A Word, Please: Playing it safely

"If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstruction."

That was Texas Rep. Joe Barton's apology for an apology — his ridiculously noncommittal backpedaling after telling BP chief Tony Hayward on June 17 how "ashamed" he was about our government's failure to be nicer about the worst oil spill in history. A plan to force BP to set up a $20-billion escrow fund to cover the damage was, Barton said, "a tragedy of the first proportion."

After every sober citizen who owns a television gasped at the utter perversity of Barton's logic, he tried to make things right with the above-quoted apology. And, in less than a day, Barton had given word parsers more fodder than Yogi Berra and Bill Clinton combined. Barton's grasp of the word "tragedy" alone could fuel a million blogs, not to mention his concept of "apology."

But unlike the professional pundits who parse words to get to their meaning, I scrutinize even the less-meaningful stuff. And though I'm still reeling from the content of Barton's message, I've recovered enough to notice something about its form, specifically, his use of "misconstruction."

The word sounded odd to me, so I did some digging.

Many people don't know how to find help with matters like this or even how to choose between "drank" and "drunk," "swam" and "swum," and "stank" and "stunk." But the answer to all these questions is right at your fingertips. All you have to do is spend a few moments learning how to better use the dictionary.

Everyone knows that the dictionary is the place to turn if you need a correct spelling or a word definition. But there's a ton of other great information in there for anyone who knows how to access it.

For example, every irregular verb in the dictionary is accompanied by its "inflected forms." So if you look up "drink" you'll see next to it "drank, drunk, drinking." These entries follow a formula, usually explained clearly in the front of the dictionary: The first form is the simple past tense, the second is the past participle, and the third is the progressive or "ing" participle. You already know all there is to know about the simple past tense — "Joe drank" — and the progressive participle — "Joe is drinking." The past participle is almost as easy: Just remember that it's the one that goes with a form of "have": "Joe has drunk."

But wait, some might say, what about "Joe is drunk" or "Joe is a drunk man"? Well, in those two cases, "drunk" is being used as an adjective. Adjectives get their own separate entries in the dictionary. So if you turn straight to "drunk" you'll see that you were right: it's not just a past participle, it's also an adjective. The same strategy can solve the "hanged" vs. "hung" mystery in minutes flat.

For many words, dictionaries include "related forms," usually at the very end of the entry. For example, the noun forms of a verb you've looked up or the adjective form of a noun. And that brings us back to Barton.

To figure out whether he was wrong, I went straight to the root word, "construe." "Webster's New World College Dictionary" told me that its related noun form is "construal." So I sat down to write a column about Barton's mistake, but at the last minute had a rare flash of wisdom. Just to play it safe, I looked up "misconstrue." And there, to my shock, I saw that the related form is not "misconstrual" but "misconstruction."

That's just one dictionary's view. Yours may disagree. But I'm just glad I didn't ridicule Barton, thereby inflicting on him a tragedy of the first degree.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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