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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

The College Pump

The Opposite of “If”

September-October 2006

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

Found in the University Archives, a cache of English-department files from the 1920s through the early 1940s of letters from members of the public seeking advice about the proper use of the language.

“Last evening a very heated discussion arose,” writes a woman from Larchmont, New York, in 1930, “concerning the use of the word ‘awfully’ in the following sentences: ‘She wears awfully pretty clothes.’ ‘We had an awfully nice time.’ Some asserted that the use of ‘awfully’ in these two sentences was decidedly incorrect, while others were willing to wager that it was correct. As no one could give any exact or definite proof, we decided to write to Harvard, where we are sure to find the correct answer.”

“How is ‘t-h-e’ pronounced?” asks a Saugus, Massachusetts, high-school student in 1931. “Is it pronounced with a long ‘e’ when it precedes a word beginning with a vowel, Ex. ‘the elephant,’ or is it always pronounced with a short ‘e,’ Ex. ‘the man?’…This question is very serious, silly as it may sound, and I wish you would treat it as such.” A clothier in Boston writes in 1932, “[W]hich of the following two forms is preferable: ‘Two Trousers Suits,’ or ‘Two Trouser Suits?’” From Manhattan in 1930: “[W]hich of the following statements is correct, and why? ‘About the only thing that comes to him who waits is whiskers.’ ‘About the only thing that comes to he who waits is whiskers.’”

The advertising manager of the California Walnut Growers Association writes in 1924, “Which word is correct, ‘recipe’ or ‘receipt’ when used in connection with the preparation of a food dish for the table, such as Rice Pudding, Turtle Soup, etc?…Josephine Turck Baker in her book The Correct Word states that the word ‘recipe’ is incorrect when used for other than a medical prescription. Because of this we are in all our advertising at the present time adhering to the word ‘receipt.’… Naturally, if we are wrong…we wish to revise our copy. On the other hand, we are doubly pleased if we are right because we are creating a great deal of talk which is securing for us much publicity.”

The English department ordinarily responded to these requests with a form letter palming the correspondent off on the Boston Public Library. In 1927 a hotel manager in New York City, who had asked for support in his conviction that “none” requires a plural verb, didn’t think much of this treatment: “I put in 14 years at the Copley Plaza, Boston, cashing bad checks and taking gin bottles away from some of your prize morons and thought perhaps that as a reward I might be able to ask and perhaps receive an answer to a question in English.”

In 1942 a private in the Air Corps appealed from Barracks 394, Chanute Field, Illinois, and the department chairman himself wrote back. “I would appreciate it very much if you would have the poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam explained to me thoroughly as I have been deeply confused by it, wrote the airman. P.S. If you cant explan explane explain it to me, will you please forward an address of someone who can. Your inquiry about Omar Khayyam represents, I think, exactly the reaction the poet intended, replied James B. Munn. Life comes upon us more quickly than we can understand.… Just think of it in terms of your own experience and see if your perplexities and those of the poet haven’t a lot in common.”

In 1938 a man in Billings, Montana, submitted this enduring puzzler: “A year ago I was employed as a head wing builder of a light-plane factory, during which time I made the acquaintance of a welder in the fuselage department. One day he asked me if….I knew the opposite of the word ‘if.’ I did not, and he gave me 30 days to dig it up. Other matters came up, and I did not give it a thought until this man had moved from our city. This man told me that a Harvard professor had asked him this and told him the correct answer, and after he moved I vainly tried to discover what it was. I wrote to the English department at Montana University and they failed to reply. To satisfy my natural curiosity and to silence my wife, who jeers at me and claims that ‘if’ has no opposite, will you please tell me what it is and why?”

(When you have an answer that pleases you, let us know it.)

~Primus V