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11/01/92

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WHAT'S THE WORD? HEAD OF DICTIONARY PANEL KNOWS

STANFORD -- Hopefully, the grammar police will not HArass (or haRASS?) Geoffrey Nunberg for his work on the American Heritage Dictionary, no matter how much it may aggravate (or irritate?) them.

Nunberg, consulting professor of linguistics at Stanford University, headed the usage panel for the dictionary's just-published third edition.

Nunberg sent detailed questionnaires to the 173 panel members - including large numbers of writers, editors and teachers - asking them about disputed usages, including questions of pronunciation, meaning and grammar. He incorporated the responses in the many usage notes throughout the dictionary.

In the notes, Nunberg often elaborated on the panel's response. A classic case, he said, is the note on hopefully.

"The panel - which has been opened up and is generally more liberal about usage than it was in previous editions - has become progressively more adamant" about the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, Nunberg said. A large majority (80 percent) rejected the sentence: "Hopefully, the measure will be adopted."

"People should know that," he said. "But they should also know that hopefully is widely used in speech and in reputable publications, and as far as we can see, the grammatical arguments made against the construction really don't hold water."

Sometimes the panel members split about 50-50, as they did on the pronunciation of harass. One half put the stress on the first syllable, the other half on the second, and each side claimed to be a beleaguered minority, Nunberg said.

And although some claim that aggravate should be used only to mean "to make worse" and not "to irritate," 68 percent of the panel accepted the latter usage.

Nunberg first got involved in the dictionary project through the offices of the late Dwight Bolinger, who before his death in February was visiting professor emeritus of linguistics at Stanford.

Starting with a panel inherited from previous editions, Nunberg and his colleagues made an effort to diversify the group, which was made up primarily of older white males. Seventy-five new members were recruited, with an emphasis on adding women, minorities, younger people and linguists, Nunberg said.

Increasing the number of women was not simply a matter of equity, Nunberg said.

"We wanted to ask the panel about all the gender questions that have come up in recent years, and we wanted to be able to see where men and women agreed on these questions and where they disagreed," he said.

In a column-long usage note on man, Nunberg writes that "on the whole, the panel accepts the generic use of man, the women members significantly less than the men." The sentence If early man suffered from a lack of information, modern man is tyrannized by an excess of it was acceptable to 58 percent of the women and 92 percent of the men.

The feminist challenge to traditional language "has made usage questions vital and interesting and removed them from the province of schoolroom lore," Nunberg said. "Most of the older male panel members have changed their usage in some respects in response to feminism. And even the most adamantly retrograde of the panelists were capable of defending their positions and decisions in great detail."

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