Commonest. Common or not?

And here is Madeleine Ibes’s first blog post:

Whilst doing my weekly reading for the course Testing Prescriptivism, I stumbled across a term I had never heard before. The book I was reading was a study done by Mittins et al., Attitudes on English Usage (1970), which was on the acceptability of certain usage problems in the late 1960s, one of which has been written about on this blog before.

What I stumbled upon was an interesting usage problem, or perhaps an interesting reaction to such a problem. Instead, it was a word that I found in the following passage:

The invitation to extend the list of debatable usages produced well over two hundred different items, of which the great majority were explicitly or implicitly condemned. There were one or two pleas for tolerance (e.g. ‘of such local habits of speech as “To get a hold of”’) and a few expressions of genuine uncertainty (e.g. ‘ “five foot/ feet high”’ ). But (incidentally, the initial use of but or and was included on the black list!) by far the commonest sentiments expressed were those of disapproval, irritation, shock and guilt. (Mittins et al. 1970:12)

Can you spot the word that I was most struck by?

In case you couldn’t, it was the word commonest, used by the authors here instead of most common. Growing up as I did in the Northern United States, this was not a word I had ever seen or heard used before. For me, common was a word that I was taught to have the following degrees: common, less/more common and most common. Not commoner or commonest, in other words. Now I wondered how I hadn’t, in all my academic years, come across this word before! Was I ignorant? Was I simply a bad native English speaker?

The answer to why I hadn’t seen this word before, it seems, is actually quite simple. Upon further research, I discovered that this word had seldom been used in the U.S., and since the 1910s, has been on a relatively steady decline in terms of actual usage. This can be seen in the following graph, produced by using Google N-Gram, whilst searching the American English corpus for the word commonest:

Commonest AmE (2)

However, the Google N-Gram graph for the British English corpus paints a different picture:

Commonest BrE

Indeed, the word commonest has led a fairly different life in British English. Instead of steadily declining from the 1910s onward, the word experienced an almost uninterrupted general incline until the 1970s, when it sharply declined and eventually levelled out.

The Mittins et al. survey was published in 1970 by  Oxford University Press, close to the height of this word’s usage in British English. It makes sense, then, that it was used in the same way that I would use most common. Furthermore, these graphs also explain why I hadn’t seen this before in my life, academic or otherwise, having grown up reading and dealing with largely American texts.

Do you like the word commonest? Or do you prefer more common? Why? Please tell us by filling in this poll, and by leaving a comment to this post if you wish.

 

Sources:

Mittins, W.H., Mary Salu, Mary Edminson and Sheila Coyne (1970), Attitudes to English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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This entry was posted in MA Leiden, usage features and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Commonest. Common or not?

  1. I filled the poll, but I feel kind of biased after reading the post. Interesting topic though!

  2. Thanks for an interesting post.

    I remember David Baker (of OUP’s “Grammar Scan”) pointing out at a conference five or six years ago that comparatives with “more” are replacing those in “-er”. Google ngrams shows a similar story to yours for “commoner”. It’s also interesting to compare “commoner/more common” and “commonest/most common”.

    It also makes me wonder which other two-syllable adjectives that admit both forms might be affected by the trend. The Cobuild Grammar reference section R25 lists 15. A quick ngrams of two – handsomest and pleasantest – in BrE shows a marked decline.

    PS: You have “What what ..” at the beginning of your second paragraph.

  3. Thanks, Jeremy (2X). This would be a really good thesis topic, I think.

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