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SORTING OUT FEELING, THINKING AND BELIEVING

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its April assizes with a motion for a declaratory judgment on the touchy question of "feel," "think" and "believe." The court believes the motion is timely and thinks it worth tackling.

The motion comes jointly from Paul White in Savannah, Ga., and Todd Clippard of Hamilton, Ala. Mr. White cites a letter to the editor: "I feel that the U.S. never should have invaded Iraq." Mr. Clippard cites an item in the Birmingham News about a proposed referendum on gay marriage: "Those Democrats who expect to have a hard re-election fight feel that putting the amendment on the June 2006 primary ballots would take away any boost in turnout."

Mr. White adds: "It seems to me that everyone - even the most polished and supposedly well-educated - uses "feel' rather than "think' exclusively nowadays, and personally it grates upon the ear."

Let us turn to our favorite authorities, beginning as usual with the venerable Henry W. Fowler in 1926. We're talking today about "feel" in the sense of having a vague or emotional conviction about something. Many writers, said Fowler, use "feel" from a misplaced modesty that shrinks from positive assertion. They are too fond "of announcing conclusions in this namby-pamby fashion."

Bryan Garner is equally critical: As a substitute for "believe" or "think," he comments, "feel" is a weak alternative. Professor John Bremner remarks that a thinking wordsmith "will not use "believe, feel, think' interchangeably." He makes this distinction: "One believes with the heart; one feels with the senses or emotions; one thinks with the mind, intellect, reason."

The court ventures a further suggestion: It is a matter of degree. If wife says to husband, after two hours of boozing, "I feel we'd better go," they can stay another half hour. With "I think we'd better go," it's 15 minutes more. But, "John, I believe we'd better go!" means goodbye!

The court is inclined to put "feel" on a high, dark shelf, not to be taken down except in the literal or figurative sense of touching (she felt his forehead), or as an expression of physical or mental condition (because he was feeling poorly). As a substitute for believing or thinking, "feeling" is not even near-beer. It's a branch-water verb.

William Kelly of Greenacres, Fla., moves for a permanent injunction against "wont," in the sense of "accustomed to," as in, "She was wont to gin martinis in a ration of 9-to-1." Her escorts were wont to taking her home early. The adjective dates in English usage from the 14th century, but it is rooted in Old Icelandic. Reader Kelly's motion will be granted, chiefly on the grounds that even sober readers are likely to confuse "wont" with wonting another round. Two martinis are quite enough.

Chris Hesse of Moses Lake, Wash., petitions the court for an order banishing the orphan possessive, as in "the home-builders group is a strong backer of Rossi's." Mr. Hesse reasonably inquires of his Exhibit A, "Mr. Rossi's what?" Mr. Rossi's Aunt Agatha? Mr. Rossi's housekeeper? Mr. Rossi's position on protecting the spotted owl? The court banned this sloppy construction 20 years ago, but it hangs on like March in Seattle.

The court will continue to insist that the apostrophic punctuation in Exhibit A is dead wrong stylistically. It does not clarify; it merely confuses. The preposition "of" abundantly satisfies the element of possession. Why add the redundant squiggle? The sentence is easily recast: "The home-builders group is among Rossi's strong backers." Such an amendment would please Reader Hesse, and it would make the court ecstatic. We stand adjourned!

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is kilpatrick@aol.com.