The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time

SIMON & SCHUSTER
Rockefeller Center
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New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2004 by The Cobbett Corporation

Grateful acknowledgment is made to The New York Times for permission to reprint “On Language” columns by William Safire from the January 2, 2000, to June 30, 2003, issues of
The New York Times Magazine,
including one column dated October 19, 2003.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 by The New York Times Company.
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Louise Espy for permission to include Willard Espy’s poem “To My Greek Mistress.”

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

S
IMON
& S
CHUSTER
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Safire, William, date.
The right word in the right place at the right time: wit and wisdom from the popular “On language” column in The New York times magazine / William Safire.
p.      cm.
1. English language—Usage. 2. English language—Style. I. New York times magazine. II. Title.
PE1421.S2334 2004
428—dc22        2004045355

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-8740-8
ISBN-10: 1-4165-8740-3

Visit us on the World Wide Web:
http://www.SimonSays.com

F
OR
J
ACQUES
B
ARZUN
,
with thanks for all his comments herein.

We must make up our minds what we mean by usage. If it be defined merely as the practice of the majority, we shall have a very dangerous rule affecting not merely style but life as well, a far more serious matter.

Q
UINTILIAN
, first century AD

I
NTRODUCTION

We will come to
sodomy
in a moment. To stagger together through today’s column about grammatical possessiveness, you and I must agree on the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Take the word
dancing
. It starts out as a form of a verb: “Look, Ma, I’m
dancing
!” When that word is used as an adjective to modify a noun—“look at that
dancing
bear!”—it’s called a participle.

But when the same word is used as a noun—“I see the bear, and its
dancing
isn’t so hot”—then the word is classified as a gerund. (From the Latin
gerundum,
rooted in
gerere,
“to bear, to carry,” because the gerund, though a noun, seems to bear the action of a verb.)

We give the same word these different names to tell us what it’s doing and what its grammatical needs are. Two great grammarians had a titanic spat in the 1920s over the use of the possessive in this sentence: “Women having the vote reduces men’s political power.” H.W. Fowler derided what he called “the fused participle” as “grammatically indefensible” and said it should be “Women’s having”; Otto Jespersen cited famous usages, urged dropping the possessive and called Fowler a “grammatical moralizer.”

Comes now Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with the latest manifestation of this struggle. An Associated Press account of his stinging dissent in
Lawrence v. Texas,
in which the Court struck down that state’s anti-sodomy law, quoted Scalia out of context as writing, “I have nothing against homosexuals,” which seemed condescending. His entire sentence, though, was not: “I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means.”

Note the lack of apostrophes after
homosexuals
and
group
to indicate possession; Fowler would have condemned that as a “fused participle.” Such loosey-goosey usage from the conservative Scalia, of all people?

“When I composed the passage in question,” the justice informs me, “I pondered for some time whether I should be perfectly grammatical and write ‘I have nothing against homosexuals’, or any other group’s, promoting their agenda,’ etc. The object of the preposition ‘against,’ after all, is not ‘homosexuals
who are
promoting,’ but rather ‘the promoting
of
(in the sense of
by
) homosexuals.’

“I have tried to be rigorously consistent in using the possessive before the participle,” Scalia notes, “when it is the action, rather than the actor, that is the object of the verb or preposition (or, for that matter, the subject of the sentence).”

But what about his passage in
Lawrence,
in which he failed to follow Fowler and fused the participle?

“I concluded that because of the intervening phrase ‘or any other group,’ writing ‘homosexuals’ ”—with the apostrophe indicating possession—“(and hence ‘any other group’s’) would violate what is perhaps the first rule of English usage: that no construction should call attention to its own grammatical correctness. Finding no other formulation that could make the point in quite the way I wanted, I decided to be ungrammatical instead of pedantic.”

But his attempt to be a regular guy backfired. In a jocular tone, Scalia observes: “God—whom I believe to be a strict grammarian as well as an Englishman—has punished me. The misquotation would have been more difficult to engineer had there been an apostrophe after ‘homosexuals.’ I am convinced that in this instance the AP has been (unwittingly, I am sure) the
flagellum Dei
to recall me from my populist, illiterate wandering. (You will note that I did not say ‘from me wandering.’)”

My
does beat
me
before that gerund
wandering
. Robert Burchfield, editor of the third edition of
Fowler’s Modern English Usage,
writes, “The possessive with gerund is on the retreat, but its use with proper names and personal nouns and pronouns persists in good writing.”

Now let’s parse Scalia’s self-parsing. In his refusal to say “from me wan-dering,”
wandering
is a gerund. When a personal pronoun comes in front of a gerund, the possessive form is called for: say
my,
not
me
. This avoidance of a fused participle makes sense: you say about the above-mentioned bear “I like
his
dancing,” not “I like
him
dancing,” because you want to stress not the bear but his action in prancing about.

