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Word Court -- September 1996

by Barbara Wallraff

wordct2 picture After friends ridiculed me for sounding the t in valet (as in valet parkers) instead of saying "vaLAY," I consulted four dictionaries. All say that the first pronunciation is "VALit," the second is "VALay," and "vaLAY" is a poor third. Shall I continue according to the dictionary and be laughed at -- or what?

Carol Valentine
Santa Barbara, Calif.

You raise a difficult issue. I don't believe that I have ever heard any American pronounce the t in valet -- although many people from the land of Jeeves and The Remains of the Day do. Nonetheless, that t appears in the first pronunciations in five of six American dictionaries and one Australian one that I consulted for you. (The exception is the Random House Unabridged of 1993.)

No matter how one pronounces words with conspicuously foreign origins, some people will make fun. A person is more likely to be ridiculed, though, for doing the opposite of what you did: for, say, gargling and snorting in an attempt to articulate "au gratin." In a case like that I would gently explain to the speaker that many English words are borrowed from other tongues, and that most of them quickly become Americanized -- as evidenced by the all-American first pronunciations given in our dictionaries.

What dictionaries declare nearly unanimously is nearly ipso facto correct. And so you may hold your head high as you say "VALit" -- and keep it high throughout the exchange that will inevitably follow, and while you perhaps also pull a couple of dictionaries out of your bag and show them around to prove your point. You might prefer, though, to consign "VALit" to the same category as "It is I" as an answer to "Who's there?" We all know that's correct, but we may still choose to be wrong, out of a wish not to seem to be flaunting our superior knowledge.


I keep bumping into constructions like "He treats not the sick but the well" in which the writers have inserted commas before the not or before the but, or both. My intuition tells me that they are attempting to make a parenthetical remark out of a construction that will not accept it. But aren't they really just separating the grammatical object from the verb?

G. M. Foglesong
Livermore, Calif.

Yes, indeed. A pair of commas around a phrase often amounts to a detour sign, indicating that the main line of the sentence will resume on the other wordct3 picture side of the phrase. But if one sets off "not the sick" with commas, then the main line of the sentence reads "He treats but the well" -- a bit of a garble. Worse still is the lone comma either before or after a not phrase. This causes not just an ill-conceived detour but a derailment, for the reader is pushed off the track and never shown where to pick it up again.

Please note that not and but sometimes turn up together in constructions different from the one in your example, and then a comma may be wanted. For example, "His bedside manner was not all it could have been, but at least he rarely lost his patients."


When I served as secretary of the organization in question, I had occasion to write the sentence "The Friends of the USS Massachusetts (BB-2) is proud to . . ." I thought that was perfectly correct, as I was speaking for the organization as a whole and not for individual members. However, others saw it differently and said that are should have been used instead of is. Which is the correct usage? The old battleship is peaceful and harmless, but sometimes I didn't think our members were. Help!

James C. Coleman
Pensacola, Fla.

Two issues are involved in a question like this. First, is the sense of the noun staunchly plural, staunchly singular, or open to either wordct1 picture interpretation? Of course one wouldn't say "Friends are my favorite TV show" -- here the word is the name of the show much more than it is a reference to plural persons. But you were a Friend of the USS Massachusetts, weren't you? And weren't at least some of the Friends friends of yours? So your Friends at least sometimes acted plural.

Second, which construction sounds more natural? This criterion is why the Rolling Stones and Hootie & the Blowfish tend to be referred to in the plural, whereas Abba, Pearl Jam, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra tend to be singular.

Having made a general decision about how to treat a given name -- and in the case of your Friends, I would vote for using the plural -- one may yet admit exceptions. The only thing that is definitely not allowed is for a given instance of "Friends" to be singular and plural at the same time: "I would think the Friends was a friendly organization even if they weren't in agreement with me."


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.

Illustrations by Rollin McGrail

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; Word Court; Volume 278, No. 3; page 116.

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