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Concerning

The use of concerning as an adjective meaning of concern has been decried by writers and usage authorities for being grating, for being nonstandard, and for sounding like a made-up word. But these complaints are not grounds for saying concerning is incorrect or is not a real word. The complaint about concerning having a grating sound is subjective; we can’t block a word from the language just because some people dislike its sound. The complaint about it being nonstandard is a few decades behind the times. And all words are invented, so the complaint about concerning sounding “made up” doesn’t really say anything.

There are countless precedents for the formation of the participial adjective concerning from the verb concern, among them several synonyms of concerning that are similarly formed. For example, no one questions upsetting, disturbing, distressing, or alarming. If we accept these words, we should accept that concerning is a legitimate word, even if we don’t like it.

Also, while it’s true that concerning has grown in prevalence over the last few decades, the word is not new. The OED lists examples of concerning used this way from as far back as the 17th century, and additional examples are easily found in Google searches of historical texts. We’ve found no explanation of its recent increase, but our guess is that synonyms like alarming and troubling are sometimes too extreme to accurately replace concerning, which has perhaps become gentler in modern usage.

One complaint against concerning does stand up: The word is also a preposition meaning in reference to or regarding, and the adjectival concerning can cause confusion when readers or listeners initially interpret it as the preposition. For instance, if you hear someone say, “His email was concerning,” you might at first expect something to come after concerning. This complaint isn’t a rock-solid case, though, as many words in English have multiple functions, but it’s a good reason for those inclined against the word to continue avoiding it.


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Examples

Some very concerning and necessary Doctrines of Religion the Philosofers were wholly ignorant of. [Sixteen Sermons on Select Subjects, by Isaac Terry (1746)]

[Y]our long absence and having no provision, and all things dear has obliged me to spend a great dall of money which has been very concerning to me … [Analecta scotica, by James Maidment (1837)]

He said he decided reluctantly to sell … because they wouldn’t sell their shares to him and “a number of things have occurred in the past six months which were concerning to me.” [Schenectady Gazette (1987)]

”But each time we hear it, it’s surprising and rather shocking, specifically as it relates to cancer. It’s quite concerning.” [New York Times (1999)]

Ne’eman’s remarks should be concerning to “every citizen who cares about what happens in Israel in terms of its values and democracy.” [Jewish Telegraphic Agency (2009)]

Construction union Ucatt said the announcement was very concerning. [BBC (2012)]

Ms Gillard omitted one of the most concerning and disheartening statistics. [The Age (2012)]

Other resources

Mark Liberman of Language Log on “concerning”

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Comments

  1. I’m convinced that it’s come into use by poorly-read, shoddily-educated
    American journalists (after all, the bar has gotten so low), or reporters, who could not grasp the meaning or pronounciation of, or actually never heard the expression: “very disconcerting”. I almost intuit that how this whole irritating trend began was when some dumbell ‘on the air’ couldn’t PRONOUNCE ‘disconcerting”

    • We have to point out a few things in response to this. First, the adjectival “concerning” is about twice as common in U.K. publications as in American ones. Second, the adjectival “concerning” is British in origin, as evidenced by the fact that all of the OED’s historical examples of “concerning” used this way in the 17th and 18th centuries (predating American English as well as the 19th are from British sources. Third, a more subjective point: We find it hard to believe that any English speaker would have difficulty pronouncing “disconcerting.”

      We receive many comments from non-U.S. people who assume that every word or phrase that rubs them the wrong way must be an Americanism, and they are wrong much more often than not. We hope that in the future you will think twice before making such assumptions.

  2. There is one use of “concerning” that really rubs me the wrong way. In radiology reports I frequently see a sentence along the lines of “There is an infiltrate in the left lower lobe concerning for pneumonia.” I don’t think the phrase “concerning for” can ever be justified.

  3. Anneliese Kennedy says:

    The choices of “upsetting, disturbing, distressing and alarming” as examples of why the phrase ” is concerning” should be acceptable are bad ones. The roots of all of those words are verbs – “concern” is a noun. You don’t say “I concern.” You do say “I am concerned,” but that use is the adjectival form. Please provide a better parallel to justify the usage.

  4. FallacyFoe says:

    I am not a prescriptivist, but I must admit I have a particular disdain for this word used as an adjective. Here in the states, its usage has increased in the past 5-7 years among bureaucrats and administrators. American journalists tend to quote this word frequently from such officials. It has reached an almost Orwellian point of vagueness among those who want to represent nuance in official matters but who do not have the linguistic care to genuinely do so. This morning’s news quote perhaps serves as an example with the Director of the Center for Disease Control describing the first transmission of Ebola within the US as “very concerning.”

  5. MichaelDorosh says:

    I first notice this usage by a not-well like manager of mine about 12 years ago. It was grating then, and still is as most of the news-readers on TV and radio continue to use it. But at least with this well-written explanation I can put it out of my mind.

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