Plus, you can use it like this now

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

This plus has been around since the 1950s–60s, appearing mainly in speech and informal writing. The OED labels it colloquial, which is enough to make many people think there’s something wrong with it. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), however:

The use of plus introducing an independent clause has long been considered infelicitous, if not wrong. But a clear majority of the Usage Panel accepts it. In our 2009 survey, 67 percent accepted the example He has a lot of personal charm. Plus, he knows what he’s doing.

The AHD Usage Panel is not known for being lax about such things. Similarly, the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) finds that conjunctive plus, though limited mainly to conversation and other informal contexts, is standard; as a sentence adverb it’s informal and conversational only.

A search for sentence-initial plus on the Corpus of Contemporary American English returned this graph, which shows both how its distribution is weighted towards the less formal registers of speech and magazines, and also that its occurrence has increased noticeably even over the last couple of decades (click to enlarge):

COCA corpus search - sentence-initial plus

As a relatively new usage, conjunctive plus is bound to attract negative attention. The excellent Copyediting.com newsletter of Oct.–Nov. 2013 (requires subscription) has a useful article by Mark Farrell on editors’ attitudes to it: “Additional Conjunction Creates Division Among Editors”. Many of my tribe, it turns out, are set against it.

One editor said she “[didn’t] like the idea” of using plus at the start of a sentence because it was “confusing” (because less recognised). Another had never heard anyone say it, but associated it with “poorly written text”. A third said sentence-initial plus would “sound like a non-sentence”. Others were less disparaging and dismissive.

Farrell had emailed me for reaction, and in his conclusion agreed with my let’s-wait-and-see take on it. Here’s the relevant section from his article:

Stan Carey, an editor from Galway, Ireland, sees the increased appearance of plus at the beginning of a sentence as a sign of the language’s vitality. “I think it’s fine in casual contexts, but it tends to be avoided in more formal prose. Given that some people still object to sentence-initial and, it’s not surprising that a similar use of plus – a much more recent development – attracts criticism. It’s too new to be accepted at all levels, but as a grammatical innovation it signifies a language in good health.” Carey has written more about the subject at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Why does this matter?

Editors’ work is mostly invisible to the public; like sports referees, we’re noticed more when we do a bad job. One aspect of editing is keeping formal written registers free of colloquialisms. So you don’t tend to see intensive literally in formal texts unless the word itself is being discussed or it’s used ironically or in quoted speech. But that doesn’t mean this use of literally is “wrong”. It’s just not appropriate in those contexts.

Plus, the proscriptive mindset gets extended beyond its natural limits. Many people, not just editors, conflate formal with normal (it’s anything but) and censure informal usages in informal domains. Not only is this a waste of time, it also betrays a value judgement without basis in linguistic fact. That formal varieties of English are intrinsically superior is a misconception best disowned.

Collectively editors help regulate standard English – itself a variegated and ever-shifting group of dialects – but we often disagree about what should be regulated and why. The that/which rule, for instance, survives largely through the work of editors who consider it important (I think the rule is unnecessary and counterproductive).

Using plus to open a sentence or independent clause is common and becoming more so. It may feel too casual for elevated writing, and that’s fine: if you’re editing and you think you should keep it out, do. But bear in mind that its status may change – this often happens – plus there’s nothing actually wrong with it.

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29 Responses to Plus, you can use it like this now

  1. bevrowe says:

    I can’t get my mind round plus being a preposition in your example. But I can’t think of an alternative.

  2. Alina Cincan says:

    I too see nothing wrong with the conjuctive plus to be honest. I perceive it as informal but I know language changes and even if I saw it in a more formal type of text I don’t think I’d give it too much thought.

  3. Stan says:

    Bev: It felt a bit funny to me too, at first, but I defer to the experts. Burchfield, in his edition of Fowler’s, calls it a “quasi-preposition”, but the OED is less equivocating. MWCDEU has a useful and detailed discussion of the word’s different functions:

    Plus used as a conjunction springs directly from its earlier use as a preposition. There are two somewhat differing conjunctive uses which spring from two senses of the preposition. The first of these is found in the familiar “two plus two makes four.” In this use plus means the same as and but demonstrates its prepositional character by not affecting the number of the verb. . . .
    [Plus] has slipped out into general use. Ordinarily this use is acceptably prepositional; sometimes the prepositional character is emphasized when plus occurs between two noun phrases governing a verb:
    “The partition of Germany, plus the Cold War, has cut off markets” —Percy W. Bidwell, Yale Review, June 1953.

    Alina: That’s more or less how I feel about it, too. Given its appearance in such august (and conservatively edited) publications as the New Yorker and New York Times, I’d be surprised if it didn’t steadily attain greater respectability.

    • bevrowe says:

      Thank you. Is there a case for defining a new grammatical category operator? This would include all prepositions and conjunctions. For example, in is already a near-operator in some programming languages. Plus, and and or have been logical operators for a long time.
      It would make the analysis of plus more elegant.
      Minus, I expect this suggestion has been made before.

