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He's 'the' man

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 22, 2008 03:08 PM

corby.jpg
Congratulations to Bostonís own Corby Kummer, who in todayís New York Times got a subtle status upgrade, jounalistically speaking. In the page one story on locally grown food, he is identified as "Corby Kummer, the food columnist and book author."

Itís that the I'm talking about. Last year, and for 18 years before that, the Times called Kummer "a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly."

As the late Timesman Theodore Bernstein explained in "Miss Thistlebottomís Hobgoblins" (1971), there are four levels of article use, corresponding with a person's fame (or notoriety). People at the top of their fields "need no identification at all (Beethoven, Shakespeare, Newton)."

Those in the second tier, "a cut or two lower," get a the: "Glinka, the composer; Uris, the novelist." Third-tier celebrities are "semiprominent": "John Ciardi, poet; Hideki Yukawa, physicist." (Or "poet John Ciardi," as I would write, though Bernstein wouldnít.)

And fourth-tier wannabes are "struggling to be known": "Evelyn Whozis, a poet."

As Bernsteinís choices reveal, those middle tiers are slippery perches; I had to look up Hideki Yukawa. But earning that honorific the -- which means, essentially, "the novelist/composer/food writer, as of course everyone knows" -- is still an achievement to savor.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column ďThe WordĒ since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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