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A Chat With Barbara Wallraff

Barbara Wallraff's picture
Date: Aug 1, 2001
Topic:Word Court
Duration:One hour




Barbara Wallraff is the author of the national bestseller Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done - "a logophile's delight," according to the language commentator Charles Harrington Elster, and "a great book on style and usage - unfailingly warm, witty, and wise," according to the author and MIT professor Steven Pinker. Word Court, which will be published in paperback this August, grew out of Wallraff's popular Atlantic Monthly column of the same name, in which she resolves readers' disputes and answers their questions about language.

Wallraff gained her expertise as "Ms. Grammar" by serving as an editor at The Atlantic, where she has worked since 1983. For some seventeen years she reviewed the galleys of every article and story scheduled to appear in the magazine, advising authors about tone, style, consistency, and grammar. Now she is responsible for a section of the magazine about the pleasures of life, and she writes on a variety of topics. Her article on English as a global language was the magazine's cover story last November, and pieces by her appeared in two of the three issues of The Atlantic for which the magazine earned its most recent National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Wallraff is frequently heard on the radio, discussing language. Last year on the Fourth of July she talked about the Declaration of Independence on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and for the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, NPR's Morning Edition commissioned her to copy-edit the Constitution.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the eleventh online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our guest in today's chat is Barbara Wallraff, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Her bestseller book "Word Court "will be published in paperback this month.

Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Thanks. It's fun to be here.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Here is a question for the audience, to get to know you a bit. Are you in the audience people who think of "fun" as a noun? Or are you old-fashioned -"fun"-is-an- adjective people like me?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Hold on! I wrote that exactly backwards!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
"How fun" -- does that sound normal to everyone now?

bw
maybe

Sparteye
This is Jackie, using Sparteye's computer as she watches me. Would you please remind me of which website you contribute to? I use the word fun in both senses. How fun sounds normal to me and Sparteye.

BigSteve
No!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Steve, explain yourself?

BigSteve
I guess I'm old-fashioned.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
I had a long conversation with Steven Pinker about this at one point. His opinion is that people under about 30 think of it as an adjective, as in, "How fun," while the more traditional view -- Steve, I'm not asking you how old you are -- is that it's a noun, as in "What fun that is!"

bw
interesting .... age differences

Margo
I hadn't thought about it, but I guess I use the word as a noun most of the time, as in "I'm having fun doing this." I don't use "how fun". I use "how great". I'm over 30.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Aha!

wham
Noun it is. And I'm over 30

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
There are lots of locutions that sound okay in the mouths of teenagers but sound ridiculous if someone *mature* says them.

BigSteve
I'm over 60.

bw
I still say "neat"

Rebecca
I, an 18 year old, often say "how fun!"

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Yes, indeed. Writing around the problem works well.

wham
Yes, but that is how words take on new meanings, right?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
bw, what is your age group, please?

bw
I'm over 40

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Hence that word "still" in your reply ...

Daley
My husband and I get into discussions proper usage in sentences like, "The baby looks like (him, he)." He argues for "he", saying that "like he does" is understood. I prefer "me", thinking that perhaps "like" could be viewed as a preposition in this case. Which is correct?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Daley, that happens to be a contentious issue. There are respectable people on both sides of it. I *think* I read the other day that Safire is on your husband's side, but I'm on yours.

bw
is that a good thing?

Sparteye
This is Jackie, over 40. Is there anything wrong with," What a fun time that was"?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
I started out innocently introducing "fun" because it is a very interesting word. It shares some of the characteristics of an adjective and of a noun ...

BigSteve
Please. There can be only one correct answer to the question ? "The baby looks like (him, he)."

bw
... and why do you say that?

Jane
Is it correct to say, "I'm a friend of Jane's"? I hear this usage all the time, but it would seem that "I'm a friend of Jane" makes more sense.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
To answer Sparteye's question directly, no, there's nothing wrong with "a fun time" ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
On to BigSteve ...! Grammar *isn't* like arithmetic -- it really isn't true that there's only one right answer to any question.

Jane, that double possessive has a long history in English and it is useful, allowing us to distinguish between "I have a photograph of Jane," and "I have a photograph of Jane's."

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
See what I mean?

