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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

hyphen free Could you please explain the history of using free as a free-standing adjectival suffix? For example, sugar free, lead free, and smoke free seem to have entered our language within my lifetime, probably in the past two decades. When I was a child, I never heard these terms, and people said sugarless (as in gum) or unleaded (as in gasoline). The euphemistic Smoke Free seems to have replaced the simple imperative No Smoking (though chewing tobacco is still called smokeless). Likewise, fat free (which means there's absolutely no fat) is used in place oflean (meaning less fat than you're used to).

The first coinage of this type I heard of (in a magazine article, years back, recounting a courageous public protest by German wives against government orders for the deportation of their Jewish husbands, which ultimately persuaded the regime to back down) was Goebbels's
"Jew free," as in "Making Berlin Jew Free" in time for Hitler's birthday in 1943. If this is indeed the etymological origin of the free suffix, shouldn't its unsavory genesis deter us from using it today in polite discourse?

William J. Kammerer
Columbus, Ohio
Related feature:

Word Fugitives
Help The Atlantic's Barbara Wallraff track down words that don't yet exist -- but should. An interactive column. Also browse the Court Record of retirees from the 10 Most Wanted list.

What do you say we blame the Nazis for the important things and leave them out of this? For one thing, carefree, duty-free, and fancy-free were, respectively, part of our language some 100, 200, and 300 years before Hitler was born. For another, I don't think we need look any further than our own nation's advertising and marketing departments for an explanation of the explosion of frees. If you were writing an ad or deciding what to put on new packaging, which word would you choose: free or no? The fact that free is often seen without the hyphen that you or I might prefer is additional evidence for this origin. Contrary to nature, which abhors a vacuum, advertisers and marketers abhor a hyphen and will write sugar free and sodium free and caffeine free without giving it a second thought. Are they guilt free or guilt-free? You decide.

A demon that haunts me is the use of data as a singular noun. I realize this is a losing battle, but I still would like to see a few more shots fired from my side. When I first encountered this usage, it was from people I thought of as illiterates, and I was inclined to write them off. Now I see it in daily newspapers as well as in technical journals. It's wrong, wrong, wrong, and I implore you to say so in public.

Andrew T. Young
San Diego, Calif.

data All right: using data as a singular is wrong, wrong, wrong. It's also unnecessary, because the word works fine as a plural, and because we have alternatives to it, such as the plural statistics and the singular information. But people keep getting data wrong because their English-speakers' ears don't necessarily hear the Latin -a ending as plural. Even the plurals of some words ending in -um that come to us from or via Latin are now typically formed in English with an s: albums, condominiums, gymnasiums, mausoleums, stadiums, and vacuums are examples that come to mind. And agenda is a onetime plural that is now almost invariably regarded as singular, having the plural agendas. Be that as it may, "The datums are in" of course sounds much worse than "The data is in."

"Very few data are in," I have to admit, sounds hokey -- less idiomatic, certainly, than "Very little data is in." The word is trying to sneak into the singular category by devious routes. I myself would not say either one of those sentences, but I fear that the data aren't all in yet on data.

was because The other day I heard my usually well-spoken son say, "The reason was because ... " I said, "Oh, no. The reason was that ... " Since then I have heard and seen "The reason was because ... " in many places: on TV and even in an English mystery novel. But it does not seem correct to me, and I was happy, recently, to hear Alan Greenspan say, "The reason was that ... "

Perhaps I am living in the past (I am ninety-three), and am not au courant with modern colloquialisms.

Margaret Weiler
Chelmsford, Mass.

The reason is because is a notorious little waste of words, no purpose being served by using both reason and because to explain oneself. It's not so much a colloquialism as an oversight. The reason people so often say this is that they don't think back to what they've already said. Or perhaps they say it because they don't think ahead.

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.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by Edward Briant

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Word Court; Volume 283, No. 5; page 132.

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