to table

Ooh, I'm cruising through the backlog of requests now. We're in June now, with Simon writing to request treatment of the verb table, an example of a Janus word in BrE and AmE meeting lingo.

In the US, meetings are often held according to Robert's Rules of Order, a popular guide to 'parliamentary procedure'. (We may not have a parliament, but we have the procedures! The Congress has its own set of rules.) In the parlance of Robert's and AmE generally, if a motion has been made and is up for discussion, it is on the floor, as in the following quotation from the Princeton Union Eagle:
After a few minutes, Weisenburger said to Girard, "There's a motion on the floor, it's been seconded. Do something."
If you want to remove the motion from the floor--that is, to postpone discussion of it until a later time, you can put it on the table, or table the motion. (You'd then say that the motion is or has been tabled.) So, a tabled motion is not on the floor--it cannot be debated. Here are some examples from the minutes of the 2002 Annual General Meeting of the International Thunderbird Class Association (which may be international, but they seem to be based in Washington state, and they use table in an AmE way):

There was considerable discussion on the issue of the mast weight. Most had to do with the question of whether the matter could be taken off the table and voted upon at the current AGM. It was concluded that it could not, due to the failure of proper notification of the membership about such an action.

If a member wishes to have this motion taken from the table it would require a majority vote of those at the AGM, assuming proper advance notification - distribution to the fleet captains as part of the agenda two months prior to the meeting date. [...]

Currently, the motion is on the table, sine dei. There is no specific date upon which it is to be brought back before the AGM.

In BrE (where parliamentary procedure--or Standing Orders--seems to differ depending on the type of bill being debated and in which House), a motion that is being discussed is on the table. So, you table a motion when you want to bring it up for debate. You can also table questions (bring them up for discussion), according to the House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business:
Notices of questions shall be given by Members in writing to the Table Office in a form determined by the Speaker. [...] a Member may not table more than five such questions on any one day
Both systems speak of the floor, but it seems to me that there are some differences in its use. This guide to the business of the House of Lords makes the distinction between work done on the floor--i.e. in a House of Lords session, with all members able to examine and discuss the matter at hand, and off the floor--i.e. in committee. In my experience of American government, on the floor would be used in a similar way, but I wouldn't say that work in committee is off the floor, really...I'd limit my use of that phrase to describing more informal behind-the-scenes deal-making (or whatever). Perhaps insiders into either government can give us more insight.

Click on the tag below for more Janus words...including the somewhat related moot.


  1. I remember hearing a story about a meeting between Americans and British diplomats during World War II where the two delegations almost came to blows over whether to table a motion. Is this a true story, and if so where can I find more details about it?

    1. Churchill, Winston S. (1950). The Second World War, Volume III, The Grand Alliance. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 609. ISBN 0-395-41057-6.

  2. All options are on the table.

  3. In UK parliamentary usage, "on the floor" and "off the floor" are rarely used as opposites. "On the floor" is widely used to mean business transacted in the main chambers of the Commons and the Lords. Traditionally the contrast is not with "off the floor" but with "in Committee" or, much more recently and for the Commons only, "in Westminster Hall". I have never heard "off the floor" used in conversational speech - or in formal speech for that matter.

  4. Why is it, I wonder, that I find most differences between British and American English interesting or amusing but a few annoying? (I suspect my annoyance is mainly with Britons who parrot American usages, often rather inaccurately.) Currently, I dislike hearing people say that they are going to "parse" something when they mean that they are going to construe it. I'm pretty sure that the (mis)use has drifted in from the US, perhaps particularly from American legal or Compsci lingo; be that as it may, to my ears it sounds affected as well as inaccurate. Whereas, with "table" and "moot" one need only know the difference in usage to avoid using the words in any circumstance where they might lead to ambiguity. Anyway, a question -do linguists, or specifically you, have any general explanation as to why some usages tend to annoy rather than entertain?

  5. That's probably a better question for one's therapist than for a linguist. :)

    The things that annoy me most are things either that I've learnt through some effort (and therefore feel unduly proud of) but that other people seem not to appreciate or that offend some folk-logic that I've built up about an expression. (Not thinking of any examples at the moment...but as a professional linguist I should not be admitting to them anyhow.) I'd expect that some things annoy because they were first heard from someone I didn't care for. Who knows. But I think that many of these answers are more to be found in one's sense of identity (and thus therapy territory) than in linguistics.

  6. "I'm pretty sure that the (mis)use has drifted in from the US...."

    I can't speak to the origin, but this meaning of "parse", "to examine in a minute way : analyze critically", is standard enough (and old enough) in AmE to rate explicit mention in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Ed. (1993). I also think it's a relatively unremarkable metaphorical extension of meaning, but then I speak AmE. 8-)

    For me, "construe" has associations with a particular sort of combative argumentation: "Shall I construe that borderline-illiterate screed to mean that you disagree with me?"

    But that's perhaps fodder for a different post; I don't know BrE well enough to be able to comment on whether the BrE sense is different. (Sorry to contribute to a thread hijack.)

