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May 17th, 2006

Medevacked or madevaced? / more correct

by Barbara Wallraff

Charles Bingham, of Sitka, Alaska, writes: “‘Medevacked’ or ‘medevaced’? The term ‘medevac,’ a contraction of ‘medical evacuation,’ is commonplace in rural America. Lately there’s been a move to create a verb out of the noun. When I’m writing a press release for the health consortium I work for and I quote a doctor who refers to ‘medevac’ in a past-tense verb form, how do I spell it? My preference is ‘medevacked,’ which picks up a ‘k,’ like ‘picnicked,’ to designate a hard ‘c’ sound. But I have co-workers who insist ‘medevaced’ is better.”

Dear Charles: The easy answer is that “medevaced” is more commonly seen in print, dictionaries tend to prefer it – and the majority rules. The American Heritage Dictionary, usually my favorite dictionary, gives only “medevaced.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, the most widely used American dictionary, gives “medevaced” too, though it says the past tense may “also” – and here the word “also” means these other forms are less common – be spelled “medivaced,” “medevacked” or “medivacked.” Webster’s New World, the dictionary the Associated Press prefers, doesn’t consider “medevac” to be a verb at all, so it doesn’t give a past tense. That amounts to a suggestion that you write “transported by medevac” instead – but it’s no help when you’re quoting someone who said “medevaced.” The New Oxford American, alone among the major American dictionaries, gives “medevacked” and only “medevacked.”

But according to the traditional rules of spelling (such as they are), “medevacked” is right. When “c” is followed by “e,” it ordinarily represents a soft “c” sound – as in “aced” and “faced” and “graced.” Hence, as you say, “picnic” in the past tense becomes “picnicked.” “Bivouac” becomes “bivouacked,” and “shellac” becomes “shellacked.” And “medevaced” looks as if it ought to rhyme with “aced.” If you follow the traditional rule with “medevac” and add the “k,” you will be in the minority. But what’s wrong with that?

Ralph P. Pettie, of Blue Hill, Maine, writes: “In a recent column you wrote that one sentence was ‘more correct’ than another one. I was always taught – and subsequently taught my English students – that the word ‘correct’ was incomparable, that something cannot be more or less than just ‘correct.’ Is this incorrect?”

Dear Ralph: No, you’re right. “Correct” is one of many adjectives that can’t, properly speaking, be applied by degrees. A few other examples are “unique,” which I wrote about last week, “equal,” “perfect,” “pregnant” and “dead.”

Believe it or not, though, writing “more correct” was my idea of a tiny little joke. I’ll admit, it doesn’t have a sting to it like the slogan “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” It isn’t majestic, like “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union …,” from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. I thought of it as faintly whimsical. And it’s concise. I could have said that nearly all authorities would call the first of the sentences in question correct, whereas only some would say that about the second one. That would have been a more correct way to put it.

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

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