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Word Court
by Barbara Wallraff

healthful cow Now that the Food and Drug Administration has imposed regulations concerning the use of the word healthy in describing meat and poultry products, I suppose it spells the end of healthful. Apparently, healthy does not mean, as we might expect, that the animal was fit and disease-free prior to slaughter; it means that the food product does not exceed certain fat, sodium, or cholesterol limits per serving. Healthful's demise was inevitable after both Barney and Cookie Monster extolled the virtues of "healthy food" on public television. Barney, being a tyrannosaur, may have used the word in its true meaning, however, for I doubt that he would enjoy eating, say, a leprous elk.

Daniel S. Blinn
Glastonbury, Conn.

I myself like to observe the distinction you make, on the grounds that where it is easy to denote a difference in meaning with different word forms, well, why not do it? All the same, healthy has been used in the sense of "conducive to good health" for some four centuries. In this it is no more protean than many other adjectives that no one complains about. Think of "happy child" and "happy hour," or "harebrained person" and "harebrained scheme," or "heavenly host" and "heavenly hash," or "honest Abe" and "honest mistake."


They turned their heads What rule on noun number applies when the possibilities become messy or even ludicrous, as in the following examples? "They turned their heads to see us better." (How many heads does each have?) "Both men relied heavily on their wives." (Bigamists both?)

Martin Mitchell
New York, N.Y.

Some may find it obvious that if there's a plural subject and something to be paired with the individual entities making up that subject -- usually, though not always, after a plural possessive pronoun ("They . . . their") -- this other noun must be plural too: "They" all have heads, and so it must be "They turned their heads," and so on. But let's say a man has his pride, and a woman has her pride too. "They have their prides"? Surely not.

The general rules are these: When the noun in question describes an abstract or uncountable entity, like pride or vitality, it ought to be singular. Sometimes nouns that one may think of as concrete and countable will turn out to be abstract in context ("They taught school"; "They were held hostage"). When one is at pains to make clear that the individuals in the subject are to be paired one apiece with the persons, places, or things in question, the number of the noun can't be relied on to make the point, and other clues must be given ("Each of the bigamists relied heavily on his wives"). But it is usually either obvious or beside the point how many of the things are to be paired with the individuals in the subject, and then one needn't scruple to use the plural ("Like lightning, the models changed their dresses and stockings and shoes, and, zipping their zippers and buttoning their buttons, bolted back to the runway"). This is the rule, it seems to me, that really applies to your wives -- and your heads. Whenever these rules seem to be suggesting a ridiculous wording ("The tenants refused to pay their rents"), don't follow them. It's rarely difficult to recast the sentence to avoid trouble ("The tenants refused to pay rent").


persona non gratis I just heard a presumably well-paid TV personality refer to himself as "persona non gratis." I thought it was very funny under the circumstances, but when he repeated it, I was embarrassed for him. What should one do? If improper usage were crooked seams on stockings or spinach in the teeth of a lunchmate, a real friend would say something. If it were a physical handicap, it would be too personal for a mere acquaintance to address. But what if it's a professional handicap? Is it worse to embarrass someone once or let them do it repeatedly for themselves?

J. Chanse
Oakland, Calif.

Someone who has already embarrassed himself will not thank you for pointing it out. And yet you might rather the other person at least heard the right form, and so had the chance to learn by example. The trick is to work it into what you have to say as if you hadn't noticed anything wrong with the other person's version. Maybe you should send your television personality a letter that says something like "I want you to know you're hardly persona non grata in this household!"


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 Mark Matcho

Copyright © 1997 by Barbara Walraff. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1997; Word Court; Volume 279, No. 5; page 124.

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