Despite my reminders that I am merely a lover of language, not an authority on how it should be used, readers continue to send me questions about grammar and usage.
Their reason for turning to me may be that books and periodicals that deal with usage seem remote, and quicker answers can be obtained from one who works for a daily newspaper.
Whatever their reason, I welcome such letters because my own education is enhanced when I am forced to turn to recognize authorities for answers.
For the record, my favorite authorities, in alphabetical order, are Theodore M. Bernstein, Margaret M. Bryant, Roy H. Copperud, Bergen and Cornelia Evans, Rudolph Flesch, Wilson Follett and H. W. Fowler.
Today's first question is from G. J. Bodoh who wants to know whether it is correct to use either with more than two choices. For example, is it correct to say, "Either of the three alternatives is acceptable"?
In his useful book American Usage: The Consensus," Copperud reports that either with more than two "is considered abnormal usage by Bernstein, rare but standard by Bryant and Evans, questionable by the American Heritage Dictionary and loose by Fowler."
For good measure, we might note that older dictionaries were loath to accept alternatives with more than two. In 1941, Merriam-Webster defined the word as "a choice of two (or, loosely, several) things." By 1965, loosely had disappeared from the Merriam-Webster definition and it had been amended to read, "one of two or more."
As you can see, it's not merely a question of "What dictionary do you read?" but "Which edition?" The language does change.
Carolyn G. Pearce of Arlington thinks the comic strip "Mary Worth" was wrong in saying, "Ash felt very badly about the misunderstanding." She asks what the experts think.
Carolyn, the experts are all over the lot on this one.
Bernstein insists that badly can be only an adverb, so that I feel badly with the meaning Mary Worth intended is wrong. If Mary's fingertips had been damaged, she might feel badly; but when one is regretful, Bernstein says he feels bad.
However: Webster recognizes badly as an adjective in this construction. Random House describes it as informal. The Standard College Dictionary says it is in such common usage it can no longer be considered substandard. Copperud says bad and badly are now in such common use in this construction they can be considered interchangeable. Follett says badly is established colloquially but feel bad is strictly correct. American Heritage rejects feel badly in writing but accepts it in speech. Bryant finds the usage evenly divided. Flesch makes a distinction that utterly baffles me. He uses feel bad to describe physical discomfort and feel badly to describe regret.
Personally, I feel bad because of my age and I feel bad about the mistakes I make, except when I feel awful about the mistakes.
For example, James T. Taaffe and Tad Moore raised questioning eyebrows when I wrote recently that the computer terminal on which I write this column is so stupid that it does exactly what I tell it to do, even when I make an "inadvertent error." District Liner Taaffe pointed out. "The first appropriate definition in my Webster says that error is 'something incorrectly done through ignorance or carelessness, a mistake.'" Moore added, "Isn't inadvertent error redundant?"
If recognized authorities on language can straddle an issue of this kind, surely a schmo like me can do it, too. Fasten your seat belt and try to follow the gyrations of a man trying to wriggle out of a tight spot.
According to standard dictionaries, an error is "an act of ignorant or imprudent deviation." Typing hte for the is not an ignorant act, it is an unintentional deviation, an inadvertent deviation if you will permit me to say so, and that is the distinction I was trying to convey.
A man can't do much about the errors he makes because of ignorance, and the good Lord knows I make my share of them and pay the penalty for them. The industry jargon for this principle is GIGO: "Garbage In, Garbage Out." I just wish my computer was smart enough to recognize inadvertent errors and correct them.
Believe me, I feel bad about being redundant. In fact, I feel lousy.