Concerning as an Adjective

By Maeve Maddox

If hearing the word concerning used as an adjective to mean “causing anxiety” gives you a chalkboard moment, you may as well get used to it. The usage has yet to make its way into all the dictionaries, but it has hit the mainstream and it won’t be turned back.

For about 200 years, concerning has been functioning quite happily as a preposition to mean any of the following:

relating to
with reference to
referring to
with regard to
as regards
with respect to
dealing with
on the subject of
in connection with
apropos of

Supporters of the adjectival use of concerning point to the definition in the OED: “that gives cause for anxiety or distress.” The one citation given for this usage is from Pamela (1740), the overwrought epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson. Pamela is a virtuous young maidservant resisting the overtures of her employer. Here is the passage in which concerning means “anxiety-producing.” The words not in quotations belong to Pamela’s narration:

“Well,” said he, “if you won’t eat with me, drink at least with me.”

I drank two glasses by his over-persuasions, and said, “I am really ashamed of myself.”

“Why, indeed,” said he, “my dear girl, I am not a very dreadful enemy, I hope! I cannot bear any thing that is the least concerning to you.”

Elsewhere, Richardson uses concerning conventionally, as a preposition:

“Mrs. Jewkes has directions concerning you.”

I hope, whatever be your honour’s intention concerning her, you will not be long about it.

Have mercy on me, and hear me, concerning that wicked woman’s usage of me.

To perform a Google Ngram search, I used the phrase “very concerning” to get an idea of the adjectival use of concerning. The phrase is effectively flat-lined in American English until 1972; it begins to take off in the late 1980s. My guess is that political writers and other media manipulators rediscovered adjectival concerning as a useful euphemism for words that might frighten voters or consumers. Compare:

Increased juvenile drug use is disturbing.
Increased juvenile drug use is concerning.

The possibility of more terroristic attacks is a cause for concern.
The possibility of terroristic attacks is concerning.

The rise in global temperatures is troubling.
The rise in global temperatures is concerning.

It seems to me that concerning has the effect of distancing a perceived threat by making it seem to be a matter to be watched, but perhaps not one to get too excited about for the present.

Whatever the reasons for the current popularity of concerning as an adjective to describe anything that causes concern, it has certainly caught on in American speech.

If you find yourself looking for an alternative, here’s a list of possibilities:


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12 Responses to “Concerning as an Adjective”

  • Michael Dorosh

    Thank you for this article – I’ve been noticing people use ‘concerning’ in this way for a long time and see that mainstream media are now embracing it.

  • Nikki

    Sheila, hearing and reading concerning used in this way makes me cringe and twitch.

  • Shaila

    I thought I was the only one who cringed when I heard the word used”this way. The same goes with “irregardless”. (What’s also DISCONCERTING to me is spell-check did not red-flag “irregardless!!!”)

  • Pedro

    This message relaly hits home with me today. Last Thursday I was put on modified bedrest. This is my first pregnancy and I learned alot while trying to get pregnant about not being in control. Thought I had this down! However, being put on bedrest Thursday meant I wouldn’t make my first baby shower with my family, some of whom had traveled some distance to see me and celebrate with me. It was heartbreaking. What I keep reminding myself is that what I am controlling is how much I take care of myself and my babies to ensure the best scenario possible for them. See, I could have chosen to disregard the doctor’s orders and gone anyway. I choose not to. I choose to rest. I choose to skype to my first baby shower and enjoy as much as I could knowing I was also taking care of us. Even when there are things that we cannot control, there are also things we can control.Thanks for this post! Keri

  • Wayne

    In the large majority of situations I think (incorrect use?) of the word, “concerning”, occurred in speeches or talks, where speakers – maybe in their haste, or a moment of confusion or panic (e.g. a politician wishing to be perceived as answering quickly) – uttered a sentence using “concerning” or “very concerning”, when they were really mentally reaching or searching for “OF CONCERN” or “DISCONCERTING” [e.g. “I find this (or that) to be OF CONCERN.” “I think that is VERY DISCONCERTING.”]. “Concerning”, or “very concerning”, seem to be lazier and have a tendency to “want” to roll off the tongue first. Also, “concerning” seems more likely to be said if a word like “very” has already been uttered. That does not necessarily make it best or correct. Just easier (or lazier?). Given the luxury of time, or if they could theoretically repeat their public or on-air utterance, I think most would avoid it and go with one of the many alternatives that perhaps comes across as a little more learned. In most cases anyone who speaks English understands what was meant, but that does not make it correct or appropriate. To use an extreme example, many of us have heard preschoolers say something like, “I done good”. We all know what was meant. Not sure we’d all adopt the phrase for regular use, though.

  • venqax

    @bluebird: But with that particular brand of confuddlement wouldn’t disconcerning have the confused equation with disconcerting, and thereby concering be its antonym? IOW, “This is a very concerning problem” and “this is a very disconcerting problem” would be antagonistic statements. “This is a disconcerning problem” would fit the theory of meaning the problem is disconcerting. ??

    But, then again we have irregardless intending to mean regardless, so maybe logic simply does not apply to how people foul up language. A solution would be “concerting” but I fear not “fourth-coming”.

  • thebluebird11

    @Ozer: I wonder if people have confused disconcerting with the (so far) non-word, disconcerning, and figured that maybe disconcerning meant NOT concerning, so we now have its opposite, concerning, as an adjective.
    I have heard people read out loud, and it’s not pretty. They often read what they THINK they see and not what is actually there.

  • Maeve

    The word “engram” is a new one for me. Thanks!

  • Maeve

    Note on “nerve-racking”: it’s also spelled “nerve-wracking.”

    As for the difference between “rack” and “wrack,” there’s a post for that:

  • Ozer Bergman

    Might some be mistaking “concerning” for “disconcerting”? I am neither concerned or disconcerted by “disconscrting”‘s absence from your list.

  • Rich Wheeler

    For your idea file: n-gram vs. engram (he he he!)

  • Rich Wheeler

    I’m learning how to use Google ngram viewer from your examples. Thanks!

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