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Words, Aug. 12



Jerry Robbins of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: "In the July 8 issue of the Times, [a well-loved columnist] stated, 'If there was money at stake ...' Shouldn't that be 'If there WERE money at stake ...'? Or does the Times syle manual support the abandonment of the use of the subjunctive?"

The Times style manual is kept under lock and key at the Smithsonian, like Dillinger's relic, but I don't believe that it calls for total abandonment. It may call for tough love. Some authorities believe the subjunctive should be used only in discussing a circumstance that is clearly contrary to fact, such as, "If I were you." In the example Robbins cites, the writer may have felt there was a question about whether money would or would not be at stake, and therefore chose was. But I'm just guessing here.

"Many Arkansans have lost plenty in the economic downturn and it is infuriating to hear government fat cats rubbing it in their noses."

Ray White writes, "I believe the phrase is 'rubbing their noses in it.' " So do I. Though 'twould be unpleasant either way, I suppose. (OK, the 'twould is for a friend who cottons to words like whilst and amongst. Methinks he'll go for 'twould too.)

The relentless White also nabbed "Most of the participants ... had never stepped foot in the South." He notes that set foot is the real deal, and asks "Don't linguists have a name for a phrase that is misunderstood and then the misunderstanding overtakes the original?"

They may, but I can't find it. Unless White is thinking of mondegreen ("a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung"), but a mondegreen never drives out the original. Some people may say "for all intensive purposes" but it doesn't replace "for all intents and purposes" in standard English. Everyone who's interested probably already knows that the word mondegreen comes from "Lady Mondegreen," a mishearing of a line from an old folk song, "laid him on the green."

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