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July 2nd, 2008

To be pet or petted / humanitarian disasters / inexact quotes

by Barbara Wallraff

L. Veary, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “My family and I have been having an argument. My grandson says, ‘The cat likes to be pet.’ I say, ‘The cat likes to be petted.’ Which is correct?”

Dear L.: Your question goes straight to the heart of a basic rule of our language. The rule is: Today’s grandparents know more about correct English than their grandchildren do. Not only are they more likely to have been taught that it’s important to speak and write well, but they’re more likely to have been taught how to do it. I don’t mean that grandparents are always right. But young people should assume they are, absent evidence to the contrary. In this case, the evidence is all on your side. Dictionaries, under the verb “pet,” give the form “petted.” If that isn’t a hint, I don’t know what is.

Now, would you like to be magnanimous and try to keep your grandson from feeling like a ninny? (Because you wrote me instead of just correcting him, I assume he’s old enough that this description could potentially apply.) Perfectly good sentences like “The money was bet,” “The apartment was let” and “The table was set” do seem to suggest that “The cat was pet” might be right. If it were, “The cat likes to be pet” would be too. But there also are counterexamples, such as “The thief was abetted” and “The fish was netted.” It wouldn’t be absurd for the past participle of “pet” to be “pet.” The only thing is, it’s not.

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Joseph A. Bohrer, of Springfield, Mo., writes: “Television commentators continually refer to ‘humanitarian disasters’ in Darfur and other places. A ‘humanitarian’ is concerned with the improvement of the human condition and the welfare of others. Thus, ‘humanitarian disaster’ would describe a badly done or ill-conceived effort to better others’ lot. Would not a better description be ‘human disaster’?”

Dear Joseph: There are people who maintain that we shouldn’t call a mistake in grammar a “grammatical mistake,” because the mistake is actually ungrammatical. Some say a person who does something foolish isn’t “responsible for the consequences” but rather irresponsible. The case you’re making is similar.
Don’t go there. In phrases like these, the adjectives indicate realms, not judgments. Inevitably, when the adjectives are paired with a negative word like “disaster” or “mistake,” we can think of them as meaning something different from what was intended. But people don’t ordinarily think of them that way, and almost never do they truly misunderstand them.

Jim Schelhaas, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “I can’t remember the exact words of a quote. If I use this quote with a disclaimer that it might differ from the actual saying, may I put it in quotation marks? Or is there a better way?”

Dear Jim: Bless you for asking, rather than just going ahead and, as we say in my line of work, fudging the quote. The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wrote that fools do things that angels wouldn’t. See, that’s considered the better way: skip the quotation marks and make the quote “indirect,” as I just did with Pope’s famous line “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

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

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