‘To Boot’

boot copyA friend was describing an eclectic coffee shop slash clothing store that he had discovered. He added, “They sell shoes to boot!” We laughed at his unintentional word play (shoes to boot — you get it). And then I got distracted. By “to boot.”

It’s a funny expression once you think about it (why a boot?), but that’s not actually what distracted me. I learned a few years ago where the phrase comes from — and that it has nothing to do with footwear. The boot in to boot goes back to the Old English word bōt, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “good, advantage, profit, use.” So the expression to boot referred to something that is added to one’s advantage or into the bargain — or just added. Standard dictionaries now often define the phrase as “in addition, besides.”

What distracted me about to boot was the question that suddenly popped into my head: Could I ever use to boot at the beginning of a sentence?

“To boot, they sell shoes!”

Hmmm. It doesn’t come tripping off the tongue for me. It’s not impossible or ungrammatical for me, but I seem to want to boot at the end of the sentence or clause — or at least at the end of the phrase. Adding an initial and helps: The phrasing “And to boot, they sell shoes!” seems better, but I still like the boot at the end.

I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to test my intuitions, and I would say I was two and a half for three.

First, the vast majority of examples of to boot (hundreds of them) are, as I had guessed, at the end of clauses or sentences. Here are just two examples, one from fiction and one from a transcript of spoken language:

My son’s book is dreadful, and it’s tedious to boot. (“Pig on Grass,” Massachusetts Review, 2013)

You will alienate conservationists; you will alienate conservatives; you will irritate the auto industry and lots of other groups to boot. (PBS NewsHour, 2007)

Scattered through are examples of to boot at the end of a phrase, such as this example from a 2011 article in the Houston Chronicle:

In the postnomination chaos of the 1960 Democratic Convention, John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts liberal (and a Catholic to boot), realized that Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, his erstwhile rival for the nomination, had something that he needed: entree to a then-Democratic South that was inherently suspicious of liberals and Catholics.

Second, it is clearly possible to start a sentence with to boot, but it’s not preferred. Sentence-initial to boot occurs 10 times in all of COCA (which contains over 520 million words) — none of them in speech or in fiction. Here are two examples:

The idle-air controller used to control the idle speed also replaces mechanical chokes. To boot, the throttle blades are actually operated by a stepper motor, not a cable from the throttle pedal, which doubly performs the cruise control. (Popular Mechanics, 2010)

Ron Johnson starts the 2016 election cycle as the most vulnerable senator on the map. He’s undefined in the eyes of many, and he’s running in a state that has gone Democratic in seven straight presidential elections. To boot, there are rumors that Democrat Russ Feingold, whom Johnson unseated in 2010, may run. (The Washington Post, 2014)

So where were my intuitions less reliable? I was expecting initial and to boot to be more common than initial to boot, which would explain why it sounded better to me. But in COCA, I found only six instances of sentence- or clause-initial and to boot: three in transcripts of spoken language, two in fiction, and one in a magazine. Why then do I give myself a half? The numbers are too small to actually conclude anything, but let me venture the suggestion that initial and to boot might be more colloquial. It could be that we’re more likely to hear initial and to boot than to boot in daily (OK, weekly or monthly) speech, if we hear the expression in initial position at all, which might make it sound more “natural.”

When it comes to overall frequency, the more informal to boot is dwarfed by the phrase so often used to define it: in addition. But, in addition doesn’t much like that sentence-final spot: we start sentences with in addition rather than end with it. To boot helps fill this grammatical niche — and cleverly preserves an otherwise archaic English word to boot.

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