Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Not in My Back Yard!" "Or Is It Not in My Backyard?"

Things That Matter Enough
by Carter Jefferson

Having lived a fairly long time, I am pretty used to the language shifting under my feet, and I don't get usually get as mad as Lynn Truss does when I see something weird in print. But not too many years ago some idiot start spelling "back yard" as one word -- "backyard." It has caught on, and now I see it everywhere. It even made first place in the AHD4.

"Front yard" hasn't suffered that indignity -- the space is still there in AHD4 and nearly everywhere else. Gross discrimination, I say.

Everybody should know, but some don't, that what's in the dictionary is not what words ought to be, but what enough people say or write -- including illiterates, thoughtless types, and people even you wouldn't like.

Think of the way this sounds: "The swings are in the back yard." Note that when you speak there's the tiny pause between "back" and "yard." Of course, you might say "It's a backyard swing," without that pause and it would sound just right. But a "back seat driver" still takes the pause, so all compound adjectives don't follow the same pronunciation rules.

Of course, all those people in Weston, Massachusetts, who stopped the bike trail from coming through can't say "Nimby" anymore; they have to say "Nimb," right?

Last night, however, I learned to my immense joy that the New Yorker, which is pretty careful about words, still spells "back yard" the way it ought to be spelled. It's at the end of the third paragraph of an article in the financial section of the Aug. 11 & 18 issue called "The Permission Problem."

Of course, it may be a typo, and some proofreader is in big trouble. But maybe not. Just for now, I'm going to believe they meant to spell it that way. You could, too, and then we'd take back that lost ground, swing and all.

You think these things don't matter enough to comment on? Fine. You're not me.


Bob Sanchez said...

Carter, you are fighting a valiant rear-guard action against the erosion of our language. Unfortunately, only the already literate are paying attention, and the heathens are swarming over our backyard--er, back yard.

NJHeart2Heart said...

I can appreciate the fight against improper language. C.S. Lewis was talking about it way back when, and Lynne Truss has taken up the torch in her own unique way. My boss recently smiled when he saw a sign on a door that said "Executive Storage". He wondered out loud how many executives were being hidden in there (he happens to be an executive himself) :) It might not be a completely wrong usage, but it was cute enough to stick in my head.

Ruth D~ said...

There is a story in the Boston Globe about the two young men who are traveling the country looking for improper spelling and grammar on signs. Apparently they made some corrections to a sign in Grand Canyon National Park. The have a year's probation, have to pay $3,035 in fines, and stay out of national parks for a year. Such gratitude for their editing skills!

Ruth D~ said...

. . . and as Gary whispered in my ear, because I hadn't mentioned it, the sign they chose to edit was an antique . . .something that can't be replicated, so while their editing skillmight be strong, their common sense wasn't. That's the rest of the story I hadn't told.

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