Columns » Words

Words Nov. 4


n “The debate format encouraged give-and-take, and neither the vice president nor Sen. John Kerry’s running mate shrunk from the task.” Is shrunk or shrank the past tense of shrink? Fowler said that shrank is proper and that shrunk as the past tense is archaic. That may have been true when Fowler’s Modern English Usage was published in 1926, but shrunk has been rejuvenated since then. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004) says that “while shrank is the standard past tense, shrunk is not uncommonly heard … it went round the world in the 1989 movie titled ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids.’ ” Though shrank appears more often in American writing, shrunk is “an acceptable alternative past tense in American English,” according to CGEU. n Harper’s Index, a regular feature of Harper’s Magazine, is an interesting compilation of data that usually goes uncompiled. This is from the September Index: “Number of U.S. newspaper editorials and op-eds published this year that included the phrase ‘pot calling the kettle black’: 16.” The figure must be in error. George Will alone would have topped 16 by now. Bob Lancaster writes: “A headline writer for CNN’s bottom-of-the-screen crawl solved the old lay-laid question the other day with this one: CORNERSTONE IS LAYED FOR FREEDOM TOWER.” I’d like to lay a cornerstone on the people responsible for bottom-of-the-screen crawls. Too much clutter, more annoying than informative. Had enough: An Iraqi fleeing his home after being caught between U.S. forces and insurgents — “We have put up with hunger, electricity outages and lack of water, but we cannot put up with death.” “Hard-hitting comedienne Margaret Cho performs at Robinson Center.” A reader asks whether comedienne or comedian is preferable for a female humorist. It’s pretty much dealer’s choice. People who like to get away from sex-related terminology would use comedian, and getting away from SRT is the trend these days. But actor and actress still hang on — at least partly because of the Oscars given in each category, I imagine — so maybe comedian and comedienne will too. Comedian (“a professional entertainer who amuses by relating anecdotes, acting out comical situations, engaging in humorous repartee, etc.”) dates back to the 16th century. Comedienne, the feminized form, is from the mid-19th.

Add a comment