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Defending the Doodad on the Lamb Chop

Old wives have a lot to answer for. Such as that opening sentence.

Old wives have a lot to answer for. Such as that opening sentence.
 
You will have noticed that the sentence ended with a preposition. It is astonishing — indeed, dumbfounding — that after all these years, a pernicious notion persists that some unwritten law of prose composition prohibits the construction. John D. Doykos III, who dwells somewhere in Cyberspace, asks for comment. My comment is, bah, humbug!

You have to wonder where the notion came from. There’s plenty of blame to pass around. One theory is that, because you cannot end a Latin sentence with a preposition, English writers should regard this as a rule to live by. Whatever, the canard keeps hanging around. Thus the controversy continues, even though dozens of successful writers have shot it down.

In their Dictionary of English Usage, the gnomes of Merriam-Webster devote nearly four pages to exorcizing this bogeyman. They quote myth-breaking passages from John Bunyan, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Henry Fielding, Robert Frost, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Henry Adams and even Andy Rooney. In sum, they endorse the view of Winston Churchill. The supposed rule, he famously said, "is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

Notice, please, the immediately foregoing sentence: Churchill "famously" said. The construction sorely irks reader Ron Magid of Gig Harbor, Wash. He cites to obituary writers who remembered that William F. Buckley Jr. "famously feuded" with Gore Vidal. Moreover, recalled Michael Kinsley in The New York Times, Buckley "famously claimed that he could — and did — write a column in 20 minutes."

Reader Magid has other Horrid Examples: In The Seattle Times, "The American intellect Lionel Trilling famously said …" In the Chicago Sun-Times, "The risks famously linked to post-menopausal hormone therapy largely vanish." In a book of political commentary, "Harry Truman famously longed for a ‘one-handed economist’ who could not say, ‘on the one hand, but on the other hand …’"

Is "famously" a kind of girly adverb, out of place in he-man prose? The gnomes of Merriam-Webster define "famously" as, "in a celebrated manner; in a superlative fashion; to an unusual degree." The amplifier dates from 1546. Given that pedigree, I venture no objection, but surely the adverb should be deployed with care. Sometimes the derivative forms of "fame" are not all that complimentary. It depends upon what one is famous for. Or infamous for.

Digression: Did you know that a "famulus" is a private secretary? I had never met a famulus, but the noun has been sitting for many years next to "famously" in all my dictionaries. Funny things happen in this forum. Press on!

Fred Strawser of Lancaster, Ohio, writes to continue the discussion of amplifying phrases, specifically, "I will marry Hairbreadth Harry whether OR NOT you approve." He finds the emphasized words not merely redundant but loathsomely redundant. He quotes from a columnist in The Columbus Dispatch, "Pope John Paul represents policy continuity, whether or not he can earn the affection John Paul enjoyed."

Let me persist in defending the Benign Redundancy. Technically speaking, the "or not" probably is surplusage, but so what? Many of life’s simple pleasures lie in the icing on the cake, the doodads on the lamb chops. Tchaikovsky could have cut 50 measures out of the "1812 Overture," but Napoleon would not have gone so memorably home. Not all excess is needless excess. You can believe that, dear writer, or not.

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Mr. Kilpatrick is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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