James J. Kilpatrick

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks opens its winter assizes with a motion from Edward Miller of Chicago. He asks the court to ban the use of "to replace" when the meaning is clearly "to succeed." His motion will be granted, but there is much more to be said.

The complainant offers in evidence a recent clipping from USA Today about the new James Bond thriller, "Casino Royale." It appears that some movie fans are disappointed by the choice of Daniel Craig "to replace" Pierce Brosnan in the leading role. Mr. Miller's point is that many actors may succeed Sean Connery, but no actor ever could "replace" him.

This is one of many instances in which connotation counts for more than mere definition. The experts at Merriam-Webster define "to replace" as "to take the place of, esp. as a substitute or successor." They define "to succeed" in the sense at hand, as "to come next after another in order." Very well. The court has no problem with those definitions, but they miss a penumbra of established understanding.

The court has traversed this Sahara before, most recently in cases involving the noun "replica." It used to be that a replica was more than a mere copy; it was "a work of art re-created by the original creator thereof." In the same way, "to replace" has taken on a connotation beyond simply "to take the place of." Many Yankee catchers have come after Yogi Berra and many conductors have succeeded Arturo Toscanini No one could have "replaced" them.

Peter Spurging of Seattle petitions the court for an order distinguishing "if" from "whether." As an exhibit he cites to a news story last April about an argument before the Supreme Court. The headline read: "Court debates IF changes in job amount to retaliation." In the same way, Microsoft Windows regularly asks users to check IF they have the latest software.

The general rule on "if" and "whether," as Bryan Garner explains in his "Modern American Usage," is to use "if" for a conditional idea, thus reserving "whether" for more or less specific alternatives. Thus, "Let me know IF you'll be coming" means, "I want to hear from you only if you'll be coming." But, "Let me know WHETHER you'll be coming" means, "Let me know one way or another" -- the orchestra seats cost a fortune, and if you aren't sure to use them, they go to Aunt Lizzie and her dissolute nephew.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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