August 17th, 2005
Let the cat out or let out the cat / W as a vowel
by Barbara Wallraff
Joyce Seip, of Sigourney, Iowa, writes: “I recently put a sign on my door that says ‘Please do not let the cat out.’ It seems wrong. Should it read ‘Please do not let out the cat’?”
Dear Joyce: The sign on your door is fine with me. It’s going to take me a minute to explain why, though, but before I get into it, I’d better admit that some people are going to wonder why either of us thinks this matters. It matters to me because I’m tired of reading clumsy sentences like “Please do not let the cat, who has lived indoors since earliest kittenhood, out.” Other usage experts evidently feel the same way. For instance, one of the basic “principles of composition” stated in “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, is “Keep related words together.” Well, your verb “let” imparts very little meaning until it’s completed by its modifier “out.” The idea is “let out.”
Mary Bardwell, of Delmar, N.Y., writes: “As a child I was taught a phrase for remembering vowels: ‘A E I O U and sometimes Y and W.’ My children will not believe me when I tell them that W was once two U’s. Please clarify this for them.”
Dear Mary: Here’s the story. In the ancient Latin alphabet the letter V did essentially all the work we now parcel out to U, V and W. That is, V was used to represent the vowel sounds for which we now use U and the sounds for which we use W, as well as the sound of V. (The tradition of V as a vowel lives on in old-fashioned inscriptions on buildings -- for instance, “BVSH HOVSE,” which appears over the doorway to the London headquarters of the BBC World Service.)
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.