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Word Court -- July 1996

Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Of late I have been meeting up with the use of thanks to in contexts like these: "A three-stall car wash was missing one wall thanks to the rushing waters of the Delaware" and "We will continue to have . . . escalating crime thanks to children who grow up in combat zones." These may not be grammatical errors but they strike me as illogical uses of the phrase. Whatever happened to due to?

J. Nina Lieberman
Woodstock, N.Y.

Where blame is more to the point than gratitude, thanks to is indeed out of place. However, there are traditional limits on the use of due to that keep it from being an all-purpose solution to the problem. A noun is allowed to be due to a noun ("The need to repair the car wash is due to the storm"), but a clause may not be due to a noun ("The car wash needs repairs due to the storm"). It's usually possible to revise one's sentence to conform to the rule. But changing due to--or thanks to--to owing to or because of is almost always the simplest solution.

Why is owing to allowed where due to is not? It has been in use much longer in such prepositional contexts, due having been nothing more than an ordinary adjective ("Repairs are certainly due") a century ago. Those precisians who fifty or thirty years ago denounced the preposition due to as an arriviste have tainted its reputation.

After a waiter sets a plate of food before me at a restaurant, the last word to leave his mouth before he walks away is "Enjoy!" This seems to be catching on everywhere. I went to the doctor for a pulled tendon. Handing me a prescription and my bill, he said, "Enjoy!" Isn't enjoy, when used in the imperative, a reflexive verb requiring a pronoun or noun, as in Enjoy yourself?

Steve Saunders
Oxford, Conn.

What if the waiter said "Enjoy your meal"? This perfectly correct sentence establishes that enjoy can be used transitively (with a direct object), as well as in the reflexive way (with a direct object that is the same as the subject) that you note. The Oxford English Dictionary gives several citations for intransitive uses as well, including an evocative one from 1549 that reads, "Yet he neuer enioied after, but in conclusyon pitifully wasted his painful lyfe."

Grammar, then, isn't the problem. Could the problem be that the waiter is telling you what to do? And that you consider it the restaurant's job to provide an enjoyable experience and your prerogative to decide whether the restaurant has succeeded? And that it therefore seems presumptuous for an employee to be commanding you, "Enjoy!"? As for your doctor, could the problem be that you really would have been interested to know which he expected you to enjoy: the pulled tendon or paying the bill? But now we have strayed into the realm of psychology, and that's not my department.

My boss and I have a recurring battle over the use of try and, which she insists should be try to. She contends that to try and do something means to achieve the goal, and is therefore incorrect; but to try to do something doesn't predict success and is therefore proper. I argue that to try and do something clearly indicates one's hope for success, and is therefore proper. Who is right?

Steve Bone
Halifax, N.S.

You are--and won't the boss be surprised when you casually remark, one day soon, that try and do better and the like are examples of hendiadys, a device that was not infrequently used as a poetic ornament in Greek and Latin. Hendiadys, as H. W. Fowler explains it, is "the expressing of a compound notion by giving its two constituents as though they were independent and connecting them with a conjunction instead of subordinating one to the other." Nice and warm (as against nicely warm) is another example Fowler gives of the device as it crops up in English.

I have assembled quite a stack of newspaper and magazine clippings that employ the phrase "high school degree." It annoys me very much when I see this instead of "high school diploma." I didn't know that high schools were degree-granting institutions.

Betty D. Krueger
Sarasota, Fla.

Good point. I suspect this is one of the many things that aren't being taught in high school anymore. And while we're at it: another reader, Irene Slaughter, of Asheville, North Carolina, has written to object to "She graduated high school"--also a good point. Graduate may be transitive ("The school graduated her with honors") but the graduating institution isn't allowed to be the object of the verb.

Have you recently had a dispute about language which 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; July, 1996; Word Court; Volume 278, No. 1; page 112.

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