July 30th, 2008
Speak to / singular or plural couple / beggar understanding
by Barbara Wallraff
David Wilson, of Madawaska, Maine, writes: “I am 82 and am somewhat of a word cop. I imagine my sixth-grade teacher preaching: ‘I can speak to my friend. I can speak to you. I can speak to an audience, but I CANNOT speak to the state of the nation.’ I realize that the language evolves, but this change bothers me. It seems like an elite affectation.”
Dear David: I’m glad you count on me to disapprove of “elite affectations”! But “speak to” meaning “speak of” is nothing worse than an oddity. It’s odd for exactly the reason your examples suggest: We usually speak “to” people, and “of” or “about” things.
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Dear Patrick: This one is a tangle to explain. “Couple” can be either singular or plural. But the plural nearly always refers to people, in situations where you’re thinking of them individually rather than as a unit -- as in “The couple are coming in separate cars.” “Couple” in your example is singular.
David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “In yesterday’s paper, there was a sentence that read, ‘The reason for the fraud beggars understanding.’ Is ‘beggars’ as a verb an actual word?”
Dear David: Sure it is. You’ve probably even heard it in sentences like “That beggars belief!” and “It beggars description.” As a verb, “beggar” means “to make a beggar of” or, as here, “to exceed the resources or limits of” -- an idea that’s not far off from what must happen in order to turn someone into a beggar. It’s more common in British and Canadian English than in American, but it appears in American dictionaries too.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.