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October 18th, 2006

Mrs. vs. Mss. / then and than / more about octopus's plural

by Barbara Wallraff

Jill Grimmius, of Eureka, Calif., writes: “I wonder how one would go about changing a traditional abbreviation. I would love to see ‘Mrs.’ changed to ‘Mss.’ My argument is twofold. First, there is no ‘r’ sound in the word ‘missus.’ Second, this would refute the antiquated notion that a woman is a man’s property after they are married. The line is ‘to have and to hold,’ not ‘to own and to dominate.’”

Dear Jill: But that’s what “Ms.” is for. It’s a courtesy title for women that doesn’t make a point of their marital status -- any more than “Mr.” does for men. If you want to show that a woman is married but not subordinate to her husband, there’s a different, old-fashioned convention for that. Use the woman’s first name, not her husband’s, after the courtesy title -- as in “Mrs. Jane Doe,” rather than “Mrs. John Doe.”

As for that “r” in “Mrs.,” it’s true we don’t pronounce it. The letter is there because “Mrs.” was originally a shortened form of “Mistress” -- just as “Mr.” was originally a shortened form of “Master.” A married couple were considered the mistress and master of their household. At least 200 years ago, the pronunciations of the courtesy titles diverged from those of the words standing alone. This is all to the good. If a man has both a “missus” and a “mistress,” in the modern sense, we need a way to keep the two of them straight.

Landra Shotts, of Riverview, Mich., writes: “I am questioning the use of the word ‘then’ in place of ‘than.’ For example, ‘easier said then done.’ Shouldn’t that be ‘easier said than done’? I see ‘then’ used liked this all the time. Is it correct usage?”

Dear Landra: Good grief, no. One thing is easier “than” another. But in this case, it’s no easier to write “then” than “than.” Then again, it’s easy (though not easier) to be wrong, then right -- which just means, if you make a mistake, correct it!

P.J. Maitland, of Kingston, Ontario, writes, in response to a recent column: “I have to disagree with you on the plural of ‘octopus.’ In language, I think aesthetics should sometimes trump technical rules. ‘Octopuses’ sounds like a hiss of cats; ‘octopodes’ like a spare part from Frankenstein’s monster. Now say out loud the word ‘octopi’ and enjoy the sound of those syllables rolling off your tongue. I only wish I had more opportunities to use the word.”

Dear P.J.: Fair enough. As previously noted, “octopodes” has the best pedigree, since it’s the Greek plural of a word that originated in Greek. And “octopuses” is hard to argue with, because all the major current American dictionaries accept it. Most of the dictionaries give “octopi” too, though, so far be it from me to object if you prefer it on aesthetic grounds. “Octopi’s Garden,” anyone? But of course Ringo Starr had in mind just one octopus (the one in the line “He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been”) when he wrote that Beatles song -- hence the actual title, “Octopus’s Garden.”

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

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