The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its April assizes with a motion from Vic Bastien of Tulsa, Okla. He moves for an injunction banning the use of “as of yet.” Aaargh!
His motion is granted. “As of yet” is one of those flabby circumlocutions beloved of flabby writers and speakers everywhere. They say, “The sun has not risen as of yet.” “The race is not over as of yet.” “As of yet we have not heard from Amelia Earhart.” The yawing “as of” adds nothing useful to the simple “yet.” And by the way, it’s no wonder we haven’t yet heard from Amelia Earhart. She vanished with her plane in 1937.
Mollie Davies of Jacksonville, Ore., seeks a declaratory judgment on the idiomatic “I could care less” and its variant, “I couldn’t care less.” The court has ruled before on this contentious matter but willingly returns to the fray. The two put-downs are easily distinguished. The former acknowledges some degree of concern – a slight degree, to be sure, but at least some concern. The latter resonates a cry of complete negation: We do not care at all!
On a related puzzler, Patricia Spaeth of Auburn, Wash., moves for an injunction against “one of the only,” as in, “She is one of the only sopranos ever to sing in three octaves.” Her motion must be denied, not because it is unfounded, but because this idiomatic impossibility is too firmly entrenched to be dislodged. All the court’s dictionaries concede that “only” has come to mean “a very few.” The example approved by Merriam-Webster is “one of the only areas not yet explored.” As the court has morosely concluded many times, a Gresham’s Law on coins is constantly at work on language. Chipped definitions drive out the pure ones.
Robert L. Shalkop of Salisbury, N.C., not only joins in Ms. Spaeth’s motion but also files a separate complaint. He would enjoin such ungrammatical confusions as, “When a person orders Chardonnay with roast beef, they should be thrown out of the joint.” His motion will be granted, but not without a comment, to wit: O tempora, O mores!
Hundreds of years of English tradition once decreed that a neuter noun (person) takes a masculine referent (he), but tradition began to wear thin after the 19th Amendment gave women the vote in 1920. The trend toward equal referents steadily gains momentum.
On this touchy question the Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks long ago abandoned the rule of stare decisis. If writers are determined to call attention to their grammatical gentility, they are free to do so: “She should be thrown out.” At least that is more felicitous than “he or she” or the virgulian “he/she.” Better yet is to take refuge in a plural construction: “When customers order roast beef, they should be …”
Martin S. Nowak of Lancaster, N.Y., asks the court to frown upon jargonic amputations. In evidence he offers “lab” for laboratory, “perk” for perquisite, and so on. The court will grant his motion, but only as to formal writing and truly elevated speech. On the lower slopes of Olympus, nothing at all is wrong with trimming three syllables off “mathematics” and “examination.” The well-barbered “math exam” is instantly comprehensible.
Once again, the court will emphasize that writers must constantly try to imagine their readers. What languages do they speak and read? For what media are we writing? Are our sentences starchy or drip-dry? Decisions, decisions! It’s a writer’s life. Court’s adjourned.
James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.