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The Word

The grammar scammers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
January 7, 2007

THE SUBJECT WAS adoption, not grammar. But last week, in his syndicated newspaper column, the child-rearing adviser John Rosemond got himself tied up in knots over a question of usage.

He had received an e-mail responding to an earlier column, he wrote, "from a mother who has adopted two children and agrees with me that adoption should be no 'big deal.' . . .

"She also politely mentioned that it is incorrect of me to say '(a certain child) is adopted.' Indeed, my trusty American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says adopted is a verb, not a noun. Therefore, the correct usage is '(a certain child) was adopted,' thus accurately indicating that an action has taken place."

Well, not exactly; let's take another look. First, nobody said adopted was a noun (though you could make it one by referring to "the adopted" as a group). What Rosemond originally wrote was merely "the child knows she is adopted." His correspondent was claiming that the adjectival use -- she's tall, she's blond, she's adopted -- was wrong, and that only the past-tense verb (she was adopted) would do.

I think I get the idea; the mother is arguing that adopted shouldn't be a lifetime label, a 21st-century scarlet A. But like objections to "the disabled" or "the suspected killer," that's a point of etiquette, not grammar. Adjectival uses of past participles are commonplace -- that's why the dictionary doesn't list them separately.

And this is not a secret known only to the grammarati. Anyone can see that if it's wrong to say Johnny is adopted, it must also be wrong to say that Johnny's mother is married, or her aromatherapist is licensed, or her brother is divorced. And we all know it's not. In fact, if Rosemond had read further in his "trusty American Heritage," he would have seen, in the usage note, "One normally refers to an adopted child."

Rosemond, by the way, is no politically correct pushover; if he had a parenting motto, it would be "Because I said so." Yet when a reader tells him he's misusing adopted, he simply takes her word for it. Why do smart, skeptical people fall for these grammatical whoppers?

In November, the victims (and perpetrators) were Brian Williams and correspondent Roger O'Neil of "NBC Nightly News," who brought us a feature on what Williams called America's "bad grammar epidemic." Among the interviewees was one Roger Peterson, a business writing coach whom O'Neil introduced, in a phrase of astounding idiocy, as "among the first to notice Americans butchering their language."

And of what does the butchery consist? Using awfully to mean "exceedingly."

"'That was an awfully nice dinner you just served me,'" Peterson sneeringly quoted. "Well, was it a nice dinner or was it an awful dinner? Make up your mind."

Now, a researcher could have learned in minutes that awfully has been used this way for a century and a half, and that even earlier, it meant not just "dreadfully" but also "sublimely." And it's a good bet that no host on the planet, even back when awfully was disdained as "society slang," has ever misunderstood "awfully nice." But they didn't need no stinkin' research.

For a story on a whooping-cough epidemic, of course, NBC would interview reputable scientists; they wouldn't broadcast the views of a cough-drop maker who doubted the existence of viruses. But for an epidemic of bad grammar, it seems, any old "evidence" will do.

Later in November, the Florida Times-Union stumbled into the same trap, after inviting readers to proofread its Nov. 19 issue. The follow-up story reported that "a headline, 'House Democrats to quickly rescind...tax breaks,' was grating for Pat Bloebaum," who also disliked "a wide variety of superheroes were represented."

So, should that headline have read "Democrats to rescind quickly tax breaks"? Or "quickly to rescind"? Neither is an improvement, which is why "splitting" infinitives is just fine. That plural verb with "variety of superheroes" is also correct (it's called notional agreement). And yet, instead of using the opportunity to enlighten its readers, the Times-Union meekly repeated Bloebaum's misinformation.

National Public Radio, too, can be a sucker for usage fantasists. Its ombudsman's website, over the past few years, has posted several unrebutted complaints: One listener disliked "the grating neologism, disrespected" (it was new four centuries ago). Another insisted, on no evidence whatsoever, that "wounds are inflicted injuries, as in hostile actions. Suicide bomb victims suffer wounds, not injuries."

Against such confident mythmongering, writes linguist Geoff Pullum in "Far From the Madding Gerund," skepticism is the only defense. "Keep your hand on your wallet when people tell you things about language," he warns. "They're convinced you'll believe absolutely anything."

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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