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Word Court
by Barbara Wallraff

Miss Genericity A friend and I sat on my balcony one night just talking, and at one point I attempted to say that I was a fan of genericness -- that's the word that came out of my mouth. It seems to me that some such term -- genericness or genericity or genericticity -- should exist. Is there one? If not, I hereby dub genericticity the all-encompassing noun form of generic.

Michael Reilly
Austin, Texas

Some people like to have a gadget for every purpose in their kitchens; others would rather make do with basic, versatile tools, particularly if they only rarely need, say, a vol-au-vent template or a cake saw. By the same token, maybe you often find yourself discussing generic things or generic qualities and will use your word a lot (if so, do note that -nessand -ity, but not -ticity, appear in dictionaries as suffixes meaning "quality; state"). Or maybe you don't, and won't (in which case you could have said you're a fan of the generic). Of course, coining a word is only the first step toward introducing it into the language, just as patenting a gadget only begins to make a place for it in our culture. It's up to people in the aggregate to decide whether there's a need for the invention and whether it will endure.
Discuss this article in the Language forum of Post & Riposte.


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Iam bothered by the increasing misuse among Chicago newscasters of the noun suspect. The word is an important protection for a person suspected but not yet convicted of a crime. No doubt the statement "A man has
been stabbed and the police are searching for
suspects" (when they have no idea who that might be) is meant as bending over backwards to be fair. But doesn't it tend to undermine the very principle of "innocent until proven guilty" by making suspect a synonym for perpetrator?

Ruth F. Hanke
Chicago, Ill.

A spokesperson for the National Association ofSuspect? Chiefs of Police and representatives of the legal profession agree with you that suspect can be insidious. The paradox is that although the police are indeed searching for perpetrators and killers and so on, anyone they arrest will necessarily be merely a suspect until he or she is found guilty of the crime.

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My critics tell me that because I was born in 1914, I am old-fashioned and not in tune with current usage. But how can I be complacent when reporters and talk-show hosts seem unable to differentiate between nouns and verbs? For example, "a good read" or "your take on this."

J. Ramsey Speer
Washington, N.C.

English has always allowed verbs to be pressed into service as nouns, and nouns as verbs. The linguist Otto Jespersen, in his seminal Growth and Structure of the English Language (published nine years before you were born), called the "freedom with which a form which was originally a verb is used unchanged as a substantive" a "characteristic peculiarity" of our language, and he even gave some instances of words exhibiting a "curious oscillation .. between noun and verb." Frame, for example, was initially a verb, meaning "to form"; then it became a noun meaning a "border," as in "picture frame"; and from there the verb acquired the new meaning "to put a frame around."

Nonetheless, it's your choice when you will begin to accept recently adapted words -- and which ones. The verbs to gift, to impact, and to parent, notably, as well as the nouns take and read, are widely disliked -- and who needs them? To fax and to Rollerblade are almost inevitable coinages, though, because the activities they describe are new, and new language must be found for them. Beyond such practical considerations lie matters of taste. With language we all communicate not only what we're trying to say but also how trendy or traditional we are.

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Recently, when I was student-teaching in an eighth-grade classroom, my cooperating teacher and I had a falling-out over the spelling of all right. I had read that it was okay to use the less formal spelling, alright, in works of fiction, and was allowing my students to use this spelling in their short stories. All RightWhen my cooperating teacher discovered this, she nearly blew a gasket, insisting that there is only one correct spelling: all right. Since this incident I have repeatedly seen alright in movie titles, headlines, and stories. Is alright all right to use informally?

Lisa Biggar
Flagstaff, Ariz.

The last time I looked into it, eighth-graders didn't seem to need any help in expressing themselves informally. But they'll never learn the grown-up, relatively formal, standard modes of expression unless they are taught them. Alright is emphatically not standard English.


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, MA02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Illustrations by Amanda Duffy
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; Word Court; Volume 280, No. 1; page 116.

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