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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #73 (article first published : 2006-06-11)

The first newspaper gaffe that prompted this article was in the august columns of the London Weekly Telegraph in late April. One of their journalists wrote, “He doesn’t look like a dancer, though he did used to be one.”

That “used” might be a typographical error, but I don’t think so. It’s obviously wrong; how would we correct it? “He used to be one” makes sense, but what if you want to emphasise it? What about “He did use to be one”? It looks (and is) grammatical, but it has a weird, old-world ring about it, like saying, “It is I” (technically correct) where most of us would say, “It’s me”.

It all has to do with the word “use”. This is a very serviceable little word that we employ frequently (or, to emphasise the point, this is a very useful little word that we use frequently.) Everyone knows exactly what it means, but there are some survivals from earlier meanings that linger on like living fossils. We all know “employ habitually; put to some purpose”. “Treat or behave towards” begins to sound old-fashioned, as in the old song, “How could you use a poor maiden so?” or the injunction in the King James Bible, “Pray for them which despitefully use you.” However, the meaning is still clear.

Other meanings have disappeared almost completely. To “resort to a place; observe or practise; behave (oneself); be in the habit of” all seem to have disappeared without trace. But there is one archaic meaning of that last one which has partially survived – “to be accustomed to (doing something)” which lives on mostly in its past tense “used”, as in “I used to be a fisherman.” And that is why the expression suggested above, “He did use to be one”, sounds so antiquated – we simply don’t employ “use” in that sense any more.

The past tense lives on vigorously – apart from “what I used to be”, the expression “I’m used to it” is perfectly familiar. Interestingly, in both these examples the word is pronounced with a soft “s” and “d”, to rhyme with “boost”. In the sentence “I used my wits”, the word rhymes with “boozed,” which is an odd distinction for us to have made. But make it we did, and we use it all the time, without thinking.

The next blunders come, not surprisingly, from our Durban morning paper, but these are in the hallowed columns of The Editorial. I must quote it in full: “Coming to grips with South Africa’s Motor Industry Development Plan requires a degree of economic understanding that many people don’t have, suffice to say that the plan is a government scheme aimed at encouraging the growth of the auto industry.”

The immediate flaw is obvious. We have here two sentences, two distinct thoughts, separated only by a comma. That is a clumsy error that should have been corrected when the writer was about thirteen, but obviously wasn’t.

The other is a modern illiteracy – “suffice to say”. It doesn’t crop up that often, but it is remarkably offensive when it does. What the writer means is “Let it be sufficient to say…”, and the nearest short form of that is “Suffice it to say…” But he’s left out the word “it”, which is vital to the sense.

The word “suffice” is used here in an interesting form known as the subjunctive mood, which we encounter in expressions like “If I were king” (instead of “I was”) or “Be that as it may.” It is, in a sense, giving an order, “Let it be so”, which is why Latin grammarians used to refer to this usage as the “Jussive” subjunctive.

The immortal H W Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage (1926) two things that concern us here: 1. “The subjunctive is dying”, and 2. “Subjunctives met with today are either deliberate revivals…or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness…”

Pretentious journalism, indeed – editor, please take note. (But of course he won’t.)

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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