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The ‘curly blond-haired boy’ now has a ‘thick head of gray hair.’

The ‘curly blond-haired boy’ now has a ‘thick head of gray hair.’ – proper word usage

Alden Wood

By way of salutatory, one asks for your observations concerning this sentence plucked from a Boston, Mass., daily paper:

“Brian Callery, a 49-year-old Canton man with a thick head of gray hair, knows that golf course employees are advised to treat customers with deference.”

If the three key factors in moving real estate are (as the wise guys tell us) “location, location, location,” let the fourth estate now pay attention: What the reporter presents to the reader is a thick-headed guy with gray hair. The late language-usage maven Ted Bernstein reminded his readers of this syntactic pitfall when he recounted the story of a “curly, blond-haired boy.”

The man from Canton is better introduced as “a man with a head of thick, gray hair.”

* From what its writer describes as “the wet coast” comes this interesting query: “Something has been bothering me for years and I wondered whether you could give me a definitive answer. My query concerns the use of…’take’ and ‘make’ in reference to decisions, such as ‘He took the decision’ or ‘He made the decision’. I was always taught to use ‘make a decision…’. However, in news media in particular I have noticed an increasing use of ‘take a decision’. It irritates me to no end every time I hear it.

“Is this just a cultural/language difference between Canada and the States or is there something I’m missing?”

My response to nine-year IABC member Mairi Welman, who is director of communications for Mainframe Entertainment Inc., Vancouver, B.C., said “It does appear that ‘take’ a decision is more likely to appear in British lexicons than in U.S. versions: On page 360 of my British English, A to Zed (Facts on File Publications, 1987) by Norman W. Schur, one will read at take that take a decision means the same as make a decision. [One must decide whether one is on the take or on the make.] My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary shows on p. 3207 at Take ’45 vb. tr. Reach or make (a decision, resolution, etc.)….’

“Finally, the third edition of my American Heritage Dictionary (a mid-1990s publication) says on p. 1829 at take ’23. To make or perform: Many crucial decisions were taken as the path of the hurricane was plotted.’

“It looks as if ‘take a decision’ may be gaining some pop stature, but absent compelling dissent why not stay with ‘make a decision’? More people will recognize it, and none will stop reading and ask ‘I wonder why she chose to say take?'”

* Ms. Terry Berngards, manager, communications at Beaver Lumber Co., Ltd., which is in Markham, Ont., sends this word: “I write our employee magazine Yard Talk. A reader called me to task on an earlier column which said, ‘The flag at head office flew at half-mast’ when one of our managers passed away. She said that, unless one is on a ship, the correct phrase is ‘half-staff.’ What do you think?”

All lexicons shelved hereabouts – that’s seven, including the new Shorter OED – concur with T.B. that the preferred word to describe “the position about halfway up a mast or pole at which a flag is flown as a symbol of mourning for the dead or as a signal of distress” is half-mast. Several dictionaries show half-staff as a variant, but the lead entry is consistently half-mast, a word first recorded circa 1600.

* And the E-mail from long-time communicant Wilma Mathews, ABC, director, public relations, at Arizona State University, said “In the March issue of communications briefings, there’s an item on a handbook called ‘Walk Awhile in My Shoes.’ Can you walk ‘awhile’ or do you have to walk ‘a while’?”

The new American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) sets things aright, while-wise: “People often confuse the adverb awhile with the noun phrase a while. This is hardly surprising because they sound the same and the noun phrase can function like an adverb. In many cases both forms are acceptable. You can say It took a while to get down the hill, where a while functions like other noun’ phrases such as an hour or a long time. You can also say It took awhile to get down the hill, where awhile functions like the adverb phrase quite long or the comparative adverb longer.

“You may want to be careful using a while after prepositions, where traditional grammar calls for a noun as object. Thus you should write I’ll stay for a while, but not I’ll stay for awhile. Without the preposition, either form is acceptable: I’ll stay a while or I’ll stay awhile.”

This new Houghton Mifflin title also clarifies possible confusion with all right, which is always all right, and alright, which is never.

* And what was the expression we used to use before closure spread its wings?

Alden Wood, APR, lecturer on editorial procedures at Simmons College, Boston, Mass., writes and lectures on language usage. He is a retired insurance industry vice president of advertising and public relations (his E-mail address is awood@vmsvax.simmons.edu).

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