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January 28th, 2004

Seen and saw / to golf or to play golf?

by Barbara Wallraff

Dal Ahrens, of Plymouth, Mich., writes, “I have broken many difficult bad habits in my life, but the following is proving to be the most difficult by far: I use ‘seen’ when I should use ‘saw,’ and ‘got’ when ‘have’ is appropriate. I am from a small Midwestern town where these two verbal faux pas are actually considered charming. My parents, friends, etc., are all guilty. I’ve been trying for two years to correct this but have failed miserably. I truly believe this problem has cost me a promotion. Is there a technique that can help me break this awful habit? I would be so grateful if you could save me from myself.”

First, count your blessings: At least you don’t have a snooty wife who nags you. Or if you do, she’ll solve your problem in no time!

Now, let’s get serious: I’ve solved similar but more specialized problems of my own by muttering. For instance, when I was just beginning to get the distinction between “compare with” and “compare to” straight in my mind, I walked around muttering “Compare great things with small”—that’s a quotation from Virgil, and it neatly illustrates that “compare with” means “contrast.” And “Nothing compares to you”—that’s a quotation from the artist formerly and once again known as Prince, and it illustrates that “compare to” means “is like.”

Give the mutter method a try? (Do your muttering in private, of course, or people will think you’re in worse trouble than you are.) For your illustrative sentences, how about “I came, I saw, I conquered,” from Julius Caesar, and “I have a dream,” from Martin Luther King Jr.? And please let me know how it goes.

Jack McKenna, of Clifton Park, N.Y., writes, “My problem is with the way people use the word ‘golf.’ Golf is the name of a game. It seems to me that ‘I go to play golf.’ Why do people say and write ‘I’m going golfing’? It drives me crazy! If that’s acceptable, why don't we say we are going ‘tennising’ or ‘basketballing’?”

Not only do we “play tennis” and “play basketball”; we “play Ping-Pong,” “play cards” and “play Monopoly” too. But I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind if I went “swimming” or “kayaking” or “bicycling” or “ice-skating” or “pole-vaulting.” Our language treats games differently from activities—even activities that can be as athletic and competitive as any game.

I asked Melissa Yow, the head of copy editing at “Golf Digest” magazine, whether she and her colleagues allow “golfing” to appear in their magazine. She told me, “We do, but rarely. Long-time golfers rarely use ‘golfing’ as a verb form. But newer golfers and I’d say younger people don’t have a problem with it at all. It is becoming more and more acceptable.” So evidently there are two kinds of golfers nowadays. Ones like you have golf mentally pegged as a game, so you “play golf.” The others consider it an activity, and they “go golfing.”

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

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