Friday, November 8, 2013

Marching Along Together

You know the old joke about the mother exclaiming to her neighbor about her son's feat during the school band's performance in the town’s parade? “My Herbie was the only member of the trombone section who was in step!”
The other day I received in the mail the opportunity to purchase for $2.98 (instead of $5.95) a book entitled 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces. I declined to purchase said book--not because I was feeling parsimonious that afternoon but because it was a “Herbie” book. I did not even have to think twice about whether I wished to be in step with the authors or with the “Almost Everyone” so sneeringly put down in the title. The book’s assertion that what “Almost Everyone” who speaks a language does can be declared wrong is so patently absurd that only people like the mother of a Herbie or an Edward S. Gould (or modern Gould-digger) cannot see through it.
[In 1867 Gould wrote: 
"Another blunder, of which the instances are innumerable, is the misplacing of the word only. Indeed, this is so common, so absolutely universal, one may almost say that “only” cannot be found in its proper place in any book within the whole range of English literature …."]
Another who might not recognize the “absolutely universal” is the stick figure in the famous advertisements for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper, whose catchphrase was: “In Philadelphia nearly everybody reads The Bulletin."

I have purposely, until now, declined to identify the authors of the $2.98 bargain book. They are the “American Heritage Editors,” who are, I imagine, the same people responsible for the dictionary of the same name. You will, of course, give that tome a wide berth; if you are looking for the best American dictionary, you will want to get one published by Merriam-Webster. (Note: anyone can use the name “Webster” in a dictionary title, so you want to watch for that “Merriam” bit.) The best $19 or so that you can spend on the English language would be for Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which does not prescribe usages out of the blue, but offers historical-based discussions and examples of what writers have actually done (for example, contra Gould's screed against the “misplaced” only, the DEU offers evidence otherwise from the works of authors ranging from Dryden to T. S. Eliot and beyond).
My guess is that Herbie was not only out of step, but also out of tune.

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