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March 17th, 2004

The Hi, Comma! / use vs. utilize / lie and lei

by Barbara Wallraff

Yuwei Shi, of Cupertino, Calif., writes, “Most e-mail greetings I see read ‘Hi So-and-So.’ A friend who is careful with her language, though, uses a comma following ‘Hi.’ I’d like to think her version is correct, but I don’t know why. Can you explain?”

In his book “Lapsing Into a Comma” and also in his brand-new “The Elephants of Style,” Bill Walsh, the national-desk copy chief of the Washington Post, discusses what he calls the “Hi, Comma!” I asked him if he would summarize his views about it for you, and he told me: “When I see ‘Hi Bill,’ I think, hey, I’m not hi! The comma is needed to separate the greeting from the greeted. Think of the difference between ‘Stop Bill!’ and ‘Stop, Bill!’ Without the comma I’m part of the command, whereas with the comma the command is being addressed to me.”

That’s the relevant grammatical point. Does grammar matter in e-mail, though? It does in mine, but your e-mail is up to you. E-mail—particularly informal e-mail between friends—is a whole new medium. And it is developing its own conventions, such as starting out with “Hi,” rather than the “Dear” that’s customary in letters. Nowadays we’re more likely to call a complete stranger “dear” in a letter than we are to address a, hmm, dear friend that way in e-mail. Walsh himself admits that “‘Hi Bill’ (or, more likely, ‘hi bill’) is the standard form for an online greeting.” Writing “Hi So-and-So” without a comma has thus become one more thing that people who are careful with language know is wrong but that nearly everybody does—like saying “It’s me.”

Burt Schwartz, of Northville, Mich., writes, “What’s the difference in usage for the words ‘use’ and ‘utilize’? My students and colleagues would appreciate the clarification.”

“Utilize” means “make practical use of” or “turn to account”—as in, “I drink tea, so I couldn’t utilize a coffee maker and I gave mine away.” But don’t use “utilize” unless you’ve tried “use” first and there’s something wrong with it in context. In 99 cases out of 100, “use” works fine, and it always sounds more down to earth.

JoAnn Madarassy, of Latham, N.Y., writes, “I’m writing about your recent column in which you stated that you couldn’t think of a single word with an ie or ei in it that makes another legitimate English word if those two letters are reversed. I thought immediately of ‘lie’ and ‘lei.’”

I love it! I’m used to thinking of “lie” and “lay” together, because readers regularly complain when people get these two verbs mixed up. The usual mistake is to misuse “lay,” which takes an object (as in “Lay your head on my shoulder”), for “lie,” which does not (“If you feel dizzy, lie down”). But I forgot about “lei”—which not only names a garland of flowers but is also the plural for the Romanian unit of currency, the leu—and its anagram “lie.” Thanks for sharing this rare pair of words.

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

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