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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 430-433

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Watchful Wachal

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done. By Barbara Wallraff. New York: Harcourt, 2000. Pp. viii + 368.

Barbara Wallraff's Word Court is based on her regular columns in the Atlantic Monthly. The book has a sensible introduction by Francine Prose, although it seems a bit odd to have an introduction by someone whose admitted lack of knowledge of grammar makes the book instructive for her. Unlike many a writer about usage, Wallraff's style is immensely readable, in contrast to the silly, show-offy writing of William Safire.

The book has a great many explanations and judgments, most of which readers of this journal would applaud. The few I have doubts about are as follows:

"If everyone stops saying forsooth, the word is sure to be marked 'archaic' in dictionaries (this day has not yet come)" (13). Well, the day has in fact come for Webster's New World, Random House Collegiate, and the Concise Oxford dictionaries.

Wallraff calls the use of they with a singular antecedent "grievous, for it compromises such logic as English has." Many would agree with her, but not I. The construction dates to Shakespeare's day; furthermore, her version often leads to an illogical gender error. However, she wisely advises writers to avoid the problem, a solution with which I concur (29, 31-32).

She objects to the use of which to refer to an entire clause (109). I am one of many usage scholars who would allow such use.

She joins a reader in the crusade to stamp out such sentences as All men are not tall in favor of Not all men are tall (111). I'm with her on this one. Nonetheless, many educated speakers of impeccable English usage employ the former. As far as I know, no one knows if any sociogeographic feature correlates with it.

Wallraff thanks Fowler for insisting that that must be used to introduce restrictive clauses and which reserved for nonrestrictive clauses (115). Clearly, which can be used with either type of clause, as the record of English authors demonstrates. [End Page 430]

"Although various adverbs may be used to modify entire clauses, hopefully isn't one of them--yet. I only hope that I won't have to concede that it is until I'm an old, old woman" (120). Using hopefully as a sentence adverb is useful, something that is standard in German. I see no point in fighting lost causes. For example, Webster's New World (1997) glosses hopefully in its sentence-modifier sense without comment.

Other losing battles she fights are against the nonuniqueness sense of unique (131), which is a common, and perhaps the most common, sense and one recognized by dictionaries here and in England, including the recent fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (2000), an edition not available when Wallraff's book was written. She also argues against the phrase just between you and I. Probably no reader of American Speech would say this in professional settings, but it is only fair to note that it has been used since Shakespeare's day (133). Interestingly, Wallraff appeals to "hundreds of years behind me to substantiate my point of view" (135).

"Alright is emphatically not standard English" (155). Perhaps not yet, but it is on its way, I suppose because people's sense of logic has them analogize to the all ready/already distinction and apply it to all right/alright. (Note that Wallraff appealed to logic in the instance of singular they. Even good prescriptivists like Wallraff appeal to logic to support a preference while ignoring logic if it doesn't.)

"'Very few data are in,' I have to admit, sounds hokey--less idiomatic, certainly, than 'Very little data is in.' The word is trying to sneak into the singular category by devious roots. I myself would not say either one of those sentences, but I fear that the data are not all in yet on data" (179). I find it odd that a...


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pp. 430-433
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