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January 17th, 2007

Supposedly and supposably / more than one favorite / co-join

by Barbara Wallraff

Jay Deacon, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: “I’m wondering about the correct usage of the words ‘supposedly’ and ‘supposably.’ The dictionary says that either is correct, but I think ‘supposedly’ sounds better. Can you help?”

Dear Jay: “Supposably” means “it is possible to suppose that” -- not something people often want to say. “Supposedly” is much more common. It’s the one to use when you mean “allegedly” or “in theory.”

What I don’t know is why dictionaries are so bad at answering questions like yours. All over the Internet you can find people criticizing other people for misusing “supposably” or arguing that “supposably” isn’t a word or retorting that yes, it is. Obviously, plenty of potential dictionary users would like to be set straight on the difference between the two words. But none of the contemporary American dictionaries I checked for you gives complete, clear guidance.

On principle, dictionary makers try to avoid making value judgments about whether one word is “better English” than another. They don’t want to “stigmatize” anybody’s usage or call it ignorant. But people usually go to the dictionary because they want to learn something about which they admit they are ignorant. What’s more, potential employers, clients, mentors and friends constantly make the kind of value judgments that dictionary makers refuse to. And the great majority of them agree about what “better English” is. It baffles me why dictionary makers don’t understand that value judgments are exactly what people want from them. I’m not complaining; I’m just saying. After all, their blind spot helps keep me in business.

Paul LeGere, of Ballston Spa, N.Y., writes: “I play an online message-board game called ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ in which a subject is given and participants offer items that fit the subject, one at a time. It’s possible for someone to offer as many as seven items. My question is: If the subject is ‘What’s your favorite candy bar?’ does that not by definition restrict the players to one item each? Can you have more than one ‘favorite’?”

Dear Paul: Sure, you can have many favorites. I do! I like Butterfingers, GooGoo Clusters, York Peppermint Patties, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dark-chocolate Toblerone -- assuming all of those count as candy “bars.” It’s the grammatically singular form of the question you quote -- “What IS your favorite candy BAR?” -- that would limit each player’s answer to one.

Debra Wells, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “This morning on ‘Meet the Press,’ Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, was discussing the situation in Iraq and repeatedly used the word ‘co-join’: ‘American forces going into Baghdad co-joined with Iraqi forces, and a new political model is our best chance for victory.’ Please tell me that this travesty isn’t acceptable as a substitute for plain old ‘join.’”

Dear Debra: That’s the least of what I dislike about the way Sen. Graham thinks. But you’re right that “co-join” is a foolish redundancy. By the way, sometimes even when “co-” would be correct, it’s unnecessary. For instance, all it adds is clutter to a sentence like “As co-sponsors of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, Sens. Graham and Jon Kyl tried to play shameful tricks on the public.”

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

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