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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Handicapped parking At the university where I work, the head of services for students with disabilities informed me that HANDICAPPED PARKING was misused to refer to parking reserved for those with handicaps, since the term "obviously" meant that the parking space had a disability. I claimed that English formed compounds like this all the time. She said not. Naturally, in the heat of the moment I was not able to think of examples. Can you give me some?

Robert S. Wachal
Iowa City, Iowa

Black colleges? An Italian neighborhood? The poor house? Handicapped is an adjective that is regularly used as a substantive, or noun -- a completely normal practice. Think of the adjectives in "Give me your tired, your poor ..." But when you put this noun-with-the-form-of-an-adjective in front of another substantive (parking), it starts looking like an adjective again. This is a quirk inherent in how our language goes together, but you're quite right that the phrase isn't wrong. Actually, I was relieved to see that your head of services wasn't agitating for signs that read PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED PARKING. Perhaps the tide of political correctness has turned.

I have noticed the increasing use of reticent in situations where I believe reluctant is intended. The gardening section of our local paper recently featured this headline: "FIG TREES PRODUCE BUMPER CROPS; RHODODENDRONS RETICENT TO BLOOM." I understand reticence as a reluctance to speak. One is reticent on a subject or one is reluctant to discuss it. Please help.

Tatiana Granoff
Los Altos, Calif.

Reluctant Rhododendron I'm with you. The time-honored meaning of reticent is indeed "quiet" or "reserved"; someone can be reticent, period, and really oughtn't to be reticent to do anything at all. But the assertion that a person is reluctant cries out for more information -- reluctant to do what? I must admit that the current, third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary gives "reluctant" as one of the meanings of reticent. However, previous editions did not. It's hard to see what's gained if the two words come to have the same meaning, and easy to see what's lost. Thus I am reluctant to accept the shift in meaning -- and not reticent about saying so.

I frequently hear educated people talking about "a limited amount of seats" or "a large amount of dollars." An inner voice immediately retorts, "number of...." Am I being haunted by the ghost of usage past?

Ed Brody
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

If it is a ghost of the past, the past isn't over! Choosing between amount, which is to say overall size of pool or heap, and number, or how many, can on occasion be tricky: "the amount of bacteria in the sample" or "the number of bacteria in the sample"? In some contexts either choice can sound wrong. For those occasions it's worth remembering that quantity can mean either thing and is a good substitute for both.

Help is needed on the word which. You sometimes hear or read a sentence like this: "I'd buy that new car if I were rich, which I'm not." This seems clearly wrong; which has no antecedent, and but would work better, assuming you need the final phrase at all, which you don't. What is bothering me about this? Somehow I think this construction is not rigorous standard English.

Thomas Ioppolo
Oak Park, Ill.

...which I'm not What ought to be bothering you is exactly what you mention: which, a relative pronoun, ought to be referring back to an antecedent noun, which in this case doesn't exist. The word is trying to refer back to the adjective rich (and in your "which you don't" it is trying to refer back to a verb along with its object), but grammatically that's not allowed, except colloquially. As you suggest, though, but -- or though or as -- would be fine.

A common variant on this problem is the likes of "I really need a new car, which annoys me," in which an entire clause is meant to be the antecedent for which. As a general rule, that's not allowed either. This, that, and it, however, being demonstrative pronouns, do not need specific antecedents, and may refer back to clauses; one may say "I really need a new car, and this [or that or it] annoys me."

Not even these formulas will work, however, if there's any ambiguity about what this, that, or it is supposed to be. For example, suppose the previous sentence had begun, "Not even this will work if there's any ambiguity ..." Readers could be expected to wonder, What's this? Where there isn't obviously one and only one answer to the question, a noun referring back (like formulas) is probably needed.

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 Monthlymagazine.

Illustrations by Adam McCauley

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Word Court; Volume 282, No. 1; page 108.

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