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Court of Peeves, Now in Session!

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its summer assizes with an irk from Dan Wise of Birmingham, Ala. He moves for an injunction against the use of "while" when "although" is required. A restraining order will be granted, but not without some preliminary palaver.

In evidence the complainant offers three Horrid Examples:

— From a Virginia organization engaged in human resources research: "While not thoroughly familiar with the project, the MAPWG is aware …"

— From the code of an international conference on plumbing: "While the municipality may not further delegate its police power …" And, "While it is generally assumed that the administrative sections of a code are geared …"

The court will observe that "while" is one of those chameleon words that inhabit the swamps of English. It changes from preposition to conjunction to noun to verb in the turn of a phrase. Even so, the first, immediate connotation of "while" is temporal — it invokes a sense of time passing. "While the dogs slept, the thieves escaped." In each of Reader Wise’s Horrid Examples, the writer has abused the first meaning of "while." It has been press-ganged into serving the role of "although." Fastidious writers should limit its employment.

Ben Daviss of Walpole, N.H., petitions the court for an Order of Explication permanently defining and separating "mistrust" from "distrust." The court seeks help from any readers who may be lexicographically inclined. The usual professionals are not much help. Both "mistrust" and "distrust," whether as nouns or verbs, carry an identical meaning, i.e., a lack of confidence in; a suspicion as to the truth of; grave doubt as to the value of. The court will hazard a notion — no more than that — that we mistrust people and distrust things. Thus we distrust a shaky footbridge and mistrust the guy who’s trying to sell it. Lexicographers, please assist!

Mildred M. Fischer of Fredericksburg, Va., asks for a ruling on "ever so often" as distinguished from "every so often." The court suspects that the usage is chiefly one of speech as distinguished from writing. Her motion probably should be dismissed for want of jurisdiction, but rules are meant to be bent.

The remarkable phenomenon here is that "ever so often" implies greater frequency than "every so often." At least this is so in Tidewater Virginia, where a young lady at Mary Washington College may go north to Washington, D.C., ever so often, i.e., every chance she gets. She will go south to Richmond only every so often, i.e., for something special.

In this regard, the court turns to Bryan Garner, its favorite language guru. In his "Modern American Usage," he makes the same distinction. Something that occurs only "every" so often is merely occasional. If it occurs "ever" so often, it occurs "with great frequency." The court will forever marvel at the nuances of English, and at the old-ances too.

Ronald Kessler, a judge of the Superior Court in Seattle, writes to share his view of "presently." He doesn’t like the mushy adverb and routinely strikes it from any draft orders presented to him. A defendant in his court is not going to plea that he is "presently" incompetent. He’s "incompetent," period.

Garner concurs in this unflattering view of the ambiguous adverb. In Shakespeare’s day "presently" meant "immediately." Then it evolved into its current meaning of "pretty soon" or "whenever I get around to it." The court always advises writers to eschew ambiguities, including this one, and will now take a few days’ recess.

Written By

Mr. Kilpatrick is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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