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August 2nd, 2006

Recap: have given I / healthy and healthful / past presidents

by Barbara Wallraff

I thought you might like to read some questions I published months ago but that readers continue to ask me. I haven’t changed my mind about the answer to any of them!

Les Myers, of Old Town, Maine, writes: “Last week I heard an articulate, well-educated pastor read a letter to his congregation from his equally well-
educated wife. The letter said, in part, ‘I thank you for the generous welcome that you have given my husband, my family and I.’ I winced at that use of ‘I.’ It should be ‘my family and me.’ My wife said: ‘Language changes. This is becoming the acceptable form because it’s been used in error for too long.’ Your opinion?”

Dear Les: Yes, language changes, but standard usage hasn’t changed about this. The pastor’s wife would never have made the mistake of writing “Thank you for the welcome you have given I.” So she shouldn’t have written “my family and I” there either. Among other language authorities, Patricia T. O’Conner, who wrote the thoroughly contemporary reference book “Woe Is I,” backs me up. O’Conner calls sentences like your example “abominations.”

Eugene K. Duskek, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “I go bonkers when the words ‘healthy’ and ‘healthful’ are used interchangeably in print and on TV. To me, ‘healthy’ means ‘in good health,’ and ‘healthful’ means ‘helping to produce, promote or maintain health.’ Over and over, there are references to ‘healthy diets,’ ‘healthy foods’ and so on. How can something like a diet be ‘healthy’? I don’t think it is correct, and my sister, who was an English teacher for years, agrees.”

Dear Eugene: I share your feelings, and so do a number of other people who have written me about “healthy” and “healthful.” But we’re being awfully finicky. For as long as “healthy” has been an English word -- about 450 years -- it has meant both “in good health” and “promoting good health.”

It’s not unusual for an adjective to approach its subject from more than one angle. Consider “happy man” and “happy coincidence,” or “honest woman” and “honest mistake.” Phrases like these don’t confuse anyone: We know that the man feels happy and that the coincidence doesn’t. See if you can invent a sentence that someone might actually say in which it’s not clear which way “healthy” is meant. I can’t.

Of course, nobody can make me or you or your sister use “healthy” if we’d rather use “healthful.” “Healthful” is a perfectly good word too. But it isn’t fair of us to hold it against people who use “healthy” in this sense.

Scott Blakely, of Downingtown, Pa., writes: “My question is about the proper title for past presidents of the United States. My understanding is that former officeholders are correctly referred to as ‘former President So-and-so.’ Yet the ‘former’ is often dropped from the title. It seems very wrong to me, and also disrespectful of the current officeholder.”

Dear Scott: Paige Trivette, a public-affairs officer in the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the State Department, told me: “It’s common usage to continue to refer to past presidents as ‘President.’ Being president is a lifetime honor, and use of the title is a courtesy as well.”

So it’s official: Bill Clinton is still “President.”

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

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