Grammar Guerilla: Versus v. Verse

Guerilla-GorillaWords are frequently learned aurally. After all, children learn their native language aurally until they learn to read. Even after we learn to read, however, we continue to collect new words through hearing them. I suspect that fact may account for the phenomenon of the substitution of verse for versus. These two words, despite their apparent similarity and their common origins, are quite different in meaning. Both words have roots in the Latin word versus, the perfect passive participle of verto, to turn around, change, or to destroy. The Latin noun versus is a verse or a line of poetry. As an adverb, however, it means toward or in the direction of. In English usage, however, the sense of verse and versus are distinct. In English, a verse may refer to poetry or song. “She was moved to break into verse.” Texts are marked with verses: “Please look at 1 Corinthians 1 verses 20 through 31.” In the plural, the noun verses is all but impossible to distinguish aurally (by ear) from versus, which, in English usage means “as opposed to” or “in contrast to.” It is most often used in legal and athletic contexts, e.g., court cases are cited using an abbreviation of versus. To cite two notorious US Supreme Court decisions: Scott v. Sandford or  Roe v. Wade. Athletic contests are regularly referred in the same way. The “Game of the Century” in college football was Nebraska versus Oklahoma (1971). Recently, however, I have noticed people using verse in place of versus as in “Nebraska verse Oklahoma.” That is a mistake. In 1971, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were not reciting poetry to the Oklahoma Sooners. They were, however, opposed to them on the football team. Watching such a great contest might make one write verse or sing the verses of the Nebraska fight song, “There Is No Place Like Nebraska.”

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