The Shortcomings of 'Supposed'

A letter comes to hand from Sue Wilson of Staten Island, N.Y. She asks for comment on the employment of "supposed."

She cites to an editorial in The New York Times on April 23. The writer was defending a bill in Congress to benefit truck farmers in California: The farmers had suffered losses last year from a bacterial contamination of their crops. Surely, said the editor, this is "the type of emergency that supplemental spending bills are supposed to address."

"The trouble with ‘supposed,’" Mrs. Wilson writes, "is that it carries a kind of sarcastic overtone, as if the bills in Congress don’t truly address the emergency — they’re only supposed to address it. Wouldn’t ‘intended’ have been better? Or ‘meant’ to address? Or ‘designed’ to address?"

Any one of Mrs. Wilson’s alternatives would indeed have been better. As she remarks, "supposed" is among those chameleon words that change their meaning in a flicker of the eye. Were the bills in Congress, e.g., assumed, expected, presumed, thought, imagined or believed to address the emergency? Any one of them would have been better than "supposed," with its sniffy overtone of incredulity.

Susan Neal of Columbus, Ohio, files a complaint against "myself," as in, "The committee will be chaired by Mary and myself." Her objection is well-founded. The construction sounds clumsy and it is clumsy. Moreover, it leaves a question: If Mary can’t come, will myself preside?

A reader who signs himself Anon E. Moose, ho-ho, also asks for a solution to the problems that stem from reflexive pronouns. He cites to a story in the Times on April 18 that began: "Cho’s eruption of violence, in which 22 victims and himself were killed …"

Is there an acceptable solution to the problem of reflexives in these constructions? No, there is not. Often the least irksome resort is to scrap the passive and go to the active voice, e.g., "The eruption of violence, in which Cho killed 22 victims and himself …"

Do reflexive pronouns serve any useful purpose? In spoken English they do: "If you won’t call your mother, I will call her MYSELF!" Evidently, reflexives serve writers also: Bartlett’s Quotations cites 36 uses of "myself," 19 of "ourselves" and 11 of "yourself." Every schoolboy once was able to quote the famous funeral oration: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves." And every schoolgirl knows the advice to the hapless Englishman, "Speak for yourself, John!" The reflexives are handy tools, but they surely must be used with care.

James Wilbers of Jupiter, Fla., writes to complain of "arguably," as in "George Bush is arguably the best/worst president the country has ever had." The adverb, he urges, should be banished from everyday use.

Well, maybe so. Webster’s dates "arguably" from 1890 and defines it, deadpan, as "may be argued." The New World dictionary is equally helpful: The adverb means "can be supported by argument." Does the adverb serve a useful purpose? I would argue that it does, sometimes, but more in speech than in prose.

Granted, there is a time to be blunt. A drama critic could complain, "The play stinks!" But often a gentler word would be apter: "Arguably, the first act stinks less than the second act." Every editorial writer learns in the cradle that raw pigments, freshly squeezed from the tube, are more fun than watery pastels. But not all judgments are obviously good or clearly bad. Most questions leave something to argue about. Besides, "arguably" functions splendidly as a yaw word — something to contain forensic winds until a sail fills. Every experienced writer knows the mariner’s trick.