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April 21st, 2004

Difficult vs. hard / him going or his going? / heighth??

by Barbara Wallraff

Donald Wolcott, of Rochester Hills, Mich., writes, “Years ago, my cousin-in-law, a distinguished pediatrician, would correct me when I would say that something was really ‘hard.’ Pounding on the table, he would say, ‘This is hard; that’s difficult.’ I know that the meaning of some words change over time, but when did the meaning of ‘hard’ change?”

Your cousin-in-law must have been an elderly fellow. Besides meaning “firm,” “hard” began to mean “difficult” between 600 and 700 years ago. The word is used this way in many ancient books, including the King James Bible, published in 1611. For instance, you can read in the Book of Genesis: “Is any thing too hard for the Lord?”

All of us have a few mistaken ideas about language lodged in our heads. Ideas about how to express ourselves more eloquently than the average person seem to be particularly, ahem, hard to give up. Nonetheless, most modern language authorities would say that your cousin-in-law had it backwards, and for most purposes “hard” is a better word than “difficult.” In general, the thinking goes, someone who wants to be clear and direct should pass up fancy synonyms in favor of simple words. Some standard examples besides “difficult” and “hard” are: Don’t say “initiate” but “begin,” not “assist” but “help,” not “obtain” but “get,” not “purchase” but “buy,” not “manner” but “way,” not “sufficient” but “enough,” and not “terminate” but “end.”

John Ayoub, of Winona, Minn., writes, “I read three books a month, and in every one I find gerunds incorrectly employed. The possessive modifier is never used—for example, ‘him going’ rather than ‘his going.’ Has this become the acceptable form?”

This is a subtle point but a good one. And for some reason I imagine that you, like me, will get a kick out of the grammatical terminology we’ll need to discuss it. Depending on the situation, “him going” is sometimes better form than “his going,” and sometimes worse. Words ending with “-ing” can be gerunds, as you say. Gerunds function as nouns, and when a pronoun modifies a noun, it becomes … well, actually it stops being a pronoun and becomes a possessive adjective, such as the “his” in “his going.” Shall we use this in a sentence? “His going out meant that no one was home when the phone rang.” That’s a correct use of a possessive modifier with a gerund. But “-ing” words can also be participles. Participles are, approximately, adjectives—and adjectives modify pronouns, not the other way around. So “him going” would be correctly used in “I saw him going to get the newspaper.” What did I see? Him, going somewhere—not “his going.”

Bob Zaumseil, of Canton, Mich., writes, “Recently I have noticed a resurgence in the use of ‘heighth,’ used in place of ‘height.’ I have argued for years that ‘heighth’ is not a word, and hope that you can confirm my belief.”

Dear Bob: I have even seen it in print, but I’m with you: “heighth” is a typo, not a word.

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

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