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April 23rd, 2008

Due vs. owing / happy medium or median? / buy or bide time?

by Barbara Wallraff

Pam Marriott, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “How do you decide between ‘due’ and ‘owing’ in sentences such as ‘The event was postponed due to the weather’? Many years ago, when I was at school in England, I used ‘due.’ My English teacher crossed it out and said I should have used ‘owing.’ She gave the reason, but I didn’t take it in and instead have always used ‘owing’ whenever I’m tempted to use ‘due,’ on the assumption that I’m probably about to make the same mistake that I did all those years ago.”

Dear Pam: You’ve described perfectly an impulse many of us have: We don’t remember a rule, but we remember that one exists, so we come up with a work-around to keep ourselves from being wrong. Well, other people get to use “due” -- so eventually we start feeling aggrieved that we’ve ruled it out of bounds for ourselves. You’ve done the right thing to ask the question and seek an answer.

In strict traditional usage, only nouns are “due to” something -- so, for instance, a postponement might be due to the weather. Whole clauses, though, like “The event was postponed,” are supposed to be “owing to” or “because of.”

I follow that rule, but it’s quite old-fashioned. These days, some authorities recommend that we ignore it. I agree with them to the extent that “The event was postponed owing to the weather” sounds a bit hoity-toity, and “The postponement of the event was due to the weather” is just as bad. But better than “The event was postponed due to the weather,” I submit, is “The event was postponed because of the weather.”

Since you already have an alarm bell in your head that goes off when you’re about to say “due to,” why not respond to it by saying “because of” instead, whenever this phrase makes sense? When “because of” isn’t right, go ahead and say “due to” -- now with confidence.

Michael Meuti, of Columbus, Ohio, writes: “Two questions: Is the proper phrase ‘happy medium’ or ‘happy median’? And is it ‘to buy time’ or ‘to bide time’?”

Dear Michael: At first I thought you were being imaginative -- but, good heavens, there actually are people who write “happy median.” Let’s put a stop to that right now! “Happy medium,” meaning “a middle way that’s better than either extreme,” is the standard phrase, and people have been using it since around the time of the American Revolution. From a magazine article published in 1778: “All extremes are ridiculous: the happy medium is to be aimed at.”

As for “buy time” and “bide time,” they’re both standard phrases, with different meanings. “Buy time” goes like this (the quote is from Wired News): “The surge was a strategy designed to buy time and space for Iraq’s political leaders to make critical political concessions that would allow the U.S. military ...” It means “to increase the time available to do something.” “Bide time” goes like this (from the United Press International news service): “Many buyers continue to bide their time with a large number of homes to choose from.” It means “to wait.”

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

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