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October 5th, 2005

Up to $1000 or more / in praise of sank and shrank

by Barbara Wallraff

Richard Symes, of Granville, N.Y., writes: “The phrase ‘up to,’ and its cousins ‘as much as’ and ‘as little as,’ are misleading or meaningless. An oil company will advertise that its gasoline will give you ‘up to’ 28 miles per gallon. That means a gallon could take you any distance from one to 28 miles. Similarly, if a lending institution offers mortgages for ‘as little as’ 3 percent, you could be charged 3 percent on up. Perhaps you could help people better understand what they are and are not being offered when these phrases are used.”

Dear Richard: Good point. But honestly? I don’t usually get upset unless “up to” or “as much as” is accompanied by “or more,” or “as little as” by “or less.” Then you know for sure that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about or is trying to pull a fast one, or both. Consider these offers, which I found on the Internet: “Earn up to 35% or more.” “You can save as much as a thousand dollars or more.” And here’s one that even throws in a misspelled word: “Recieve a gift card worth up to $1000 or more.”

Hey, copywriters: Is that “up to 35 percent” or “more than 35 percent”? Is the maximum value a thousand bucks, or is it more? Please go find out and get back to us. And in the meantime, thanks for letting us know that not even you believe your numbers. If you did, you wouldn’t put it like that.

Susan Kott, of Caro, Mich., writes: “I’m stumped as to why the word ‘sank’ has all but vanished from contemporary use. The word ‘shrank’ also has shrunk from current usage. I’d love to read your opinion of this.”

Dear Susan: In my gloomier moments, you can find me holding my head in my hands and muttering: “There are fewer than 200 irregular verbs in English. Why the heck can’t people get them right?” But I once made a chart of all the irregular verbs, and then I began to see why they give people trouble.

We’re all familiar with the pattern that regular verbs follow -- as in, “I learn,” “I learned,” and “I have learned.” That is, we add “-ed” to the present-tense form to make both the past tense and the past participle. With minor variations (“I study,” “I studied,” “I have studied”; “I shop,” “I shopped,” “I have shopped”), thousands of verbs work the same way.

But irregular verbs can be irregular in all kinds of ways. Yes, you’re right: “Sink” correctly follows the same pattern as “shrink.” It’s “sink,” “sank,” “sunk” and “shrink,” “shrank,” “shrunk.” And yet it’s “think,” “thought,” “thought.” Similarly, “bring,” “brought,” “brought.” But there’s also “fling,” “flung,” “flung” and “sing,” “sang,” “sung.” And “ring,” “rang,” “rung” -- except when you’re talking about making a physical ring around something and the correct pattern is the regular “ring,” “ringed,” “ringed.”

See the problem? You and I should be proud of ourselves for knowing that in 1912 the “Titanic” sank -- not “sunk” -- and that in 1989 Wayne Szalinski, played by Rick Moranis, shrank -- not “shrunk” -- the kids. All the same, I take pity on people -- apart from those of us who earn their living by writing or speaking -- who garble their past tenses and past participles.

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

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