Word Court


Daniel S. Weir, of East Aurora, New York, writes, "A usage that I've begun seeing and hearing disturbs me. A recent newspaper headline read, 'School Hosts Graduation Exercises.' There were visitors at the graduation, but the event was held by the school for the school, and holds would have been a more appropriate word. In a radio report, I heard something like 'South Africa will host a national AIDS conference.' Had the conference been international, host would have been right. The way it was in this story, as in the other, holds would have been the right word. Do you agree?"

The verb host has quietly worked its way into the good graces of most American English—speakers over the past couple of decades. But we still seem undecided about how we want it to behave.

Until three years ago the Associated Press Stylebook maintained a ban of twenty-five years' standing on host as a verb, except in direct quotations. When it reversed the ban, the AP wasn't exactly being avant-garde: most of our dictionaries have long included the verb host without comment. Nor was the AP the last holdout: The New York Times, which follows its own stylebook, still prints play host to rather than host alone. And the current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary calls the verb host a "usage problem," conjecturing that it raises hackles because it "involves a suspect extension of the traditional conception of hospitality."

That "suspect extension" is exactly what's bothering you, no? As in, parents don't host their underage children at breakfast, and companies don't host workdays for their employees. Anyone who wants to host something had better invite outsiders. And yet when I checked some recent news citations, I realized that outsiders aren't necessarily the key. I read, "China is to host a maritime security exercise in the East China Sea" (fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were to join in). And "Emel Kay will host a book signing and hula show." In each case, I'd say, the word host is off—not because outsiders aren't involved but because the outsiders are being offered something other than hospitality. All in all, I'm with you, then: It's a mistake to abandon hold (and have and give and so on) just because host has begun doing some of the same work. Host can't do all of it—at least not well.

Laura LoGerfo, of Washington, D.C., writes, "People often say all told when referring to the sum of damage, ills, members of an audience, etc. Wouldn't the correct spelling be all tolled?"

All tolled probably does make more intuitive sense nowadays—but with so-called set phrases that's scarcely ever the point. The Oxford English Dictionary makes clear that one meaning of tell is, or used to be, roughly, "count." For instance, Daniel Defoe, in Robinson Crusoe (1719), wrote, "He could not tell twenty in English, but he numbered them, by laying so many stones in a row, and pointing to me to tell them over." It's from this sense of tell that we get the expression all told.

Rory M. Wohl, of Burton, Ohio, writes, "I can't take it anymore. It seems that the writer of at least one article in practically every newspaper or magazine I pick up has used the word loose where lose is correct. A recent newspaper article about a baseball player reported that he has 'a nerve problem in his right elbow that has caused him to loose muscle mass in his right hand.' I don't know what punishments Word Court is allowed to give out, but please make this one of your most severe."

I rooted around in a news database to make sure your quote wasn't just an isolated typo. It isn't: I immediately found a newspaper feature about bicycling whose author admitted that he "could stand to loose a few pounds." I found a piece about auto racing in which someone "didn't want any of his cars to loose a lap." Another piece about auto racing, in a different publication, quoted someone as saying, "You might loose a couple positions making adjustments during yellow flag stops."

Older language books for grownup native speakers hardly ever bothered to explain the distinction between loose and lose. The authors of some newer books, though, have evidently decided that more readers will benefit from a discussion of the subject than will consider it an insult to their intelligence. I'd like to think we've caught this trend early enough that lose can still be defended against those who have, um, lost sight of the word, its spelling, and its meaning. Though lose and loose do have a bit of history in common, their contemporary senses don't overlap and aren't easily confused. If America looses a missile, that's quite different from our losing a missile—thank God. Let's all do our bit to make sure it stays that way.

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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