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Jack Smith

Putting In a Good Word for Cousins

April 28, 1988|Jack Smith

In wondering what an intellectual was the other day, I might have mentioned Norman Cousins, who probably qualifies on any scale.

I have a letter from Cousins complaining about "the use of adjectives or adverbs which would cause the user, if asked to define the meaning of the modifier or its relevance to the noun, to fall flat on his face. (Please note the deliberate use of his . Not even the liberation of one-half of the human race can justify the clanking his or her disfiguration of the language.)"

Specifically Cousins complains against unmitigated gall, among other common solecisms, but only an intellectual, I suggest, would be outraged by the illogicality of unmitigated gall .

He offers an example of its misuse: "It was an act of unmitigated gall." He says: "The obvious intention here is to be critical. Does this mean that mitigated gall is favorable or praiseworthy? If gall can be unmitigated, how about gallstones or intestinal obstructions?"

I receive dozens of complaints from readers about today's bad usage, but usually they are about such everyday errors as it's for its , their for there , and you're for your .

Cousins' abomination of unmitigated gall suggests the level of linguistic responsibility with which, for 30 years, he edited the immaculate Saturday Review of Literature.

Among his credentials are the authorship of 17 books, from the chilling "Modern Man Is Obsolete" (expanded from an essay written a day after the bombing of Hiroshima) to his recent "The Pathology of Power," an expose of the nuclear buildup and waste, fraud and incompetence in the defense establishment. His most popular work, of course, was "Anatomy of an Illness," about curing himself of a fatal disease with laughter and positive thinking.

He is at present adjunct professor of Medical Humanities at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he lectures medical students on literature and philosophy, and does research into the biochemistry of emotions.

I cite these intellectual accomplishments to give weight to Cousins' abomination of certain common locutions, among which is the phrase, "I trust you implicitly."

He says: "Does this mean that if you trusted someone explicitly , he would feel untrusted and never speak to you again? If explicit is the opposite of implicit , and if the purpose of the expression is to praise someone, does this mean that you are delivering an insult when none is intended? Implicit means that something is intended that need not be defined. Explicit means that you are being both direct and unambiguous. Personally, I would rather be trusted explicitly than implicitly."

These distinctions may be a bit rarefied for the average reader, but Cousins cites a third example that is all too commonly heard and read, especially in the newspapers.

"I refer," he says, "to the unfinished sentence that begins with 'As far as . . .' " Sportscasters are especially prone to this abomination ("As far as Guererro's ability to field third base, he'd do better in left field.") I don't know how far away Guererro is when he'd do better in left field; I have to assume he's still in the ballpark.

"If is concerned is too much of a burden for the sportscaster to carry to the end of the sentence, why not simply start with as for, which is even more economical grammatically and doesn't leave us waiting for the other shoe to drop."

He concludes: "Maybe the trouble here is that some people who are trusted explicitly suffer too much mitigated gall. Between you and I, of course."

I myself am pained by the "As far as" barbarism, and it abounds beyond the sports pages. Any day we are likely to read something like, "As far as Jesse Jackson, the Democrats don't know what to do about him." Why not, as Cousins suggests, the simple, "As for . . ."

I do not have the mitigated gall to assume that every reader is interested in Cousins' pet peeves, but as far as his qualifications, I trust him explicitly, and I am pleased to have had him confide his grievances to me.

I am especially gratified at his condemnation of his or her. I have been fulminating against that usage for years, along with chairperson , the unspeakable his/her , and the other misguided feminist attempts to alter their state by altering the language.

Long live Norman Cousins.

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