  7. I've found an example of Yanks using 'construe' to my entire satisfaction:-
    "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

  8. I think that parse referrs to a real examination of information.
    Whereas construe referrs to coming to a conclusion that, while using facts, is a bit quicker in it's resolution...
    For Example, you would Construe one answer, but after Parsing the information, would find another..

    Of course that is completely a non-official analysis of true word meanings...

  9. Anon, I'll tell you how we used the words in school Latin, then the professional around here can tell us where my Latin master went wrong. You look at a sentence of Latin and the word order tells you precious little. So the first move is to "parse" the sentence: you identify the nouns, and spot whether they could be subject, direct object, indirect object; you spot the verb and look at the tense, mood and whatever else (it was 50 years ago!): you look at both nouns and verb together and look for further clues - e.g. if the verb is in the first person plural, that limits which nouns can be its subject. You spot adjectives, etc, etc - in other words, you are looking for the parts of speech, seeing what function each word could serve. That's "parsing". Thus equipped, you try to work out what the sentence means - what is its import. (That was the way Latin masters spoke.) That's construing. You'll see that the Founding Fathers use "construe" in that sense - it's not about the construction of the writing, but about its meaning. "Parsing" is about the construction. Anyway, I hated classical Latin. In middle age, though, I found that it's dead easy to read late medieval Latin written in England. I suspect that's because the scribes thought in English and therefore wrote their Latin in English word order. As I said to my wife "piece of pissimus".

  10. Indeed. The same is true of my understanding of parse. Not from the Latin but from a computing background. To parse a string means to go trough it character by character and examine it, generally to check that none of the characters will cause a syntax problem later in the code.

    To my BrE ears - using parse as a way of saying 'minutely examine' without the grammatical context sounds really strange and pretentious. Some of the examples (for that usage) at actually had me chuckling at how pretentious and gobble-de-gook like they sounded.

    I suspect dearieme was trying to imply something similar by putting the brackets around (mis)used in the way that he did.

  11. I'll third that. To me, the sense of 'parse' is syntactic, while the sense of 'construe' semantic.

    I'm an American in Australia, and I first learned the word 'parse' in undergraduate (US) computer science classes.

  12. On construing, Russian style, from Kipling's Stalky & Co.:

    Beetle opened the book on the table, ran his finger down a page, and began at random:

    ‘Or who in Moscow toward the Czar
    With the demurest of footfalls,
    Over the Kremlin’s pavement white
    With serpentine and syenite,
    Steps with five other generals——’

    ‘That’s no good. Try another,’ said Stalky.

    ‘Hold on a shake; I know what’s coming.’ M‘Turk was reading over Beetle’s shoulder—
    ‘That simultaneously take snuff,
    For each to have pretext enough
    And kerchiefwise unfold his sash,
    Which—softness’ self—is yet the stuff

    (Gummy! What a sentence!)

    To hold fast where a steel chain snaps
    And leave the grand white neck no gash.

    (Full stop.)’

    ‘’Don’t understand a word of it,’ said Stalky.

    ‘More fool you! Construe,’ said M‘Turk. ‘Those six bargees scragged the Czar and left no evidence. Actum est with King.’

  13. Huh. I'm American, and I always thought that putting something "on the table" meant that it was up for discussion...or that it's being put out where everyone can see it and comment on it, or that it's now up for grabs... but maybe that's just in the film industry?

    Variety (film industry trade paper) certainly seems to use it that way:

    Agency and Limato went to arbitration on August 1. While both parties put several issues on the table, the focus became the interpretation of California State Labor Code 2855, which doesn't allow personal service terms to extend beyond seven years.


    With more than enough plot elements already on the table, pic pulls a surprise revelation just before the intermission and then proceeds to mix things up in part two, as Vijay is left to prove his real identity when De Silva is killed in a shootout.


    Discussions have taken place with John McTiernan, who directed the first installment, to helm. However, a source at Cinergi stressed that a formal offer was not yet on the table.

    or the related phrases "to put an offer on the table" and "a deal on the table".

    But maybe this is a completely different usage?

    (note: All the Variety quotes can be found by doing an advanced google of "on the table" in the domain

  14. p.v., that is a bit different, because it's not the parliamentary seems instead to derive from a card-playing metaphor--including the saying: to put one's cards on the table (i.e. to make something more open/transparent).

  15. two years later
    regarding "parse":
    I'm in the US and come from a computing background, but in non-computing jargon, I only use "parse" to mean to attempt to understand a statement that's difficult to understand for whatever reason. "I can't parse what you just said" or "It took me half an hour to parse that newspaper headline" means not so much to examine carefully (which is part of the process, usually) as to use a parse (in the computing sense) to convert the code (text) into machine (me) understandable language.

  16. "Currently, the motion is on the table, sine dei." Love that typo. Whatever happened to In God We Trust?

  17. I knew there was a post on this from way back. This morning an American host on NPR (Joshua Johnson on 1A) used the British sense of "table": "right now is just too soon [after Rep. Scalise's shooting] for anyone on Capitol Hill to be talking about . . . putting a bill on the table [about gun control]."

    1. That's not really the same thing since "table" isn't being used as a verb. "To put something on the table" has the same meaning in both UK and US English as far as I know.


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AmE = American English
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