  4. Word Jazz says:

    As with ‘And,…’ and ‘But,..’, and so on, ‘Plus,..’ feels to me like a conjunction with the full stop used as a beefed-up comma rather than a sentence boundary proper. I quite like constructions like this informally (I’m not sure why but they seem to come really naturally to me when I’m blogging). To me ‘Plus,..’ feels fine in this context as pretty much a direct replacement for ‘And..’. But, I can’t see conjunction ‘plus’ as becoming an adverb without the ‘-ly’ suffix, though stranger things have happened…

  5. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I see nothing wrong with the versatile use of “plus.” I’m nonplussed overe anyone objecting; plus, English has always done this; eg., I’ve heard the F-word used as every part of speech. It’s colorful; plus, everone understands the nuances.

  6. old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

    As an ill-informed contrarian who tends to find your posts too prissy or too lax, I would like to applaud your antepenultimate paragraph. Bravo.

  7. “Plus” is also showing up as a verb, especially in advertisements: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/candlepwr/shall-we-plus/

  8. Although I agree with most of what you’re saying, I’m still struggling with “betrays a value judgement without basis in linguistic fact.” It seems to me that values (ultimately) are always without basis in fact, and rationalizations of values in terms of facts always tend to be suspect. Errors of motivation notwithstanding, the values are still embraced by enough people to keep linguists and lexicographers busy trying to shut them down.
    Dictionaries and language scientists accept words based on their support by writers and speakers, regardless of the errors that might have brought the words into the language. If there are usage rules embraced and advocated by a non-trivial set of educated people, why should the errors of linguistic fact used to rationalize these beliefs matter at all? And why do “descriptivists” try not only to debunk the justifications, but also to fight the rules themselves?

  9. Stan says:

    Matt: COCA has several hundred examples of “; plus”, which supports your observation about sentence boundaries. I like these new uses of plus too, though I think I say them a lot more than I write them.

    Marc: Exactly. I don’t see it causing any serious confusion, and if it comes naturally to people, they’ll adopt it and it will continue to spread.

    Old Gobbo: Thanks (I think)!

    Nancy: Great article, and I love your description of plus as “a positive workhorse of a word”.

    Dan: The phrase you object to may be a bit redundant; I wanted to emphasise my point, and to make it clear. Sorry if I failed on that count. I take your point about rationalisation; that said, I don’t know that value judgements (and values – I didn’t follow your jump from one to the other) are as incompatible with facts as you suggest: can’t the latter be used rationally to support and strengthen the former?
    As regards the question about descriptivists and rules: I lean towards descriptivism but as an editor I apply informed prescriptivism, so I’m very interested in people’s motivations for disliking or rejecting a usage, or not. Including my own.

  10. Thanks, Stan. I believe “good and bad” are at heart not empirical questions. In an attempt to persuade, you can relate one thing believed to be bad (or good) to another, but you cannot observe or measure badness or goodness directly. You can attack the justifications and/or rationalizations, but that may not get at the underlying judgments or preferences. I don’t believe you can prove a preference to be wrong on the basis of logic or fact. You can shoot down the justification, but in many cases, I believe the rationalizations are not a reliable source of the underlying motivations that interest you.
    It’s reasonable for editors to be prescriptivist and to hope they don’t have to encounter bad writing driven by troublesome ideas about rules. But people have a right to their expectations about elements of formal language even informal settings; we may think it a waste of time, but it’s their time and their value judgment. It’s certainly reasonable to request politeness from pedants, but it may also be a waste of time to attempt to persuade them that a sentence-starting “plus” is appropriate in the same places you do.

  11. (I didn’t mean any of that as criticism of your view, but I have been struggling for some time to understand the apparent prescriptivism of descriptivists. Sometimes it does seem to go beyond the way editors have to do their jobs. )

  12. bevrowe says:

    If someone justifies their prescription on the grounds of taste then you cannot argue with them. But they rarely do. They don’t say “Split infinitives sound ugly” but trot out stale arguments about Latin grammar. So you can confidently tell them they are wrong.

    • Bevrowe: Sure, you can refute their logic and their false statements of fact. But from their perspective it’s still a “rule.” The chances you’ll persuade them otherwise are virtually nil. Plus there are so many people who feel that way that the idea is often attacked rather than dismissed. So in an important sense there is a “rule” in practice, believed in and observed (and sometimes stridently advocated) by a non-trivial number of thoughtful and educated people. I think erroneous justification is irrelevant, just as it was when “pease” morphed into “peas.”

      That’s the point I’m struggling with. Words (or usage) can be accepted in the language even though they originated in error, and some people will continue to eschew them. Compare that observation to the fact that certain “rules” that are believed and adhered to by many, even though they may be motivated by error, and other people will eschew them. These two situations seem parallel to me.

