Word Court


Marie Speck, of Buena Park, California, writes, "I am appalled by the free use of the word gentleman. I've been hearing it used more and more, by the police and the news media, in reference to men who have broken the law. But I have never been more shocked or disgusted than when I heard a local newswoman refer to the accused kidnapper-murderer of Samantha Runnion, a five-year-old child, as a gentleman. Has gentleman now replaced man? My dictionary defines the word as 'a man of good breeding.' Am I old-fashioned, or is my dictionary outdated?"

Neither. But you're right that gentleman turns up in many inappropriate contexts. For instance, on a Today show segment in July about the Runnion case, Katie Couric interviewed Mike Carona, the sheriff of Orange County, California, where Samantha disappeared. She asked about a suspect being sought, "Any chance he might turn himself in?" and Carona responded, "I would hope that he would. There's only two options in my book. This gentleman turns himself in or we're going to track him down and bring him in—bring him into custody."

And in August, Connie Chung, of CNN, talked with Sheriff H. F. Cassell, of Henry County, Virginia, about the recent abduction of nine-year-old Jennifer Short and the murder of her parents. She asked about someone the sheriff's department had interrogated, "Did this gentleman have a key to their house, or was he able to get in easily, do you know?"

Let's remember—and be glad—that law-enforcement officers and journalists have been trained to speak of people respectfully. Let's remember, too, the presumption of innocence that is central to our legal system. Once someone is convicted of a heinous crime, words quite different from gentleman apply. Often, though, using gentleman instead of man is just a silly genteelism, and it's not much worse in reference to a criminal investigation than it is in this recent citation from The Sacramento Bee: "Not so routine is the 800-pound man the Coroner's Office received not long ago. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the gentleman's trailer to get him on his way." As you suggest, man would have been a better word choice in all these quotations.

Christina Pitts, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, writes, "As an English major, with a graduate degree (M.A., English literature), and as a lover of the language, I find it increasingly shocking that in virtually every 'knowledgeable' magazine article or story I see the misuse of the possessive. For example, 'He is a friend of Frank's.' The correct use of the possessive, as I recall, is that the apostrophe substitutes for the word of. That is, 'He is a friend of Frank,' or 'He is Frank's friend.' But to say 'He is a friend of Frank's' is ridiculously, tautologically redundant, not to minimize its offensiveness to those of us in the know."

Would you say "a friend of him"? Double possessives like "a friend of Frank's" may be "freaks of idiom," as H. W. Fowler deemed them in his Modern English Usage, but idiomatic they are. Sir Ernest Gowers amplified on this point in his 1965 revision of Fowler's book, observing that Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra begins, "Nay, but this dotage of our general's o'erflows the measure." Possessives, including the word of, do jobs besides indicating relationships of possessing or having. The examples with which grammarians like to demonstrate this point often involve the word picture or portrait: "a picture of Frank's"—a picture that Frank possesses—is different from "a picture of Frank."

When, exactly, should we use double possessives? This is controversial. My rule is to experimentally substitute a pronoun for the noun, as I did at the outset of this reply; if I'd say "a friend of his," then I say "a friend of Frank's."

Dan Green, of Wallingford, Connecticut, writes, "The use of impactful is running rampant, especially in my corporation's highest levels. I know in my soul this is wrong, but I need a well-articulated explanation. Please help me respond and stop the spread of this blight."

Many of us still wince when the verb impact is used figuratively. The current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary reports that 95 percent of its usage panel "disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb in the sentence 'Companies have used disposable techniques that have a potential for impacting our health.'" But the same usage note goes on to say that the "use of impact has become so common in the working language of corporations and institutions that many speakers have begun to regard it as standard." Let's hope we can yet draw a line in the sand on this side of the adjective impactful. Do you need to tell your colleagues more than that scarcely any dictionaries recognize impactful as a word?

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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