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Jack Smith

'Between You and I,' Who's Been Cozened?

June 14, 1988|Jack Smith

Norman Cousins is dismayed that several readers wrote to correct his grammar in ending his recent letter to me with "But that's between you and I."

"I'll never again assume that people know when I'm spoofing," he says in a second letter. "To me the quintessential abomination in English usage is 'between you and I.' I ended my earlier letter to you with that zinger by way of calling attention to what is probably the most common mistake in spoken English. The fact that some of your correspondents didn't recognize the deliberate irony is instructive and sobering."

I too have learned that irony is costly. I have often written "between you and I," or "will everybody put on their hat" as a way of underscoring some grammatical point, only to be rebuked by numerous readers.

Not everyone knows, though, that Cousins is a world-class spoofer. In his presence one must always be on guard for a joke or a pun.

Recently, as one of several people of retirement age receiving awards, Cousins said he thought it was "symmetrical" that the recognition should come to him on his 95th birthday. "People in the audience nodded politely. I'm not good at lip-reading, but it seemed to me that several persons commented to their companions that I held up pretty well. (I'm about a quarter-century short of 95.)"

He recalls also that a man recently came up to him at an airport and asked, "Are you who I think you are?" Cousins said, "No." "That appeared to satisfy the gentleman. He thanked me and turned away."

Perhaps the best answer to someone who comes up to you and says, "Are you somebody?" is Emily Dickinson's charming couplet:

I'm nobody. Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

As an example of how the English language can combine "the enigmatic with the absurd," Cousins recalls a dialogue between a very seasick passenger and a steward on an ocean voyage.

"Sir," said the steward, "cheer up. No one ever died of seasickness."

"I'm sorry you said that," said the passenger. "The only thing that was keeping me alive was the hope of dying."

As for a reader's sarcastic and suspiciously prejudiced challenge of Cousins' credentials for his academic positions at the UCLA Medical School, Cousins says simply: "I had been visiting professor at a half-dozen universities at various times before coming to UCLA. My own training was in education (Teachers College), Columbia University."

Meanwhile, Suzanne Turner of North Hollywood advises me that the possessive of Cousins is Cousins's, not Cousins' ; and that the plural of Cousins is Cousinses, both of which I know full well. Alas, Times style drops the final s in Cousins's , and when I put it in, as grammar calls for, it is edited out. I did not use the plural of Cousins, which, of course, is Cousinses.

Turner also asks me to point out to my editors that prone means lying on the stomach, face down, while supine means lying on the back, face up. I learned to fire the M-1 rifle prone at boot camp in the Marine Corps, and I am not likely to forget it.

Turner neglected to mention that a podium is the platform you stand on, and a lectern is what you lean on.

As far as Cousins' aversion to the phrase "his or her" (and mine), the Rev. David H. Fenton insists, as many do, that this awkwardness can be avoided by using the plural; e.g., "Children must learn their ABCs" rather than "Every child must learn his or her ABCs."

"The question is," he says, "why such excellent writers, who could use inclusive language so easily, 'fulminate' against infelicities of language that you would never need to use."

Usually, in such constructions, one wishes to emphasize that "every single child" must learn his ABCs; and the weaker "his or her" or the plural won't do.

(By the way, despite Cousins' argument that "unmitigated gall" and "trust implicitly" are illogical, most readers choose to live with those familiar phrases. No one has ever proved that the English language is logical.)

Please don't point out that I neglected to close the phrase "As far as" with "is concerned."

I was spoofing.

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