Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pandemics, conditional tenses, and some really disturbing news

The other day I blogged about how the media’s use of conditional tense (could, can, might, may, possibly, probably, etc.) in their news stories has caused considerable chagrin among (or, for U.K. readers, amongst) the male half of the population.

Now, bless ’em, they are attempting to spread the chagrin caused by uncertainty about future events to the entire population, regardless of gender. May it please the court, I enter into evidence the people’s Exhibits A and B:

Exhibit A: Swine flu could hit up to 40 percent in US

Exhibit B: State official: Millions of Floridians could contract H1N1 virus within a year

You have been warned (terrified, had the pants scared off ya); now go and do all you can do to protect yourself and your family, beginning with making sure you (and they) get the shot when the vaccine is ready, eat oranges until they’re coming out your ears, keep a hanky at the ready, and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Oh, and you could stop going to raves.

But now for the really disturbing news.

I thought I had caught the aforementioned media in an egregious spelling error in the headline of Exhibit A, namely, the word percent, which, as all of us of a certain age were taught, is wrong. Just to double-check myself, I hopped over to and found that life as we know it is over, kaput, gone with the wind.

After the definition, Random House Dictionary (© Random House, Inc. 2009) added the following:

Usage note: Percent is from the Latin adverbial phrase per centum meaning “by the hundred.” The Latin phrase entered English in the 16th century. Later, it was abbreviated per cent. with a final period. Eventually, the period was dropped and the two parts merged to produce the modern one-word form percent. The two-word form per cent is still used occasionally, but its use is diminishing. The percent sign (%) is used chiefly in scientific, tabular, or statistical material and only with numerals preceding it: 58%.

The penultimate sentence in that paragraph is what caused my jaw to drop and what caused Mrs. Mary Lillard, my eighth-grade teacher, to spin in her grave even faster than usual. The two-word form is still used occasionally? But its use is diminishing? Give us old codgers a break, Random House. Just say plainly, why don’t you, that the two-word form will join the dodo as a relic of the unlamented past just as soon as the generation of people who were taught that spelling matters diminishes to the point of dropping off the face of the earth altogether.

My rant is ended. I now return to my usual calm, sweet, shy, reserved self.

As Robert Browning (a once-famous poet, kiddies) said, “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.”

Or, as the ravers say, “Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect.”


  1. A good many English teachers (of the old school) are spinning in their graves, and their attentive students are pulling out what remains of their hair! "The Queen's English," I fear, has gone the way of the dinosaur. Our great-great grandchildren will probably spell only in "text," i.e., "cU2nit."

  2. I read somewhere long ago that language will always work its way from the complex to the simple as something unfamiliar becomes more familiar. In the world of computers, for example, the words stand alone first were two separate words, then became hyphenated (stand-alone), and finally morphed into the single word, standalone. There is still a place for the hyphenated compound adjective, however.

  3. Dear Robert,
    As a swine flu sufferer, I hope you are not making light of the pandemic. You must have heard of computer viruses - well I have invented a new one whereby I can actually convey my swine flu germs via the Internet. If you have touched your mouse since reading this message you are now infected. I think I will change the virus's name to "mouse flu" making you one of a tiny percent of Georgians now infected. Have a nice day! Missing ya already!
    Yours percentagely,
    Mr Y. Pudding

  4. I wonder how many per cent of your readers agree that percent is a strange modern aberration? It's true, though, words do tend to contract in that way over time.

  5. Thanks for edducatin me. I might have showed my age--and hence my ignoranse--by using the two part spellin.

    P.S. Don't pay no attention to what Yorkshire Pudding said. Foreigners just like to show off when they think they know English as good as us Americans. Asides, he's probably feeling crotchedily from being sick.

  6. The news people are nuts. I just make up my own words.

  7. Bob - just wanted to say that I liked your comment on my blog today - one hundred per cent glorious!