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February 28th, 2007

Left to play / mortified and reticent / further vs. farther

by Barbara Wallraff

Rob Allaire, of Lake Orion, Mich., writes: “I’m not sure if you follow the sports world much, but I see the same error committed over and over. Many announcers and writers say, ‘with three minutes left to play’ or ‘... left to go.’ As a classroom teacher, I emphasize proper grammar, and this is an example of redundancy. Do you agree?”

Dear Rob: I’m in sympathy with your general point of view, but I’m afraid I can’t agree with you about these phrases. You’ll start to see why not when you read this quotation from Jeff Garcia, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles: “I don’t know how many years I have left to play.” If he hadn’t said “to play,” we’d imagine he was thinking about his mortality.

The need for “to play” is, admittedly, less urgent in a sentence like “The Nets ... had a 12-point advantage with 3 minutes 43 seconds left to play.” But even to me -- and you’re right, I’m not the biggest sports fan ever -- stopping the sentence at “left” seems abrupt and unidiomatic. “To play” -- or “to go” -- usually means “in the quarter, half, or game.” So to me, there’s no redundancy unless the phrase is something like “left to go in the quarter” or “left to play in the game.”

Abigail Starr, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “Am I mistaken about the following words? ‘Mortified’ -- I always thought it meant ‘embarrassed and humiliated.’ People seem to think it means ‘horrified.’ And ‘reticent’ -- I seem to remember that it means ‘silent and uncommunicative.’ People seem to think it’s a synonym for ‘reluctant.’”

Dear Abigail: You’re right about what both of these words mean. You’re right, too, that they’re often misused. In fact, “reticent” is so often used where the idea is clearly “reluctant” that some dictionaries now give it as a legitimate meaning for the word. Sigh. That’s progress for you. Regardless, because “reticent” comes from a Latin verb that means “to be silent,” those of us who respect tradition like to reserve it for when we mean “reluctant to speak.”

Bill Dunn, of Middleton, Wis., writes: “In a recent column about regionalisms, you wrote, ‘the four existing volumes of (the dictionary) get no farther in the alphabet than ...’ Shouldn’t the word be ‘further’? I learned that ‘farther’ means physical distance and ‘further’ means degree. Are we allowed to get out our rulers and measure distance in the dictionary between words? Perhaps!”

Dear Bill: Maybe I should have written “further.” I do believe in distinguishing between it and “farther,” and I agree with you that “farther” is the word to use for physical distance: “I walked farther down the road.” But when a figure of speech suggests physical distance, it’s anybody’s guess which word to use. Should it be “farther down the road of drawing precise distinctions” or “further down that road”? Garrison Keillor once wrote, “Cod, he pointed out, is farther down in the food chain.” The late journalist I.F. Stone wrote, “... put us one step further on the road to a police state.” Were they right or wrong? For once in my life, I have no opinion.

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

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