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Thursday, December 14, 2006

To wit, Maliha is a "subject in question," as it were (Eglenelim, Ogrenelim)

Kenan: Dear Jamar and Maliha, could either of you please explain to me the use(s) of these two bewildering phrases, "as it were" and "to wit"? Dictionaries are of no use when it comes to such phrases.

Jamar: Asking Maliha to help you in this is like asking a polar bear at the north pole about the best sunscreen to use in the middle of a blizzard. But, anyway, "to wit" is a bit easier. It is used, usually, in place of "in other words" or " the point is. . ." or "namely" or "that is to say." So, you might say "Maliha's brain is like an empty freight train, to wit. . ." In this instance, "to wit" would suggest that you will be explaining further, but essentially repeating, the why and how Maliha's brain is the way it is. So, "to wit" usually implies that the speaker will add to or clarify some point by restating it (but perhaps in a slightly different form).

"As it were" is a stickier expression. It is mostly meaningless verbiage, but it's often used to double or redouble a point. Or, put otherwise, it's used at the end of some statement to simply suggest the "existence" or probable ontological veracity of what you've just said. So, it's short for "as if it were so." It's strange since it also indicates a bit of doubt since when you say "as it were," it implies there's some fragility in what it is you've initially said so you need to restate or "double" it. Sometimes it also indicates a bit of self-reflection or self-consciousness. It's probably closest to the phrase "so to speak."So, one would say, "when you have to listen to Maliha, you realize your mind is lost in a wind tunnel located somewhere in the midst of a typhoon, as it were." The "as it were" phrase is really a throw-away, but it "works" here to suggest that perhaps you've been metaphorizing and you are calling attention to that fact. It both strengthens and weakens the attempt at a metaphor. It strengthens it by indicating a self-consciousness of having used an analogical reference. It weakens by showing that you need to do such indicating (which means that the analogy didn't really stand on its own). Sometimes, "as it were" implies a bit of irony. Perhaps you can see the irony in the sentence about Maliha's mind.I'll see if i can find other ways to explain all of this. It may involve having to dispense with Maliha as the subject in question. To wit, Maliha IS a "subject in question," as it were.

Kenan: Dear Jack, many thanks. I couldn't ask for a better explanation. I've always wanted to catalogue such phrases that are barely communicable across lingual boundaries. Maybe this will be a start. Would you mind me having your message posted on the surplusthought? I am sure native and foreign speakers alike would enjoy and learn from it. I can substitute "Bush" for "Maliha" to save her the humiliation --what a way to save one's dignity!

Maliha: Please Kenan- use his posting with my name in it- I don't mind one bit, and the whole exchange was so hilarious I cried...and- to tell the truth- I really had no idea about "to wit"- so maybe Jack's analogy wasn't so far off...

Kenan: Thanks, guys. Much appreciated. Now that we've cleared these two out of the way, we can turn to other oddities of English like "why" (in the non-question form).

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