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Practicing Safe Syntax

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kevin O'Malley

There is a virus loose in the land. It's not a flu or computer one, although those plague us, too. This is a verbal virus. It usually appears at the end of sentences and consists of a string of words that pretty much covers all possibilities--"et cetera, et cetera" is its classic form. I'll call the virus a "covering clause," even though I know the term is also used for other things. (Run an Internet search on it, for instance, and you can amaze your friends with arcane knowledge about the Australian Constitution.)

There are other verbal viruses (such as "like," "you know," and "um," and "uh") but this one is more insidious for three reasons.

First, like a real virus, it mutates rapidly. One sentence's "and all," becomes in the next sentence "and that sort of thing." The number of forms seems infinite. Without bothering to do much more than listen to the radio and read the newspaper, over the course of a day or two, I heard and read infected speakers using "and what-not," "and people like that," "and the like," "and things," "and things like that," "and such," and "or whatever."

Second, covering clauses honor no age or class boundaries. Here is Sunday pro football: "Quarterbacks like McNair, McNabb, and that type thing." Here is a New York Times headline: "The Reality of War, Traffic Jams and All." (This comes in direct contrast to other, less dangerous verbal viruses that do honor social boundaries, as in the case of "like." A recent New Yorker cartoon had two adult men at a bar, one of them using "like" copiously while wondering aloud how his wife figured out he was having an affair with the teenage babysitter.)

The third and most insidious thing about covering clauses is that, in some extremely unusual and remote circumstances, they might actually mean something. "Like," "you know," "um," and "uh" are the verbal equivalent of rude noises that just hang in the air, to be ignored politely. They don't mean anything. But consider the following possibilities. Your doctor enters the examining room, with papers in hand and a worried expression. "There's a problem," she says, "with your cholesterol level and all." Or this: Police car lights flash in your rear view mirror. A burly state trooper looks in your driver's side window, eyes unseen behind dark glasses, a grim expression on his face. The first words you hear are "you were speeding and all." At such moments, it matters deeply whether or not "and all" means anything.

I know covering clauses aren't new. In my scholarly role I occasionally read memoirs of great people. Not long back, I perused a "classic," first published in 1975. It is Marion Davies's autobiography, a work that proves it is possible to hang out with brilliant, rich, and powerful people and still be clueless. In it Davies wrote of one of those people, author of War of the Worlds, the British writer H.G. Wells: "I had read his story of the other world and everything." Even if the covering clause has been around for a long time--maybe the Romans really did end sentences with "et cetera, et cetera"--I think that, for reasons I will get to in a moment, it is particularly appropriate for our times, and not in a positive way.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find few covering clauses in the much-maligned rhetoric of our new U.S. president, as analyzed in a forthcoming book by my former colleague, Mark Crispin Miller. Although English often seems like a second language for George W., he is a verbal conservative when it comes to viruses, occasionally letting loose a "you know." That's good, because we don't want a president who, in a time of crisis, says, "We will commit American troops and such." Imagine how much stranger the political history of the 20th century would have been if we had had presidents uttering things like "read my lips and whatever," "I am not a crook and the like," or, "I did not have sex and all with that woman." Also, imagine how much poorer our political oratory would be if great speakers like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln had been infected. "We have nothing to fear but fear and things," and, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers and people like that brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and things like that; and dedicated to the proposition that 'all men are created equal' or whatever."

So why call it a "covering clause," and why do I think it is a particularly appropriate verbal virus for our times--our litigious times, I should have said? Because in meaning nothing and covering everything, it mostly covers the speaker's if, and, and but.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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