Word Court


Carola Naumer, of Reno, Nev., writes, "I am being driven crazy by the ubiquitous use of the term artwork. I first encountered this term in the seventies, in the context of 'camera-ready artwork' for a party invitation. Now the Mona Lisa is artwork, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is artwork, and both are treated linguistically as though they are on the same level artistically as my invitation. What is wrong with the word art, and why is artwork replacing it?"

You're right that more and more often one sees citations like this one, from an article that appeared in USA Today in June about the former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski: "... $13 million of old masters and impressionist artwork." You're right, too, that artwork in its traditional, standard meaning is a good deal less high-toned than art can be. It's either a printing term, as you note, or descriptive of "artistic" things "produced in quantity," according to a definition in Webster's Third New International Dictionary.

Because English-speakers tend not to like using three words where one will do, the extended sense has come about (or so I suspect) owing to the likes of this: "The Mona Lisa is among Western civilization's most familiar ..." Tradition calls for the thought to be completed with works of art, but some people would naturally assume that artworks is an equivalent term. It isn't, quite. And certainly where art by itself passes muster (as it would have in the USA Today citation), it is preferable.

Carl Linhart, of Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., writes, "I have been searching for years for a learned opinion regarding the correctness of not using an apostrophe with the pronoun ours. Various high school English teachers have provided varying answers to this query. Please reply with some advice."

Egad! The next thing you know, English teachers will start having varying opinions about the correctness of the spellings your's, her's, hi's, and their's. Possessive pronouns don't use apostrophes: ours is correct, along with mine, yours, his, hers, its, and theirs. The possessive case of nouns does use them: our friend's is correct, along with my friend's and your friend's.

Everyone would already know this, you'd think, if only the study of grammar were taken more seriously. For years, though, I have been hearing anecdotal laments that "they don't teach grammar in the schools anymore." Recently David M. Bloome, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, told me that grammar does receive less class time than it used to and explained why: a great deal of research has shown that most schoolchildren who are taught grammar neither remember what they've learned nor become better writers than children who aren't taught grammar. Or, to borrow an analogy from Samuel Jay Keyser, a professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT, who used it to make much the same point to me, "If I wanted to teach kids to swim, I wouldn't give them a course in hydrodynamics; I'd put them in the pool and have them practice swimming."

All the same, if I wanted to be the most effective possible swimming coach, I might find it helpful to know something about hydrodynamics. Bloome and Keyser go along with that. Keyser told me, "The grammar of ours is actually fascinating. Although ours and our friend's are parallel in your examples, note that you can say our friend's book but not ours book. An English teacher who is interested in things like this will be a better teacher than one who isn't."

Yona Baumel, of Jerusalem, Israel, writes, "You would think that with all the problems we have in Israel, my wife and I would have something more important to disagree about than punctuation. She claims that proper usage calls for a period to come outside the quotation marks at the end of a sentence. I claim that British usage is different from American. Please save our marriage."

Punctuation conventions do indeed differ in British English and American English. British usage calls for periods, and also commas, to appear inside quotation marks when they are part of the matter quoted, but otherwise not. American usage calls for those two marks to appear inside quotation marks in all contexts, for colons and semicolons to appear outside them in pretty much all contexts, and for the placement of question marks and exclamation points to depend on meaning. In Israel today American influence predominates over British, not least because the population includes many thousands of American immigrants and their descendants. So Israeli English increasingly follows U.S. conventions of punctuation.

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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