Court of peeves, now in session

James J. Kilpatrick

1/2/2007 12:00:00 AM - 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.

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.