James J. Kilpatrick

Mary S. Long of Spencer, Ind., petitions the court for a ban on "but I digress." Her motion will be denied, but for a reason: "but I digress" is what the court has identified as a yawing phrase, i.e., a pause for delay while a sail is filling and a fresh tack begins. In ordinary speech or prose, a yaw gently signals an approaching change of subject. It is related to a barrister's "May it please the court." Such a benign redundancy can get to be an irk -- it clearly irks reader Long in Indiana -- but it cannot be condemned out of hand.

Ms. Long also moves for a ban on the reckless employment of "exponentially." This motion will be granted. The complainant provides an opportunity for one more lamentation on the operation of Gresham's Law of Language, i.e., that bad usage drives out good. The noun "exponent" and the derivative "exponential" both date from the early 1700s. Their sole purpose once was to identify a mathematical function, e.g., to raise 10 to its 10th power.

Inevitably the law went to work, and before long a precise noun, defining a precise function, had lost its exclusivity, or its virginity, or its whatever. Now, when two more candidates announce for the presidency, the field is reported to have increased "exponentially." Bah! Indeed, bah humbug! The court hopes always to be an exponent of the old copy-editing ways.

On that plaintive note the court takes a recess. Next week, anomalies?


James J. Kilpatrick

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

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