Anu Garg (Moderator)
What is the difference between the two versions?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
First version is Jane is in the picture; second is, the photo belongs to her -- it is *hers.*

Jane
I see what you mean, but I'd prefer to say, "I have one of Jane's photographs." Is it actually correct to say, "I have a photograph of Jane's"? If so, does it means that we imply "of Jane's collection"?

wow
When editing, how do you deal with correcting grammar and at same time maintaining the writer's "voice?"

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
It *is* correct.

heb
Hi, should I say " I wish I was, or I wish I were" if I am trying to say I wish I taller?

BigSteve
I'm engineer with the liberal arts degree. I like to think that language has as well defined a structure as, say, physics. However, I also realize that language lives in changes.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The old-fashioned distinction (help me here, BigSteve!) is that when there can be only one of something as in, "the mother of Jane," ... you don't use the double possessive, but when there may be many, as in "friends of Jane's," you do. That's a rule of thumb, to which there certainly are exceptions but it is a traditional rule.

Chance
Barbara, what is the premise of your new book? Word Court sounds like what we're doing now . . . sorting out usages in a changing language.

Margo
Well, I guess I'd better admit I'm WAY over 30 because it lends credence to my following point, which is... over the years I am continually amazed that people who learn English as a second language manage to understand the wide variations of how it is spoken. When speaking, we English-as-first-language people break the so-called "rules" all the time. Then, to top it off, it seems that the rules are then changed to accommodate the way we speak.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The differences are intriguing to think about. Physics *really* doesn't change, but what we know of it does ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
It's one of the nice things about language, to me, that it's democratic. If we all think "dog" means a pet with four paws and big ears, then it does. If we all start to use it to mean something undesirable, then *that* is what it means, in some contexts.

wham
Not all languages! English is democratic!!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
But if no one understands the new or slang meaning, then it drops away. It's as if we're all voting on every word.

BigSteve
Re your point on dog, Touche.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
wham, are other languages not democratic?

Jane
In high school, I was taught that it's better to say, "I feel good," than to say, "I feel well." "I am well" is OK. The teacher cited some rule that applies to verbs such as feel, look, appear, and so on. That usage seems to have disappeared. Did I dream this?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Which is different from how physics works.

wham
Not only is the language democratic, the practice of such democracy varies so widely in different parts of the world.

bw
how about names like Hans and Lars ... to show possession the ' would trail ... why is that ... and is there other special oddities to remember

Margo
That's a neat concept -- our speech is a vote for or against our language.

Sol
People seem to use "as it were" arbitrarily. Do you agree?

wham
I don't think other languages get to assimilate so many different ways of saying the same things - or so many 'local governments' as slang!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
In the usage guides I use, you add an 's to *almost* any singular to show possession ...

Daley
Additional meanings to old words is not really troubling to me. What I don't like, is when using what was formerly incorrect grammar is so common, that it becomes acceptable usage.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Why, possessives are issue No. 1 in the grammar chapter of my book!

wow
From what I hear around my neighborhood, teenagers are constantly assigning different meanings to words ... a sort of semi-code to keep adults guessing. As you say, some words drop away but some do stay ... sort of like carrot cake from the Flower Power Age!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
But, thanks, Margo, I do think of speech that way.

Eleanor
Should we support the "democratic" death of the adverb in English, now engaged in by most TV anchor people and even Martha Stewart? Should I stop sending mnemonics to newspaper columnists of how to know when to use "real" and when to use "really"?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Ah, Chance, do you work for my publisher, perchance? What a good question!

steve
At any "instant" in time there are meanings to words and a structure of language. If we don't all observe them, communication is hindered. The "vote" that you speak of must occur over a long period of time; but for shorter periods, the language has to have some semblance of "staticness"

Chance
I'm a writer.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The book includes a lot of questions that people have asked me again and again in the Word Court column I do for the Atlantic Monthly ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
I was kidding -- you knew that!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
steve, I agree with you ...

Margo
Eleanor, what is your mnemonic for real/really?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The question is where on a continuum of change any given person wants to be ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Eleanor, we all want to know.

Eleanor
If you can substitute actuaL -- say reaL.

If you can substitute verY -- say reallY.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Well, Eleanor, that nails it.

steve
if we're into the death of distinctions, how about the the words healthy and healthful.

Eleanor
And nauseous versus nauseated!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Ah! I did look into that one for Word Court ...

