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April 19th, 2006

To guilt or not to guilt / negative information

by Barbara Wallraff

Pat Rickman, of Latham, N.Y., writes: “Is the use of ‘guilt’ as a verb becoming common? I hear people say things like ‘My mother guilted me because I broke her favorite necklace.’ A novel I’m reading contains the same type of usage.”

Dear Pat: Yes, the verb “guilt” has become increasingly common during the past five years or so. Here’s a typical example, from a summary of recent episodes of the soap opera “Guiding Light”: “Dinah guilted Harley into staying home to take care of a pain-ridden Gus so Dinah could deliver the speech at the Policemen’s Ball.”

The verb is so new that most dictionaries haven’t taken note of it yet. Of the major American dictionaries, just one -- the New Oxford American, Second Edition -- includes “guilt” as a verb, and labels it “informal.” It’s defined as “make (someone) feel guilty, especially in order to induce them to do something.”

As the “especially ...” part of that suggests, the verb “guilt” is usually used a bit differently from the way you used it in your example sentence. It is ordinarily followed by “into” and a description of what the person has been induced to do -- as in “After I broke her favorite necklace, my mother guilted me into buying her a new one.”

Do I like this verb? In serious contexts, no. For instance, “Demonstrations by immigrants have so far failed to guilt Congress into legalizing ...” would be ridiculous. But I have nothing against the verb “guilt” in friendly conversation -- or in plot summaries of soap operas.

Could we look at that dictionary definition again, though? Good grief -- it has the plural pronoun “them” referring to the singular word “someone”! And that didn’t happen by mistake. The same dictionary’s entry for the word “them” refers the reader to “they,” where a usage note says, in part, that “they” (and by extension “them”) “is now generally accepted in contexts where it follows an indefinite pronoun such as ‘anyone,’ ‘no one,’ ‘someone,’ or ‘a person.’ ... ‘They’ is used in this dictionary in many cases where ‘he’ would have been used formerly.”

This time the New Oxford American is not alone. All the major American dictionaries say “they” can be singular -- though a note in the American Heritage Dictionary warns readers that many people dislike this usage. I’m one of them -- that’s why I brought this up. I don’t believe the singular “they” is any more appropriate for serious contexts than “guilt into” is, and I hope I can guilt everyone into sticking with good old “the person” or “he or she.”

Dane Karvois, of Manchester, N.H., writes: “I was recently asked to look through a database to determine whether it contained any information on a particular topic. I was requested to forward any information I obtained, and also told ‘Negative information need not be reported.’ If I can’t find any reference to the topic in the database, do I have to write back to the person who made the request? Is ‘negative information’ the same as the absence of information?”

Dear Dane: I admit the phrase confused me, too, when I read your letter. But “negative information” is bad news; “positive information” is good news. If you really didn’t know this, it might be considered negative information about you at work -- so let’s keep it quiet.

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

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