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Why Do People Say 'Ink Pen?'

pin-penAs pet peeves go, this one seems relatively minor, but apparently there is a significant portion of our culture that is driven to distraction whenever someone uses the term 'ink pen.'

The frustrated complain that the term is redundant in the same way that "tuna fish sandwich" and "hot water heater" are redundant. Grammarians engage in pen vs. ink pen debates, and even some colleges list 'ink pen' as something of a grammatical error.

Their position was summed up thusly by a commenter on Fark a while back:

"If you say 'ink pen' that must mean there's a pen out there that uses some substance besides ink...the only other use of the word 'pen' involves the confinement of animals, not writing. It's hard to get the two confused and need the 'ink' in there to make sure you aren't asking someone if you can borrow their pig pen to write something down."

The idea that the term could be annoying had never occurred to me because, well, I'm one of those people who go around saying "ink pen" willy-nilly. It's just one of those things I've always said, and always will say. I've even used it in blog headlines and posts, which has caused some stress for a few readers, it seems.

Putting aside the argument that pens conceivably could contain substances other than ink – insulin, atropine, stain remover – I decided to see if there is any sort of precedent or justification for the term 'ink pen.'

And there is...sort of.

pin vs penIt turns out that this is something of an Americanism. Specifically, it's a Southern way of Ireland. Let me explain.

Linguists call it the Pin-Pen Merger, a regional language effect in which the pronunciation of certain -en and -in words have gradually drifted closer and closer until they've become virtually indistinguishable.

They believe the roots of this pin-pen linguistic trait can be traced back to parts of Ireland, where it was once common usage. As Irish immigrants began to settle the Southern US, the pin-pen merger became a prevalent part of the regional dialect. It has largely fallen out of use in Ireland and but remains a normal part of American Southern speech.

Given the merger, the theory is that American Southerners tend to use the term 'ink pen' to distinguish 'pen' from 'pin,' which could mean anything from a needle to a piece of retaining metal.

Makes sense to me. I was born and raised in the South and am occasionally guilty of pronouncing 'pen' as if it was spelled with an 'I.'

So, at least those from the Southern US have something of an excuse for using 'ink pen' instead of the more succinct 'pen.'

Just fyi, this sort of thing is less of an issue in Britain, where fountain pens are fountain pens and anything not a fountain pen is a 'biro' and in India, where an 'ink pen' specifically means a fountain pen and everything else is just a pen.

Of course, we know that most of our readers only have one way of referring to their pens....'My Preciousssss."

One thought on “Why Do People Say 'Ink Pen?'”

  • Neil Barrett

    I (as a Brit) always assumed it was an American term that meant a fountain pen that you had to (re)fill with ink as opposed to a cartridge. Thansk!

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