SteveW
Unless we start getting people saying "I'm actual tired." ;)

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
and although I like to distinguish between "healthy" and "healthful," the two have overlapped for centuries so it's hard to make a case that idiots are *suddenly* hijacking the language.

Jane
And substantial versus substantive.

annakin
Thanks, Eleanor, I was just going to ask about that one!

SteveW
And continual vs. continuous.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
We haven't talked about levels of language ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
which are very relevant here.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
There's formal English, which is that static form we were talking about ...

Sol
Why are grammar words so often jargon seen and read nowhere else but in grammar books? Can sense without jargon be made of such things as the nominative case, transitive verbs, etc.?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
the static form most of us here seem to like and then there's informal, or "house," English that is intended to be like a secret handshake among those who know it.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Sol, any specialty has its jargon ...

SteveW
It's funny . . . some people see formal English as the secret handshake!!

Jane
I work at a world-class university, and it's sort of sad to see that formal English -- appropriate for a college paper -- is almost unknown by today's students (and many of the professors).

Sol
Where did English's jargon come from? Any good books on that?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Your question is like asking why we need to talk about freon (or whatever it is they use now) when we want to talk about air-conditioners.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The first edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage has a longish section on technical terms but that's out of print, and veddy English besides. I use a usage manual called Words Into Type which has a good appendix on what the various words mean. Unfortunately, that hasn't been updated since the 1970s, so it's not up to date otherwise.

wham
I wonder 'if type as you would think, not as you would write' has anything to do with grammar being ignored.....

BigSteve
Here's a totally new subject for when things slow down. But right now things are hopping. So hold that for later. What do you think about the double "is?" For example, "The reason is, is that no one can answer the question." Greta van Susteren (sp) drove me crazy during the O.J. Simpson trial using this construction. Now I hear it all the time, particularly from the TV news broadcasters.

wow
Now that there is an American working on the Oxford Dictionary there should be some interesting changes, doncha' think?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
wham, what do you mean?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
wow, let's hope!

wham
I have seen several e-mails and chat forums where the rules of sentence construction are ignored.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
I was in Oxford talking with the lexicographers there a couple of years ago and they have always wanted to include American usages as well as English, but getting the citations together to document things up to the OED's standards isn't easy.

joho
It seems to me that the fundamental underpinning of 'formal' English is the school, early in life and again in college. That seems to be an effort abandoned by most schools.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
wham, that's what I mean about informal English.

wham
Even 'trivial' rules, such as capitalizing proper names, are ignored.

Margo
I write and edit part-time based on the English I learned in my 60s grammar classes, but I speak "house" English -- lots of incomplete sentences.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
wham, it's funny that you say that, because *your* nickname here isn't capitalized.

wham
I agree with joho; maybe that is the way to prepare for the 'real world' where proper English exists only in secret societies!

heb
In my local paper I read the following "He surrounds himself with people that know less then he." Shouldn't it be less than him?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Margo, we all have different levels of language, which we use for different purposes just the way we have different clothes to wear for, say, a barbecue and a wedding.

bw
I agree with wham ... why so much use of lower case for proper nouns

psychec
Covering old ground again, I didn't catch a response to the question on adverbs. How should those of us interested in language respond to what almost seems a "conspiracy" to drop ly endings from adverbs? It bothers me, but I end up feeling like the grammar police when I correct it. What to do?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
heb, that's a variant of a question we were talking about earlier ...

wham
Haha! Good one. But there is some history to my nickname!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
There are different opinions on that point.

psychec
Jane, as an English teacher I must admit many can't correct grammar anymore.

Yvonne
For some reason I think grammar is very important and I correct my children whenever possible....unfortunately they think I'm boring!

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
(That was to heb. Do tell, wham.)

Sol
Good English usage seems inexorably linked to a well-maintained and fairly polite culture, like in Britain. Would you agree?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
psychec, I try not to correct people's English when they don't ask me to.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
The only way to do it and not seem rude is to simply introduce the correct form as if you hadn't noticed that the other person used the incorrect one.

psychec
Nor do I Barbara, but I see this changing in a way that I don't like.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
psychec, "this" being ... what"

Jane
Barbara, do you mourn the death of the subjunctive?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Why, the subjunctive is alive and well around here!

wham
Sol, I would agree if you drop the last three words of the first sentence.

heb
Thank you Barbara. I bought your book after I heard you in NPR. I am delighted by your work

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
How nice of you to say so. Thanks!

