Should We Put 'Ahold' on Hold?

By Rob Kyff

September 18, 2019 3 min read

In reviewing a documentary about TV journalist Mike Wallace, critic Kenneth Turan noted that the film's director had "gotten ahold of exceptional footage." That prompted Henry McNulty of Cheshire, Connecticut, to ask whether "ahold" was acceptable in standard English.

To answer this question, let's take Mike Wallace's dig-deep, investigative approach and get a hold of some linguistic history.

The noun "hold" appeared in English 1,000 years ago, and, until about 1850, the concept of getting a grip on something had always been rendered as a two-word phrase, e.g., "Tom got a hold of the blunderbuss."

But then we Americans, you guessed it, started rendering "a hold" as "ahold." The first recorded use came in the August 1850 issue of Graham's Magazine, describing a hero who offered not only rescue but recommendation: "The good sailor who had caught ahold of her when she was fallin' told her to cheer up."

"Ahold" really took hold in America during the 20th century, especially in the works of tough-guy authors, e.g., "Francis said, 'Take ahold again.'" (Ernest Hemingway, "In Our Time," 1926); "If you could get ahold of a representative who was a regular guy ... " (Norman Mailer, "The Naked and the Dead," 1948).

Though "ahold" might sound like a Midwestern or Southern term, akin to "a-hunting" or "a-coming," it's not a regionalism. The Dictionary of American Regional English reports its use in 17 states ranging from New England to the Southwest.

The Brits, with Pecksniffian predictability, have turned up their noses at this shocking Americanism. This expression, they snoot, should be properly rendered as "get a hold of" or the even more British-y "get hold of."

But where do we Yanks stand on the propriety of "ahold" today? "A horror!" writes grammarian Patricia O'Conner. "Either it's two words or it's simply 'hold' (get hold of yourself)." By contrast, usage expert Bryan Garner categorizes "ahold" as "an American casualism" that is "virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts." Both the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries include "ahold" in their listings without comment, suggesting they regard it as standard English.

Nevertheless, a Google Ngram search shows that "get a hold of" currently appears in books three times more often than "get ahold of" — strong evidence that we linguistic golfers still can't claim credit for making "ahold" in one.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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