June 21, 2004

"Per usual", per usual

Today's edition of Eric Umansky's Today's Papers in Slate includes a phrase that struck me as being one that Umansky favors:

The Marines announced one of their men was killed around Fallujah. Per usual, they didn't give details.

A search of Slate's archives suggests that I might be right.

Here are some earlier Today's Papers where Umansky uses the same phrase:

(link) Today's editorials in the NYT, per usual, confront the crucial issues of the day...
(link) Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which, per usual, the papers describe as a group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah militia.
(link) Per usual, Woodward doesn't interject with any context and simply lets the president tick off his talking points..

Furthermore, this seems something that is specific to Umansky, rather than deriving from the topic or context of the daily Today's Papers feature. Other authors for the feature include Benjamin Healy, Emily Biuso, Sam Schechner, Zachary Roth, Hudson Morgan, Avi Zenilman and Michael Brus, but according to the archives, Umansky is the only one of these who has ever used per usual.

Umansky appears to have written 550 of the 2481 Today's Papers pieces in Slate's archives (can the feature really have been running for 2481/365 = 6 years and nine months? I guess so!). Each of these pieces is around a thousand words long, so Umansky has used per usual 4 times in 550,000 words, or about 7.27 per million words, whereas the other Today's Papers writers have used the same phrase 0 times in about 1.93 million words (and yes, I know that it is silly to use three significant figures when my estimate of article length has only one...). If the other writers had the same propensity to use per usual that Umansky does, we would have expected to see about 14 instances. Without doing the statistical calculations in detail, we can guess that 0 is significantly different from 14, over this span of time and text.

I've noted before that a word or phrase can come to seem characteristic of a speaker or writer, even if we don't encounter it very often in their productions. I gave an example of a common expression, "and yet", which becomes a sort of stock phrase associated with a particular character in a novel, although it's only used three times.

Another curious statistic emerges from the OED's entry for per usual (part of the entry for per, edited for relevance):

III. As an English preposition.

1. By, by means of, by the instrumentality of; esp. in phrases relating to conveyance, as per bearer, per carrier, per express, per post, per rail, per steamer, etc. Also = according to, as stated or indicated by, as per invoice, per ledger, per margin, etc.; as laid down by (a judge) (quot. 1818). So, in humorous slang use, (as) per usual = as usual; also with ellipsis of usual. Also (exceptionally) in other senses, as per this time = by this time, per instance = for instance (cf. F. par exemple). Also in other humorous and extended uses.

1874 W. S. GILBERT Charity IV, I shall accompany him, as per usual.
1922 JOYCE Ulysses 343 As per usual somebody's nose was out of joint.
1923 ‘K. MANSFIELD’ Bad Idea in Doves' Nest 146 So I took her up a cup of tea..as per usual on her headache days.
1938 J. PHELAN Lifer xxi. 212 That's right,..no grounds, as per.
1959 N. MARSH False Scent (1960) i. 12 He'll be bringing his present later on, as per usual.
1960 S. BARSTOW Kind of Loving II. vii. 263, I reckon after tonight we can't carry on as per.
1972 ‘A. ARMSTRONG’ One Jump Ahead i. 13, I came back as per usual about five o'clock.
1977 J. BINGHAM Marriage Bureau Murders i. 9 I'll stay in a pub... As per usual.

The curiosity is that of the eight citations for (as) per (usual), three (Phelan, Marsh and Bingham) are from detective or mystery novels. Maybe four -- I'm not sure about Armstrong.

[Update: another observation on Umansky's frequency of usage... If we take the observed frequency of 4 in 550 pages as a valid estimate of his propensity to use this phrase, we'd predict (4*10^9)/550 as the frequency per billion pages, or 7,272,728. By comparison, "per usual" actually occurs 63,900 times in the 4,285,199,774 pages that Google currently indexes, corresponding to a rate of 14,912 whG/bp ('web hits on Google per billion pages'). Thus Umansky is using "per usual" roughly 488 times as often as the background rate.

If the other Today's Papers writers were using the phrase at the background rate of 14,912 whG/bp, we'd expect 0.03 instances in the 1931 pages that they've collectively written. This is quite consistent with the observed value of 0.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 21, 2004 09:21 AM