It gives me pleasure to note that The Washington Post's readers have a lively interest in the English language. Before this space passes into younger hands on Monday, let me share with you soem of the letters about English usage that have arrived recently.
At the conclusion of a recent column I wrote, "I just wish my computer was smart enough to recognize inadvertent errors and correct them."
Nineteen readers informed me that I should have written "I wish my computer were smart enough." They were probably right. Even usage authorities who insist on "were" concede that the use of the subjunctive has been on the decline for many years. However, "were" would have been preferable, if only to avoid annoyance to those who are not yet ready to abandon use of the subjunctive.
In another column I wrote about a "spectacular accident." Mrs. A. L. Piercy of Gordonsville, Va., wrote, "I certainly wish you would pick your adjectives a little more carefully to describe a tragic accident as 'spectacular' is in really poor taste. My dictionary describes 'spectacular' as (1) making a great display, and (2) pertaining to a spectacle or show." My own dictionary adds, "unusual to a striking degree."
In still another column, I wrote that I had been surprised to learn about something. Lillian Clements of Hyattsville reminded me of the story about lexicographer Noah Webster, whose wife caught his kissing the maid. "Noah!" the wife excalimed, "I'm surprised."
Whereupon Noah is alleged to have replied, "No, my dear. I am surprised. You are astonished."
Whereupon Noah is alleged to have replied, "No, my dear. I am surprised.
You are astonished."
Syd Kasper of Silver Spring objected to a Style article that described a woman as "pale complected." Complected is listed in many dictionaries as dialectal or colloquial. Complexioned is preferred.
Edward K. Bryant of Chevy Chase raised an eyebrow when a letter to the editor contained a reference to a memorandum that the writer "recently accessioned into the National Archives." I had never seen the usage, but when I looked it up in Webster's New World Dictionary I found it listed as an acceptable Americanism. As a verb, accession means "to record (a book etc.) as a new accession." I don't like it.
Mary Jacqueline Verrett received a D.C. dog tag renewal form that said: "The renewal enclose (sic ) reflects a charge of $5 for male and spaded female dogs. If your female dog is six months or older and not spaded, the cost for a dog tag is $25. Please provide documentation of such spading with your renewal."
The word that should have been used is "spayed." To spay is to sterilize a female animal be removing its ovaries. The error is quite common, and I saw it frequently during the years I published giveaway listings.
Another common error results from the inability of Americans to remember the difference between grisly (ghastly) and grizzly (as in grizzly bear). However, Lt. Col. A. W. George of Petersburg, Va., found a less familiar mix-up in one of our restaurant reviews. It referred to veal that was "grizzly and dry" and beef that was "full of grizzle." I assume the beef contained gristle and the copy editor's head contained wool, or was on vacation.
Donald L. Miller of Wheaton asks, "Can you explain the proper usage of that and which ?
Perhaps, but not in the space available here. However, the following may be of limited help:
We use "which" far too often, and it is usually wrong. If "that" fits comfortably, it is probably right."That" introduces a restrictive clause and is not set off by commas, e.g.: "The box that I lifted." "Which" introduces an explanatory and nonrestrictive clause, and is set off by commas, e.g.: "The box, which was empty, didn't weigh much." There's much more to be said on the subject, but is you master that much you'll do better than most writers -- even some professionals.
Mary S. Fawcett of Boyds is weary of seeing less used where fewer is required, and I am in hearty agreement. R. E. Howe of Bethesda wishes people would stop writing and saying "an historic," and so do I. And who can question Samuel J. Rosenberg's comment that the improper placement of only may be the most common error of all? We insist on saying, "He only makes $15,000 a year" instead of "He makes only $15,000 a year." Only belongs just before the element it modifies.