Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The verb to contact

Another Mencken footnote:

During the heyday of Babbittry (c. 1905–29) to contact was one of its counter-words. In 1931 Mr. F. W. Lienau, an official of the Western Union, forbade its use by employés of the company. “Somewhere,” he said, “there cumbers this fair earth with his loathsome presence a man who, for the common good, should have been destroyed in early childhood. He is the originator of the hideous vulgarism of using contact as a verb. So long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact.” See the Commonweal , Dec. 9, 1931, p. 145. But Mr. Lienau’s indignation had no effect, and to contact is still widely used.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936).
I would have guessed that animus toward to contact had its origin in The Elements of Style (1959):
As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him.
But it would seem that E. B. White was following Lienau.¹ In the fourth edition (2000) of Strunk and White, the ban on to contact stands, but the language has become inclusive:
As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.
Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage has this observation about to contact:
Brevity recommends it over get in touch with or communicate with ; it should not be considered stylistically infelicitous even in formal contexts.
He adds: “If, however, the meaning is clearly either call or write , the specific verb is preferable.” Garner notes that while Mencken shared what he called the “priggish loathing” of contact , he conceded that “there is plenty of excuse for it in the genius of the English language.”

I’ve used to contact mainly in letters of recommendation:
If I can be of further help, please contact me by telephone (KLondike 5-5555) or e-mail (ML@ivoryt.edu).
At some point, I began saying things more simply, well before reading Garner’s entry about to contact. It just happened:
If I can be of further help, please call (KLondike 5-5555) or write (ML@ivoryt.edu).
Those letters of recommendation worked well too.

Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman
“[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty”
“There are words enough already”
The -thon , dancing and walking

¹ It’s White’s work. William Strunk Jr.’s 1918 Elements says nothing about to contact . Nor does the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). The second edition (1965) approves of the verb.

comments: 2

Marzek said...

Interesting, but little, I think, compared to the horror of "reach out to".

Elaine said...

Marzek beat me to it! Everyone is 'reaching out to' everything--the police department, the city spokesperson, the sanitation department, the victims, the perpetrator, etc., etc.