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ENGLISH IS A BEWILDERING LANGUAGE

While it is most likely of minimal interest to you, it serves the purpose of this essay to say I have now written 2,300 of these columns since I began in 1979. They run somewhere between 700 and 800 words in length, so I estimate that I've written 1,750,000 words.

It never ceases to amaze me how complex the English language is and how many words or sentences I write badly or uncertainly. Like what, for instance?

-- In the first paragraph above, should I have inserted the word "that," or is it unnecessary, i.e. ". . .serves the purpose of this essay to say that I have now written. . ." ?

-- Several weeks ago, talking about Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, I referred to Clinton's "character." Wrong. The word "character" refers to all the qualities, good and bad, that someone possesses and from which we make our judgment of the person. Everyone has "character." It is inaccurate of Bob Dole to say Clinton doesn't have any. Dole might not consider Clinton's character to be virtuous but he has plenty of it. Whether it's good or bad is another matter.

-- The adverb "so" shows up too often as an intensifier in my columns and it's weak. I wrote, "It was so good." What good does that "so" do?

-- Two words I misuse frequently are "mad" and "dumb." People often write to call my attention to them but I don't think I'll change my habit of using them. The grammarians insist that I should use the word "angry," not "mad." That word, they say, means "insane."

It is an indication of the complexity of our language, too, that while we might say, "I was angry with him. . .", or "I was angry at him," we are not apt to say, "I was mad with him." It is somewhat softer to say "Angry with. . ." than it is to say "Angry at." A mother would say to her child, "I'm very angry with you." How's that for a nuance?

Another word I use knowing that it is technically wrong, is "dumb." I always use it to mean "stupid." The letter-writers point out that "dumb" refers to a person who is unable to speak and that it is an insult to them to use it to mean "stupid."

-- One of the few good habits I have is a petty grammatical rule I observe. I don't use "over" for "more than." I don't write, "He is over six feet tall." I don't misuse the word "comprise," either. The United States comprises 50 states. It is not comprised of 50 states.

-- Every time I come to the word "Muslim" I remember that people used to spell it "Moslem." And I am never sure whether it's "Muhammed" or "Mohammed."

-- It's difficult (I usually use the word hard when I mean difficult) when you write a lot to avoid easy and familiar phrases. A story in my newspaper after the presidential debate said that "the candidates generated more heat than light." The writer also used the phrase "first and foremost." How could anyone who makes a living as a writer allow himself to slip into cliches like that? (And how could I forget to include "herself" too, when I wrote "himself" in that last sentence?)

-- Several times a year, I go to my dictionary to look up the meaning of the word "paradigm." It's a complex word and I avoid it. "Transpire" is a tricky word, too. To ask, "What transpired while I was gone?" is not really correct. (I wish I'd stop using the word really so often.) "Transpire" doesn't mean "happen." It makes the sentence mean, "What became known while I was gone?"

-- When it comes to my writing, am I dissatisfied with it -- or unsatisfied?

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