The thingis is I’m a maker upperer of words, innit?

19 May

This is a three-part post about curious and apparently new constructions I’ve noticed in English over the last decade. I’m not talking about new words or slang phrases, about which too much is said and not much of it of any substance, but rather what look like new-ish constructions, or words changing their syntactic distribution (that’s where and how they show up in sentences). I’ve observed each of these for a full decade now, and over several continents, and none of them show any signs of disappearing. Fear not, I’m not about to launch into a technical morphosyntactic analysis of these phenomena (mostly because I don’t have one), but I thought each of them curious enough to warrant a mention – maybe to see if anyone has noticed these or similar.

The three constructions I’m going to talk about are all exemplified in the title of this post. I’ll deal with one a week for the next three weeks. The first one I’m going to look at is a change which appears to be taking place in the standard varieties of English in the US, Australia, and possibly also in the UK (though I don’t have a lot of evidence for the latter). That is, it’s not a change that’s happening in slang or colloquial English, but is actually affecting the language of the educated middle classes and the mainstream media.


This has to do with how agentive or instrumental nominalisations (involving the productive suffix /-er/) are formed from verb+particle and similar constructions. Most English verbal stems (simple or derived) can take the suffix /-er/ (sometimes spelled “-or”) to form a noun denoting either the agent (the do-er of the action) or an instrument used:

(1)     a. hunt-er                 (agentive)

b. walk-er                 (agentive or instrumental)

c. eras-er                   (instrumental)

d. in-ciner-at-or     (instrumental)

e. termin-at-or       (agentive)

The nominalisation of verbs which appear with a particle, verbs like look up, pick on, run out, has always been presumed to follow a similar pattern, with the verbal element, the first word, marked with /-er/ and the construction as a whole bearing the category of noun. This is what is described in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and presented by the Oxford English Dictionary, and this is the structure found in Early Modern English, such as the following:

(2)    a snapper up of unconsidered trifles      (Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, IV iii)

What’s interesting about these is that the verb and particle seem to make a kind of ‘word’ together in the sense that they bear idiosyncratic (not entirely compositional) meaning, like a compound. However, they behave in the sentence grammar like separate words, showing some variation in ordering possibilities:

(3)    a. He snapped up those trifles.

b. He snapped those trifles up.


In this regard verb+particle constructions are distinct from verbs which take prepositional phrase complements. Compare the verb particle construction look up in (4) with the verb look followed by a true prepositional phrase in (5).

(4)    a. He looked up my uncle in the phone book.

b. He looked my uncle up in the phone book.

c. *Up my uncle is where he looked (in the phone book).

(placing as asterisk before a sentence, as in (4c) is a linguist’s way of showing that the sentence is ungrammatical, not accepted as a well-formed sentence by native speakers of the language in question)

(5)    a.     She looked up my skirt in class.

b. *She looked my skirt up in class

c. Up my skirt is where she looked (in class).

Now, nominalisations of verb particle constructions, at least if the data in (2), the OED, and the Cambridge Grammar explain the facts, are fairly straightforward. The nominaliser /-er/ is added to the verbal element. End of story.

Unfortunately, the Cambridge Grammar and OED do not seem to characterise what most speakers of English under the age of sixty are now doing with these sorts of constructions. When I first noticed this, I was so amused that I actually undertook a survey of almost one hundred speakers of Australian, British, and American English, and the results were surprisingly robust. The only speakers who accepted the structure in (2), the officially-sanctioned way to nominalise a verb particle construction, were speakers over the age of sixty. All other speakers actually rejected (2) and similar constructions. They found all of the following to be ungrammatical:

(6)    a.  *a giver off of foul odours

b.  *a runner out of many batsmen

c.  *a picker up of dog poo


Yet the constructions in (6) are the sort that appear in Shakespeare and which are described as current by the Cambridge Grammar. What speakers under the age of sixty are doing instead is marking both the verb and the particle with /-er/, and in many cases then further marking the particle (but not the verb) with yet another instance of /-er/. Here are some examples, all taken from mainstream publications and media, or passages written in Standard Australian English:

(7)   a. odour giver offerers                          (Dr Harry, Better Homes and Gardens, 14/4/06)

b. the quilted quicker picker-upper  (Bounty advertisement)

c. Power Picker Upper                          (commercial product)

d. dog pooper picker upper                 (a job description, hence agentive)

e. a tractor fitted with a plastic picker upperer implement

f. When you revise, are you a putter-inner or a taker-outer?

g.  I am the resident spider catcher and taker outerer

All of the above were preferred by the native speakers I surveyed to the Cambridge Grammar-approved equivalents giver off, picker up, putter in and  taker out. The under sixties also unanimously rejecter snapper up of trifles in favour of either snapper upper or snapper upperer (they were about evenly split between the two). Notice the variation in (7) between picker upper with /-er/ added once to each of the verb and its particle, and picker upperer, with /-er/ added to the particle twice (also found in Dr Harry’s quote in (7a)).

I have also encountered a solitary example of quadruple /-er/ marking, with the element appearing twice on each of the verb and particle:

(8)   As you can see I’m a bit of a tongue stickerer outerer myself.

Only one speaker out of almost one hundred, a native speaker of British English over the age of sixty, rejected the forms in (7) as ungrammatical.


This structure is now commonly found in conversation and in advertising, though to a lesser extent in journalistic or more formal writing. The curiosity here is that rather than use either the traditional or the new form, formal writing generally avoids the construction altogether.

Some folks have anecdotally argued that the multiple /-er/ forms are essentially some kind of language joke, and these may in fact have been promoted by the sorts of forms found in marketing, such as (7b-c). Indeed, it might be that such marketing ploys as these might be either the genesis or cause of rapid spread of the phenomenon. At the very least, these examples exploit a kind of poetic repetition and follow the comedy ‘rule of threes’. In (7b), we already have the /-er/ of quicker, marking degree on the adjective quick, and the OED would have the /-er/ on pick, so that adding /-er/ to up as well finished the trio of similar-ending words. It is catchy, it is memorable. So too in (7c) the sequence [er] on power, here not a suffix but part of the root, makes the first of the three similar-ending words. However, if this is the cause of the widespread adoption of double (and triple) /-er/-marking, it would have to be the most successful example of viral marketing ever, having infected the entire language through its productive morphology.

A bigger problem for the notion of multiple agentive marking as a linguistic ‘joke’ is the fact that it has completely replaced the traditional single marking on the verbal element as the grammatical way of nominalising verb-particle constructions. Typically a widespread linguistic joke co-exists alongside the ‘serious’ form – exqueeze me has not replaced excuse me, for example.

Tune in next week for more exciting adventures on the ever-changing coal-face of the English language, innit?


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