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June 1st, 2005

A terrible thing to waste? / enthuse

by Barbara Wallraff

Gentry C. Sullivan, of Detroit, writes: “The sentence structure of the slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’ has never sounded right to me. It irks me each time I hear it. Shouldn’t the sentence read ‘A wasted mind is a terrible thing’ or ‘To waste a mind is a terrible thing’? I always think, If a mind is a terrible thing, then waste it!”

Dear Gentry: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is, of course, the slogan of the United Negro College Fund. And its grammar is complicated, all right. But let’s take a look at “Volume II: Syntax” of George O. Curme’s “A Grammar of the English Language.” Why, here we are: In section 24 IV a, under the heading “Abridgment of Prepositional Clause,” Curme gives examples of similar correct sentences -- for instance, “His father forced him to make his own living” and “The work is hard to translate.” “To waste,” “to make” and “to translate” are all infinitives -- and infinitives can fill a dizzyingly wide range of roles in a sentence.

What no doubt bothers you about “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is that if you don’t keep reading all the way to the end of the sentence, you’re likely to misunderstand it. But this is true of lots of sentences: “I want the puppy (don’t stop reading here!) to behave.” “They demanded U.S. troops (don’t stop!) be withdrawn.” If you find yourself writing a sentence that could give readers a jolt partway through, because it veers off in a new direction, it’s always worth asking yourself whether you can smooth the way. For instance, the problem with “They demanded U.S. troops be withdrawn” disappears if you add “that” before “U.S. troops.” But isn’t it good -- artful and apt -- if the United Negro College Fund slogan gives readers a little jolt? It has been in service for more than 30 years -- a long time for any slogan to retain relevance and appeal. You can be sure that if it seriously confused anyone, it would have been retired long ago.

Eric Hestetune, of Sun Prairie, Wis., writes: “I have always been irritated by the use of the verb ‘enthuse,’ as a lazy, contracted replacement for ‘to be enthusiastic’ or ‘to show enthusiasm.’ Am I being overly sensitive, or do you agree with my contention that we, as a culture, seem to be much too accepting of this type of abbreviated language?”

Dear Eric: Plenty of people -- including 65 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel -- are unenthusiastic about “enthuse.” But, as that dictionary points out, many other words that were created the same way (they’re called back-formations) fail to arouse the same negative feelings. For example, “diagnose” comes from “diagnosis,” and “donate” from “donation,” and these verbs don’t bother anyone. Nor is it as if “enthuse” is a pushy new arrival: Its first recorded use occurred in 1827.

Who knows what it is about “enthuse” that makes it unpopular -- but unpopular it is. I think you should continue to steer clear of it. But may I urge you not to let your disapproval spill over onto back-formations in general?

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

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