October 04, 2007

Just say "these"

Language Log reader Tim Leonard wrote me a little while ago about his wife's use of these ones, and I passed the query on to the American Dialect Society mailing list on 9/29/07, hoping that someone there would know of literature on the usage, especially its regional and social distribution and its history.  Nothing has turned up, and I haven't been able to find discussion of the variant in CGEL -- or, remarkably, in a pile of usage guides I examined.  But having started thinking about the variant, I was moved to write a bit about the syntax of such expressions.

Leonard's original message:

My wife consistently uses "these ones" where I use "these", and to my ear it isn't quite grammatical.  I figured it was a regional variation that was likely (since I probably represent a whole class of people who find her usage jarring) to have become some commentator's bugaboo, and that I might learn something from the usage guides.  But Merriam-Webster's English Usage is silent on "these ones", as is American Heritage Book of English Usage, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, and Strunk and White.  Google to the rescue, with the web version of Paul Brians's Common Errors in English, but the entry on the web simply disapproves, with no reasoning or citations or commentary, so I've learned very little.

Is this variation familiar to you, or covered in any of your usage guides?  Or can you suggest how else I might learn about it?

And what Brians says:

By itself, there's nothing wrong with the word "ones" as a plural: "surrounded by her loved ones." However, "this one" should not be pluralized to "these ones." Just say "these."

These ones is indeed familiar to me (for many years now); people have reported it to me (with disfavor) many times.  But i don't find it in any of the first 20 usage guides I consulted (thanks again to Rachel Cristy for her help in these searches), despite the fact that it's an obvious candidate for an Omit Needless Words treatment -- that is, for a "secondary" appeal to ONW as backing for disapproval of a non-standard usage.  (I am as often surprised by the things that mostly escape the attention of usage advisers as I am by the things they pile up on.)

As for its regional and social distribution, the variant might have a distribution along the usual lines, but it's also possible that it's merely an occasional non-standard variant that turns up via analogy (to this one) every so often and then spreads from person to person without becoming strongly associated with any social identity, or spreads in this fashion while becoming associated with many different social identities.

On to the syntax.  First, i'll assume that those works like these (and that like this); this could turn out to be wrong, of course.  (Note that Brians mentions only these.  In fact, usage advisers often mention one instance of a phenomenon while neglecting other parallel instances.)

Next, I'll label the variants  0 (without one(s)) and 1 (with one (s)), and I'll distinguish two different uses of the variants -- a "deictic" (D) use, in which the expressions are accompanied by some sort of indicating gesture, perhaps just gaze, and an "anaphoric" (A) use, in which the expressions refer to some entity or entities established in the preceding discourse.  (Undoubtedly, there's more complexity here, but this is enough to expose some big things that are going on.)

I predicted that Leonard's wife doesn't use these ones EVERYWHERE he uses these; rather, he uses these everywhere she uses these ones, but she has both these and these ones.  The non-standard variant is, I believe, available only for D uses, not for A uses. (These predictions have now been confirmed.)

Here's the A pattern, including the Apl case, in which I think everybody (including Leonard's wife) has the 0 variant and NOT the 1 variant:


   I didn't buy it, because it was ugly.  [response] This/That is a strong objection.


   I didn't buy it, because it was ugly.  [response] *This/*That one is a strong objection.


   I didn't buy it, because it was ugly and cost too much.  [response] These/Those are strong objections.


   I didn't buy it, because it was ugly and cost too much.  [response] *These/*Those ones are strong objections.

Now for the deictic uses.  Assume that the speaker is looking at a tray of objects and has been asked to choose one, or some.


   I'll take this/that.


   I'll take this/that one.  [both 0 and 1 are possible, though they're not truly equivalent.]


   I'll take these/those.  [standard variant]


   I'll take these/those ones.  [non-standard variant]

(It's entirely possible, even likely, that some speakers with the 1 variant in Dpl also use the 0 variant on some occasions.  Even Leonard's wife might do this; he's only going to notice her productions when they differ from his own.  I don't know if anyone has looked at within-speaker variation on this point.)

Now to widen the focus a bit: the distribution of 0 and 1 variants differs from construction to construction.  Possessives pattern, I think, like D this/that: standard 0 (mine / yours / etc.), but non-standard 1 (my one(s) / your one(s) / etc.); I don't know whether the constructions co-vary within individuals.  To complicate things further, I think that full-NP possessives are more acceptable in the 1 variant (the professor's one(s)) than possessive pronouns are.

Other constructions are like Dsg this/that in allowing both the 0 and the 1 variant (as above, I'm not claiming that these variants are truly equivalent, only that both are acceptable):

EACH: Each (one) is flawed.

ANY: Any (one) of them will do.

Adj: You take the red pencil and 'll take the blue (one).  You take the red pencils and I'll take the blue (ones).

(As far as i know, no one has objected to the 1 variants here, or to Dsg this/that one, on "primary" ONW grounds.  True, you could save a word, but both variants are standard, so ONW doesn't come up.)

Finally, there are determiners for which only the 0 variant is possible (parallel to A this/that and A these/those), and others for which only the 1 variant is:

0-only ALL: All are flawed.  *All ones are flawed.

1-only EVERY: *Every is flawed.  Every one is flawed.

And that's what I know about this topic at the moment.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 4, 2007 12:11 PM