Borne By, Borne On, and Borne With

The English word bear has so many definitions and uses that it could provide fodder for several posts. This article is about the use of the past participle borne followed by a preposition.

Here is the odd usage in my local newspaper that prompted this post:

there’s blame to be borne on everyone.

I looked on the Web to see if anyone else was using “borne on” in this way. I found these examples:

[Lack of fresh food] leads to lower lifespans in these areas, higher healthcare costs borne on everyone and general malaise.

And, we had people opting out of the system and waiting until they got sick to charge ER costs that were ultimately borne on everyone else. 

If you have seen the documentary The Corporation, you will be familiar with the economics term externalities — which are the external costs of any enterprise which are borne on everyone else but the enterprise itself.

Today most people think that [the expense of] having children should be borne on everyone else.

Blame and expense are borne by people, not on them.

Here are examples of the correct use of borne followed by the prepositions with, on, and by:

His wife has borne with his faults for fifty years.

The returning war hero was borne on the shoulders of two burly police officers.

The price increase was borne by consumers.

Borne is more poetic than mere carried. Fitzgerald used the word in the closing line of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Borne often has the connotation that whatever is being carried–literally or figuratively– requires great effort:

Over the casket the great flag that had draped it [was] held widespread in the hands of the eight petty officers who had borne the heavy weight to its place.

She is a woman who has borne disappointment all her life.

Borne is used as a suffix to create words that have the sense of being carried or distributed:

Water-borne diseases are any illness caused by drinking water contaminated by human or animal faeces, which contain pathogenic microorganisms.

High in the sky, water in clouds can act as a temptress to lure airborne pollutants such as sulfur dioxide into reactive aqueous particulates.

The speaker who said, “There’s blame to be borne on everyone” was mixing up two ideas. Blame is placed on someone, but, once placed, blame is borne by the person blamed.

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Daily Writing Tips


Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t write to complain about the ubiquity of the word absolutely. The following objections to this word are typical:

Please answer a question without starting with the word “absolutely.” It’s driving me mad, please please stop.

What’s wrong with responding, “without a doubt,” “you bet,” “of course,” “for sure,” or simply “yes”?

It [strikes] me as ironic that perfectly good English words and phrases like “that’s correct” and “yes” [are] being usurped by the invasive “absolutely.”

Complaints about absolutely have been circling the Web for at least 18 years. It was on the Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words in 1996. It continues to be the object of wrath on many blog sites, and it made another appearance on the LSSU list in 2014.

Perceptions that absolutely as a synonym for “yes” is a recent tic have led people to speculate as to what or whom to blame for introducing it into popular speech. In 1996, a critic put the blame on the movie Rocky (1976). However, the citations in the OED indicate that absolutely has been used as an affirmation since 1825:

“Is it permitted me to ask your majesty whether the opinion of the queen is conformable to that of your majesty?” “Yes, absolutely; she will tell you so herself.” (1825)

“Is such really the state of matters between you and Rivers?” “Absolutely, sir!” (1847)

“Do you mean to say that if he was all right and proper otherwise you’d be indifferent about the earl part of the business?” “Absolutely.” (1892)

Absolutely is not confined to use as a word for “yes.” It is also used to modify words in every type of context, from baby clothes to wartime atrocities:

Fifteen Absolutely Darling Onesies

Pablo Hernandez scored an absolutely outrageous no-look back-heel against Atletico Madrid this evening.

The Absolutely Most Delicious Wrap and Sandwich Recipes Cookbook

Killing reporters during battles in southeastern Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable.

In each of these examples, absolutely is being used as an empty intensifier, the way awesome is so often used.

Sometimes absolutely is used functionally, as in this household tip:

Get all the clothes that you want to store absolutely clean and dry.

Here the meaning is, “to the fullest extent.”

In a 2009 article on the CNN website, Rex Bossert, an assistant dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, is quoted as blaming O.J. Simpson for introducing absolutely as the ultimate modifier. Bossert points out that when Simpson was arraigned in 1994 and was asked how he pled, he didn’t say simply “not guilty”; he said, “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.”

Why does a word that ranks so high among verba non grata continue to remain so popular?

The CNN article also quotes an account executive who has embraced absolutely as her word for “yes” because it sounds reassuring:

Absolutely sounds confident and sure. In times of ambivalence, people could use a bit of semantic surety. When you use it, you just feel more confident.

Unfortunately, many speakers perceive absolutely as the contrary of reassuring. In the view of one college student at the University of Oregon,

[Absolutely] now means “a lot of bull.” It’s like “whatever,” or “sure.” It grates on me when a professor or another student says “absolutely” because saying it means they’re a phony (2010).

Bottom line: Absolutely as both a synonym for “yes” and a meaningless intensifier will probably be with us for some time. Professionals need to be aware that promiscuous use of the word is annoying, and that many speakers view such use as evidence of insincerity, untrustworthiness, and mental vacuity.

vacuity (noun): complete absence of ideas; vacancy of mind or thought.

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Daily Writing Tips

Confused Words #2: Past and Passed

Two words that many English speakers confuse are past and passed.

The confusion between past and passed is understandable because they sound the same: [past].

