Word Court


Bonnie Lewellyn, of Hayward, Calif., writes, "In recent months a puzzling word has reared its head once again: surveil. When I first heard it used, a few years ago, I assumed that the speaker was simply coining a new form of the word surveillance, as in 'We set up a team to surveil the suspect's house.' The correct usage, I assumed, would be 'We set up a team to survey the suspect's house.' I see, however, that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary accepts the word surveil as a 'back-formation' of surveillance. Are there any other back-formation words in common usage, and are they considered acceptable in standard English?"

Yes, indeed. Back-formations are newer, shorter words created by stripping away affixes (usually endings) from words that entered English with their affixes firmly attached. For instance, baby-sitter came to us in that form, and the verb baby-sit was derived from it. The verb diagnose is derived from diagnosis, donate from donation, and reminisce from reminiscence. Surveillance, of course, entered English from French, about two centuries ago, whereas the earliest citation for surveil known to Webster's Collegiate's lexicographers is from 1949.

Your reaction to surveil is fairly typical of the response people have to a back-formation they aren't used to seeing: they don't quite believe that the thing is a proper word. But surveil deserves to be a word, it seems to me, because survey threatens to mean a technique of social science or, more likely, land measurement (for instance, here's a recent citation from The Philadelphia Inquirer: "One commando killed a soldier whose job was to surveil the border ..."). Nonetheless, some other back-formations that were coined long ago have never managed to become standard, even though no exact synonyms are at hand. Enthuse is a prime example. Though the word has been in use since before the Civil War, most current dictionaries include warnings that it still irritates many people. Ultimately, all we have to go by is our own taste. Does a word irritate us? Then we should try to find some other way to make our point. If we can't—well, then we've discovered what the word is for.

David Radwin, of Berkeley, Calif., writes, "How does one vocalize the quotation marks that begin and end a quotation? Are quote and unquote correct?"

If you want to get technical, you can say quote and close (the opposite of open, not the opposite of far) quote instead. Speakers at White House press conferences, congressional committee hearings, and the like frequently use that form. Others say endquote or, as it's usually rendered in print, end quote. But quote, unquote is by far the most common pair. Oddly, these words are often said together. For instance, from a February CNN transcript: "... had phone calls made to three—quote unquote—'prominent Indian government officials.'" How the listener is supposed to know where the quotation ends I have no idea.

Carrie E. Coxwell, of Kent, Ohio, writes, "In a practice book for the ACT Assessment, I came across the following sentence: 'The children have gone fishing for the day.' I was supposed to say whether or not the sentence was correct. I thought it was. However, the authors of the book said that the sentence was incorrect, because a perfect verb must be followed by an infinitive. I have never heard of this rule, and neither has my English teacher. We combed through Fowler's under every heading we could think of but could find nothing. Does this rule exist?"

Any student and teacher who rush to H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage for answers to their language questions deserve at least a gold star and possibly a medal. If you look under "gerund" in the second edition of Fowler's, you'll find a few paragraphs about "gerund and infinitive" that aren't exactly on point but come pretty close. You'll want to read the whole passage, but the nub of it, I think, comes when Fowler says, "There is very little danger of using the gerund, but much of using the infinitive, where the other would be better." Throw that practice book out!

LINDA GARDINER, of Sherborn, Mass., writes, "Where and how did the phrase one of the only start turning up? For example, recently I read 'Turkey is one of the only Muslim states to have had a female prime minister' in The Christian Science Monitor, which should know better. I see the phrase everywhere. Am I one of the only people to have noticed this?"

No, you're not. Those who like to ponder language may enjoy wondering why the only ones passes muster while one of the only does not. Oh, well. One of the only doesn't pass muster. Depending on meaning, choose the only or one of the few instead.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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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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