February 03, 2004

White House or white house?

Does anyone but me remember William & Mary Morris (later just William Morris), who wrote a syndicated newspaper column on language for many years? I just came across an old clipping, while I was looking for something else (of course), that reminded me why they were my favorite source of misguided punditry on Standard English.

A reader had written to ask why sports announcers `continually refer to "time outs remaining", when it ought to be "times out remaining": `the term "time out" is composed of two words. It is NOT a compound word,' wrote N.H. of Wauwatosa, Wisc., indignantly.

William Morris (in his column of 10/24/87) answered, `Sorry, but the preferred spelling of this expression is now as a single word, "timeout". So "three timeouts remaining" is perfectly correct.' (My 1983 edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 9th edition, has the spelling as time-out, but never mind.)

So in this pundit's view, the spelling determines compound status and thus the plural. But that can't be right. If I pronounce time out with stress on both syllables, then it's a two-word phrase regardless of how I spell it; and if I pronounce it with stress on just the first syllable, then it's a single compound word no matter how I spell it. It's like the White House in Washington vs. the white house on the corner: both are written as if they were two-word phrases, but the president's residence is a compound while the lower-case white house is a phrase.

Now if only I could find the Morris column that pronounced authoritatively that would've is really would of and therefore a sign of illiteracy, or at least of terminal nonstandardness --- a classic example of `eye dialect' being used to sneer at people who actually talk just like Morris.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 3, 2004 08:24 PM