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October 29th, 2003

Die or pass away / a whole 'nother / enamored of or enamored by

by Barbara Wallraff

Mendel Bernstein, of Deerfield Beach, Fla., writes, “Doesn’t anybody ‘die’ nowadays? Everybody seems to ‘pass away.’ Comment, please.”

“Pass away” and “pass” are classic euphemisms. More than 30 years ago the Monty Python troupe of British comedians made fun of such indirect expressions in their famous “Pet Shop” sketch. This stars a customer complaining to the shop’s owner about a parrot he has just bought and, for good reason, wants to return: “He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ’e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch, he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket! He’s shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!!”

The impulse to soften news as harsh as that of a death is only natural. But a phrase like “pass away” may well come across as a refusal to face facts. The word “die” is simple, dignified and ancient. We shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Tim Hopmann, of Columbus, Ohio, writes, “Recently I was surprised to hear myself say ‘a whole ’nother.’ Since then I have been working to eradicate this verbal tic from my speech, but I have found it running rampant in the speech of those with whom I deal every day. How can I introduce an alternative that will catch on with all the bad influences around me?”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “a whole ’nother”—at least in everyday conversation. The process underlying this expression even has an ancient Greek name: tmesis. As the American Heritage Dictionary defines “tmesis,” it is the “separation of the parts of a compound word by one or more intervening words.”

Now, if you’re giving a speech or writing a business letter or something like that, you’re right that “a whole ’nother” is alien to such formal English. But all you need to do in these cases is trade up to the impeccably correct “a whole other.”

Jim Trebilcock, of Gainesville, Fla., writes, “Is ‘enamored’ always followed by the preposition ‘of’? ’Among her many virtues, he was most enamored of her easy laugh’? I often see it as ‘enamored by,’ but I was taught that usage is incorrect.”

“Enamored of” is definitely better form than “enamored by.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is not known for raising picky objections to things that people often say, asserts that “enamor” is “usually used in the passive with ‘of’ or ‘with.’” That’s about as strong a recommendation against saying “enamored by” as you’re likely to see in the Collegiate. The brand-new Garner’s Modern American Usage, which is pickier, declares that “‘enamored” takes the preposition ‘of,’ not ‘with,’” and it doesn’t so much as mention “by.” Yes, do continue to pass “enamored by” by.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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