Word Court


Lawrence A. Peskin, of Baltimore, writes, "I worked hard in graduate school to obtain what I thought was my graduate degree, but recently I've found myself promoted. Today I filled out a consumer survey that asked whether I had completed college or gone further, into postgraduate education. And my morning paper, The Sun, ran an article suggesting that scholars who doubted Shakespeare's authorship of his plays had been deprived of postgraduate degrees by skeptical English programs. I see this usage more and more often. My understanding of postgraduate work has always been that it was done after one received a Ph.D. or another terminal degree. Can I now fill in the postgraduate box with a clear conscience? Or do I still need to take a few more courses?"

Yes, you may say you've done postgraduate work. Though I can scarcely believe it, six major contemporary American dictionaries—and the Oxford English Dictionary, too—claim that a postgraduate student can perfectly well be the same as a graduate student. What's more, some dictionaries consider anybody who has graduated from high school to be a postgraduate. This seems to have been the case ever since postgraduate was coined, in the United States, well over a hundred years ago.

A word like postgraduate is, I suppose, just the flip side of the linguistic tendency that has us prefilling our prescription refills, pre-reserving theater seats, and milling around irritably in airport waiting areas while certain passengers preboard the plane. But postgraduate is actually better established than these pre- words. Because postgraduate is so often used interchangeably with graduate, it would be unrealistic to insist that the two must be different and that postgraduate means what you and I think it does (what it should!). Why don't we switch to calling those very advanced students and courses postdoctoral, and leave it at that?

Yvette Vandermolen, of Middletown, Rhode Island, writes, "I'm helping to proofread a small-town wedding guide, and I'm trying to convince the editor that fiancés describes not the bride and the groom but, rather, two grooms. Every dictionary and language-usage source I've consulted clearly states that fiancé is the groom and fiancée is the bride. A plural form that can cover both sexes, such as alumni, doesn't seem to exist. Am I right to be insisting on this point?"

It's true that the trend nowadays is in favor of gender-neutral terms: police officer instead of policeman or policewoman, flight attendant instead of steward or stewardess, angler instead of fisherman or I can't imagine what, and so on. And yet many people are opposed to viewing marriage as a gender-neutral institution. Come to think of it, I'm opposed to viewing marriage as gender-neutral. We definitely should know someone's sex and sexual orientation before choosing that person as a marriage partner. So there's a reason for fiancé and fiancée to buck the trend. Stick to your guns.

By the way, traditionalists don't regard alumni as gender-neutral either; they argue that one should say alumni and alumnae. It would be convenient if they were wrong. But anyone who cares whether the words mean the same thing in English as they do in Latin, and who recognizes the Latin ending on alumni as a masculine plural, will have to admit they're right.

Frederick G. Rodgers, of Portland, Oregon, writes, "For a long while now I have found people using the word do as an alternative to a more fitting verb—a verb that provides focus and energy to what is being said. When I hear statements such as 'I often do French bread twice a week' and 'The mayor is not planning to do an investigation yet,' I automatically wonder why bake in the first statement and order in the second were not used. Is this a trend that concerns you? I am not only concerned but routinely annoyed and occasionally frustrated."

What do you say we blame Nike? Its slogan "Just do it" has been with us for seventeen years and is still going strong. As an advertising slogan, it's brilliant, because it can mean anything the listener wants it to. It is of course a pronoun, and in the slogan it has no antecedent—there's nothing for it to refer to. And do is (among other things) the equivalent of a pronoun in the world of verbs. Thus do it can properly stand in for countless other predicates: just run, just jump, just play basketball, just go for a walk—just do it.

Outside the realm of advertising slogans, though, it sabotages communication to express ourselves in ways that can mean anything listeners want. I'm with you, then: let's just not do it.

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more


Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.


What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In