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Word Court
by Barbara Wallraff

"Near miss" Would you please discuss near miss to describe the non-collision of planes or other objects? Near hit or close call would be accurate, because there was, after all, a miss.

Ray Mueller
Chilton, Wis.

Dictionaries now tend to give near miss an entry of its own, because the meaning of the expression is indeed not apparent from the meanings of its component words. It's in there all the same: near means not only "almost a," as in near replica, but also "a particularly intimate kind of," as in near relative. The latter, less common sense of the word is the one that pertains in near miss.

I have been bothered lately by writers, especially those of scientific articles, comparing objects in terms of negative qualities. For example, a certain star will be described as ten times fainter than another. Unless this is a convention agreed upon lately, I just can't think what it could mean. How much faintness does a star have, and if another has ten times as much, how bright does that make it? Or if one star is one time fainter than another, wouldn't that make it have zero brightness?

Melvin F. Moore
Jackson, Tenn.
Discuss this feature in the Language forum of Post & Riposte.
"Brighter than" Even when the quality in question isn't negative, the construction you're referring to is a bad idea. Think of ten times brighter, for example. We all know what that's supposed to mean, but then what's one time brighter? You'd think it would mean twice as bright -- so ten times brighter must be eleven times as bright? This way madness lies. Ten times as bright as is how it needs to be said, and making such a revision is usually painless. As you note, when the quality is negative, it only makes matters worse. A tenth as bright is much, much clearer than ten times fainter.

A member of the Friday Night Couples League at the Wenham Country Club, on Boston's North Shore, had a hole in one on the third hole and another on the fifth. Did he have two holes in one or two hole in ones? One of us believes that the pattern should be the same as in attorneys general and passersby. The other disagrees, believing that holes in one would indicate that the golfer gained multiple holes in one shot. A Diet Coke has been wagered on this, and we have agreed that Ms. Grammar shall be the final authority.

Nelson Benton
Peabody, Mass.
Dan Ryan
Beverly, Mass.

I admit I explained this past May that we needn't consider men who rely on their wives to be bigamists, and in fact, if they relied on their wife, then she would be one. But sometimes it's just impossible to match all parts of a sentence or a phrase in terms of grammatical or conceptual number. Or, rather, in trying to match them one may run afoul of some other rule, and then, usually, that rule should hold sway. Here the rule is that the main noun itself, and not incidentals attached to it, is pluralized. Even RBIs, when they're spelled out, become runs batted in. Holes in one is correct, at least technically.

I must admit, though, that to say "two holes in one" is to ask to be misunderstood. There simply must be some other way to say it. How about "a hole in one twice" -- and two glasses of Coke?

President Bill Clinton is fond of telling us he will "grow the economy," and now other bureaucrats use the phrase. Corporate types are checking in with a "need to grow our business." "Growing the economy"What they mean, of course, is expand the economy or business. Although their usage may conform to a literal definition of grow, to my ear it sounds straight out of Dogpatch. What do you think?

Jeffery Viles
Columbia, Mo.

This isn't something that we can blame President Clinton for. Grow has been cropping up hither and yon for at least 500 years. Nonetheless, having conducted a straw poll among young men who wear earrings as well as older ones in bow ties and women in stockings and pumps, I can say with confidence that your ear has plenty of company: the transitive verb in inanimate contexts is widely reviled. It's fine for people to grow roses or grow their hair, but they should expand or strengthen economies, businesses, and, if need be, their vocabularies.

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.

Illustration by A. J. Garces

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; "Word Court"; Volume 280, No. 5; page 167.

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