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Tackling a stinker of a language

JUNE CASAGRANDE

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading two books: “The Iliad,”

which makes me sound smart but feel dumb, and Stephen King’s “The

Stand,” which has the opposite effect. The former is a classic tale

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of men who, for various reasons, want to kill men and attack and

enslave women. The latter is a less-respected work about men who, for

various reasons, want to kill men and attack and enslave women.

The former is readable to me mainly because Hollywood’s recent

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popcorn epic “Troy” helps me to picture Brad Pitt as a barely clad

Achilles. (An added plus: In the future, every time I mention Homer,

people won’t be able to automatically assume I’m referring to a

cartoon character.) “The Stand,” on the other hand, doesn’t conjure

up any images of male sex symbols, unless you think Stephen King was

really hot in his Cameo in “Creepshow.” King’s “The Stand” isn’t the

breezy read you might think. It was so long -- 1,150 pages -- that

the library wouldn’t allow me to renew it anymore and I had to cram

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until wee hours of the night to avoid the dreaded 50-cent late fee.

Normally, I wouldn’t ‘fess up to such psychologically

unjustifiable reading material, but I happened to notice a little

something in these books that I found interesting. In the span of

just a few days, I noticed that a character in “The Stand” was said

to “speak his piece.” In “The Iliad,” a group of soldiers all “held

their peace.”

There’s something I’d never noticed before. When you talk, the

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thing you’re speaking is your “piece.” But, when staying quiet, what

you’re withholding is your “peace.”

Isn’t English a stinker?

None of my reference books discuss these expressions. Ironically,

when I looked it up in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” I stumbled

upon a similarly evil language trap.

It’s “peace of mind,” but, “piece of (one’s) mind,” as in, “I’m

going to give you a piece of my mind and then I’ll have peace of

mind.”

Yes, English is a stinker. But it’s rare for me to find my own

examples in books. Most of the time I rely on readers to point these

things out. (Thank Zeus for you readers!) And this week’s

reader-observed example of why English is a stinker comes from Tom in

La Crescenta. He points out that a recent LA Times article about

travel in Mexico mentions “wooden choir stalls,” yet later notes,

“The gift shop has wood sculptures.”

Tom asks: “Since both things being described are made of wood, why

the different word? Is one description more correct than the other,

or are they both OK?”

And, like many people who aspire to get a better grasp of the

language, Tom tacks on a little disclaimer, “Perhaps this is a naive

question, since I am definitely not a grammarian, just curious.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nine out of 10 times we

think our language questions are a result of our own inadequacy, it

turns out that not even the experts know the answers. Or if they do,

they’re not telling, leaving the rest of us as divided and conquered

as a group of Trojans just discovering the trap doors in their new

toy horse.

None of my usage books contain listings for “wood” versus

“wooden.” So I’ll form my own answer from the information in the

dictionary. “Wooden” is an adjective. “Wood” is a primarily a noun,

but is also an adjective meaning (brace yourselves) “wooden.”

In fact, many nouns can be used as adjectives. For example,

“grass” is a noun, but in “grass hut,” it’s an adjective.

Therefore, Tom, the answer to your question is, yes. Both “wood”

and “wooden” are OK. Sure, that’s sort of a stinker in that having

two interchangeable words can lead to confusion. But at the same time

it’s kind of a relief. In fact, this stinker language can be pretty

forgiving as long as we remember there’s no such thing as a stupid

question. Only stupid reading habits.

* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

JuneTCN@aol.com.


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