Word Court


George Wolff, of St. Pete Beach, Florida, writes, "Can you settle a dispute for me? My wife, who is quite strict about grammar, is not prepared to accept my criticism of her use of the word tabled. Recently she said that an issue was tabled in the course of a meeting. To me, that meant it was put on the table for discussion. She insists the verb table means 'to put aside for another time.' If the issue had been put aside, wouldn't it have been shelved? In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a Canadian, fairly recently transplanted to the United States."

It's easy, isn't it, to picture someone whose arms are laden with shopping bags coming home, setting the bags down on the hall or kitchen table, and immediately doing something with their contents, such as putting them away or starting to cook with them. This in the physical world is like tabling, the way you think of it, in the abstract realm of meetings. But it's also easy to imagine that the person with the shopping bags might hear the phone ring, put the bags down to take the call, and forget about them for a good long while. This is the way your wife thinks of tabling.

Both meanings are given in the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, curiously, the OED considers them to be versions of the same meaning of the verb, out of eleven possible meanings, including one specific to carpentry, one to sail-making, and one to gunnery. The relevant definition is "to lay (an appeal, proposal, resolution, bill, etc.) on the table of a deliberative or legislative assembly; hence, to bring forward or submit for discussion or consideration. In U.S. Pol[itics], to lay on the table as a way of postponing indefinitely; to shelve." Thus your wife's usage is beyond reproach. As for you, having tabled this matter in your sense of the word, perhaps you'd now be willing to table it in hers?

Hanns J. Kristen, of San Anselmo, California, writes, "I frequently stumble over sentences like 'He didn't used to forget her birthday.' Is it just me, or does this negative form of used to raise your hackles as well? And if it does, what would be the correct form?"

Anytime you're in a room full of usage commentators and you feel like starting a quarrel, try asking about didn't used to. One thing about the phrase that's generally agreed upon is that it's informal—not top-quality standard English. But arguments break out over whether the right informal form is didn't used to or didn't use to. Proponents of didn't use to say that the phrase works the same way as didn't walk (not didn't walked) and didn't have to (not didn't had to). If it were as simple as that, however, I suspect that you and I would experience it as being as simple as that, and we'd write didn't use to without a second thought. But we don't, and we're hardly alone: didn't used to turns up a great deal more often in news writing than didn't use to does.

In his Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner makes a case for didn't used to that I find persuasive. He writes, "Used to is an idiomatic phrase based on an archaic meaning of use (= to be in the habit of). The form of the verb is fixed in the positive used to, and is unchanged in the far less common (and far less accepted) negative form, didn't used to." Garner has a good answer for your final question, too. He suggests, "Remember the standard form that can save you headaches: never used to."

Ruth Rozen, of Evanston, Illinois, writes, "Isn't the plural of e-mail e-mail? I frequently hear and read e-mails. Indeed, in a search for the exact term e-mails on the Atlantic Online Web site, I found a number of instances of it. Webster's does not indicate the s for the plural form of e-mail. Do you agree that e-mails sounds wrong?"

Sorry, but no: the plural count noun e-mails, meaning electronic messages, has become standard, even though e-mail is also used like plain old mail, as a mass noun. (By the way, the unhyphenated email seems to be losing its bid to displace e-mail in edited writing.) The reason you won't find a plural with s in "Webster's"—either Merriam-Webster's Collegiate or Webster's New World—is that dictionaries tend to avoid using precious space to specify regular plurals, formed by adding s or es. Look up a noun, like stamp, that has a regular plural, and also one, like mouse, that has an irregular one—except, arguably, in computer contexts—and you'll see what I mean.

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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