Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Verb vs preposition

"Next week, we're versing the black team." Or so says my son.

I've pointed out to him that most English speakers don't have verse as a verb, but that doesn't seem to deter him. And why should it? His friends all use it that way, and I know exactly what he means; there's no miscommunication.

You see where the confusion arises, don't you? The preposition versus sounds like verses.
  • Brown verses (sic) the board of education (and he does so regularly)
  • Round seven of Pelosi verses (sic) the CIA, no knockout.
Of course, the grammar doesn't work most of the time.
  • Studies do not typically provide separate outcome statistics for the males versus females included in the samples.
There are all sorts of clues that this is not the verb verse. There's no English verb that could conceivably replace versus in the sentence above. But so often we see versus (or vs.) outside a sentence (e.g., Dolphins vs NY). Even here though, there is a serious problem with subject-verb agreement: Dolphins is plural and doesn't allow a third-person singular interpretation of verse (i.e., verses).

So what are we to make of this? The grammatical facts aside, I think it's interesting that:
  1. The kids are using it.
  2. It bugs me.
The two words versus and verse (the noun) both stem from the same source: the Proto-Indo-European base wer- "to turn, bend", so it makes perfect sense to put them together I suppose. And what alternatives do we have? take on, play, go against, attack, battle, contend, contest, encounter, engage, face, fight, match, meet, oppose, pit, vie. There certainly seems to be some semantic room in there for another word that's somewhere between the warlike attack and the mealymouthed take on.

So why not? I'm not going to bother versing this word anymore (but I'm not going to start using it any time soon either.)


Anonymous said...

call me old fashioned, but doesn't "next week we're playing the black team" sound fine?

Brett said...

Sure, playing is fine, but perhaps versing sounds a little more competitive.

parlance said...

The students in Australia almost universally use this expression right through primary school. It drives me crazy! They won't be told that it's incorrect. I think (hope!) they change in later years.

However, I tutor a newly arrived Afghani boy in year 9 (about 14 years old) and he refuses to stop using this 'verb' because he hears it from his friends and they are 'cooler' than an old tutor.

Faldone said...

@ parlance

Oh they'll change in their later years all right. They'll stop hearing people telling them it's incorrect.

Is it just me or is the pronunciation of versus different from the pronunciation of verses? I pronounce the former with an unvoiced sibilant on the end and the latter with a voiced sibilant. I wouldn't confuse the two in spoken form and in written only if one of them were misspelled.

Erin said...

I'm with Faldone, they don't actually sound the same. versus = [vɹ̥sɪs;] verses = [vɹ̥sɪz].

parlance said...

Faldone, I'd say they are pronounced the same in everyday Australian English.

Adrian said...

I don't mind this, even if, from my knowledge of French, it'd be nice if "We're versing..." meant "We're beating" or "We're going to beat", extending from the meaning "tip out".