      Of course, the pedants don’t have any power or moral standing to enforce their beliefs on others, even though they might think they should. The behavior of some pedants can be criticized. But the “rules” they believe in can be evaluated apart from that.

      If there’s “nothing wrong” with a word or bit of usage that may have originated in error and still may be shunned by some careful writers or readers, I could see how there might be room in “the language” for “rules” meeting the same criteria.

      Apologies for the long rants.

      • bevrowe says:

        OK, rant away.
        I’m not suggesting that you can change the mind of deep prescriptivists but their milder followers are worth challenging.
        You’re obviously right that usage based on error can become the norm. In fact, that’s the case with a lot of usages that descriptivists may now defend, let alone usages that prescriptivists make up.

    • Roger says:

      English is one of the few European languages in which split infinitives occur, and they occur because they /can/ occur. The Scandinavians can do them too. Most others can’t. Since a few can, consider it an asset.

      • Roger says:

        The split infinitive is one of the grammatical items that Scandinavian and English have in common. There’s enough such points to support the claim that English grammar is more
        North Germanic than West.

      • Stan says:

        Roger: As I understand it, split infinitives cannot technically occur in English, because the to in such constructions is not part of the verb.

      • bevrowe says:

        There are some infinitives you wouldn’t dare split.

  13. I’ll confess that I asked Mark to writing the Copyediting article because I frequently use “plus” at the start of the sentence and my copyeditors call me out on it. My research told me it was quasi-acceptable, and I wondered how copyeditors felt about it.

    Mark’s work was illuminating. Copyediting will avoid starting sentences with “plus”–for now–but I’ll allow it in my informal writing.

    Thanks, Stan, for commenting and for digging deeper into the topic!

  14. Thanks, Bevrowe.
    Last bits: Maybe there are people on the margin who might be swayed by reason. But by and large, when there are cultural battles over elements of language, I think the winners won’t be the ones with the most accurate or logical arguments.
    And I do see an interesting parallel between the two cases in your final sentence, and an interesting asymmetry: descriptivists defend or neutrally observe various usages that originate with error, yet they argue against the proscriptions that prescriptivists advocate. (I think “learn by indoctrination” may be more accurate than “make up.”)

  15. wisewebwoman says:

    Business meetings have been using “plus” for years, in presentations, etc., in all its grammatical forms.

    I was reminded ~

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    XO
    WWW

  16. […] dad-on-the-dancefloor about this stuff, Marsh is evidently at home with it (also note that use of sentence-initial plus, marking his laidback style). The internet positively influences his attitude to language, as does […]

  17. Stan says:

    Thanks to all for the additional thoughts.

    Dan, Bev: Many attempts to persuade pedants of the validity of a particular usage fall on deaf ears, for sure. I’ve seen how futile it can be in the comments section here and elsewhere. But I’ve also seen (what I would consider) advances, where I’ve persuaded editors of how pointless or counterproductive a rule is; and I’ve experienced such shifts myself. Echo chambers are no fun, but most arguments online seem to end in stalemate at best, something I’ve parodied before:

    Bev, I like that analogous use of minus, and tweeted something similar earlier the same day (albeit closer to “unless” than your “however” or “on the other hand”). Maybe we’re seeing a new trend already.

    Erin: Thanks for stopping by and providing background on your newsletter article – which is what prompted my post in the first place. It may be of interest that I saw sentence-intial plus used in David Marsh’s new grammar book For Who the Bell Tolls. But you’re obviously best placed to decide whether it feels too breezy for Copyediting.com.

    WWW: Business English is, for better or worse, often at the vanguard of shifts in usage.

    John: It’s déja attendu all over again.

  18. […] Stan Carey got with spelling program (or is it programme?). On his own blog, Stan added his thoughts about plus usage. […]

  19. ASG says:

    This discussion reminded me of the opening sequence to the brilliant U.K. comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a pitch-perfect satire of tacky 1980s hospital shows. The “author” of the script introduces each episode by saying, “I’m Garth Marenghi: author, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor.”

    I don’t know why I always found that line so hysterically funny, but the overdeliberate use of “plus” suggests that there’s an awareness of the word’s nonstandard placement there.

    Now I realize he’s not starting an independent clause (so not using “plus” in precisely in the way you’re discussing in this post — this is closer I guess to the “conjunction” usage), but I still think it signals something about the added jobs that the word has taken on in informal prose.

    (I don’t remember if I’m allowed to post YouTube links here but clips are very easy to find.)

  20. Stan says:

    ASG: Interesting. I didn’t know about that show, but it sounds well worth investigating. I watched the first few minutes of an episode on YouTube (and may watch the rest later), and I agree: the use of plus there seems deliberate, and comically so. It’s subtly emphatic and pompous in a way plain old and would not have been, and so goes well with the presenter’s self-regarding persona.

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