Word Court


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MARY C. WHITE, of Callicoon, New York, writes, "For the past few months I have heard on radio and TV and seen in print this oddity: The proof is in the pudding. For example, The Wall Street Journal recently quoted Sandra Thurman, who had been President Clinton's AIDS czar: '"It's wonderful that they're going to keep the [White House AIDS] office open," she said. "But the proof is in the pudding."' What do you suppose this means? Have the people who say it never heard or read The proof of the pudding is in the eating? Or does the newer phrase have some other meaning that I'm just too unhip to get? It's getting more prevalent and must be stopped before it's too late."

You're right about which expression is the original one; it comes from Cervantes's Don Quixote. Nonetheless, the shorter version is hardly brand-new: in online archives it is easily found in newspapers and magazines from some twenty years ago. Context usually makes clear that the shorter version is intended to mean what Cervantes's saying obviously does—fitting conceptually between, oh, say, "Seeing is believing"and Aesop's "Nature will out," a few thoughts down the way from "Qué será será." There's really only one reason, then, to object to the shorter version, although this reason is compelling: The proof is in the pudding doesn't make any sense.

CATHY O'DONNELL of Bethesda, Maryland, writes, "My question concerns the proper way to address two people with the same last name living at the same address. I work for a nonprofit organization, and we receive donations from people who send in a check with two names or simply put their first names on a form —for example, Jane and John Doe. In our thank-you letter to them is it proper to say 'Dear Mr. and Ms. Doe' or should it be 'Dear Ms. Doe and Mr. Doe'? We don't like to assume they are husband and wife; hence we do not use Mrs. unless they fill out the form specifically stating Mrs. Also, which would be proper for the address: Jane and John Doe or Ms. Jane and Mr. John Doe?"

Even in these quick-to-take-offense days, I can't imagine why two people who have a joint checking account and the same last name would be annoyed at you for supposing that they share their name. People who are prickly about how they are referred to tend to make that clear in advance. A woman might sign her letter Jane Doe (Mrs. John Doe), for instance—and it is considerate to pick up on hints like this. Absent any such hint, Mr. and Ms. Doe will be fine in the salutation, and John and Jane Doe will be fine in the address. It's traditional to put the man's courtesy title first, but you may well prefer to follow whatever order specific donors use.

JEFFREY H. TIGAY, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, writes, "One bit of linguistic ignorance that cries for attention is the use of may when might is meant. I once heard a TV anchorman say that 'one bullet aimed at Hitler may have saved millions of lives.' 'May have'? As if there's still a chance that those millions of people survived Hitler? And my local newspaper once reported that an unfortunate judge who was killed when a block of cement fell on him may still be alive had he not walked where he did at the wrong moment. When I read that, I felt like alerting his family so that they could have his body exhumed and examined."

As a verb, might is really just the past tense of may. But the issue here is not that Hitler and your unlucky judge both belong to the ages: note that the wording of "Hitler may have been the most heinous tyrant in history" is perfectly correct. A past-tense verb like might, besides talking about what has already happened, can be used to talk about things—past, present, or future—that are wholly hypothetical and counterfactual. The past tense, that is, can express the subjunctive mood. For instance, "if wishes were horses" isn't about past wishes but is about wishes that are not and never will be horses.

Might has long been used in ways that would be hard to predict from reading about the subjunctive in style guides and basic grammar books. Consider "I might start volunteering at the homeless shelter" and "Might I be of service?" In these sentences, which nearly everyone would consider correct, might simply expresses a bit more uncertainty or deference than may would. So some boundaries between might and may are blurred. Yet there remains a difference—as you know. Might is the only proper choice when talking about hypothetical things that did not happen—as in both your examples—or possibilities in the present or future that cannot happen: "If wishes were horses, beggars might ride."

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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