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February 18th, 2004

Correcting friends' language / capital vs. capitol / a historic or an historic?

by Barbara Wallraff

Jayne Maze, of Orchard Lake, Mich., writes, “Please advise me how I could correct—with kindness—people who continually overuse the word ‘like.’ I’m referring to children and educated adults, not just teens.”

The technique is to make the mistake yourself, stop short, and begin berating yourself, being careful not to hint that you’ve ever heard the offending usage come from the other person. Shall we give this a try?

Friend: “She was, like, so embarrassed that all she had in the refrigerator was, like, leftovers.”

Don’t change the expression on your face, keep listening, let a few more sentences of the conversation go by, and then …

You: “But it is unusual for people to just, like, drop by at dinnertime. Good grief! Did you hear what I just said? I said ‘just, like, drop by’! I’m starting to get into the habit of saying ‘like’ in that silly, pointless way, and I’ve got to break myself of it. It’s, like—there, I did it again! Do you think I’m a total idiot when I say that? I’ll bet you do and you’re too nice to say so.”

After such a performance, if your friend continues to misuse “like,” you’re entitled to interrupt with “Oh, no! You’re picking up my bad habits! I’ll never forgive myself if you start saying ‘like’ too!”

Betty Wharton, of Marion, Iowa, writes, “Once again today, the crossword puzzle in the Cedar Rapids Gazette incorrectly uses the word ‘capital,’ rather than the word ‘capitol.’ The clue for number 27 across is ‘Capital on the Hudson.’ This becomes irritating, as it is an unchanging thing with this puzzle. The word is also misused on the television program ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ This has occurred a number of times, and one wonders if the outcome of the game would have been different had the clue been spelled correctly.”

I wish I could always agree with the people who have taken the trouble to write me. And yet I’m glad when I can stick up for a newspaper that publishes me. “Capital” is the right way to spell the word for a capital city. Crossword fans, what such city is on the Hudson? Yes! The capital of New York: Albany. The “capitol” is the building in the capital city where the legislature meets.

Bob Bielenda, of Redford, Mich., writes, “We have a sign ‘Welcome to Redford, An Historic Township.’ Should the ‘an’ be an ‘a’?”

It should indeed. At least it should if most Redford residents sound the “h” in “historic” when speaking—the way people do when they say “history.” I’ve learned from harsh experience, however, that a surprising number of people insist that the “h” should be silent, as it is in “heirloom.” To them, the sign is wrong unless it reads “an.” But the pronunciations that all the major American dictionaries give for “historic” start with an “h,” so the weight of authority is solidly behind the phrasing “a historic.”

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

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