Word Court

Illustrations by Michael Klein

A is friends with the mayor's wife." I couldn't believe my eyes. In fact, when I went to look up the citation in print to send it to you, it had been changed to "She is a good friend of ... " Did "The World's Greatest Newspaper" get it wrong in the first place, or did it fix something that wasn't broken?

Joe Madden

For purposes of looking into word histories, surely the Oxford English Dictionary is the World's Greatest Dictionary, and it contains citations for forms of be friends with that date back as far as Shakespeare: "I am good Friends with my Father" is in Henry IV. The revised edition of the OED, now in progress, will have a lot more on this issue; unfortunately, the new scholarship about friend that Oxford's lexicographers have been amassing won't be publicly available for quite a while.

Starting next month the first sliver of the OED's updated text, consisting of about 800 revised entries and 200 new ones, will be published online (at www.oed.com), together with all the 298,000 other entries in the current edition. From then on, four times a year another sliver of updated text will appear, until the revised edition is complete, supposedly in 2010.

I asked the dictionary's principal philologist, Edmund Weiner, if he had anything to share in advance about the quirky be friends with idiom. Usage, he explained, seems in the sixteenth century to have slipped from make [someone] a friend to such less logical constructions as hold friends with, make friends to, and be friends with. By now most of these except make friends with and be friends with have dropped out of use. The revised edition will demonstrate the progression in some detail, Weiner avers, though the OED has yet to array all the evidence, because the deadline for communicating it to the OED's readership isn't exactly pressing.

Illustrations by Michael KleinE would have done x ... " instead of "I wish I had," or "If I would have done x ... " instead of "If I had." It strikes me as grammatically wrong, but I am at a loss for a technical explanation of why it is -- or isn't -- a mistake. I wish I had taken an English grammar course more recently than eighth grade!

Holly Nesbeitt

An assertion that contains would have is contingent on something. For instance, "I would have washed it if ..." something else had or hadn't happened -- "if I had known you were going to eat it," let's say. But how can the event on which our contingency rests be contingent as well -- "if I would have known you were going to eat it"? (In your mind, strip away the if from that and consider what "I would have known ... " by itself means, and the problem will be obvious.) Similarly, contingency is bound up in the very idea of a wish, as in your first example, so following wish with would have is in effect redundant: good grammar calls for "I wish I had known you were going to eat it."

I suspect that when would have appears in an if clause and the if clause precedes the main clause, as in your second example, the speaker or writer has made the mistake by thinking ahead to the contingent part. I've heard at least two other explanations, though, for why this mistake is as common as it is. Possibly some people who have heard such contractions as "If I'd seen you in time, I'd have stopped you" have gotten the first 'd, which stands for had, garbled in their minds with the second one, which stands for would. Or possibly people are extrapolating from could have, which (because its underlying verb, can, behaves differently from would's underlying will) isn't necessarily wrong in similar constructions -- say, "If I could have washed it, I would have."

Illustrations by Michael Klein

W alleger or as an allegator. A person who drives is a driver, but one who conserves is a conservator, so there does not seem to be a clear rule. If allegator is chosen, the question of pronunciation will of course arise: should it be "allege-ator," as the origin of the word suggests, or "alle-gator," which defendants and lawyers would probably prefer?

Charles M. Selby

Both words exist, though alleger is more common and allegator doesn't seem to be gaining on it. Allegator joined the language together with allegation, as conservator did with conservation. The problem with it is exactly that it is pronounced like the fellow with the jaws and the sharp teeth. May I render a snap judgment? Go with alleger.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the author of

Illustrations by Michael Klein.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Word Court - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 108.