December 23, 2004

You're only staying if you're not

In conversation last night my friend Jatin described an area in Philadelphia as "near where Professor Katz stays." I pointed out that he had apparently used the wrong verb: English does not use stay that way. The apartment in which Professor Katz lives cannot be referred to as the place where he stays. (Linguists are allowed to make this kind of remark about syntax and semantics whenever they like. Don't worry, it's not rude. It's like when you're watching birds with an ornithologist.) Jatin agreed with me immediately about the semantics: he knew how live and stay are used, but had made the slip anyway (it's an extremely common lexical error among non-native speakers of English). But it then struck me as we talked about it that the situation with this verb is very strange. The root meaning of stay is something like "remain". But you can only say you are staying at an address if you are not going to remain.

If you are going to remain there for the indefinite future, so it's your actual domicile, you can say you plan to live there. To say that you're going to be there for a fixed period but it won't become your regular domicile, you would say that you'll be staying there. You're only staying if you're not staying.

(This is the Standard English usage I'm describing, of course. Both Susannah Kirby and Eric Bakovic have pointed out that there are African American Vernacular varieties of English in which stay does mean "permanently reside", and at least three people have pointed out that the same is true of Scottish English.)

Curiously, the actual case at hand turned out to be a problematic one that hadn't occurred to me. The Professor Katz involved was Elihu Katz. It turns out that he currently spends exactly six months of the year in Israel and six months in Philadelphia, so it is completely unclear which place should be regarded as his permanent domicile (doubtless, his home is where is heart is). So that would be the one case in which it would be unclear whether to say he stays there or that he lives there.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 23, 2004 05:51 PM