Saturday, May 5, 2012

A different 'issue' issue

Language Hat's post yesterday about the odd word cotoneaster, which made an appearance in Ian McEwan's recent New Yorker story, reminded me that I too was curious about a word (or two) that McEwan used. As the story begins, the narrator, a student about to graduate from Cambridge in 1972, describes her boyfriend:
He was unkempt, clever in an understated way, and extremely polite. I’d noticed quite a few of his sort around. They all seemed to have descended from a single family and to have come from private schools in the North of England where they were issued with the same clothes.
What stopped me was "issued with the same clothes." For me, or at least for the editor in me,  that with is, if not outright wrong, at least inelegant and unnecessary -- like saying someone was elected as president. But for McEwan, his educated narrator, and his New Yorker editor, "issued with" was apparently just fine.

I soon found out why: This is a British-American difference, with the Brits on the tolerant side of the scale. The usage appeared in the early 20th century, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. "Its common occurrence has led to its acceptance by British commentators (such as Partridge 1942 and Gowers in Fowler 1965). Speakers of American English would say 'provided with' or 'supplied with' instead." (Or maybe just "issued the same clothes," as I would.)

If I ever learned this nit formally, it was probably from Bergen and Cornelia Evans, whose Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) was one of my early references. The Evanses are (uncharacteristically) dogmatic on this point, saying that "the 
use of with following this use of issue (as in The new arrivals were issued with regulation uniforms) is redundant and erroneous."

But British usage watchers had already concluded that resistance was vain. The OED has a 1953 quote from the BBC publication The Listener objecting to "the idiom 'issued with': 'He was issued with' a rifle, and a packet of cigarettes, or what not. I suppose this horror has come to stay.'"

And Ernest Gowers sounded resigned in his 1965 edition of Fowler:
The modern construction, which speaks of issuing [someone] with the article, on the analogy of supply or provide ... has been deservedly criticized for  its absurdity. But it has been much popularized by two wars, is recognized without comment by the OED Supp., and has evidently come to stay, whether we like it or not.
Later usage books treat the choice as a matter of national preference: Roy Copperud (1970) and the Columbia Guide (1993) simply note that the Brits like "issued with" while Americans prefer just "issued" or "supplied with."

By the time Bryan Garner published the first version of his big American usage guide, in 1998, the verb issue was no longer an issue. (The noun issue, as in "we have issues," had begun its still flourishing career as a popular peeve -- but that's a different story.) 

26 comments:

Gregory Lee said...

The principle that prescriptivist grammarians have settled on, that when an expression can be shortened by omission of a word or two, that it should be, has never made any sense to me. I don't see why anyone should respect it.

On the other hand, extension of patterns by analogy evidently is a genuine part of language structure, and there is a pattern in English that connects having something and being "with" it. A person who "has" glasses is a person "with" glasses. If you've presented someone "with" a gift, then he "has" it. A garden swarming "with" bees "has" bees throughout.

I'm sure you can think of many other instances of this grammatical connection between "have" and "with".

So if you issue something to someone, of course he "has" it, and he is a person "with" the thing that was issued. So why not use "with"? So it uses an extra word -- so what?

Darla-Jean Weatherford said...

I've always rather assumed the case for omitting unnecessary words related to the restrictions of space on a page: if a sentence contains extra words, it's longer, and it may require more space than is available in the publication.

Having spent a number of years slashing excess out of newspaper articles to make the publication fit together, I understand the need to know when and where cuts of even a single word can be made without losing meaning.

Bryan M. White said...

"The principle that prescriptivist grammarians have settled on, that when an expression can be shortened by omission of a word or two, that it should be, has never made any sense to me. I don't see why anyone should respect it."

I would assume that it's a matter of economy and simplicity. After all, why make the reader trip over extra words on their way to your point? I'm sure it can be taken too far, though, and it probably shouldn't be considered a hard and fast rule. I don't think flow and tone should be sacrificed for the sake of economy. I've always taken Mark Twain's statement "Eschew surplusage" as a tongue-in-cheek example of this sort of thing taken to extremes.

Bryan M. White said...

As for this "issued with' business, it does sound a bit awkward and it's probably unnecessary, but I kind of like it. It almost makes it sound like the students were issued along with the clothes, as though they came off an assembly line, which of course, just emphasizes the generic sort of person he's talking about.

