June 2's parade of the grammar pedants {Free for All} outdid itself. Each week Free for All's experts -- "with just enough of learning to mistake" -- deploy their petards at some imaginary target and usually hoist themselves instead. A. M. Hattal and William Fogarty are no exceptions.

Hattal can be forgiven for insisting on a possessive formation like "Charles's sisters" -- he has the gritty Strunk and White on his side. But they all miss the point: "Charles' sisters" gets rid of a syllable (and a sibilant), and which version you choose depends not on some "rule" but on the rhythm of the phrase. Thus the Bible has "Jesus' disciples" (not "Jesus's disciples"), and Shakespeare begins his sonnet, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" -- "My mistress's eyes" sounds awful and doesn't scan.

But there is no forgiving Fogarty. He wants to take Jonathan Yardley's perfectly good "if ever there was a pygmy among giants, it was me" and torture it into "if every there were a pygmy among giants, it was I." He would have us exclaim, "Woe is I," and, pointing at a photo, "That's we as kids." "Roger and I" is his favorite movie, and he boasts of having once seen "The King and Me." Even if he were correct, he would not be right.

He also thinks that "if there was" is prolespeak for "if there were." But "if there was" is followed by a verb in the past tense, "if there were" by a conditional (with its intimations of futurity); if Fogarty was aware of this distinction he was not letting on.

It's nice to have so many vigilantes out there, but (as always) who will police the police?

-- Peter Brodie

The Long and Short of It

In her comments on the recent Bush-Gorbachev summit, Mary McGrory criticized Mikhail Gorbachev's speeches as "garrulous," "rambling" and "long-winded" {June 5}. Relative to the predigested, sound-bite sentence responses of George Bush, Gorbachev's speeches may appear to embody these negative qualities. However, by absolute standards, Gorbachev discourses in the old-fashioned way: he uses subordinate clauses, modifiers and long sentences to flesh out his ideas.

McGrory may call this long-winded. Others may see it as a commendable refusal to compromise oneself to please the sound-bite demands of the television medium. Is that all bad?

-- Robert V. Rinaldi

Girl Talk

Seems you need to have a talk with one of your "girls." I use the term advisedly, in view of Kathleen Kennedy Manzo's June 7 Maryland Weekly article "A First for De Matha: Girl Graduates."

It can be argued that graduating high school seniors have not yet reached adulthood, in which case the word "girl" is appropriate. But then why were other students designated as "male classmates" or "male students"? The institutions shared this semantic confusion -- the students had transferred from "a neighboring girls' school" to "all-male Catholic high school," De Matha.

Newspapers have a responsibility to acknowledge the power of words. How about one small step for equality?

-- Kathryn Simpson

Pronounced Difficulty

I write regarding Richard Chisholm's June 9 Free for All piece. Perhaps I am overlooking a diplomatic point, but I fail to understand why an English language newspaper should refer to Burma as "Myanmar."

We have perfectly good English words, readily pronounceable and with centuries of usage behind them, for many of the countries of the world. Accordingly, we don't normally speak of Sweden as "Sverige," of Greece as "Hellas," of Egypt as "Misr." In an English sentence, in an English-speaking country, Burma seems far preferable to "Myanmar" and Ceylon to "Sri Lanka."

-- Philip W. Markley


Ironically, I came across this sentence in your article about the National Spelling Bee {Metro, June 1}: "Then months of work, up in smoke because of spelling a wrong prefix." First, this sentence needs a verb. Second, a contestant may have spelled a prefix incorrectly or may have spelled the wrong prefix, but I'm quite sure no one spelled a wrong prefix. -- Alison Valtin

Oh, Dry Up, Why Don't You?

Why do I get the impression that the people who drive between 45 mph and 50 mph in the left lanes of the Beltway and refuse to move over are the same people who write those pedantic letters to Free for All? Every Saturday, Free for All is filled with letters from frustrated grammarians, paranoid feminists and people who think they're wry.

Enough already.

I have a suggestion. To the people who live to pick nits with your paper -- get a life. -- David Benson