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