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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.

A general rule it took me years to learn is that when you hear something a lot, it doesn’t seem to be new and you don’t find objections to it in books on usage or dictionary usage notes, it doesn’t really matter whether you can explain it -- it’s a legitimate part of the language. That’s the case with “I want to thank ...” But let’s see if we can find out why.

I asked Joseph Pickett, the executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. After checking some grammar reference books, he explained that “want” can be used to tone down -- or make more polite -- “performative” verbs. A performative verb is one that makes happen what one says is happening. For instance, a person who says “I promise” actually is promising; the clergyman who says “I now pronounce you man and wife” is thereby marrying the couple. Obviously, “thank” is a performative verb. Pickett told me: “The expression of gratitude naturally calls for politeness and self-effacement. While we might not be taken aback if someone said, ‘I thank all the people who ...,’ it’s just not as polite as ‘I would like to thank ...’” -- or “I want to thank.”

So “I want to thank ...” is fine as far as its grammar is concerned. The only thing wrong with your example is that the hypothetical person calls his or her voters “little people.” That’s grammatically correct, sure -- but talk about impolite!

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.

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

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