December 27th, 2006
I want to meaning I am / figurative choreography / and in series
by Barbara Wallraff
Harold Shaw, of Penobscot, Maine, writes: “Tell them to stop it! When someone says, ‘I want to thank all the little people who voted for me,’ why don’t they just go ahead and do it? Say ‘I thank all the little people’ etc., and get it done with?”
Dear Harold: How strange. I checked five dictionaries for you to find a definition that corresponds to this use of “want,” and I didn’t find one anywhere. Ordinarily, of course, “want” expresses a desire -- as in, “I want to find the people who ...” This “find” example wouldn’t mean that the speaker has started to look for those people, or necessarily ever will. But in your example, by naming the desire, the speaker is starting to satisfy it.
Marsha Nadell Penrose, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I am having a dispute with a friend, which I hope you can settle. I used the word ‘choreograph’ to describe how a coach might set up a hockey or basketball play. She told me that this sounded ridiculous since this word is used to refer to dance. I insist that it relates to setting up a programmed play, and can be used in sports. I would value your thoughts.”
Dear Marsha: We use all kinds of words figuratively. We don’t need music to “waltz” into a room, and we don’t need brushes to “paint the town.” Nobody took a chisel to a person with “sculpted” features. Anything dance-like can be “choreographed.” Maybe your friend feels that hockey and basketball have nothing in common with ballet or modern dance, and that’s why she objected. Even if so, I don’t agree with her, and I’ll bet not many people would.
Janice Burke, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., writes: “I am a science writer, and my boss and I are generally in full agreement regarding grammar. However, she inevitably ‘corrects’ my use of ‘and’ when I am listing a series of items. In the following sentence, for example, I think the second ‘and’ is required, whereas she would remove it: ‘We will discuss atmospheric deposition and fluxes, and surface and groundwater hydrology.’”
Dear Janice: I’m with you. Your sentence is announcing an intention to discuss four things, divided between two categories -- things atmospheric and things hydrological. The “and” between the two categories is even more important in your sentence than in the one I just wrote. Otherwise, it won’t be clear that “surface” is a kind of hydrology -- the word seems to be standing alone as a noun. You also need the “ands” between the subcategories -- “deposition and fluxes” and “surface and groundwater.” Three “ands” clumped together like that might not make for beautiful English. But in science writing, along with writing of most other kinds, when you have to choose between beauty and clarity, clarity is the right choice.
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