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Word Court -- January 1996

Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

If my eleven-year-old, David, is a bellwether, the venerable verb to say is on its way out. The word like, as in "I was like, 'Huh?'" is one source of the erosion. Another source is to go, as in "He goes 'What?' and I go 'Whatever.'" I've explained that cows go "moo" and dogs go "bow-wow," while people say "Howdy do." To no avail. I've been tempted to make fun by prompting with "Tell me what she went next," and "And then what was he like?"--but I shy from becoming a Torquemada. What does Ms. Grammar think I should do?

William A. Edmundson
Atlanta, Ga.

windup picture "When I was a child, I spake as a child," Saint Paul wrote. I see no harm in it if kids use the current kid dialect when talking with other kids, or even in casual conversation with you, as long as they can also demonstrate a command of Standard English when, say, lunching with Grandmother. David ought to be able to manage that relatively minor attainment. Children's capacity for language is in fact awesome. When Charles Berlitz, of Berlitz Publishing and what is now known as the Berlitz Language Center, was a small boy, his father spoke to him in English, his mother in French, his grandfather in German, and his aunts and cousins in Spanish--and he learned to converse with everyone. All the same, imagine little Charles's relief, on his first day of school, when he realized that he wasn't going to have to learn a new language to communicate with each of the other children in his class. He was also, according to later reports, surprised and saddened to discover that most of those other children spoke nothing but English.

I was dismayed to see "the reason why" in your August column. I was taught that it is redundant. Any comment?

Mary A. Mitchell
Winter Park, Fla.

beatles picture Your letter was one of the more polite among many written to, ahem, inquire about my sentence "Tradition . . . is the only reason why . . ." There's no doubt that, for example, "Tell me the reason why you cried, and the reason why you lied to me" would be better the way the Beatles sang it--with four fewer words. And yet the reason why is no more redundant than the person who or the place where. In sentences, therefore, that one is tempted to "correct" by simply substituting that for why, why bother? Whether the reason why is a waste of words is always worth thinking about, but sometimes the answer is no.

I have asked this question of friends both savvy and otherwise, and have received nothing but puzzled looks in reply: For how long after a person's death is he or she referred to in speech and print as "The late . . . "? In the past several months I've heard Richard Nixon called "the late President Nixon" and John Fitzgerald Kennedy called "the late President Kennedy."

Dan Michau
College Park, Md.

death picture I can even show you references to "the late George Washington": "the sort of observance normally set aside to commemorate the birth dates of the late George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr." (American Spectator) and "belatedly paying Alaska's respects to the late George Washington" (Washington Post). In these contexts late is silly. We all know that President Washington is dead. In fact, as is clear from the preponderance of uses of late in the media, what readers or hearers can be expected to know is the point. Late turns up where people are likely to need a little nudge to recall that the person in question has died. Where context, or simply people's pre-existing mental furnishings, can be relied on to provide the information, late is pointless; that's why it rarely appears in obituaries. I can, though, imagine situations in which "the late George Washington" would be apropos. Here's one: "In 1800 the reputation of the late George Washington was . . . " Even if we can all be expected to know that Washington is long gone, we might be grateful for a hint about how early he left.

penguins picture My father and my aunt, both wise, well-informed, and mature adults, are engaged in an intense discussion about the shortened form of tuxedo. One says the correct word is tuck, and the other vehemently disagrees. Please help us resolve this minor but lingering point.

Sharon Jaffe
Blackwood, N.J.

English isn't like arithmetic, where if one answer is right, the others have to be wrong. My unabridged dictionary gives both tuck and tux .

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, 745 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@aol.com.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Word Court; Volume 277, No. 1; page 116.

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