“First come, first serve(d)”

It’s not uncommon to hear handouts being given on a “first come, first served” basis – or is it “first come, first serve”?

The answer is not necessarily as clear cut as one might hope. Part of this is due to the tendency to for speakers of any language to shortened and condense words. When analyzing the structure of the expression “first come, first served”, what is really being said is “whoever is first to come is the first to be served”. By looking at it in this way, it becomes clear that “served” is more grammatically correct than “serve”. This is an example of where ‘lazy language’ habits tend to drop “-ed” endings and other syllables in English expressions and idioms. By maintaining the “-ed” ending, the parallelism of the expression is also retained. This is another piece of evidence for why the word “served” should be used in this expression rather than “serve”.

Another interesting tidbit about the expression “first come, first served” is it’s also a service policy used by clients serving their customers. Abbreviated as FCFS and spelled out as “first-come, first-served”, this policy accepts customer requests to provide their orders as they arrive and without any other biases or preferences. This is also known as “first-in, first-served” and “first-come, first-choice”. This policy is also used widely in Western society as a standard method of seating people or serving queues. The name of this policy gives further support to the use of “served” in the expression.

Why are “scaring” and “scarring” confused by some dictionaries?

The word “scaring” and “scarring” are different orthographically by only one “r”, yet their definitions are like night and day. The word “scaring” is directly related to the word “scare”, meaning “frightening someone or something”. On the other hand, the word “scarring” is another form of the word “scar”, meaning “causing permanent tissue marks or injury”. Both the spelling and the pronunciations are distinctly different.

While an English speaker may understand the differences between these words, it has been noted that not all computers. Some users have reported using online dictionaries that are embedded with their software only to find that there are errors in the system. In some cases, looking up “scaring” or “scarring” will transfer the user to the wrong associated word, e.g. “scar” versus “scare”. How does this happen?

It should seem that some software programs utilize a stemming algorithm that can determine root words. For example, “saying” would produce the stem “say”, so the dictionary would redirect the user to “to say”. In the event of “scaring”, however, the stemming algorithm may incorrectly identify the stem of “scaring” as “scar” when it should in fact be “scare”. This error does not occur with all dictionary or software programs, but it is worth noting that such errors can exist. Be leery of such errors; if you encounter a word you aren’t as familiar with, you will risk being greatly misled from a simple glitch in a computer program. Use a handheld dictionary to ensure what is correct.

“You are welcome” or “You are welcomed” or “You welcome”

Understanding these different phrases requires a basic understanding of grammar and some etymology.

The phrase “You are welcome” is the response given when someone thanks us. In this situation, “welcome” is functioning as noun (predicate nominative) and conveys the meaning of “something pleasurable that is invited.”

Basically, when we say “You are welcome” in response to a thank you, we are telling the person that he was a pleasure to help and that he is free to ask for help again.

  • i.e. “Thank you for your help.” / “You are welcome!”

Moving on to the phrase “You are welcomed” we see that the word welcome is in its past participle form. In this situation, it is functioning as an adjective and means that you are greeted or accepted into a location or situation.

  • i.e. When you arrive at the hotel, you are welcomed with a fresh, hot pastry and a cup of coffee.

The last phrase “You welcome” has the word “welcome” acting as an action verb. This conveys the meaning that you are doing the action of welcoming someone (or something) else.

  • i.e. When you welcome a guest into your home, do so with friendliness and grace.

In summary, you must determine if you are replying to someone’s thankfulness, describing the acceptance of something or actually doing the action itself. The confusion occurs when using the subject “you”, but not with other subjects such as I, he or we.

Which spelling is correct: “benefiting” or “benefitting”?

Some words can be spelled in such subtly different ways that it can be hard to remember which way is correct and which is not. One example of this might be the word “benefit” – is it “benefiting” or “benefitting”? The different is a subtle “t”, but, if spelled incorrectly, it could lead to embarrassing and unprofessional mistakes.

What might first be noted while typing “benefiting” and “benefitting” into a word processor is that neither spelling of the word triggers a Spell Check correction. Why might that be? Well, quite frankly, it’s because neither spelling is actually grammatically incorrect. So whether you choose to add a second “t” to “benefit” when creating a gerund, or if you choose to leave it as it is, neither are deemed incorrect in the grammatical world.

