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November 8th, 2006

I best / Mrs. Jane Doe / a quote or a quotation?

by Barbara Wallraff

Tammy Mills, of Niskayuna, N.Y., writes: “We have a 3-1/2-year-old daughter who picked up the phrase ‘I best’ do this or that. When I try to correct her by saying, ‘You mean “We better”’ do this or that, my husband says he isn’t sure that is grammatically correct either. What are your thoughts?”

Dear Tammy: You’re right that your daughter must have picked up that phrase from someone. It’s a funny old idiom that she wouldn’t have been likely to come up with on her own. Believe it or not, a thousand years ago, if you wanted to correct your daughter’s grammar, you would have coaxed her to say “Me were better” to do this or that. That meant “It would have been better for me.” By Shakespeare’s time, in the 1600s, the usual phrasing had become “I were better” or “I had better.” This last form is the one that survives today. You need “had” -- or “’d,” as in “I’d” -- for the phrase to be grammatically correct.

In all time periods, though, “best” has been a legitimate option. “I had best” do this or that is perfectly acceptable phrasing. Nonetheless, it does sound odd -- probably very odd coming from the mouth of a 3-year-old. I wondered if it might be more typical of British English, but this turns out not to be so. On both sides of the Atlantic, “I had better” do this or that is the usual way to say it.

Barbara Lewis, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “In a recent column, you indicated it was proper to use the title ‘Mrs.’ with a woman’s first name. When I was in high school, back in the ’60s, my English teacher said ‘Mrs.’ stood for ‘the wife of Mr.’ and therefore should never be used with a woman’s first name. Was my teacher full of beans?”

Dear Barbara: It’s just that we have more possibilities now. A woman who wants “Mrs.” to stand for “the wife of Mr.” can still sign her name “Mrs. John Doe.” One who doesn’t think her marital status is anybody’s business can write “Ms. Jane Doe.” (This was an option even when you were in high school. Guides to business English had begun recommending the use of “Ms.” by the early 1950s.) And, yes, a woman who is or was married and would like that fact to be considered basic to her identity, without making herself auxiliary to her husband, can sign her name “Mrs. Jane Doe.”

Darryl Garris, of Woodland Hills, Calif., writes: “Don’t you think you should be aware of the difference between ‘quote’ and ‘quotation’? The page that has comments about your work is labeled ‘Quotes,’ even though ‘to quote’ is a verb. I believe you’re looking for the noun version, ‘Quotations.’ If I am wrong, please enlighten me.”

Dear Darryl: Are you referring to the plaque on the wall in my “office” on my Web site, www.wordcourt.com? The one that, if you click on it, takes you to a page where eminent people call me things like a “virtuoso” and a “language and grammar guru,” whose “judgment is flawless”? It’s labeled “Quotes” partly because it’s so small and “Quotations” wouldn’t fit. But dictionaries say that “quote” can be a noun, and date the usage back to the 1880s. Some of them call it “informal” -- that’s fine with me.

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

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