Saturday, November 16, 2013

Random thoughts - on the cusp

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian ran what they called 'a fiendish language quiz', set by their 'style guru', David Marsh, author of the recently published 'For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection'. In one of the questions, entrants had to say what was wrong with this sentence:
'Outstanding performances include Caryl Morgan's Beatie, in bobby socks and denim, on the cusp of womanhood but still impressionable and dreamy, and Sara Harris-Davies as the mother she still looks up to.'
The answers have now been published, and the official answer to this one was:
You can't be on the cusp of one thing. Although it is often misused to mean "on the brink" or "on the verge", strictly "on the cusp" involves two things, for example "on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini" or, as it should have been here, "on the cusp of girlhood and womanhood".
While taking the point that a cusp is between two things (often two periods), I wondered whether it was really necessary to explicitly mention both; on the cusp of womanhood looked fine to me. So I decided to investigate.

The Guardian Style Guide

The writer of the quiz, David Marsh, together with Amelia Hodsdon, edits the Guardian Style Guide. Most entries in the Guide are one or two lines, but on the cusp geta a whole two paragraphs; this is obviously something they feel rather strongly about:
a place where two points meet (eg "on the cusp of Manchester and Salford", "on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini"), which may be extended metaphorically to a place or time where two things or groups of things come into contact, as in this elegant example from the Review: "It was a world caught on the cusp between postwar recession, stasis and a dying moral code, and the colour, mobility and licence of the 60s."
Writers who use cusp under the impression that it is a clever way to say on the brink of or about to ("on the cusp of adolescence", "on the cusp of the final", "tanker drivers are on the cusp of striking over a coming supermarket-led cut in their wages", "the garlic was on the cusp of bursting into a constellation of white stars") are, sadly, mistaken
In other words, if somebody is at the point between two states, say childhood and adolescence, or girlhood and womanhood, according to the Guardian Style Guide, if we use the expression on the cusp, we must mention both, for example:
  • She was on the cusp of girlhood and womanhood
  • He was on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood
And if we don't, even when the first state is obvious from context - Beatie, in bobby socks and denim ... still impressionable and dreamy - i.e. a typical teenager, we are 'sadly mistaken', apparently.


The first to be sadly mistaken, it would appear, are the writers of dictionaries. At Oxford Dictionaries Online they give three definitions:
  • a pointed end where two curves meet
  • the initial point of an astrological sign or house
  • a point of transition between two different states
Now it's the last of those that we're really interested in, so what example did they give?
those on the cusp of adulthood
No mention of childhood or adolescence, simply the state they were entering - adulthood. So then I had a look at some other dictionaries. Most of them had the same three definitions (although with some sub-divisions), and again I was only interested in that 'point of transition between two different states':
  • Macmillan - a time when one situation or stage ends and another begins
    the problems confronting Africa on the cusp of the millennium
  • Longman - to be at the time when a situation or state is going to change
    The country was on the cusp of economic expansion
  • Cambridge - the dividing line between two very different things
    on the cusp of adulthood
  • Merriam-Webster - a point of transition (as from one historical period to the next), also edge, verge
    medical researchers who are on the cusp of a major breakthrough
  • The Free Dictionary (from Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary) - a point that marks the beginning of a change
    on the cusp of a new era
Again, no mention of the preceding state. Collins gave seven definitions, but strangely enough, not one of them was about the dividing line between two states. Of the dictionaries I checked, only the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary gave an example where both states were mentioned:
  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - figurative
    He was on the cusp between small acting roles and moderate fame.

Other style guides

Marsh and Hodson get some (rather less strident) support from the Economist Style Guide:
Cusp. This is a pointed end or a horn of, eg, the moon, or the point at which two branches of a curve meet. So it is odd to write, say, “Japan is on the cusp of a recovery,” unless you think that recovery is about to end.
Which is itself a bit odd, as presumably what this sentence really means is that the recovery in Japan is about to begin, not to end.
The standard usage guides, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and Fowler's (First and Third editions) don't seem to have anything to say on the subject. Nor does Professor Bryans at Common Errors and I can't find anything at GrammarGirl or DailyWritingTips either. So this is obviously notregarded as one of the world's most pressing language problems.

