James J. Kilpatrick

In the case of the Seattle headline, the court would rule in favor of "whether" changes in job amount to retaliation. The choice is clearly yes-or-no; the changes do or they don't amount to retaliation. The trial court will be either affirmed or reversed. On the other hand, an "if" clause is, naturally, iffier -- the questions put to the court seemed fuzzy-wuzzy. The distinction between an "if" and a "whether" is often small, but distinctions lie at the essence of the writing art.

(As a practical matter, the court will take judicial notice of the limitations that go with the writing of headlines: IF would fit in a two-column headline; WHETHER wouldn't.)

Leon Gnat of Boynton Beach, Fla., petitions the court for a ruling on "just," not in the adjectival sense of "just punishment," but in the adverbial sense of exactly or precisely, e.g., "She wants the dress to hang just so," or simply ("His contract demands are just too much"), or immediately ("I just now found another beer").

The Great Fowler (Henry Fowler, that is) brushed off "just exactly" as not merely tautology but "bad tautology." The modifying "just" in "just how many beers have you had?" struck him as an Americanism. The familiar excuse, "I just got here!" is an idiomatic usage that defies easy analysis. The court will sleep upon Reader Gnat's motion for an advisory judgment, mainly because the court long ago learned to accept adverbs as wonderful pets with minds of their own. On that tentative note, the court takes a recess.

James J. Kilpatrick

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

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