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In a Word

Rosie Right

From here and there come some interesting comments on our use of words:

Shortly after the Twin Towers-Pentagon attacks, USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro wrote that this is a "time of self-censors, a quest for the right words." He discussed the effect of 9-11 on our lives and also on our language. How can we, he wrote, ever again use the phrase "blown away" or say that we are going to wait until "the dust clears"?

Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate, in a very funny November column lamented the loss of the verb "to be" in all its various forms. Instead, he says, a new verb form is "taking the place of such cherished words as 'is,' 'are,' 'am,' and even 'were' and 'was': a new verb form that you might call the one-size-fits-all past, present and future participle. Or you might call it the one-size-fits-all past, present and future gerund."

To illustrate, he takes Lou Dobbs of CNN's "Money Line News Hour" to task for saying, "Top government officials today adding their voices to the call for Americans to remain vigilant."

Kinsley quotes other examples and then finishes by showing what prose will look like if the tendency continues: "Where it all ending? God knowing tonight. … "

Michael Quinion, of online WorldWide Words has reviewed the new collection of essays (Harcourt, $14) from the quarterly Verbatim. Verbatim has been published since 1974 and is read by word mavens mostly in the United States and Britain.

Mr. Quinion found the collection so fascinating that it made a train journey seem short. He recommends it to anyone who would like to read such chapters as "Sexual Intercourse in American College Dictionaries," "Thunderboxes and Chuggies," "British Football Chants," "Nullspeak: A Question of Rotating Strawberry Madonnas," and "Never Ask a Uruguayan Waitress for a Little Box: She Might Apply Her Foot to Your Eyelet."

He says, "If you wish to find out what these tantalising titles refer to, you'll just have to buy the book. But in tasting my way through the text during what would otherwise have been a boring rail journey, many things jumped out at me. Erin McKean described what she calls McKean's Law: 'Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.'" To this, Quinion added "(Amen, sister)."

WorldWide Words can be found at

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