Monika
Subjunctive in English? I thought that only existed in French and Italian.

psychec
this usage changing...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
What sorts of questions do you think need more coverage in my Word Court column? Everyone?

Jane
If I were to tell you how many times I've heard, "If I was . . ." in the past week, you'd probably want to turn in your grammar police badge.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Something annoying to me is, once I've covered something I can't keep harping on it again and again.

Sol
Barbara, for Word Court, I am tremendously interested in words that are pretty directly linked to history specifics, like idioms.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
... and I did the reality-based "was" vs. the subjunctive "were" already, so that's it!

Monika
I thought the subjunctive does not exist in English, but only in French and Italian etc.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Sol, you mean etymology, like where did "the whole nine yards" come from, and the like?

Sol
Yes, exactly.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
BigSteve, there's a surprisingly long section in the Word Court book about exactly that. People told me that Cokie Roberts was a prime offender. I sent her copies of all the mail, and I haven't heard her do a double "is" since. Though I don't follow her every word.

wow
You asked -- Using the 's with ing words. Ex : "Do you mind my going?" instead of the more commonly used "Do you mind me going ? " Or am I doomed to rail alone against the dark?

BigSteve
Do you think it should be acceptable construction in the English language?

Jane
There's a rule about the difference between the two, wow ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
It's in the grammar chapter of Word Court but kind of long-winded to explain here and now.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Ah, Jane -- you must be another employee of my publisher's! The book is Word Court, same name as my Atlantic Monthly column or same name as one of them ...

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Now, every other month I do something called Word Fugitives, in which readers are invited to invent new words that other readers are seeking.

You can see it online on theatlantic.com. Come visit -- it's fun there, too!

Sol
Barbara, one of the best recent advocates for more excellent English was George Orwell, who said we ought to be inventing new, up-to-date idioms so we're not using ones that don't spark pictures in our minds, like "bull in a china shop" and "cart before the horse". It is harder than it seems. What are your thoughts?

heb
Me, too. Etymology is very interesting.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
I once assembled a list of "new saws" like "A watched microwave never beeps."

tsuwm
I'm personally fascinated with reviving archaic and obsolete words and usages (I greatly admire Gene Wolfe's writing) -- as opposed to inventing new words as per Word Fugitives, which I used to frequent.

Jane
I want a word that's a benevolent version of jealous or envious. It's what I feel when a loved one gets something or accomplishes something wonderful. I want it for myself, too, but I'm truly happy for the person who has it.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
But it *is* interesting to note all the history built into expressions that we understand not at all literally but only figuratively now.

Sol
See, that's better than the teapot no one anymore uses.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
In Word Fugitives, readers did get annoyed with the idea that we ought to replace "dial" with respect to the telephone.

Sol
Language should be living, but linked to history.

Darkoshi
I was trying to think of a word like that too a while ago, Jane.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Jane, send me that at theatlantic.com, to put in my Potential Word Fugitives folder?

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Any other favorite topics for me to keep in mind?

bw
The origin of words

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Thanks. It's a topic that never loses interest, as far as I'm concerned ... the darned thing just keeps changing -- keeping us all on our toes.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
To cap our discussion, Barbara, do you have any example of what you'd call the most flagrant violation you have come across in Word Court

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Anu, I try not to inflict my own pet peeves on others because I hear so many some that I agree with completely, and some that I don't but I try to remember that all of us who care about words are on one team, and everyone else is, well, everyone else.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thank you, Barbara, for being here today.

Sol
Thank you Barbara and Anu

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for having me. See you in Word Court? Not as defendants, of course!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
And thanks to all the participants even though we couldn't field all the questions due to limited time.

Margo
Thanks, Barbara and Anu... I wish this could go on longer. I'm going to get your book, Barbara.

Monika
Thank you

wham
Thank you, Barbara and Anu. It was wonderful participating in this session.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for the stimulating repartee.

Barbara Wallraff (Guest Speaker)
Good-bye, everyone!

BigSteve
I've enjoyed participating in this chat very much. Thank you Barbara for a very interesting hour.

jimenca
g'night ms wallraff, it has been a pleasure to listen to you...

Monika
bye

annakin
Thank you!

Chance
Thank you! Good-bye.


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