Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for February, 2008

Using ‘As’ as it Should be

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Barbara Zimmerman brought up a recurring question in connection with our recent Good Word mortify:

“Is it not more properly said: ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as she at the spring cotillion?’ I say that because the full version of the partially unspoken clause is ‘as she was wearing’? You wouldn’t say ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as her was wearing at the spring cotillion.’ Or at least I think you would not.”

Barbara is right, of course, I wouldn’t. But I also didn’t write “as she was wearing” but only “as her”.

The problem is that as, like most English function words, serves more than one function: it is both a preposition, which requires the objective case, and a conjunction, which requires no case at all since it introduces a full sentence. (It can also function as an adverb, by the way.) Using as as a preposition, it is perfectly fine to say things like: “as big as me”, “as round as the moon”, “as important as him”. Using it as a conjunction, we can say, “as big as I am,” “as round as the moon is,” or “as important as he is.”

So, to begin with, we can say “Portia Carr was wearing the same dress as her (Maud)” or “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing.” Both are perfectly grammatical and normal. However, it is also true that repeated phrases are consistently omitted in spoken and written English. So “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing,” may be shortened to “Portia was wearing the same dress as she was” or just “as she.” Again, either is perfectly grammatical and normal.

The issue here is not which is right or wrong but which is preferable in any given context. In most US dialects, the preposition as offers the same comparative sense as the conjunctive as, so both as she and as her are correct and acceptable.

Not all dialects outside the US allow the comparative meaning of the preposition (it has two or three others, too). This means that as her would not be acceptable or correct in those dialects. As is so often the case, the preference here boils down to which dialect we prefer—or your own personal preference.

Does Verbing Weird Things?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Maxine Davis responded to our treatment of loathe in a way we did not expect. However, she raises a point with which many other careful speakers agree. Here is her comment and my reply:

“My loathing for the verbalization of nouns makes me loathe statements such as the one about Prudence Pender’s being ‘ambulanced to the emergency room’!”

“I do realize that this annoying trend is popular; although I am loath to admit it.”

“[I am] Enjoying the good word daily.”

Where would you air a pet peeve about language but before the good Dr. Goodword? He is delighted to see that you practicing the Good Word even as you complain about his description of it.

This is a malady I cannot cure but I can explain why it occurs in English in a way it does not in other European languages. Verbing nouns (if you’ll excuse the expression) is frequently criticized these days and has been for a decade or so. As Calvin and Hobbes (I forget which) put it years ago: “Verbing weirds things.”

English encourages widespread verbing because it has so few affixes that are demanded by grammar. Nouns in most other European languages require a variety of endings whose choice depends on how they are used in the sentence.  Rules of grammar preclude those endings from being replaced by verbal endings.

English has lost most of its morphology, which includes affixation, so nothing prevents the use of nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns, or either as adjectives. (I wonder why using verbs as nouns doesn’t pique anyone: a swing, a hit, a walk, and so on?) The noun hit looks exactly like the verb hit. The plural hits is identical to the one verbal form, 3rd person singular hits. 

In German, however, der Schlag, die Schläge (hit, hits) is quite different from schlagen “to hit”: ich schlage “I hit”, du schlägst “you hit”, er schlägt “he hits”. Nouns are nouns, adjectives are adjectives, and verbs are verbs in French, German, Russian, Finnish, Hungarian, and most other European languages.

So there is no cure but the good news is, it isn’t fatal.

What’s Wrong with Alright?

Monday, February 11th, 2008

The question is, why do so many people write alright when every English dictionary and style guide say that the only correct spelling for this word is all right? As of this writing, alright occurs 76,400,000 times on Web pages. I know exactly what we need: one more voice in the fray.

At the outset, let me say that my reason for doing this is that none of the dictionaries and style guides I can find give a reason for spelling this lexical item as two words. To be consistent, I will apply the same test that I have applied to all the other issues I’ve weighed in on, e.g. “a historical“, “ain’t“, and ending a sentence with a preposition—consistency of usage. (My say on split infinitives is in the offing)

Alright is as much of a word as already, also and although, adverbs of identical origin: all plus an adverb. My position has always (another one) been that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not suitable terms for settling issues of grammar; instead, we should try to write and speak consistently.

After all, that is what grammar is, a catalog of rules on how to organize language and a rule (from Latin regula, from which we obtained regularity) is an expression of a consistency. To write already, also, always, although as single words, and spell alright as two, would be inconsistent, a rule breaker.

I have another reason though. Alright is used today to mean “OK”, not “all is right”. The haggis is alright = The haggis is OK, not that everything is right with it. “OK” is an expression of mediocrity; “all right” suggests perfection. 

We wouldn’t say, “Is alright” any more than we would say “Is OK?” “Is all right?” is a perfectly good question but it implies perfection: everything is right. If we didn’t recognize this distinction, this old joke wouldn’t work: “Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off?  He’s all right now.”

In A Hard Day’s Night the Beatles sing, “But when I get home to you/ I find the things that you do/ Will make me feel alright.” Doesn’t this strike you a bit odd, John Lennon comes home to someone who only makes him feel OK? Here the phrase all right makes more sense.

Language changes. New words come into language from the outside and new words are created inside language itself. The two words all and right have been combined to form a new word whose meaning, as the meaning of new words is wont to do, drifted off on its own.

woolly bear is not a bear, a ladyfinger is not a finger, and a ladybird is not a bird, as we have noted previously in this blog. By the same token, alright is not the same as all right.  Alright is one word with one meaning, so it is much more consistent to spell it as one word than spelling it as two. 

Conclusion: it is alright to spell alright alright so long as you mean “OK”.