On the cusp at Ngram

The lack of comment in style guides is perhaps not so surprising, as the first thing that is very noticeable is that the use of this expression has grown exponentially since around 1960 (even though the word itself has been around since the 1580s).
The second thing to notice is that, in the books in the Ngram corpus, at least, on the cusp of is much more common than on the cusp between.
You can also see that Ngram came up with only one result for 'the cusp of * and', where * is a wild card. And in the next graph it was unable to find any results for 'on the cusp of childhood', but it should be remembered that only about 5% of the books in Google Books are listed in Ngram.
When I tried 'the cusp of childhood and' and 'the cusp of adolescence and', Ngram drew a blank, but going to Google Books was a little more fruitful.
Google Books came up with just over 60 verifiable results for 'on the cusp of adolescence', of which only a very few were followed by 'and adulthood' or something similar. Of just over 20 verifiable results for 'on the cusp of childhood', perhaps 70% were followed by something like 'and adulthood' or 'and adolescence'. There were about 30 verifiable results for 'on the cusp between'.
There is a problem with Google Books, however. With more recently published works, it is often not possible to look inside the book and verify the search results.

In the media - The Guardian

What about the Guardian itself? I could only find three examples of 'on the cusp' in a Google site search. here are two of them:
  • Trollope explores the various problems that people face on the cusp of adulthood, such as relationship difficulties and debt, in her familiar ...
  • ... glory and withdrawal from the sport on the cusp of greatness due to injury
No matching pairs, but the third one was from Marsh himself, writing in 2007:
The Guardian style guide is unequivocal on the matter: "cusp - a place where two points meet (eg 'on the cusp of Manchester and Salford'); sometimes misused to mean on the brink ('a girl on the cusp of womanhood')."
That "sometimes misused" is an understatement: we have employed "on the cusp" 58 times in the past year, of which just six were in the sense of two points meeting, with the other 52 used to mean on the brink of something.
And indeed the Guardian's own search facility, which comes up with plenty of examples, seems to bear this out. Those on the first page included:
  • Is Arab cinema on the cusp of a potential renaissance?
  • The Ashes 2010-11: England on cusp of victory, Australia in disarray ...
  • Japan's conservatives on cusp of election victory
  • Australia's coach Tim Nielsen on the cusp of creating his own Ashes
So according to Marsh, the Guardian gets it right only about ten percent of the time. Or could it possibly be that Marsh's rule is completely out of kilter with usage? Who or what defines something as being correct - Marsh and the Guardian Style Guide, or educated usage?

Other media

I did Google site searches for some of Britain's main media, the New York Times and the very fussy New Yorker magazine, looking at the first two pages (twenty references) for each.

The Economist

There don't appear to be any twinned pairs in the first two pages. And as at the Guardian, Economist writers seem to ignore their style guide:
  • The coming year will witness a China on the cusp of a new round of reform in a number of areas
  • Public service is on the cusp of becoming a national movement
  • Economically, things looks "worse than dire", with the region on the cusp of a double-dip banking crisis

The Independent

None of the examples mention two states, as far as I can see. Most references are to UKIP:
  • As Ukip finds itself on the cusp of a national breakthrough

The Times

Again there is a distinct lack of paired states on the first two pages and most seem to have the meaning of on the verge. Here are some typical examples:
  • Márquez, the bruising young new entrant to MotoGP, is on the cusp of winning the title at his first attempt
  • Vodafone and Verizon are on the cusp of sealing one of the largest corporate transactions in history
  • what it is to be a 16-year-old on the cusp of fame


  • My object has a place in the history of my part of the world, as it was made on the cusp of the decline of the Pottery Industry in Stoke-on-Trent
  • Elise Christie and Jack Whelbourne leave GB on the cusp of earning short-track skating places for the Sochi Olympics.
  • The sixth Radio Ballad, On the Edge, deals with young people on the cusp of childhood and adulthood.

The New York Times

Several examples on the first two pages simply refer to on the cusp, with nothing following it. Others are similar to the other examples we've seen, but they do have one example where both states are mentioned:
  • His dances occur on the cusp between pure dance and characterization

The New Yorker

No matching pairs on the first two pages that I can see, with a lot seeming to mean 'on the verge'.
  • Is it possible that we're on the cusp of a Frank Capra moment in the great shutdown saga?
  • Archaeology is on the cusp of a technological transformation
  • If, like most Americans, you only pay attention to Washington's budget politics when the country is on the cusp of a crisis,

