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August 16th, 2006

Responsibility / these kind / more

by Barbara Wallraff

Douglas Swiggum, of Fitchburg, Wis., writes: “I have always been bothered by the use of the word ‘responsibility’ by reporters or newscasters covering a story about a terrorist attack. The words ‘culpability’ and ‘blame’ are more to the point. There is nothing responsible about the behavior of terrorists. Journalists lend an air of legitimacy to terrorists when they identify the group that claims ‘responsibility.’”

Dear Douglas: “Responsibility” has a lot of meanings, and two of them are nearly opposites: dependability and, yes, culpability or blame. A third meaning is simply accountability. The word in this sense is neither complimentary, the way it is when it means dependability, nor pejorative, as it is when it means blame.

When journalists say terrorists “claim responsibility” for some horrible deed, accountability is usually what they have in mind. A journalist’s job is to report what happened, not tell you what he or she thinks of it. If a terrorist organization says, We did that and here’s why, the group isn’t accepting blame -- it doesn’t see it that way. It is simply acknowledging what it has done -- acknowledging responsibility. So while I agree with you that terrorists behave irresponsibly, they do indeed have “responsibility” for their actions.

Patricia Wickerham, of North Branch, Mich., writes: “Have you noticed how many so-called educated people, such as generals, diplomats and newsmen, say ‘these kind’? I’ve written letters to several television programs but received no answer. How do we get these folks to stop embarrassing themselves?”

Dear Patricia: Well, now you can photocopy this column and mail it to offenders. “These kind” is just plain shoddy construction -- and that goes for “these type” and “these sort” too. It’s fine to say “this kind,” and it’s fine to say “these kinds” -- but people should pick one or the other and not cobble together something in between.

This kind of mistake is surprisingly common. And apparently in British English it’s not considered a mistake. (The British have funny ideas about what’s singular and what’s plural. “The government are ...” is fine with them.) Plenty of people on this side of the Atlantic, though, feel the way you and I do about “these kind.” Anyone who can reliably cope with similar phrases like “this (not ‘these’) group of so-called educated people” should have no trouble with this one.

Betty-Lou Wyatt, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “Help! I keep hearing people using the word ‘more’ in what I think is an inappropriate way -- ‘more cold’ as opposed to ‘colder,’ ‘more happy’ as opposed to ‘happier,’ etc. What is correct?”

Dear Betty-Lou: You’re asking about what we word mavens call comparative adjectives. Conceptually, comparatives fall in between the plain adjectives (“cold,” “happy”) and their superlative forms (“coldest,” “happiest”). But as you’ve noticed, with some adjectives we create comparatives by putting “more” in front of them instead of using a built-in comparative form.

Most one-syllable adjectives have built-in comparative and superlative forms. (Besides “cold,” think of “cool,” “warm,” “hot” -- you name it.) Most adjectives of three or more syllables do not (oh, say, “comfortable” and “excruciating”). Two-syllable words may go either way: “chilly,” “cozy” and “happy” have built-in comparatives, while “frigid” and “painful” don’t. Exceptional situations occasionally come up, but when adjectives have the built-in forms, it’s generally good -- or better, or the best -- English to use them.

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

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