December 17th, 2008
Cut in half or halves? / rein and reign / origins of surnames
by Barbara Wallraff
Tim O’Brien, of Allen Park, Mich., writes: “A story in today’s paper included the phrase ‘salaries are cut in half.’ It is, of course, a logical impossibility to cut anything ‘in half,’ since you are necessarily turning something singular into a plural -- ‘halves.’ No other subdivisions are subjected to this grammatical mistreatment. One never sees or hears that, for instance, something has been ‘cut in quarter.’ Is this misconstruction now considered acceptable?”
Dear Tim: Surely you’ve realized that English is full of expressions that are considered correct even though they don’t quite make sense. “In half” is one of them. To be honest, I’d never noticed how illogical it is until you pointed it out.
Ted Young, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writes: “Kindly explain the difference between the words ‘rein’ and ‘reign.’ In newspapers I continually see phrases such as ‘reign in’ and ‘give him free reign.’ I believe those should be ‘rein in’ and ‘free rein.’ Am I correct?”
Dear Ted: Yes, you are. “Reining in” and “free rein” are metaphors that have to do with riding horses. To “rein in” a horse literally is to assert control by pulling on the reins, and to “give it free rein” is to do the opposite.
Clyde MacDonald, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “Years ago, I heard a very interesting lecture in which the professor cited the roots of English, French and German surnames. I have made several unsuccessful attempts to locate the book that he probably used for his information. Do you know of a book that explains the origins of surnames?”
Dear Clyde: Most books about surnames treat one country or ethnicity’s worth; I would suppose your professor used a number of books in his research. These days, Web sites can be equally helpful. Take a look at www .genealogytoday.com/names/origins and the pages it links to for specific countries, and you’ll be on your way to learning what you want to know.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.