The spellings have been confused for centuries, but modern speakers who have access to free dictionaries and universal public education may be expected to master the difference.

Passed is the past tense of the verb to pass.

Past is the spelling of four other parts of speech, but NEVER a verb.

Pass (the verb)
The verb pass has numerous meanings, among them,”to move or move on, to go by, to move or be transferred to the next place.” The principle parts are pass, passed, (have) passed. The verb is used both transitively and intransitively. Here are some examples:

You must study harder if you expect to pass your exams. (transitive)
Please pass me the salt. (transitive)
Did you pass? (intransitive)
Dorothea passed the bar exam last September. (transitive)
That reckless driver passed on the right. (intransitive)

Past (NOT the verb)
The word past can function as four parts of speech: noun, adjective, adverb, and preposition:

past (noun): time that has gone by. Usually preceded by the article the.
Example: It’s not a good idea to dwell on the past.

past (adjective): gone by in time.
Examples: They never dwell upon their past losses, except to learn from them. (attributive adjective)
Our relationship was mutually beneficial, but now it is past. (predicate adjective)

Note: An attributive adjective stands before a noun. A predicate adjective completes a being verb.

past (adverb): beyond
Example: He came to the haunted house and then ran past.

Related posts:
Past vs past
Confusing passed with past
Taking Another Pass at Past

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Daily Writing Tips

Indefinite Article With Initialisms

Note: An initialism is a group of initial letters, each pronounced separately, used as an abbreviation of a name.

Many English speakers who probably use the indefinite article an in front of a vowel when speaking seem to encounter a mental disconnect when it comes to writing.

The following examples were found on major news sites or on sites offering professional services or advice:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to a FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is a HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add a LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to a MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

A NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being a RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign a STMP server for this account?

The problem lies in an incomplete understanding of the rule for the use of a and an.

Many speakers retain the rule as “Use an before words that begin with a vowel and a before words that begin with a consonant.”

The complete rule is “Use an before words that begin with a vowel sound and a before words that begin with a consonant sound.”

The 26 letters of the alphabet are sound symbols, but the symbols have names. And several of the consonant letters have names that begin with vowel sounds:

F [ef]
H [aitch]
L [el]
M [em]
N [en]
S [es]
R [ar]

Here’s the correct way to write the words and initialisms given in boldface above:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to an FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add an LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to an MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

An NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being an RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign an STMP server for this account?

In deciding whether to write a or an in front of an initialism, say the name of the first letter. If the letter name begins with a vowel sound, use an.

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Daily Writing Tips

A Historic vs. An Historic

My post A Useful Reminder About ‘An’ prompted an outpouring of emails asking, “How about an history or an historic?”

Some points of English usage stir strong feelings. Placing the indefinite article “an” in front of the words historical or historic is one of these. Here are some comments prompted by a post I wrote on this topic several years ago:

When people use “an historical” on NPR, it’s because [they’re] snooty.

Only a Cockney or an hidiot [would say] “an historic.”

[People who defend “an historic”] are pseudo-intellectual, American linguistic “posers.”

For certain Americans, it’s all about self-consciously pompous affectation!

I would never ever use “an” in front of any word with an aspirate H at the beginning. That just isn’t what it’s for, and it sounds pretentious.

The simple facts about the use of “an historical” and “an historic” are these:

1. Style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, The AP Stylebook, and The Penguin Writer’s Manual regard the following as correct in modern usage:
“a historical event”
“a historic event.”

2. Many speakers still say and write “an historical”–and they do so with no intention of sounding affected, pompous, or pretentious.

Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, but never in one fell swoop. Pockets of older forms continue to exist even after the majority of speakers have made the switch and authorities have recorded the new rules.

The Google Ngram Viewer provides an interesting look at the progress of “an historic” vs “a historic.” In 1800, “a historic” barely shows. It begins its rise in the 1820s. In 1869, “a historic” is neck and neck with “an historic.” The two travel along fairly close together until the First World War when “an historic” pulls ahead and dominates until 1938. After that, “a historic” becomes the clear winner, although “an historic” and “an historical” remain in use. Here are two recent examples of the use of “an historical” in the context of educated English:

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. (Note on the New York University library site.)

The Making of Southern Europe: An Historical Overview (title of a recent publication of the London School of Economics)

Clearly, modern usage prefers “a historic” and “a historical,” as well as a before other “h words” that readers asked about: “a hotel,” “a horrible accident,” and “a horrific statistic.”

The word herb (succulent plant used for seasoning) is pronounced both with and without an aspirated h. “A herb” is modern British pronunciation, although British author Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote “an herb” in one of her novels. Many Americans–although by no means all–say “an erb” and write “an herb.”

Unquestionably, accepted current practice is to use the indefinite article a in front of all but a very few words that begin with the letter h.

The most common exceptions are:

an heir to the throne
an honorable man
an honest man
an hour or two

Speakers who say “an historic” are not necessarily being “pretentious or snooty.” It could be that they learned the usage from family members and teachers educated in earlier generations.

Follow the style guide of your choice. Save your linguistic wrath for things like, “Me and my brother graduated from Georgetown.”

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