Court of peeves, now in session!

Posted: Jun 25, 2006 12:01 AM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its summer assizes with a petition from Dianne Kampinen of Chicago. She moves for an injunction against people who say "frankly," and especially and particularly against those who puff it up to "quite frankly."

Her motion will be granted. The court ordinarily confines its jurisdiction to written offenses against the English language, but will make exceptions today. The trouble with the detestable "frankly" is that someone who purports to be speaking frankly almost always isn't. On the contrary, an introductory "frankly" usually signals the beginning of dissimulation.

The court long ago concluded that all such candy modifiers are likely to be bogus in some degree. "Candidly" is almost as offensive as "frankly," and both of them are cousins to the eye-rolling "truthfully." The family includes "really," "actually," "honestly" and even "verily." Prudent writers and speakers can get along just fine without them.

Question: May we thoughtfully write that someone died "unexpectedly"? In this construction, should the adverb be banned? Hugh Stevens of Raleigh, N.C., recalls a college professor of journalism who taught him that because everyone expects to die eventually (or perhaps suddenly), it's a stylistic error to write that the late lamented died unexpectedly.

This court -- the Court of Peeves et cetera -- views temporal expectation as a matter of degree. The sun arises as we expect it to. Elsewhere our expectations are not so firmly founded. Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come. (Not a bad line, right? Hard to believe it's original.) You will recall that Caesar had been warned, so perhaps he should have expected the assassin's knife, but no one else anticipated his demise. The court finds it picky-picky-picky to object to "unexpected death." The motion to ban is denied.

Stephanie Kissian of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., asks the court to look askance at the apostrophe "s" in a local headline: "In Own Little World, Kids Don't Know There's Many Like Them." She protests that kids don't know there ARE many like them. Can "there's" be right?

Ah, hmm. The contracted "there's" has been legitimate since 1580, but only in the sense of "there is" or "there has." It cannot be lawful to dragoon "there's" into a form of ungrammar, but there's no such contraction as "there're" and "there are" sounds stilted and stuffy.

The court, which is so rarely in doubt, is in doubt. That headline in The Palm Beach Post didn't sound right to Ms. Kissian, but most readers probably never winced at all. If the copy editor had tried "There Are Many Like Them," his headline wouldn't have fit. The court invites a solution both euphonious and grammatical.

Robert L. Shalkop of Salisbury, N.C., and Patricia Spaeth of Auburn, Wash., move separately and enthusiastically for an injunction against "one of the only." He describes it as a "barbarism." She terms it "impossible." Their point is that, properly speaking, we should trim our sails and our sentences to "one of the few." Of course we should.

But as the court has muttered many times, English has a hundred improper, illogical, indefensible constructions, and this is one of the most frequently cited. Lexicographers begin their definition of "only" in high spirits. The adjective means "peerless, sole, single; unquestionably the best or finest; alone in a class or category." Yes! It's a superlative! Then the native hue of their resolution sicklies o'er with a pale cast of thought, and they confess that "only" also means: "few." It has embraced that meaning for 800 years. The Court of Peeves surrenders.