to first-hand experience

A couple days ago, Matthew Gordon posted on ADS-L with the following example:

Mr. Schwartz feels badly for the lost bear and, having first hand experienced the trauma of loss, desires to emote his empathy for bears the world over, and Hope in particular. (link)

The use of emote is notable, but Gordon focused on the phrase first hand experienced — not a back-formation, but maybe some sort of compound.

Gordon’s example has the verb experience in the PSP (in the perfect construction). Other examples are easily found:

[PSP in perfect] I’ve first hand experienced a grown man threatening to beat the shit out of me when I was seventeen years old … (link)

[PSP in passive] To go even deeper, a white philosopher educating his class about racism is a perfect example of someone explaining what hasn’t been first-hand experienced. (link)

[PSP in modifier] A first hand experienced situation is not an anecdote. (link)

[PST] I first-hand experienced why races shouldn’t mix. (link)

[PRS] He’s been on Cane’s side for a long time, so naturally, when he first-hand experiences Cane lying to his own daughter, he NATURALLY is gonna oppose Cane. (link)

[BSE] and yes i saw the youtube video but i didnt really understand it, i want to first hand experience it. (link)

[BSE] Students will first hand experience the difficulties of not being able to understand one another. (link)

The nominal first hand (or first-hand) can be used as either an adjectival (first-hand knowledge) — OED2 ‘of or belonging to the first source, original; coming direct from the first source and not through an intermediate channel or agency; obtained direct from the producer or original vendor’ — or an adverbial (know first hand) — OED2 ‘from the first source or origin, without intermediate agency or the intervention of a medium; direct from the maker, producer, or original vendor’.

The adverbial is limited in standard English to postverbal use:

experience all the difficulties first-hand, experience first-hand all the difficulties

The (non-standard) examples above have first-hand in preverbal position, so that first-hand has pretty much the syntax of the adverbial personally:

experience all the difficulties personally, experience personally all the difficulties, personally experience all the difficulties

(The restriction to postverbal position has a historical explanation: the adverbial first-hand is, historically, a truncation of the adverbial PP at first hand, and PP adverbials are, for the most part, awkward as preverbal modifiers: ?at first hand experience all the difficulties.)

So one possible source of the verbal expression first-hand experience would be the lifting of the restriction on adverbial first-hand.

But there’s at least one other possible source: verbing of the nominal first-hand experience. Verbings of phrases are attested, as in this example posted by Jon Lighter on ADS-L on October 7th:

As he’s often said, the early death of his mother determined both his life and his life’s work – ‘though I don’t want to dime-store-psychology it too much.’ (David Gates on Ken Burns, in Newsweek (Sept. 24, 2007), p. 55)

Both effects could be at work, of course. But there are examples where the first proposal — lifting the restriction on adverbial first-hand — must be the right one, since in them non-standard preverbal first-hand occurs with verbs that have no homophonous noun counterpart, like know and understand:

[the charity Jade’s Smiles] is being set up by 15 year old jade swain and her mother janene stewart, who first hand knew what it was like to be in and out of hospital and realised that the little things can make your hospital stay a little more bearable (link)

The event, a first of its kind program nationwide, and was created in 2008 in collaboration with Katie Moshier, whose husband Captain Timothy J. Moshier (’02) was Killed in Action, who first hand understood the importance of connecting with the military community. (link)

The point is that there are no nominals first-hand know and first-hand understand to be verbed.

5 Responses to “to first-hand experience”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Matt’s link gives a 404, alas.

  2. nick Says:

    I would only consider preverbal ‘at first hand’ very slightly less elegant than the postverbal position – perhaps with a little added emphasis as a result. But I’m a Briton, so I’m wondering whether this is a transatlantic divide. Judging from my reading of American authors, British speakers are certainly much more inclined to put adverbials immediately following the auxiliary verb, so perhaps that’s why.

    (Preverbal ‘first hand’ definitely *does* sound odd to me though.)

  3. Matt Gordon Says:

    It’d be nice to have some spoken examples of pre-verbal “first hand” to hear how stress is handled. Wouldn’t stronger stress on “first” support the verbing account and stronger stress on “hand” the movement account?

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

  4. the ridger Says:

    I’ve heard this said, and the stress is on “first”.

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