Some words that can be correct with more than one spelling are found to be more popular in American English than British English, or vice versa, depending. An example of this might be “aluminum” versus “aluminium”, “color” instead of “colour”, or “center” to spell “centre”. In the case of “benefiting” versus “benefitting”, however, the results are skewed enough to realize the preference is likely more of a personal one than anything. Different people might argue that the spelling relies on where the emphasis is put in the word, but that explanation seems unlikely. Whichever way one chooses to spell the gerund of “benefit”, the important part is to remain consistent – and to remember both are actually acceptable.

What are the connotations of “there” in “hello/hi there”

When greeting a person, one can of course simply say “hello” or “hi”. Sometimes, however, a person may tack on the extra word “there”. This results in the greeting “hello there” or “hi there”. What does adding this word do to the greeting and why do some people choose to say it?

The “there” in “hello there” or “hi there” is one of many examples of emphasis. The greeting of “hello” or “hi” stands perfectly fine on its own, but in combination with “there” it becomes more emphatic. The “there” not only identifies the person being addressed more acutely, but it also reinforces the acknowledgment of that person.

Another purpose adding “there” to a greeting might have is to add syllables. This is another way of emphasizing a greeting. Quick and brief “hi” exclamations may not be as well heard, but a lingering “hi there” or “hello there” adds a simple syllable that carries the sentence a lot more clearly.

One interesting point is that, while it may be common to add “there” to greet someone with “hi there” or “hello there”, it is not a common practice to add it to departing words. For example, one does not say “goodbye there” or “see you later there”. These do not sound correct, likely because of the connotation embedded in the emphatic “there”. When speaking departing words, there is no need for a lingering connotation and no need to identify emphatically the person you were likely just engaged in talking with.

“Doctor’s appointment” or “doctors appointment”?

The question of how and when to use the possessive S versus the plural form in English can be confusing.

In the examples above, we can quickly eliminate the option of “doctors appointment” because in that phrase, the noun “doctor” is acting as an adjective to the word “appointment” and adjectives are never made plural in English.

Think of the phrases “car factory” or “basketball court.” The words “car” and “basketball” are both nouns acting as adjectives to give us more information about the factory and the court. We would never say the “cars factory” or the “basketballs court.” So, we shouldn’t say the “doctors appointment”, either.

We could, however, say “a doctor appointment.” This, though, is almost never used or heard.

The first example given of a “doctor’s appointment” is the correct form of the possessive and used appropriately here. You may be wondering why the possessive would be used here since the appointment seems to belong to you and not to the doctor.

Yet, if you take the time to consider it more carefully, you can see that the appointment does indeed belong to the doctor. When you book an appointment with the doctor, you are taking some time out of his daily schedule. He has appointed a period of time to see you. Thus, the appointment truly belongs to him and as such you should use the possessive S to communicate that using correct grammar.

Just remember that we always use the possessive S to show possession.

“Whether or not” vs. “whether”

A person may be tempted to say “whether or not” in a sentence. It seems natural. “If I go running tomorrow will depend on whether or not it rains” is an example of this use. Yet, is it really necessary to say “or not” in that sentence? Couldn’t you just say “If I go running tomorrow will depend on whether it rains”? The question is whether – or not – the use of “or not” is grammatically necessary – or if it’s simply used for emphasis and is otherwise a redundancy.

The key to understanding how to use expressions with “whether” is to realize “whether” is strictly for use between two choices. One would use “whether” to determine “whether or not” to do one thing versus one other or even to select one thing over another. It cannot be used, technically speaking, with more than two items in a discussion. Similarly, if the expression is being used for a very simple choice – either a yes or no, for example – then having the added words “or not” is not necessary because it is implied. If I want to find out “whether or not” someone will like something, I can also just aim to know “whether” he or she likes it. The “or not” is implicit since, if the person doesn’t like something, clearly the alternative of liking it is already discounted.

In sum, if properly using “whether” for a binary choice, “or not” is likely emphatic but also redundant.