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Subtle Changes

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This theory got a jolt on March 16 when the New York Times published a story about a conflict between those who are administering the literary estate of Graham Greene and a library where many of Greene's papers are stored.

The NYT article bore the headline "A Literary Battle That May Hang by a Comma." The comma in question was inserted by Greene when he was dying. He changed the sentence "I Graham Greene grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorized biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished." Green put a comma between other and to.

The legal question now is whether Greene meant to make the sentence convey the wish that Norman Sherry was to be his only authorized biographer and other researchers working on other parts of the Greene legacy could see the papers, or whether the papers could be kept for Sherry's use alone. Ink, if not blood, is now being shed on the meaning of the sentence with the comma, and, so far, no other researchers have been granted access.One word or two?

A reader asks whether we will follow USA Today's lead in making cell phone into one word — cellphone like telephone. The consolidation of two words into one is among the most frequent changes in usage. Witness: on-line which now, even according to AP, is online.

Rosie was taught "when in doubt write solid." But in the real world of copy editing (two words) the answers aren't so easy to come by.

AP has considered making cell phone one word, but according to the Stylebook editor, has not done so yet. But Webster's New World College Dictionary, which is the final word when AP doesn't give us a rule, has made it cellphone. This is a big change from the Riverside Webster's II New College Dictionary published in 1995. This book didn't even include cell phone, defining only cellular telephone. The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (1998) makes it one word.

Trying to catch our changing language as it changes is like trying to catch a minnow with your hands, but Rosie is willing to bet that it is only a matter of a little time before cell phone becomes cellphone in all our dictionaries.

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