But that's probably just the way I'm reading it because I'm not used to hearing it that way either.

languagehat said...

I would assume that it's a matter of economy and simplicity. After all, why make the reader trip over extra words on their way to your point?

That assumes that language is all about making "points" and that "economy and simplicity" are prima facie desirable features, neither of which is true. Left to themselves, people enjoy and employ all sorts of baroque and "unnecessary" turns of phrase; listen to a real storyteller sometime, or read Homer. Storytelling and poetry are far more basic uses of language than scientific reports or newspaper accounts, let alone headlines (which is where the "no unnecessary words" idea really comes into its own). I don't think the goal of life is to get through it using as few words as possible.

pj said...

I'm British, and 35 - in other words, it's been unobjectionable and unobjected-to, so far as I'm aware, British English for my entire life. So 'This is a British-American difference, with the Brits on the tolerant side of the scale' reads rather oddly to me.

I don't think I'm 'tolerant' of people being 'issued with' things. From my point of view, you funny Americans could equally well be said to be more tolerant than us of leaving the 'with' out. (The sentence is permissible without it, for me, but definitely reads better with.)

I get that (and was interested to learn that) historically the 'with' was a latish introduction, which historical Americans kicked up more fuss about embracing than did historical Brits, but characterising today's BrEng speakers as 'tolerant' of this usage seems strange and decidedly AmEng-centric.

jamessal said...

I don't think the goal of life is to get through it using as few words as possible.

Wittgenstein... well, he doesn't quite roll over in his grave but rather twitches, before realizing that your comment, apart from being true, has nothing to do with his famous maxim ;-)

Bryan M. White said...

@language hat: "...listen to a real storyteller sometime..."

Is it really necessary to be such an ass? I also said, "I don't think flow and tone should be sacrificed for the sake of economy.", and I also tried to make it clear that writing isn't all about economy, and I offered the Mark Twain quote as example of taking the idea to ridiculous extremes.

I understand perfectly well that writing isn't just about the utilitarian packaging of information, and I'm well aware of the nuances of expression and style. Yes, despite all that, economy IS a virtue in all kinds of writing; it's just not one that trumps all other considerations. "Brevity is the soul of wit", as a REAL storyteller once said.

Writing may not just be about making points, but you've missed my point by miles upon miles.

languagehat said...

No, I simply disagree that "economy IS a virtue in all kinds of writing." And I was disagreeing with you, not "being an ass," unless to you those are the same. Note which of us is calling names.

Ø said...

The "with" in "issued with" strikes me as not just inelegant and unnecessary but outright wrong. I think it's because in "they issue each X a Y" X is an indirect object. Nobody would say "they provide each X a Y" or "they supply each X a Y".

On the other hand, if the usage is well established in England then at least over there it has joined the ranks of what Fowler called sturdy indefensibles. If it has gone far enough, then resistance is futile and silly.

I bet that "issue with" is still not used outside this kind of context (soldier's kits and such). You wouldn't issue someone with an apology, right?

Jan said...

PJ: You're right, that "tolerant" was an AmE-centric and not very precise adjective; it may apply to the language mavens, on this particular issue, but of course ordinary speakers aren't being tolerant, just using their language.

Gregory: I'm not sure whose argument you are responding to, but I was in no way attempting to proscribe "issued with," even though I was taught to avoid it. "So what?" is often a useful observation -- in the long run, we're all dead -- but in a conversation among people who are interested in the topic, it's an expression that (like "ass") is bound to be read as unfriendly.

Ø: The OED's "issued with" cites (through 1961) are all literal: banknotes, shoes, rations. Beyond that I have not explored; those who speak the language can enlighten us, I'm sure.

Gregory Lee said...

Jan writes Gregory: I'm not sure whose argument you are responding to ...

I wasn't responding to an argument; I was trying to start one.

Gregory Lee said...

Ø writes: Nobody would say "they provide each X a Y" or "they supply each X a Y".

Somebody does. I just googled on "provided each man a" and got plenty hits.

Gregory Lee said...

I am going to take this opportunity, which will probably never come again in my life, to refer to
my 1967 MA thesis for the relationship between the "with" of indirect object constructions and the "with" of absolute constructions (like "With this argument settled, we can turn to other matters").

Bryan M. White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan M. White said...

@languagehat: I may have taken your statement, "...listen to a real storyteller sometime...", as a bit more hostile that you intended. I apologize, if that's the case.

