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Rising in the world

Rosie Right

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For fun with words, it's always rewarding to spend a few moments with H.L. Mencken. Rosie opened his "American Language" this week and serendipitously found herself reading this: "The American, probably more than any other man, is prone to be apologetic about the trade he follows. He seldom believes that it is quite worthy of his virtues and talents; almost always he thinks that he would have adorned something far gaudier. "Unfortunately, it is not always possible for him to escape … so he soothes himself by assuring himself that he belongs to a superior section of his craft, and very often he invents a sonorous name to set himself off from the herd." Mencken lists some of these names: mortician for undertaker, electragist for electrical contractor, exterminating engineer for rat-catcher. First, let's set aside Mencken's use of the all-inclusive he. Women as well as men aspire to be thought of as being in a special employment status. Then, let's look at a few real-life examples from our time. How about: Associate for employee Building engineer for custodian Content architect for writer Sanitation engineer for trash collector Ministers of hospitality for ushers in a church An e-mail from a reader takes our discussion about apostrophes ( Jan.9) a step further. He says: "I expect you are familiar with the use of abbreviations when there is clearly a multiple that requires a verb change. Like: 'There's many' or: 'There's lots of' and so on." All of us have seen and heard this, and it grates. Rosie likes best the explanation she read in Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. The editors tell us: "Harder to explain, perhaps, is a long-standing propensity for there is or there's in every case, even when the following subject is clearly plural and there are no complications to cloud our minds. … "…This brings us to Jespersen's [Otto Jespersen, "A Modern Grammar on Historical Principles"] shrewd theory that there is or there's is often out - in speech or on paper — before the whole sentence is formulated." Rosie is definitely on the side of graceful and correct language, but this particular problem and its explanation remind her of an old poem: "The centipede was happy, quite Until a toad in fun Said, 'Pray, which leg goes after which?' This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run." Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1707 Summit Ave, Suite 201, Richmond Va. 23230), fax (355-9089) or e-mail repps@styleweekly.com.

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