The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks opens its summer assizes with separate petitions from Bud Morrison and Elinor H. Norcross, both of Columbus, Ohio. They ask for a ruling on “of a.” The petitioners are not in doubt about such ancestral forms as “son of a gun.” Their question goes to an idiomatic “of a.”

In evidence they offer a headline that appeared last year in The Columbus Dispatch: “Homeland security is taking too broad of an aim.” They also cite a comment by columnist Clarence Page: “Movies are too big of a project, requiring too much planning and money, to be taken on capriciously in my family.”

The court will gaze with tolerant eye upon the idiomatic redundancy. Compulsive word-savers may contend that “too broad an aim” and “too big a project” would save space, but this is a stingy sort of economy. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites some respectable examples. “Thanks to their idiot of a king’s being Catholic,” wrote Henry Adams in 1859. Alexander Woollcott in 1917 recalled a show that “made enough of a hit for us to have to give it twice.” “The newspaperman has the same kind of a job as the housewife,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in 1963.

Even more colloquial is the “of a” with “considerable,” as in “That was right considerable of a storm last night.” Webster’s quotes Octavus Roy Cohen: “… he fancied himself considerable of a sheik.” Here the court draws a line. There will be no more tolerance today.

A petition comes from “Shotgun” in Cyberspace. He had written a report saying, “There appears to be documents missing from the file.” On reflection, he changed it to read, “There appear to be documents missing from the file.” Which sentence was correct? He had it right the second time.

This is the kind of sentence (kind of a sentence?) that is best subjected to the turn-it-around test for grammatical purity. As the true subject, the plural “documents” demands a plural verb. He could have written, “It appears that documents are missing …” Or better yet, “Documents appear to be missing …” The court, which deplores timid constructions, suggests a further revision: “Some joker has really mucked up the travel file.”

Carole M. Martin of Buffalo petitions the court for a ruling on a familiar troublemaker. This is the construction in which an apparent plural takes a singular verb. She had written, “… $28 million were raised.” Her instructor at Medaille College had emended it to read, “… $28 million was raised.”

The court concurs with her instructor. The sense of the sentence does not involve 28 million separate dollars, but $28 million as a lump sum. It is the passive voice that messes up the sentence. By shifting to an active verb, we avoid the difficulty: “The campaign raised $28 million.” The active beats the passive almost every time.

Thomas H. Caplan of Cincinnati asks the court to rule on “doubtless.” In evidence he offers an article from the Knight-Ridder News Service about an increase in motorcycle fatalities: “Bigger bikes are doubtless another contributing factor …” He asks, “Wouldn’t ‘undoubtedly’ be better here? ‘Doubtless’ doesn’t sound up to the weighty task at hand.”

The court will observe that certainty – or uncertainty – comes in degrees. We move in stages of conviction from “possibly” to “probably,” thence from “surely” to “certainly,” and so on to “doubtless,” “undoubtedly” or “positively,” and finally to, “Dammit, I told you a week ago!” The court will not rule upon “indubitably,” mainly because the word is tough to spell sober and hard to say tipsy.

Gregory S. Saenz of Redlands, Calif., asks the court to rule on “amend” as distinguished from “emend.” The court ruled on this in 1983 and has not budged in its opinion. To amend is significantly to change, to emend is simply to correct. We amend a legislative bill or resolution; we amend a constitution or a contract; but we emend a reporter’s spelling and punctuation.

On that note, the court takes a week’s recess.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.


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