In Scalia’s dissent in the Texas sodomy case,
promoting
is a gerund, the object of the preposition
against
. His strict-construction alternative, using apostrophes to indicate possession—“against homosexuals’, or any other group’s, promoting”—is correct but clunky. He was right to avoid it, and is wrong to castigate himself for eschewing clunkiness.

There would have been another choice, however: put the gerund ahead of the possessors. Try this: “I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means.” That would not only avoid the confusing apostrophes, but follows “I have nothing against” with its true object, the gerund
promoting
—and would make it impossible for any reporter to pull out a condescending “I have nothing against homosexuals.”

There’s always a way out.

Regarding your proposed solution to my gerundial problem (to wit, “I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means”): It is so obvious that of course I considered it. Two problems. (1) I do not like to have a relative pronoun preceding its antecedent, as in “the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals.” (2) More importantly, English remains a language in which emphasis is largely conveyed by word order, and the emphasis in my sentence was upon
homosexuals’
promoting, not upon (where your alternative places it) the
promoting
by homosexuals. Surely you can sense the difference.

Justice Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D.C.

A

Acronymania.
Who affixes glorious names to acts of Congress—with words whose initial capital letters spell out a hard-selling acronym?

When you ask a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee who in the vast federal establishment came up with the USA PATRIOT Act, you get a bravely bureaucratic, “It was a collaborative bipartisan effort of the full committee.” That’ll be the day. When you press further, you discover that a partial coiner was a determinedly anonymous staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who called the initial antiterrorism statute the Uniting and Strengthening America Act. (USA—get it?)

But USA is a set of initial letters pronounced individually, not forming an acronym that can be pronounced as a word or is already a word. The key to infusing the quickly drawn legislation with a rousing title in which the flag fairly flapped came from House Judiciary. A junior staff member there named Chris Cylke achieved acronymic immortality by coming up with this inspiring moniker: Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Put it all together, and it spells PATRIOT.

Now join the House contribution with the Senate’s name, and you get Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism—the USA PATRIOT bill, promptly signed by President Bush into law and, with a label like that, hard to criticize in any way.

This posed a challenge to the professional acronym-creators at the Pentagon, home of FATE (Fuse Arming Test Equipment, though often embarrassingly confused with a different program, Female Acceleration Tolerance Enhancement). Within that Puzzle Palace, an accidental acronym was formed when the phrase Global War on Terrorism became popular among military briefers and point-sheet writers. This group of words was initialized, as is the custom with all Department of Defense phrases; unfortunately, it produced GWOT, universally pronounced with a rising inflection as “Gee-what?” The image it projects is of a brass hat scratching his head, however, which is why the phrase may be dropped from internal DOD communications.

More recently, the Students for Global Justice and other opponents of globalization who demonstrated peacefully at the World Economic Forum in New York were organized under the banner of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. However, the initials ACC hold no meaning for anyone outside the NCAA’s Atlantic Coast Conference, and
capitalism
is not the dirty word it used to be. To deal with questions raised by the bigwigs huddling in the Waldorf-Astoria, some anarchists, Marxists and other image-makers converged to create International ANSWER. The title is an acronym of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Executives inside the Waldorf suspected that the demonstrators created the title to fit the word.

Some acronyms are standing the test of time. In 1960, as optical scientists were studying
maser
—from Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation—along came the bright idea of amplifying a highly coherent beam of light, promptly dubbed a
laser
. (Tangent: Will somebody explain to me why every focus is now
laser-focused
? Lasers can guide, ignite, heat, drive and print, but focus? This is the hottest compound adjective around today, leaving all other focuses fuzzy. In Enron’s 2000 annual report, the company claimed to be “
laser-focused
on earnings per share,” at which point I should have become suspicious. End of tangent; this column is determinedly
laser-unfocused
.)

In Jennet Conant’s book
Tuxedo Park,
about a social setting in which key scientists worked during World War II, the origin of
radar
is recounted: United States Army scientists used RPF, for “radio position finding,” while the British preferred R.D.F., for “radio direction finding.” The Navy liked “radio detection and ranging,” or RADAR, which the British accepted by 1943. That’s a partial stump word, using a first syllable and then initials; a purer stump word is
hazmats,
familiar to drivers of trucks containing nitroglycerine and similarly hazardous materials.

A pure acronym—NIMBY, “not in my backyard”—long ago took hold among zoning lawyers and environmentalists. MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Driving—has become well known, spoofed by DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia. The recent spate of acronymania (and do not write that as acronymphomania) can be combated only by resolute ridicule. A cartoon in
Punch
showed marchers under a banner titled COCOA, the Council to Outlaw Contrived and Outrageous Acronyms. This was topped by Jack Rosenthal’s satire in the
New York Times
calling for the Action Committee to Reform Our Nation’s Youth Morals.

Several years ago I described a condition in professional voice users analogous to exercise asthma. That condition is not related to exercise itself, but rather to the airway drying that is associated with hyperventilation from exercise. We noted that some singers, who have an exquisite sensitivity to subtle changes in airflow, had an analogous condition. Even though they might have had no other signs of asthma, when they were treated, their voice issues improved. I labeled this Airway Reactivity Induces Asthma in Singers (ARIAS).

