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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.

The name should be written the way you and I wrote it, please. It’s now an officially recognized observance in the United States and at least 150 other countries. Although not even the White House Web site gets it right consistently, “Mother’s Day” is the form that’s standard. And by the way, Happy Mother’s Day to all!

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.

I agree with both you and your colleague, though, that “on behalf of me and my spouse” sounds egregious. Part of the problem is that one would never say “on behalf of (just) me” -- it would be “on my behalf.” Since “on behalf of me” sounds terrible, and “me and my spouse” sounds bad too, “on behalf of me and my spouse” doesn’t have much going for it except, presumably, that the focus of the legal document is the person signing it and therefore, in context, bringing up the spouse first is a bit odd. How would you feel about “on my behalf and that of my spouse”?

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.

“Aggravate” comes from a Latin verb that means “to make heavier.” Of course, heaviness is often figurative, as in “Time hung heavy on his hands.” If you want to use “aggravate” precisely, it’s best to reserve it for phrases like “aggravating the situation,” in which you mean something like adding to a burden.

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

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