On the cusp of womanhood in Google Search

Searching for "on the cusp of" and "womanhood" brought up 368 (real) results, while "on the cusp of womanhood" has 359 examples, suggesting that it's almost always used singly. If we narrow it down to "on the cusp of" plus "and womanhood", we get 144. Of these at most ten percent mention two states:
  • on the cusp of girlhood and womanhood 8
  • on the cusp of first love and womanhood 1
  • on the cusp of puberty and womanhood 2
And at Americana, The Journal of American Culture, Kelly Oliver, from Vanderbilt University, does it both ways on the same page:
  • Their position on the cusp between childhood and womanhood seems ...
  • These girls on the cusp of womanhood represent the lost innocence of nature now ...
That second example is pretty typical, where the context makes it clear that one stage is leading to another. Most of the examples of 'on the cusp of womanhood' talk about 'girls' or 'young girls' or something similar:
  • as a teenager on the cusp of womanhood
  • Crerar's Lady Macbeth is a child on the cusp of womanhood
  • a coming-of-age tale for adolescent girls on the cusp of womanhood
  • I'm a healthy teenaged girl on the cusp of womanhood
And as I've already said, the example from the Guardian quiz does much the same - Beatie, in bobby socks and denim, on the cusp of womanhood but still impressionable and dreamy - the context before the quote will no doubt have told us what stage of life Beattie is in, and in any case the references to bobby socks, denims, and to her being impressionable and dreamy suggest that she is a teenager. So the state before womanhood is at least implicitly stated. Do we really need it spelt out as 'on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood', as Marsh insists? Is that really more elegant?

On the cusp of adulthood, manhood etc in Google Search

Google Search also has 383 examples of 'on the cusp of manhood' and 387 for 'on the cusp of adulthood'.
There are 112 examples of 'on the cusp of childhood', all except nine of which do indeed mention a following period, mainly adulthood, adolescence or puberty.
But there are far more - 387 - for 'on the cusp of adulthood', most of which, as far as I can see don't mention a previous state.
But to buck the trend, here is an example from the blurb for the novel 'Black Swan Green':
From highly acclaimed two-time Man Booker finalist David Mitchell comes a glorious, sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.
And Google does have 65 examples of 'boyhood on the cusp of adulthood'

On the cusp between

This admittedly gets 368 results, and it looks as though only about 10% refer to astrological signs
But despite these, it looks as though the vast majority of results from Google Search simnply refer to adulthood, manhood or womanhood, without mentionng a previous state.

British National Corpus

Out of ten entries for on the cusp and one for on a cusp, two are related to astrology and mention two signs, in four cusp is followed by between and two items, which leaves five with only one sytate mentioned:
  • two are the same, referring to a generation living on the cusp of contradiction
  • one refers to Spain being on the cusp of its post-Franco economic expansion.
  • one is about political party which was on the cusp of a new generation of leaders.
  • one is from a work of fiction - On the cusp of the second zone, close to the mainline station

Book titles at Google Books

Searching for on the cusp at Google Books, the first two pages include two books on astronomy and two called 'On the Cusp' and one simply called 'Cusp'. Here are the rest, where cusp is in the title:
  • On the Cusp of an Era - (an art book) edited by Doris Srinivasan
  • On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year - poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh
  • Life on the cusp - by Rita Ledesma, Mert J. Loinaz
  • Ibsen on the cusp of the 21st century: critical perspectives - by various authors
  • America on the Cusp of God's Grace - by Dennis G. Hurst
    • As the 20th century began, few would doubt that America was on the cusp of greatness.
  • Solar Revolution: Why Mankind Is on the Cusp of an Evolutionary Leap - by Dieter Broers
  • Costa Rica on the Cusp - Gary Davis
  • Going Global: Asian Societies on the Cusp of Change - Armando Malay
  • Keeper of the flame: how to inspire others on the cusp of change - Mike Lipkin
  • Children of the Cusp - Gurutej Singh Khalsa
  • Crossroads: Exhibition on the Cusp of Modernism in America - James Graham & Sons


It seems to me that the 'rule' put forward in the Guardian Style Guide is hardly recognised elsewhere, at least not in practice. Whether in dictionaries, books or in the media, in its figurative sense on the cusp appears to be used by educated writers in the majority of cases without mentioning the previous state. And the same goes for use by the rest of us.
Nor is there any need for the confusion apparently felt by the writer at the Economist Style Guide, as in these majority cases, when on the cusp is used with only one state or period, it is always the state it precedes that is mentioned, never the state it follows.
Writing about prescriptivists, among whose number I don't normally count David Marsh, incidentally, in the introduction to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say:
Some prescriptivist works present rules that have no basis in the way the language is actually used by the majority of its native speakers, and are not even claimed to have any such basis – as though the manual-writer’s own judgements of taste took precedence over those of any other speaker of the language. They expect all speakers to agree with their judgements, no matter what the facts of language use might show.
Is this not rather what is happening at the Guardian Style Guide? Or are all the rest of us, sadly, simply mistaken?



  1. You are a true language gourmet, Will! I often admire your perseverance in following a word or a syllable through the tunnels of a language.

  2. Thanks for that, Baiba. It's not so much a matter of perseverance, really; I actually rather enjoy it.

    And I'm somewhat distrustful of 'rules' that fly in the face of standard usage.