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January 21st, 2009

Ayn Rand's concepts / express purpose / plural of process

by Barbara Wallraff

Paul Gruchala, of Westland, Mich., writes: “I would like to know why Ayn Rand’s definition of a ‘concept’ is not being taught in schools. Communication depends on the identity of concepts to even think properly.”

Dear Paul: The reason Ayn Rand’s ideas aren’t taught in school is that many thinking people consider Rand a crank. To be honest, I’m one of them. I’d have the same opinion of any other person who, like Rand, had a 6-foot-high floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign prominently displayed at her (or his) funeral.

Yes, I know, Rand didn’t think of the dollar sign as symbolizing mere money -- she thought of it as a symbol of freedom. But that’s just the problem here: The way she looked at things doesn’t match up very well with the way most of us see them. Learning Rand’s definition of “concept” would help us understand her philosophy. But we certainly don’t need to know it to be able to think straight.

Rick Doyle, Newburgh, Ontario, writes: “In a recent column you referred to ‘Merriam-Webster’s express purpose,’ and I wondered what that meant. Is it ‘the fast lane for descriptions of how we use language’? Is it 10 items or less? I always understood the expression to be ‘expressed purpose.’ That is, the purpose that was expressed or advertised. Who’s right?”

Dear Rick: I knew I was going to net somebody with that one! Thank you for, um, expressing yourself both clearly and humorously. In fact, in my first draft I wrote “expressed purpose,” because I did mean that the Merriam-Webster’s people expressed or stated a purpose. But then I said to myself, The set phrase is “express purpose,” and I want to use that instead of timidly using the self-explanatory word. I checked a dictionary or two to make sure I wasn’t wrong -- and here we are.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the top-of-the-line source for word history, the citations for “express” meaning “expressed and not merely implied; definitely formulated; definite, explicit” date all the way back to Chaucer, in the 14th century. And “express purpose” continues to be more common in current news sources than “expressed purpose.”
Rick, forgive me, but if “express” did mean “10 items or ...,” according to me the line wouldn’t be “10 items or less” but “10 items or fewer.”

Clifford Williams, of Chicago, writes: “What would be the plural of ‘process’? I was under the impression that there is no proper plural form. I hear ‘processes’ pronounced with both a short and a long ‘e’ -- as ‘prah-ses-iz’ and ‘prah-ses-eez.’ Presuming that one is correct, which would it be?”

Dear Clifford: Why don’t you think the word has a plural? I wonder if your dictionary doesn’t give one. But many dictionaries don’t give plurals when they’re regular -- that is, when they’re just what you’d expect. It’s regular for the plural of “process” to be “processes.” So that’s why your dictionary left it out, if it did.

Dictionaries that do give a plural tend to give both pronunciations for it, but usage books that have an opinion about which is to be preferred go with “prah-ses-iz.” There’s no etymological or other historical reason, they argue, to depart from the norm and pronounce the “-es” as “-eez.”

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

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