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Carpenter's Column: From the mail bag: a usage inquiry

Carpenter's Column: From the mail bag: a usage inquiry

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Carpenters Column

“Dear Mr. Crapentar,

Why do you insist on misusing @$#% in your column? As a schoolteacher it pains me to see such flagrant disregard for usage conventions. If you must resort to @#$%, at least try to use the @#$% word correctly.

Yours truly,

A @#$% English Teacher

P.S. Do you know Dave Barry’s address?”

Dear readers, as you know, every writer and editor worth his ampersand relies on a style guide to govern the expression of linguistic nuance found in the truly great works of literature; such as that which you encounter here.

A style guide is not created in a vacuum. To develop a style guide, a usage panel is convened to debate and resolve the distinctions by which specific words, phrases, and punctuation shall be employed. These intrepid souls, spattered with correcting fluid and red ink, quibble and stipulate like monkish scholiasts to mete and dole unequal grammars unto a savage race.

Members of my usage panel include Mssrs. James Beam, John “Jack” Daniels, and the Gallo brothers, Ernest and Julio. Other members wish to remain anonymous.

Usage note. The word @#$%, and its variant @$#%, which can be pronounced with or without the (@), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The (@) sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words. In both Old and Middle English, however, (@ )was generally pronounced, as in the native English words @&%^ and @*#%.

When @#$% is the subject of a clause, it takes a singular verb or phrase if the word or phrase that completes the sentence (the complement) is singular, as in I don’t give a @#$%. Critics have occasionally objected to this, but many respected writers use it.

@#$% is commonly used as a substitute for #@^!%, as in Would you please not slam the @#$% screen door. To be sure, the usage is associated with an informal style and strikes an inappropriately conversational note in formal writing. Sixty-five percent of my Usage Panel rejects the use in writing of the sentence Why don’t you try and see if you can work the @#$% thing out among yourselves?

Some critics have tried to discern a semantic distinction between @#$% and @$#%, but the difference is entirely dialectical. @#$% is more common in American English; @$#% is the predominant form in British English.

When @#$% is used as an adverb preceding verbs that denote a process of closure or constriction, as shut, close, tie, and hold, this use is subtly distinct from @$#%!. @#$% denotes the state resulting from the process, whereas @$#%! denotes the manner of its application.

The Panel does not, however, find the phrase @#$%! To be an acceptable replacement for @#!$% or @$%&# . A mere 12 percent approved of this usage.

I trust this has cleared up the @#$% question once and for all.


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“David Babbitt and brother, of Cincinnati, are visiting Flagstaff. These gentlemen are here for the purpose of visiting and inspecting cattle ranges with a view of purchasing.” That was the short news bulletin published on April 10, 1886 in the Coconino Sun, the weekly predecessor to the Arizona Daily Sun.

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