May 9th, 2007
Punctuating Mother's Day / on behalf of me and my spouse? / aggravate
by Barbara Wallraff
Gary Hollingshead, of Grafton, W.Va., writes: “My town is the real home of Mother’s Day, which brings up the question, Should that holiday be ‘Mother’s Day,’ ‘Mothers’ Day’ or ‘Mothers Day’?”
Dear Gary: My goodness -- this year is the 100th anniversary of Grafton’s prototypical Mother’s Day ceremony. Congratulations! Credit for the day is also due Julia Ward Howe, the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” who issued a pacifist “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in Boston a few years after the end of the American Civil War. The day was observed in various places, including Albion, Mich., and South Bend, Ind., earlier than 1907. But Anna Jarvis of Grafton organized what became sizable celebrations of motherhood and campaigned to bring wider recognition to the holiday. That’s why Grafton is considered the home of Mother’s Day.
Cameron Seybolt, of Wayzata, Minn., writes: “One of my law partners tells me there is a grammatical error in a legal document that says, ‘The Personal Representative may file joint income tax returns on behalf of me and my spouse.’ I agree that ‘on behalf of my spouse and me’ would sound better, but in my view, the former is not necessarily wrong. I told this to my colleague, and you would have thought I challenged his religious beliefs. What do you say?”
Dear Cameron: You’re right that the sentence doesn’t violate any rule of grammar. Putting oneself second, or last -- as in “my spouse and me” or “my spouse, our children and me” -- is a matter of etiquette, like opening a door and letting the other family members go through first.
Patricia T. Leadley, of Lake Pleasant, N.Y., writes: “In a recent column, a reader objected to the use of ‘at this point in time.’ He said the phrase ‘aggravates me.’ I commend you on your restraint in not correcting him. Or am I wrong? I thought ‘aggravate’ meant ‘to make worse.’”
Dear Patricia: Thanks for noticing. “To make worse” is the meaning of “aggravate” that has been in favor since the 1870s. However, respected writers sometimes used the word to mean “annoy” or “irritate” long before that, and many have continued to do so. These days, that is considered an informal usage, rather than an incorrect one.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.