Staying Only a Few Steps Ahead of the Language Police

The language cops have been especially vigilant lately. Maybe it’s seasonal.

Stewart W. West of Ventura complains, as others often do, that I occasionally misplace an only , as in “it only cost me 75 cents.” Logically, of course, the only should directly precede the “75 cents.”

But “it only cost me 75 cents” is idiom and idiom is often better than correct syntax. Can you imagine singing “I have eyes only for you” or “I have eyes for you only” instead of “I only have eyes for you”?

Ed Newman of Woodland Hills complains that the terms pushed back and moved back, in reference to upcoming dates, are ambiguous. He notes that the headline over a story reporting that Elizabeth Taylor had put off her wedding one day, from a Saturday to a Sunday, was “Elizabeth Taylor Moves Wedding Back One Day.”


“How could one move her wedding day back from Saturday to Sunday?” he asks. He says he has complained about this usage to many reporters but only Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle answered, suggesting delayed , instead. “I would think advanced would be better, or even pushed ahead.

The question is whether the date is being moved further into the future or closer to the present. It seems to me that “moved forward” should do for the first, and “moved back” for the second. But there are those for whom those phrases mean just the opposite. The best thing to do is set a wedding date and don’t change it.

Several old salts have complained about my definition of ship as “a large deep-water vessel propelled by engines.” David Wolpacoff of El Cajon protests: “Would you call a Clipper Ship under full-blown sail a boat?” (No.)

Lillian Birrell, a sailor in World War II, recalls that a warrant officer told her “you can put a boat on a ship, but you can not put a ship on a boat.” John Smits of Las Vegas says, “Jack, it is real simple. ‘Ships carry boats.’ ” Another ex-sailor, Maxwell Hull, recalls that “a boat was defined as a vessel which could be hoisted aboard another.”


I too remember that sailor’s definition from my days in the Marines. But Webster’s honors it only indirectly, in definition 3: “any large, seagoing vessel, ship; a term in popular use (“The Love Boat”) but not by sailors.”

“How dare you say dinosaurs are ‘make-believe’ just because they are extinct!” asks Marc Russell, referring to my description of animated models of dinosaurs in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. “Would you say George Washington or Adolf Hitler or Michael Landon are ‘make-believe’ just because they have died? How would you like it if someone starts calling you ‘make-believe’ in some future century?”

If in some future century someone makes a plastic model of me, and animates it with electricity, and makes it talk, I will expect it to be called “make-believe”

William Thompson complains that “to say that (Andre) Previn’s trio played an ‘improvisational kind of jazz’ is to utter a redundancy.” I concede that jazz is generally thought of as improvised, but Webster’s defines it as “a kind of music, originally improvised, but now also arranged. . . .”


Thompson also observes that for me to label the music of Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann as baroque “is to make an arguable value judgment.” He adds: “I suspect that you meant Baroque , which more aptly places those pieces in their historical niche.”

Webster’s says baroque is “often” capitalized, but it doesn’t say it has to be, even when referring to music of the baroque period. Baroque , lower case (often caps) is defined as “of, characteristic of, or like a style of music characterized by highly embellished melodies and fugal or contrapuntal forms.” That’s what the music was--baroque.

Frank J. Joffrion, a retired United Airlines captain, complains about a common tautology: “This culprit is ‘commercial airline’ or ‘commercial airline pilot.’ ”

He adds: “Now in the entire history of aviation, has there ever been such a thing as a non-commercial airline or a non-commercial airline pilot? I think not. . . . We have said it all with just ‘airline pilot.’ ”


Alas, we have about as much chance of getting rid of ‘commercial airline pilot’ as we have of getting rid of free gift .

Gigi Sherman rebukes me for describing a small-town police report as “taciturn to a fault.” She points out, “Hardly! The writer may be ‘temperamentally disinclined to talk’ (Webster’s) but the report is ‘concise, terse, succinct’ (Webster’s).”

But she says it’s only a solecism, not an error, and shouldn’t be charged against my quota.

Nope. My quota is blown already. It counts.