Word Watch: Everybody wants to ‘get it right’

Member Group : James Edwards: Word Watch

"I’ve stopped trying to get everything right."

— Helen Hunt, Redbook cover piece, May 2008

"The Times ‘got it wrong’ about the vetting of Palin."

— New York Times Public Editor Charles Hoyt, Sept. 2008

"National Review. Get It Right."

— TV advertisement for the conservative journal

"You got three candidates — two of ’em got it wrong in Iraq; one of ’em got it right."

— Barack Obama, campaigning in Harrisburg, April 19, 2008

We’re all out here, more or less, one day after another, trying, in most respects to get it right, aren’t we?

One advertiser, Lanier Copiers, even got tired of this new cliche phrase "getting it right," so they shortened it, co-opting the cliche by suggestion, and adopted this sentence as their slogan: "Lanier gets it."

I don’t think they mean they "get it" like understand, as in getting a joke, but rather they mean to suggest to your subconscious, when your mind supplies the "right" that one expects to follow the "it," that Lanier "Gets it right." Only the right doesn’t come.

We all want to "get it right," "stand tall," "hang in," "step up to the plate," etc.

In my ancient Webster’s dictionary dating from the late 1930s, "right" occupies two full columns of a three-column page: it’s an adjective with 11 definitions ("straight, direct, not crooked"), next it’s an adverb with eight more ("directly, hence, straightaway," or "in a suitable, desired, or fortunate manner; well"), followed by its noun entry with six definitions ("that to which one has a just claim"), and finally it’s also a verb with six definitions ("to right a boat").

It appears to this analyst that in the usage under study, "getting it right," the adverbial usage would be the most acceptable — it works like this: "How is one getting it? One’s getting it right." Therefore right is modifying "getting," a verb, and when one modifies a verb, one must be an adverb. The adverbial meaning that applies is most properly "in a suitable, desired, or fortunate manner; well."

The use of this phrase "getting it right" is heavy on the editorial, that is, its user is implying the evaluation of multiple processes toward a "correct" or "just" or "proper" analysis, has included some such analyses, has excluded others, sifted, screened again, and finally has come up with one which won the competition, or "got it right." The others were flawed, somehow.

Therefore it’s value-loaded; it substitutes for "I agree with him." He got it right.

Who says? Maybe, to me, who deserves my own analysis, based on my own screening criteria, politician or columnist "A" or "C" got it right instead; who’s to know?

"Getting it right" is being used, then, to convince, in a professorial or "talking head" way, to get people to go along with someone else’s argument.

This might explain why it kept coming up during the previous two years which were heavily politicized due to the [then] upcoming election. I haven’t heard or seen it much, if at all, in the past four post-election months.

Perhaps this particular usage of right, to "get [something] right," will die quickly, and become, in the deepening archaeology of English usage, a recognizable artifact of the period 2006-2008 of political rhetoric.

James M. Edwards lives in Squirrel Hill. Word Watch welcomes your observations on today’s lingo. Write to [email protected], send mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, or call 412-263-1915.
First published on May 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

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