Word Court


ELIZABETH E. STEVENS, of Manhattan, Kansas, writes, "In the past week I have noticed the term bona fides in two different sources. In each case the term was used to mean 'credentials' or 'vitae' or 'reputation.' I just ran a quick Internet search and found that the term used with this meaning is rampant. Since it is not italicized, I assume it is pronounced as English, so fides rhymes with rides. When and how did this atrocity get started?"

I'll bet most people who didn't study Latin in school would be surprised that you called this use an "atrocity." The lexicographers who compiled the Oxford English Dictionary would understand, though. The OED makes clear that bona fides in Latin means, simply, "good faith." It goes on to say that some English-speakers "erroneously" assume that bona fide (which actually means "with good faith" in Latin) is a singular noun and bona fides is its plural; the earliest citation the OED gives for the seemingly plural use is from 1944. Bryan A. Garner, the American legal and language scholar, would understand you too. In his book Garner's Modern American Usage he says that the meaning "proof of authenticity; credentials" is a "slipshod extension" with an "air of affectation."

Nonetheless, most contemporary American dictionaries present without comment the meaning—and the pronunciation—you abhor. The history of English is a many-centuries-long tale of the borrowing and adaptation or corruption (take your pick) of words from other languages. By now, of course, many more Americans are fluent in Spanish than in Latin. And as far as I can tell from my Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese dictionaries, none of the major Romance languages—languages directly descended from Latin—have retained either bona fide or bona fides, in its original sense or any other. The misunderstanding and consequent change of meaning in English is only to be expected.

It seems to me, then, that we should draw the line here: Let's accept that bona fides has become a noun meaning "credentials," and bona fide an adjective meaning "authentic." But let's fight tooth and nail against a tendency to mutilate the adjective. Uses like the following, from The Oakland Tribune, the Calgary (Alberta) Herald, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, respectively, are a little too common to be just typos: "He's a dog with a mission. A bona fied working dog …" "Junior oil & gas companies stepped back to the main stage last year, becoming bonified headliners in their own right." "Jaskowiak … is a four-year starter and a bonafied All-Metro prospect."

R. H. FANDERS, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, writes, "Last Sunday on CBS this sentence was used: 'I was better than her.' An hour ago, again on TV: 'I was wondering if this time my dog did better than me.' Than is a conjunction, never a preposition. It ties two clauses together. The verb is understood in the second clause: 'I was better than she (was).' Am I being old-fashioned? Have the rules changed?"

It depends on the level of formality you expect from TV shows. You're right about the traditional view of the grammar of such sentences. Conjunctions tie together things of the same kind, including clauses; prepositions attach nouns, or elements functioning like nouns, to clauses; and than is supposed to be a conjunction.

But is it "never" a preposition? Consider "She's the one than whom I was better." That is to say, "I was better than she"—so what's "than whom" doing there? "Than whom I was better" is grammatically equivalent to "I was better than whom," which is grammatically equivalent to "I was better than her." If you insist that than is a conjunction, "than whom" would have to be "than who." But I don't think any of today's authorities on language would make that "correction," and very few from the past 200 years would either. Sometimes, even in formal English (than whom sure ain't colloquial), than functions as a preposition.

The main reason not to welcome all prepositional uses of than, in my opinion, has to do with sentences like this one: "I like her better than him." That's clear, no? It means I prefer her to him. If we start allowing than to be either a preposition or a conjunction catch-as-catch-can, soon that example will become ambiguous: do I prefer her to him, or do I like her better than he does?

All the same, "I was better than her" can't possibly be ambiguous. And to me, it sounds more idiomatic and down-to-earth than "I was better than she." Maybe the best way out of the morass is to think of constructions like "better than her" as forgivable lapses—like "It's me." And whenever you want to be formal and correct without sounding artificial, fill in the missing verb. "I was better than she was" meets all the criteria we might care to impose—except that it's boastful.

Do you have a language 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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