John R. Cohn, MD
Thomas Jefferson University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Adjust That Season.
Alistair Cooke rang me up to say, “Do something about
seasonable
when you mean
seasonal
.” (I use the Britishism
rang me up
instead of
phoned
because my nonagenarian friend is a BBC stalwart.) When I wrote recently that a week in January had been “
unseasonably
warm,” another reader, John Connor, e-mailed: “Shouldn’t the word be
unseasonally
? To me,
unseasonable
implies that you can’t add salt or pepper.”

No; as even the most roundheeled permissivists admit, “There ain’t no
unseasonal
.”
Seasonable
means “normal for that time of the year”—icy in February and muggy in August. I am now shopping for cruise clothes because that is what will soon be
seasonable,
although cruises make me seasick. By extension, it has come to mean “apt, timely, opportune.”

Contrariwise,
seasonal
has nothing to do with such suitability; rather, its meaning is “occurring in a particular season of the year,” like “
seasonal
unemployment.” That honking you hear overhead is the “
seasonal
migration of geese.” If you’re talkin’ winter, spring, summer or fall, you’re talkin’
seasonal;
only if you’re talkin’ about what’s right and proper for those times are you correct to use
seasonable
.

Just as
seasonable
is a big word with weather forecasters,
seasonal
is a favorite of economists. The great economist Herbert Stein, familiar with the works of T. S. Eliot, used the right word many years ago when he seasoned his prediction to taste: “The poet tells us that April is the cruelest month, but
seasonally
adjusted, January is the cruelest month.”

The Agnostic Bit.
“Bits are
agnostic,
” Bill Gates, self-dethroned boss of Microsoft, told Forbes’s
ASAP
magazine. “They don’t care how they get where they are going—only that they arrive in the right order and at the right moment.”

William Marmon of Chevy Chase, Maryland, demands a ruling as soon as possible: “Has
agnostic
—‘holding the belief that the ultimate reality on matters such as the existence of God is unknowable’—been successfully morphed by high tech to mean ‘indifferent’? Everywhere one hears the word used in this perverted manner. Where do you stand?”

Hier stehe ich,
in the phrase of one unwaveringly opinionated Worms dieter. In theology and usage, I react religiously.

The etymology of
agnostic
is plain. It’s Greek for “not known.” Here’s how it was coined to describe the position held by people who are neither atheists nor believers: “It was suggested by Professor [Thomas] Huxley at a party … one evening in 1869, in my hearing,” wrote R. H. Hutton in 1881. “He took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the Unknown God.’ “

Henry Kissinger, in his 1979 memoirs,
The White House Years,
was among the first to give the word a metaphoric stretch: “I favored European unity, but I was
agnostic
about the form it should take.” The intended meaning (I have always been able to read Henry’s mind) was more “noncommittal” than either “undecided” or “indifferent.” In 1983 Warren Buffett, the investor, treated the word as a verbal shrug: “I look at stocks, not markets. I am a market
agnostic
.”

Broadbandniks in the computer world have adopted that stretch toward neutrality. “We will deliver ‘infrastructure
agnostic
’ solutions,” announced Steven Francesco, CEO of N(x) Networks, “that can handle both voice and data and be deployed over virtually any network.” (The odd-looking company name is pronounced “nex” or “nix”; the new agnostics, professing a hands-off attitude, sometimes take a negative approach.)

Another computer executive, holding that the alliance of Dell and Red Hat came as no surprise, commented, “They’ve always been operating-system
agnostic
.” At Microsoft, Gates’s usage gives the reheated term about bits a sense of “indifferent” to the point of “uncaring.”

Can we ever know if this new meaning—as in “Frankly, Scarlett, I’m
agnostic
”—will overtake the theological sense?

Sure we can. Give the voguish jargon a little time; this anomie-tooism will pass because it is a highbrow term that lacks specificity.
Neutral
passively takes no side;
noncommittal
suggests a more active refusal to take a side;
indifferent
describes a mild state of apathy;
unconcerned
imputes aloofness; and
uncaring
has a hint of cruelty. But the new
agnostic
wanders all over the lot.

And Done With.
Peter Mandelson, a minister in Tony Blair’s Labor government in Britain, admitted misleading the press about helping a contributor get a passport. After this led to a great media furor, Blair’s controversial
éminence grise
was forced to resign. Then, to refashion his tattered reputation after what he called “a trivial error,” the longtime spinmeister launched what the British press calls a
fightback,
a colorful term that may or may not lead to a
comeback
.

A cabinet colleague, Clare Short, promptly kicked the downed man with “He wasn’t accurate, didn’t speak the truth, let himself down and the government. Peter Mandelson is
over
.”

To
be over
is current British and American slang for “to be finished, washed-up, done with, kaput.” The predecessor phrase from the ’80s is
history,
as in “Forget him—he’s
history
.”

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