Sunday, November 16, 2008

Readers show love of language

Occasionally I’m able to share some of the entertaining and intriguing notes I receive from readers of this column. Today is one of those times.

After I wrote about a trip to Arkansas, Reader Barry sent this. “My father, who passed on in 1998, carried the following classified ad in his wallet until his dying day, clipped from [a small Arkansas paper].” And then Barry included the following ad for a dog, probably a form of the American Eskimo (a member of the spitz family), copied exactly:

For Sale. Eskimo
Spits at corner of
Walnut and Oak.

Reader Catherine, who says she is 84 years old and has 10 grown children, sent this delightful note: “Am acutely aware of capitals for Mother and Father as names, but admit I’m fearful when I mention ‘your mom’ or ‘your dad’ in my Grammy notes to my kids and grands. They'll think I've slipped. Hate to seem preachy, knowmsayin’? (And isn't that one a bummer -- right up there with the constant ‘y'know’!)”

Yes, Catherine, “knowmsayin’” is a bummer, and it is right there with “y’know” for irritability, except when you, Catherine, write it. I’m still laughing from reading your note. And yes, “Mom and Dad said this” is right, and “Your mom and your dad said that” is right. Of course, you, too, are right to worry that it might seem wrong to your “grands.” But let’s face it, they can still learn from you!

Catherine also asked that I talk about the suffixes –ous and –ual, specifically in “continuous” and “continual.” I had not done so previously because there is no easy answer (and that’s what we all seek, yes, easy answers?). In general, “continuous” means without interruption. “Continual” also can mean that, but in precise usage it means frequent, repeating at intervals (in other words, WITH interruptions). Many experts fail to draw a clear-cut distinction between “continuous” and “continual,” so there is no easy answer.

She adds this: “Also, I once knew and have forgotten (soggy memory syndrome) the further/farther drill.” Gosh, she might not like this answer any more than the one about “continual.” See, back when Catherine and I were young, “farther” was urged on us to express distance (it’s far from here, even farther), and we were encouraged to stick with “further” when expressing advancement to a greater degree. The “further” rule is still happily in use — you further your education, you do things without further delay.

However, the old advice about distance … well, “further” and “farther” are now used interchangeably in those cases. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, you can move farther down the train or further down the train. There you go; I have nothing further to say.

Reader Libby does, though. She sent some great thoughts, including this: “As for ‘farther’ and ‘further,’ I figure that’s a lost cause. Nobody uses ‘farther’ anymore, and I guess the game is lost when KFC’s current slogan, repeated prominently in their commercials, is, ‘Your dollar goes further at KFC’!” Gosh, Libby, I haven’t seen those commercials. Darn.

Reader Bill says he wants me to discuss “absolutely.” He says: “It is becoming the standard reply to every question or comment on the tube. No, yes, perhaps won't work. Am absolutely sick of absolutely.” Wow, Bill, I know how irritating the overuse of any word or phrase can be. I’ll send you my list.

Reader James writes this: “Being a language person myself, I greatly enjoy your column on language usage in the Greensboro, N.C., newspaper, which a friend sends to me in Tennessee. I am writing to suggest you caution your readers … against the incorrect use of the word ‘less.’”

James is talking about “less” versus “fewer,” of course. He spells it out nicely, saying this: “‘Less money’ is correct, as is ‘less time’ or ‘less effort,’ but ‘less people,’ ‘less cars’ and ‘less problems’ — all of which I have heard or seen recently — are not. ‘Fewer’ is, of course, correct in those instances. (‘Fewer’ with so-called countable nouns; ‘less’ with mass nouns.) Surely no one would make the same mistake in the opposite direction, saying ‘fewer money,’ ‘fewer time’ or ‘fewer effort’; why then abuse ‘less’ with ‘less people,’ etc.?”

Why indeed, James. Are you right? Yes. Have you said it all? Absolutely. (Uh-oh.)


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