A Word, Please: Try not to shudder when you read this column

Newport Beach lifeguard headquarters at the Newport Pier.
Newport Beach lifeguard headquarters at the Newport Pier. The use of “headquarter” as a verb offends some careful users of the language, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.
(Raul Roa)

When I was a young editor, I was taught that “headquarter” isn’t a verb — that the word exists only in the plural and only as a noun. So a company can have its headquarters in New York, but it can’t be headquartered in New York.

I didn’t bother to look it up. Why would I? Right or wrong, my boss had the authority to tell me how to do my job, so I just changed every instance of “headquartered in” to “with headquarters in” without question.

If I had looked it up, I would have probably gone straight to the Associated Press Stylebook, the manual for my editing job at the time, and I would have seen my boss’s instructions affirmed. “Do not use ‘headquarter’ as a verb,” AP instructed at the time.


But if I would have checked a dictionary, I would have discovered a disconnect between AP and the real world. Reference guides at the time, for example Webster’s New World College Dictionary, had long recognized “headquarter” as a verb.

Style guides and dictionaries have different jobs. Unlike dictionaries that simply report how people are using the language, style guides tell editors what to do, helping ensure consistency and readability. When readers think a word is wrong or just poor usage, it can get in the way of the message. So style guides sometimes prohibit controversial language.

And the use of “headquarter” as a verb was indeed controversial.

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Unlike the noun “headquarters,” which dates back to the mid-1600s in the meaning of the residence, or quarters, of a military commander, the verb “headquarter” didn’t show up in print till 1903. It took another 50 or so years to become common and another 15 or 20 years to capture the attention of the panel of experts at the American Heritage Dictionary. They didn’t like it, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The American Heritage panel voted in 1969 to reject the verb in formal English. They continued to reaffirm their distaste for the verb into the 1980s.

By 1985, the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, as cited in Merriam’s, warned that the verb “can still cause careful users of the language to shudder.”

“While we do not doubt the truth of that observation,” Merriam’s editors write, “we suspect that there are also many careful users of the language who wonder, as we do, what the shuddering is about.”

Merriam’s argues that the verb “headquarter” meets the most important criteria for any word: It’s easily understood by readers. If you write that a company “is headquartered in New York City,” everyone will immediately get your meaning.

“‘Headquarter’ is a clear, concise verb that is guilty of no offence other than newness,” Merriam’s writes.

Today, even the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook agree. I can’t pinpoint the exact year that AP’s style authorities changed their mind about the verb “headquarter,” but I can confirm that, at some point, they changed course. My old 2004 edition of the AP guide says you can’t use “headquarter” or “headquartered” as a verb, but by the time they printed the 2011 edition, they had tossed out that rule.

The “headquarters” entry in AP today says only that, if you use it as a noun, it can take a singular or plural verb, depending on which works best in your sentence. So you can say “headquarters are” or “headquarters is,” depending on which best fits your context. And if you want to say a company is “headquartered” someplace, that’s fine too.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

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