This Here Premise

It isn’t the first time I’ve seen this mistake, but it might be the first time with my phone to hand.

Security sign mis-using "premise" for "premises."

I get it, I really do.  “Premises” looks so dagnabbed plural that for just one building it seems overwrought.  

But a “premise” is not a solitary building.  It is a proposition from which another statement follows, or a thing taken for granted or assumed as the basis of an argument.

A quick Google search reveals that there is nothing new under the sun.

In 2009, GrammarCops posted about the correct use of “premise” versus “premises,” mostly with respect to software solutions hosted in the cloud or provided on-location.

In 2013, a Mitel blogger tried gamely to set things straight.

In 2014, a desktop virtualization expert (your guess is as good as mine) blogged about “losing the grammar war” because information technology vendors were still overwhelmingly referring to the “on-premise” option.

Well, OK.  This might be one of those things that legitimately bug us–like bring and take–but it doesn’t constitute “losing the grammar war.”  Grammar describes (or prescribes, depending on your point of view) how the language works:

  • The kinds of words we have (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on)
  • How we change them for specific purposes (like conjugating verbs to show when something happened and who did it)
  • What order we put them in, in a sentence

So.  Based on this premise–Grammar is not about the meaning of words–I suggest we all take a deep breath and stop ranting about losing the grammar war.

It’s the usage war that’s going badly, and using the wrong dagnabbed word for it doesn’t, you know, help.

 


Read more here about “grammar” versus “usage.”

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12 Comments

      1. ouch… I know what you mean, Isabel, about not fighting it so much…uh…sorry, can’t do it (even tho as my editor you know my limitations re spelling, but that’s another thing). I still cross out “bring” in books when it should be “take”. I still yell at the screen when commentators, who should know better, use “less” when it should be “fewer” — and then there are the apostrophes, but I’m not alone there.

        Keep reading my Pitch Journal, Isabel, and you’ll read about a guy in England who is fixing store signs, adding or moving or subtracting the apostrophes (in the middle of the night).

        I’m not going down without a gripe! if not a fight.

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – Yes, I fear that bring/take are gone, with go/come just behind them. We can react as we please, of course, but it’s unlikely to have much effect. A good reminder that all we can control is what comes out of our mouths and pens.

          1. And then we sound so old… This “Me and her” thing just makes crazy, but when I say, “She and I,” it’s probably considered to be wrong, and I’m pitied. Nah, “they” don’t think about it at all, I’m sure.

          2. Isabel Gibson

            Barbara – Yup . . . Steven Pinker (cognitive neuropsychologist and Harvard professor) rants about compound subjects like that in one of his books, but concludes that his concern is a bit overblown. So let it be for all of us, perhaps.

  1. Tom Watson

    Interesting points made. Sometimes in my blog I write the way I talk, not always in complete grammatical sentences, but would never do that in any formal circumstance.

    I’m forever correcting my grandchildren when they say, “Me and Sarah went to the movies.” Yikes! Misplacing lesser and fewer…Well, that just grates.
    Tom

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Tom – As competent native speakers, we can break the rules if’n we want to, and set different standards for ourselves in our different writing styles. Grammar describes, in my book, rather than prescribes.

  2. John Whitman

    Isabel – I can remember when English classes taught that “kids” referred only to young goats and young humans were always referred to as children. The grammar wars and the loss thereof may have begun earlier than you think.
    John W

  3. Jim Taylor

    Okay, but back to the beginning. Surely “premises” is indeed plural? We would say, for example, “These premises…” not “This premises…” when referring to physical space(s).
    I felt confused, so I looked up Concise Oxford and Nelson’s Canadian dictionaries. Oxford only gives the singular, “premise” and uses the same word for both notion and building. Nelson’s distinguishes between “premise” as notion, axiom, (whether singular or plural) and “premises” as land or buildings.
    The instance you cite might be correct if the sign-maker prefers Oxford.
    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I’ve seen commentary that premises can be used as any collective noun (i.e. singular or plural) but that it must be premises for the land/building(s) meaning. The full online Oxford agrees with that position. Me, I’d have trouble using premises as a singular noun, although I have no such qualms about “data.”

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