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The crankiness of Mr. White

Jul 5, 2015

Sometimes we wake up on the wrong side of bed, and most of us find the sunshine the next day. But an ancient fellow by the name of Richard Grant White seemed to always be a bit cranky, and he took his crankiness out on language.

There were many words and phrases that White griped about in his 18th century grammar book, Words and Their Uses Past and Present.

“Real estate was one of the words that he didn’t like,” says University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan. “He felt that this was an intruder from the province of law that we should not use in everyday life.”

While you and I and, well, pretty much everyone, do not find anything wrong with the phrase, “he left this morning,” this phrase got White into a tizzy.

“Richard Grant White felt that this sentence was ill-used,” says Curzan, “because you were using the verb leave without an object.”

White really hated common phrases like “Don Draper left this morning” or “The Storm Troopers are leaving this evening.” His response was a temper tantrum shout, “Left what? Shall leave what? Not the morning or the evening!”

According to White, you have to leave your house, your carriage, your school; you can't simply leave. But many of us just leave and it has probably resulted in White doing somersaults in his grave.

It doesn’t stop there. He also didn’t like the verb donate.

“I need hardly say that this word is utterly abominable,” White opined. “One that any lover of simple honest English cannot hear with patience and without offense. It has been formed by some presuming and ignorant person from donation.”

One phrase he may have a point about is, “The president convened Congress.”

According to White, “Convene means to come together, convoke means to call together. So one can say that the president convokes Congress and then Congress convenes.”

On the other hand, this phrase had been used for hundreds of years, so being bitter about it seems a bit silly.

Finally, White didn’t like presidential. He wanted “presa-dental,” which would be confusing to all dentists everywhere.

So we leave you now, wishing you all the best in your real estate endeavors, hoping you will donate your used vehicle to Michigan Radio, and looking forward to the next time the presidential Barack Obama convenes Congress.

– Cheyna Roth, Michigan Radio Newsroom