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July 14th, 2004

Letting go of pet peeves: someone else's / proactive / re and or but

by Barbara Wallraff

My least favorite thing in the world is telling readers that they’re wrong -- especially when they’ve come to me for support. Everybody who reads this column cares about language. We’re all on the same team. But my next least favorite thing is biting my tongue -- or, rather, sitting on my hands -- when readers want my support on things I disagree with.

Many people who care about language, unfortunately, have a pet peeve or two -- ideas that reputable authorities pooh-pooh. I want to set all the pet peeves free. Now I’ve created a place to do it. My Word Court House online has a new wing -- the international headquarters of the “Free the Peeves!” movement. Come visit. Type www.wordcourt.com into your Internet browser window. Once you’re in the courthouse rotunda, click on the “Free the Peeves!” sign. Or enter the new wing directly at www.freethepeeves.com. Here you’ll be able to take a quiz or “join the conversation” in reader forums about language pet peeves.

To get the conversation rolling, let me share with you three examples of pet peeves. Intending to be kind, I’ve left off the letter writers’ names this time.

Dear Word Court: “When I went to school, the word ‘else’ was singular and never took an ‘s.’ Now the whole world says ‘someone else’s’ instead of ‘someone’s else.’ I wish people would understand and use the word ‘else’ correctly.”

Dear reader: I think I know why you believe that “else” is singular. We use it only with grammatically singular pronouns, like “someone” and “anybody” and “everybody,” and we never say “many people else” to mean “many other people.” However, “else” is just a modifier and is neither singular nor plural. The apostrophe plus “s” makes it possessive. It’s an odd little quirk of the language, but a very well-established one, that “someone else’s” is correct English and “someone’s else” is not.

Dear Word Court: “Is the word ‘proactive’ at all necessary? Wouldn’t the word ‘active’ serve just as well?”

Dear reader: “Proactive” makes a lot of people gnash their teeth. But that’s because the word is often jargon, not because it’s useless. The word doesn’t mean the same thing as “active”; it means something more like “anticipatory.” If I’d been proactive about “proactive,” that is, I would have written about the word before anyone had a chance to ask me about it. But try reading “If I’d been anticipatory about ‘proactive,’” and you’ll see what the word is for.

Dear Word Court: “I remember my fourth-grade English teacher telling us that you should never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Newspapers and magazines always have sentences beginning with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Am I not remembering correctly?”

Dear reader: I’m sure you are remembering correctly. But (ahem) I’ll bet if you go to the library and look in every book on English usage there, you’ll discover that none of them contains this “rule.” Many, though, contain commentary like this passage from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with ‘and,’ and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong.”

Free the peeves!

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

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