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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.”

Strunk and White go on to explain their principle like this: “The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.” Right. That’s exactly the problem -- or the possible problem. But “Please do not let the cat out” isn’t confusing or ambiguous. It’s the way I would phrase the request if I were saying it aloud. And the reader doesn’t have to wait long before the promise of meaning made by “let” is fulfilled by “out.” To me, that last point is the key one. A word like “out” may be allowed to stray a bit from the word it’s most closely related to, but it mustn’t be dropped off far from home to fend for itself. It’s good to consider the position of such words, as you’re doing. All the same, you got your sign right the first time.

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.)

When people began using the Latin alphabet to write English, they settled on writing a doubled U, or V, to differentiate the W sound (as in “whistle while you work”) from the others. And, of course, eventually U began doing most of the vowel jobs and V the consonant ones. Nowadays, though, W serves as a vowel only in combination with another vowel (in particular, A, E or O) -- as in “jaw,” “chew” and “how now brown cow.”

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

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