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?”


  1. In Australia the observant pedant winces at such phenomena frequently. Here’s a typical exchange:
    “Have we got time to go shopping?”
    “No, we don’t.”
    We don’t what? We don’t have got time? Ah, you mean we don’t have time! But that’s not what I asked…
    This resembles the diagnosis Languagehat gives; but I also consider these cases to be splicings of two standards: Australian with its very British retention of “got”, and American with its loss of it.
    Here’s a question, while I’m at it. Is the following infelicity gaining ground in Vespuccia, as it is in Ozland?
    “We used to work between about nine in the morning, when we’d have to punch the clock on the way in, to about ten at night, with only half an hour for lunch.”
    A surprising number of educated speakers have lost the notion that “between” demands a continuation of the form “A and B”, and that surrounding verbiage softens this requirement not one whit.

  2. ben wolfson says

    I’m surprised that the “Glossary” excludes “recoculous” from the list of ridonkulus-alikes, and that there’s a mismatch between “FLOHPA” in the text and “FLOPHA” in the subheading.

  3. “Recockulous” is a different word. The subheading is the mistake of the Times’s editors, as are a couple of missing commas and other incongruities.

  4. ben wolfson says

    It is? I thought it was part of the same general class. Fair enough.

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