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Jack Smith

In the ongoing battle of the the's, let's give a splendid Bravo! just for the el of it all

March 19, 1985|JACK SMITH

Among the peculiar hazards of writing in Southern California are those bilingual purists who are always zapping you for using the English article the before the Spanish article el or la when they appear in proper names.

I never fail to stir a little protest when I write, for example, of the La Brea tar pits, having it explained that what I am really saying is the the Brea tar pits. ( True purists go on to point out that, since brea means tar, what I am really saying is the the tar tar pits.

I now have a letter taking me to task for referring to the old El Cortez Hotel, in San Diego, as the El Cortez Hotel, which is what I have always called it.

"The 'El Cortez' was so glaring I assumed you would have had floods of complaints," writes Mary Woodyard of Santa Barbara. "Perhaps you have had and have been silent, feeling that your position on this common Californian error is so well known it no longer merits column space. If so, then you are wrong. Let us hear (again, if that is the case) your defense of the use of the in front of the Spanish the , or el . Or let us hear your admission to the third error of the year.

"Granted, 'El Cortez' is a name, but so is 'the Biltmore,' and surely you would never go down to the the Biltmore to meet friends."

By the way, the degree of Ms. Woodyard's purism may be seen in her use of the awkward adjective Californian , in "this common Californian error," evidently in the notion that California is not an adjective.

Indeed I have explained my position on this point before, usually in defense of 'the La Brea tar pits'; but if the likes of Ms. Woodyard are still hostile to it, perhaps I should explain it again.

Ms. Woodyard is logical, but common usage is not logical. Los Angeles, despite its enormous Spanish-speaking population, is an English-speaking community. By and large, it communicates in English--through its major television stations and newspapers, and in its schools.

Most English-speaking people think in English. When Spanish place names are common, as they are here, we do not think of them as having meaning, except as names. Thus, La Brea is a name. It does not mean "the tar," any more than La Cienega means "the swamp." It is simply a name whose original meaning is unknown to all but one of a thousand who use it. Thus, when Spanish names are used with Spanish articles, we automatically introduce them with the English article the .

We do not advise someone driving on the Santa Monica Freeway to take "La Brea turnoff." We advise them to take " the La Brea turnoff." If you listen to 100 people refer to the La Brea turnoff, they will say it that way 100 times.

When I speak of a hotel called El Cortez, I do not think of that as meaning the Cortez, but simply as being a name, El Cortez, which takes the article the .

There may be many English-speaking people who say El Cortez Hotel, instead of the El Cortez Hotel. But it is more than likely a purist affectation, unless it is said by someone who is fluent in Spanish, and actually thinks of El Cortez as meaning the Cortez.

Do we say El Segundo High School Drill Team? No, we say the El Segundo High School Drill Team. Do we say El Monte Police Department? No, we say the El Monte Police Department. Do we say Los Angeles Times. No, we say the Los Angeles Times.

It is indeed a "common Californian error" because almost everybody makes it, and that's what makes it idiomatic; and consequently not an error.

If you need a graphic example of the folly of trying to impose Spanish grammar on the American vernacular, remember the name of a beloved baseball team we used to have here: the Los Angeles Angels.

Did anyone ever realize that what we were really calling that team was "the the Angels Angels"?

By the way, I wonder if Ms. Woodyard knows what Spanish-speaking people call the Biltmore. They call it el The Biltmore.

Meanwhile Victor Rosen writes to complain about "those pests who hardly wait for the final note to die away before bellowing bravo without regard to the sex of the performer or the number of performers.

"In their unbridled desire to parade their supposed sophistication before their neighbors," he says, "they leap to their feet and shout bravo , no matter whether the recipient is a woman, in which case it should be brava , or a group, in which it should be bravi ."

Indeed, the sainted H. W. Fowler makes this distinction, in "Modern English Usage," although Sir Ernest Gowers, in his revised edition, edits it out.

It seems to me that Americans, in the exuberance of applauding a virtuoso performance, whether by a male, a female or a group, are too American to be concerned with the niceties of Italian gender.

In any case, I should think the exclamation has no gender. One is simply shouting "Splendid!," "Excellent!" or "Wonderful!" and there is no need for such an exclamation to agree in gender with its inspiration. Why can't we simply borrow the custom, shout Bravo! and leave the declension to the Italians?

Bravo it is.

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