Word Court

Fast and unloose; late-model blues

Warren Bergmann, of Menasha, Wis., writes: “I am a music teacher with an ethical question. A student is having trouble tuning her violin. ‘Can I help you with that, Tiffany?’ ‘Yes, Mr. Bergmann. Would you unloosen this string for me?’ ‘Certainly.’ I start tightening the string. As I do so, I pluck it, and the pitch begins to rise. ‘Mr. Bergmann! I said unloosen it!’ The pitch of her voice begins to rise. I continue tightening the string, until it snaps. Who pays for the new string?"

Not to mention who will pay for the psychotherapy Tiffany may need if too much of her education consists of object lessons like that one. You were unkind, Mr. Bergmann. Not only that, but unloosen is actually a perfectly good, old verb; so is unloose, which turns up in Shakespeare and Sheridan and Shelley. Admittedly, it suggests a lack of planning on the part of our language’s inventors that both verbs should mean roughly the same thing as loosen; the un- is redundant. Also admittedly, loosen is more common by far than either of the un- forms, and Tiffany would have done better to use it. But still I think you owe her the price of the string.

Howard Ahmanson, of Irvine, Calif., writes: “I am having a dispute with my office staff about the correct way to describe the length of a hotel stay. If someone is arriving at a hotel on March 5 and leaving on March 10, they persist in describing the stay as ‘March 5–9, leaving March 10.’ I think if you’re staying in a place March 5–9, you’re leaving March 9.”

A hotel in Oaxaca, Mexico, once almost threw me out a day early because the management interpreted my reservation according to your system. I forget the exact dates, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I had asked for a room for the nights of March 5–9, intending to leave on the 10th. The request was understood as “In March 5, out March 9.” Thank heaven the place wasn’t fully booked. When your staff tells you about a hotel stay, may I suggest you think of the dates as referring to the nights in the hotel? Calling it a stay “(on the nights of) March 5–9, leaving March 10,” makes perfect sense, and it will help ensure that no one ends up out on the street.

Andrew Bockis, of Carlisle, Pa., writes: “During a recent game of Scattergories (a board game in which players list words that start with a particular letter), I used the word IV under the category for Medicine/Drugs. The other players contested my selection, arguing that an IV is not a medicine or drug. I stand by my assertion. Can you offer any guidance?”

Close, but no cigar. Contemporary dictionaries all use words like apparatus and procedure and drip feed to define the noun IV. The American Heritage Dictionary says that the spelled-out word intravenous can mean “a drug, nutrient solution, or other substance administered into a vein.” But it also says (plainly, if indirectly) that the abbreviation IV doesn’t apply to this use.

John Bonitz, of Silk Hope, N.C., writes: “I am active with a group of people who make biodiesel to run diesel vehicles, and we often advise people about buying used vehicles. We’ve debated the use of the term late-model. I understand it to mean a vehicle manufactured recently. My friend insists it refers to older vehicles, and he cites mechanics who agree. What is your judgment?”

In common usage, a late-model car is a newish one, though the only contemporary American dictionary that clearly says so is The New Oxford American. Dealers who specialize in classic cars, however, sometimes use late-model to describe the likes of the Edsel and the DeLorean—cars that are no longer in production and are therefore “deceased,” or late. Could they please stop? A term that might equally well mean “new” or “old” is of no use to anyone.

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

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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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