change, or just one of those variable things? I suspect the latter, since it seems that "wonder of" is a change in (long, long) regress rather than one in progress.

In any case, I feel that we should be tolerant of the carriers of this unusual meme. It makes them different, sure enough, but not wicked. Or at least, not any wickeder than the rest of us.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 14, 2004 04:44 PM