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Take My Word!

At This Point in Time, Let's Take a Look

December 16, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

Judging from the quality of writing we see in books and periodicals these days, an ever-dwindling few still give a tinker's damn about the niceties of the English language.

There are some still on the side of the angels, however.

I got a note from Albert W. Bates of Hemet, who is a retired editorial-page editor. He has some gripes about several modern linguistic barbarisms.

His first objection is to "the redundancy, at this point in time, likely widely spread by John Dean's testimony before Congress in the Watergate case."

I remember it well. I wrote about it in 1973. It was not only John Dean who used at this (or that) point in time , but virtually everyone in the Nixon Administration. A point in time sounds exquisitely precise. Time has been stopped at an infinitely fine mini-moment during which myriad angels may or may not be dancing in 0/0 time on the point of a pin.

The trouble was that at that point in time was always used to refer to a period--not a point--of anywhere from a few days to several years, so whatever virtue point adds to time is destroyed. At that point and at that time are useful expressions, but at that point in time is verbal overkill. At that time, or simply then would be much better.

Bates doesn't like take a look when the simple look would suffice. There are times when take a look or take a gander is appropriate, but I think that, for example, "Look at the sunset" beats "Take a look at the sunset" every time.

Bates also objects to between 50 to 60. So do I. Strenuously. I've seen sentences like, "The crate weighed between 50 to 60 pounds." Between 50 and 60 is what's called for. Between this to that is gibberish.

His pet peeve is one of my own annoyances: convince to . You don't convince someone to do something; you persuade him to do it. You convince someone that such-and-such is so, or you can convince him of something. As the Random House Dictionary says: Convince means "to satisfy the understanding of a person with regard to a truth. . . . Only when followed by a that -clause may convince refer to winning a person to a course of action. 'I convinced her that she should go.' " Convince to is a no-no.

I'm thankful that people like Bates still care. It's important. Language is the quintessential mark of the human being. Language is what defines and nourishes our humanness. The majority of us use language carelessly. That doesn't really matter, though we might wish it were not so. Spoken language is almost always haphazard and casual, and I couldn't care less if some of my dinner companions say, "I could care less."

But the misuse of words by writers goes into the books and becomes a physical presence in our cultural heritage. If your writing is mostly shopping lists, notes to the spouse and kids, and the questionnaires you have to fill out in the doctor's office, it doesn't matter that you say, "convince her to go"; but we'd do well to treasure this precious inheritance and to do what we can to see that coming generations find the words still strong, still usable as clean, distinct parts of this infinitely textured fabric, language.

In his play "The Real Thing," Tom Stoppard says of words: ". . . if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more . . . . I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem, which children will sing for you when you are dead."--Words to the wise.

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