Since I frequently have occasion to lambast the NY Times here, I take pleasure in patting them on the back when they do something right: in this case, gracing their year-end Week in Review section with essays by Languagehat’s house lexicographer, Grant Barrett (“Glossary“), and one of my favorite linguists, Geoff Nunberg (“Faith“). The whole issue is focused on words and has a lot of interesting items, but I particularly recommend those two.
From a non-lexicographical article, Gina Kolata’s “Winter Is Flu Season, but Maybe It Doesn’t Have to Be,” I excerpt this grammatically interesting Q&A:
So, increasingly, scientists are asking: Why must we endure an epidemic every year?
The answer, said Dr. M. Elizabeth Halloran, a statistician at Emory University, is, “Maybe we don’t.”
That mismatch of “why must we”/”we don’t [have to]” may be an editing glitch, but it may also reflect a linguistic confusion I’ve heard in speech: we seem to mentally translate “must” to the more colloquial “have to” for the purposes of negation (since the traditional negative of “we must” is the unintuitive “we needn’t”), and rather than say the full “we don’t have to” we elide the “have to” just as if the question had been “Why do we have to endure an epidemic?”