But really, you don't agree that economy is at least A virtue in all forms of writing? I'm certainly not suggesting that it's THE cardinal virtue in writing, but I don't think I've ever heard of a writer that didn't count it somewhere among the virtues. Yes, there's something to be said for dallying among the clever phrases and straying along the garden path to admire a few poetic blossoms here and there, but isn't there also something to be said for weeding out clutter, for not saying awkwardly in twenty words what could be said smoothly with five?

Warsaw Will said...

I think that issue somebody with something is so standard now in BrE that I wasn't even aware you could issue somebody something without with.
At least not until I read this article. Of course we only use with when there's an indirect object.

Gregory Lee said...

Bryan M. White writes: ... but isn't there also something to be said for weeding out clutter, for not saying awkwardly in twenty words what could be said smoothly with five?

Goodness gracious. First we learn that accepting a Britishism is "tolerant", and now we're told it accepts "clutter" and is "awkward" and "rough". I sure am happy I didn't grow up to be a prescriptivist and risk getting myself into such tangles.

Bryan M. White said...

Yes, Bryan M. White wrote it, but I don't see what it has to do with whatever you're babbling about. I wasn't referring to "Britishisms" or even the specific case at hand. I even said above that I liked "issued with." But hey, I really appreciate you quoting me out of context and twisting around what I say and declaring that I'm a "prescriptivist" with a patronizing sneer even though you don't know me from Adam.

You guys are a real friendly bunch.

Marc Leavitt said...

May I posit the suggestion that the BrE usage may have a connotation of comparison, as in, "He was issued with a new uniform (to replace his old one)? By the way, to avoid xenophobic aspersions, I speak AmE.

Richard Hershberger said...

"The principle that prescriptivist grammarians have settled on, that when an expression can be shortened by omission of a word or two, that it should be, has never made any sense to me. I don't see why anyone should respect it."

My guess is that it is an over-broad application of the sound principle that one should, all else being equal, avoid baroque verbosity with flourishes of otiose prolixity, or suboptimized polysyllabic utilizations leading to depreciation of the linguistic interface experience for the end user.

languagehat said...

@languagehat: I may have taken your statement, "...listen to a real storyteller sometime...", as a bit more hostile that you intended. I apologize, if that's the case.

Thank you; that's a gracious apology, and accepted wholeheartedly. You're right, I didn't intend it hostilely at all; it wasn't meant to imply that you'd never heard a storyteller, just as a rhetorical device, equivalent to "If you listen to..."

But really, you don't agree that economy is at least A virtue in all forms of writing? I'm certainly not suggesting that it's THE cardinal virtue in writing, but I don't think I've ever heard of a writer that didn't count it somewhere among the virtues.

Well, sure, in the sense I think you mean it, and I apologize if I was misconstruing you. I'm so used to the simplistic "omit needless words!" argument, which seems to take for granted that complexity and variety are sins and the only virtue is plain, simple, manly writing like the typical Hemingway parody, that I defaulted to that understanding of it. I'm perfectly happy to agree that economy is A virtue, one among many, and incompatible with some of the other virtues; it's up to the writer which arrows are pulled from the quiver marked Virtues. Who would want Rabelais, Gogol, or Faulkner to have had that particular virtue imposed on them? Let a thousand flowers bloom, say I.

Martyn Cornell said...

We'll stop saying "issued with" if you stop saying "met with".

Ø said...

Martyn,

Which "met with" is this? "I met with him", meaning "I had a meeting with him", or maybe "our efforts have met with resistance at every turn"? Or both. Or neither.

Gregory Lee said...

That seems like a fair trade, Martyn (should I have omitted "like" here?). In both usages, the "with" expresses something about the conceptual relationship of the noun phrase that follows to the rest of the sentence. So, if Americans demand that British must be more cryptic by omitting "with" after "issue", it makes perfect sense that Britishers should make the symmetric demand for cryptification from Americans.

LupusSolus said...

Issued, provided, or supplied me a rifle work. I agree with Brian White that saying, "They issued me with a rifle" sounds like I was issued out with a rifle rather than a rifle was issued to me.

As for "met" and "met with", they hav distinct and different meanings. Yesterday I met Susie and we went bowling is very different from Yesterday I met with Susie (which means that I had a meeting with her).