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