Sunday, November 18, 2007

Redoubtable readers’ rejoinders

The readers of this column share one important attribute: intelligence. (If that doesn’t keep you reading, what will?)

Because every reader note I’ve received so far has begun with praise for my writing, it’s perfectly obvious that every writing reader of this column is a person of great intelligence, taste and manners.

After I moaned about people saying no problem as a response to thank you, many people sent me suggestions for responses. Reader Bob wrote this: “I experienced a great joy in reading your column this morning … . I am probably a crotchety 84 year-old coot, but when the expression began to take hold, I would simply respond … I didn’t expect any problem.”

Actually, the pattern of reader emails has been surprisingly consistent. First come some words of praise (that’s the best part, of course), then agreement with one or two of my language complaints and finally the kicker — almost every writer goes on to tell me what REALLY is irritating. Many of them state that if I should decide to cover their peeve in a future column, well, that’d be swell.

So here we go.

Reader S.P. praises former major league pitcher, Duke baseball coach and author Colby Jack Coombs, who “admonished outfielders never to say I’ve got it or I got it as a fly ball approached. The correct thing to say was I have it, and, by George, if you played for him, I got it … got you removed from the game and a seat in the dugout.” Now, that’s teaching. Unfortunately, even though people who prefer a formal approach to language will say that I’ve got the answer is redundant, preferring the simpler I have the answer, the truth is that we’ll never escape the informal use of got. I agree that the cleaner version is more appealing — you’ve got me there.

Reader Earl has a long list of irritants. Here are a few: “What really galls me is the apparent interchangeability of your and you’re. I see it all the time — I hope you’re business is good, or Your the best salesman I know.”

Earl, I like to tell myself that most people remember that the little apostrophe stands in for the letter that we lose in the contraction as we go from you are to you’re, but that they simply are in a hurry or are thinking about the rest of the sentence. If that is the case, it’s not a matter of education (as you fear) so much as one of attention.

Earl goes on: “Also the confusion over almost and most, as in — Most all of our customers are advertising agencies. Boy, that gets my skin crawling in a hurry.”

I think your good example clears that up nicely, Earl. (I almost said you’re good example just to drive you crazy, but I stifled.)

Reader Earl and Reader Dave both wrote me about went missing, what Earl calls “an idiot phrase.” Dave says: “It may be grammatically correct, but something about it just sounds incorrect, and I can’t find my old high school English book. Susie disappeared sounds better than Susie went missing. Maybe it’s no problem.”

Cute, Dave. In fact, went missing has been a hot topic for quite a few years. We happily say that we went shopping or went hiking, but it’s often less appealing to hear that someone went missing. The answer seems to be simply this: It’s a British phrase, a choice of dialect. Many Americans seem to feel the British are welcome to keep it at home.

“Do you have any idea why our British cousins say someone is going to hospital or is in hospital and we always say going to the hospital or is in the hospital?” asks Reader Jim.

That phrase is so common among the British and the people of former British colonies that many Americans wonder about it. The tiny word the demonstrates an important syntactic difference between the British and us. Interestingly, they and we have some syntactic parallels that also omit that little word — we both say Jim is in jail or Jim is going to school.

More readers’ comments will appear in future columns. Thanks to you all.


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