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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Illustration by Christopher NiemanPerhaps the use of the phrase as well as to mean "and" or "also" has been with us for a long time, but I have begun to notice it with high frequency in recent years. For some reason it bothers me to hear someone say "I went to New York, Boston, as well as Philadelphia on my business trip." Am I being picky?

John C. Bittel
Columbus, Ohio

Maybe so -- but join the club. As well as isn't just a long-winded way of saying and. Rather than joining elements of equal value, it gives less grammatical weight to the word or words following it than is borne by the ones that come before. This implies, by the way, that your example sentence needs to read "... New York and Boston as well as ..." It also implies that if you were discussing only two cities, Boston and Philadelphia, the construction would be grammatically singular: "Boston, as well as Philadelphia, has terrific restaurants for business lunches." As well as carries an emphasis that and does not: it means something like "and not only." Your sentence, coming out of the blue the way it does, might be expected to elicit a response like "Did I know you were in Philadelphia?" If you had previously mentioned your visit to that city, though, your as well as would be fine.

Discuss this article in the Word Police, Word Fugitives, and Word Court conference of Post & Riposte. Is there a usage difference between the terms thought-provoking and provocative? You will hear the two used interchangeably in the press and in conversation. I feel that the term provocative carries undertones of incendiarism or sexuality. In contrast, thought-provoking just means the topic is conducive to further reflection. Perhaps this interpretation is too specific and limiting?

Anne E. Stohr
Minneapolis, Minn.

It's quite true that provocative often implies the provocation of things other than reflection. But whether lascivious images or, say, epistemological concepts are being provoked is a matter for the reader or hearer -- and the context -- to decide. I wouldn't go so far as to call provocative wrong where it means thought-provoking; it's just less specific. Only where the meaning is ambiguous (for instance, "Angelina Jolie's provocative new interpretation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason") is there a problem.

Illustration by Christopher NiemanI do not profess to be very knowledgeable in the field of grammar, so many grammar rules puzzle me. Recently I heard from a trusted source -- namely, my English teacher -- that the word not should be avoided when writing something formal, such as an English essay. This was annoying, given that not is quite a useful word, and hard to avoid. The reason was that passive sentences should be avoided, and adding not to any sentence makes it passive. I have never heard this before. Please explain.

Sarah Markham
Lawrence, Kan.

Yikes! If that really is what your teacher has been telling you, may he or she enjoy a glorious retirement, and soon. No more in grammar than in everyday life are "passive" and "negative" the same thing. We'll have to wait until another time to talk about the passive voice in grammar. A rule against using not in formal English is news to me. Is it possible that your teacher was simply encouraging you to write in a not unstraightforward manner -- that is, plainly?

Illustration by Christopher NiemanOne clothing store after another considers a pair of pants to be a pant. I say that's incorrect, but who am I? The stores are the ones who specialize in selling trousers. Then again, could they be wrong?

Harvey Karten
Brooklyn, N.Y.

A citation in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that much the same observation as you make about clothing stores was made about "clerks in dry-goods stores" by one H. A. Shands, who added, "Of course, pants is a well-known abbreviation [of pantaloons], but I think pant is rather a new word." These comments appeared in Shands's book Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, published in 1893. Today's dictionaries don't call pant wrong, but it seems to remain true that most people who use that form of the word are in the clothing trade.

The rest of us tend not to mind wasting a few words to say a pair of pants. And anyway, usually we can say just pants -- or slacks, or chinos, or clam diggers, or flares, or what have you. But note that the word for any version of this item of clothing is plural; to refer specifically to any one such item, we must say a pair of ... If people who talk about pants day in, day out, sooner or later say, "Let me show you a different ... pant," I can sympathize, though I don't plan to join them.

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? 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.


Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the author of Word Court.

Illustrations by Christopher Nieman.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Word Court - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 120.