In Saturday's paper, we published a news story that said a judge had ordered the owners of the Alaskan oil pipeline to refund $725 million in excessive charges. Our headline was: Refund Is Ordered By the Owners of Alaskan Pipeline
A reader asked, "Was the refund ordered by the owners, or by the judge? Your headline says it was ordered by the owners."
Touche! We goofed.
Alvin Guttag found this headline misleading: President's Threat To Boycott Olympics Strongly Opposed
"It is only upon reading the article," Alvin protested, "that you discover it is the officials involved in the Olympics who are opposed. These are people with an axe to grind."
I think Alvin's criticism is valid.
Fran Jones clipped two letters to the editor from teachers. One referred first to "secondary school teachers," then to hyphenated "secondary-school teachers."
Which would I prefer? I'd prefer the hyphen, to emphasize that "secondary-school" modifies "teachers." Otherwise, with current dictionaries decreeing that schoolteacher is one word, "secondary schoolteachers" might convey a different meaning than that intended.
The other teacher's letter contained the words, ". . . only those kind of children and those kind of situations." I wish I had a dollar for every American who has difficulty with singulars and plurals in that kind of construction (or those kinds of constructions).
Points of this kind are not mere nit-picking. A human being's ability to communicate intricate and detailed information from one mind to another is one of the things that set him apart from animals. Bees can tell other bees where to find honey, but they can't build a computer. One of their problems is that they have not developed a precise language.
Syd Kasper was distressed to see that one of our news stories carried an italic shirttail that said, "Also contributing to this story was staff writer Athelia Knight and Phil Maness." The comic strip Apartment 3-G evoked a comment from Syd when one character said to another, "Across the street, where that man's standing who looks like he's Secret Service."
Syd asked, "You mean the man who sells apples on the corner of 17th and K at 35 cents each's brother?"
About a dozen individuals are recognized by the public as "authorities" on our language. A handful of books can be cited in disputes about usage.
Writers tend to speak in hushed reverence about authorities with whom they agree, and to regard those with whom they disagree as bumptious upstarts. That's fine, in a way. This is a free country; it is appropriate that our language should be free to change with the times.
However, until change is accepted by a literate majority, it remains an aberration. To find out what has been accepted and what has not, we consult our authorities.
For this purpose, I recommend Roy H. Copperud's latest work, "American Usage and Style -- The Consensus" (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 433 pp., $14.95). This book revises, brings up to date, and consolidates Copperud's previous invaluable work aimed at saving students of usage the time it would otherwise take to compare the views of our most respected experts.
For example: When Edward J. Ganley of Fairfax challenged the use of "loan" as a verb, I agreed with him completely. The bank does not loan you money. It lends you money. It makes a loan to you.
But many authorities now accept usages like, "Loan me $10." So, to ascertain the consensus quickly, I turned to Copperud's new book (which is so new that it might not be in your favorite store yet, but is a book worth asking for and waiting for).
Here's what I found: "The idea that loan is not good form as a verb is superstition. . . . It is recognized as standard by dictionaries; one critic recognizes its legitimacy but recommends lends ; another calls it a needless variant . . . The consensus is overwhelmingly that it is beyond reproach, though still the object of occasional criticism. Loan is perhaps encouraged by the curious avoidance of the past tense of lend, that is, lent."
Bah, humbug! But authorities are also right at times. One reader said he would like to see Washington Post writers to use persuade and convince properly, as in, "Can I persuade you not to use my name in the paper?" In this case, Copperud and his colleagues were on the side of the angels.
"The displacement of 'persuade' by 'convince' flouts idiom," he writes. One is convinced "of" a fact, or convinced "that" it is so. He is not convinced "to" anything. He is persuaded to, or not to.
For fuller treatment of the matter, I hope (not "hopefully") you will consult the authorities quoted in Roy's book.