August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

What’s the plural of Ms.? The Writers Hotline, run by the English department of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, isn’t sure either. “Mss. is the most logical way of doing it,” explains Hotline, “but we’re still open to suggestions.” Most of the other questions phoned in to the Hotline get a more definitive answer. Open weekdays 9 a.m. to noon (Central Time), the Hotline began as a community service 18 months ago. Now 25 English department professors take calls from all over the country at (501) 569-3162. (The only charge is the cost of the call.) The questions come generally from businessmen or the government; 95 percent concern punctuation and subject-verb agreement. There are a few argument-stifling calls too. Last winter a San Francisco woman complained that a comma problem had ruined her dinner party. The debate was over punctuating this sentence: “Mary went to the store and bought eggs, butter, cheese, lettuce and milk.” A prof answered that, though he taught freshman students to put a comma after “lettuce,” “strictly speaking it is optional. Most newspapers don’t use it.” Commercial callers more often raise questions related to their trades, such as the furniture dealer who asked the plural of ottoman. It’s ottomans, not ottomen. The Hotline has also settled many an argument between secretaries and their bosses—secretaries are almost always right. Their experience hasn’t discouraged the professors about the future of English. “I don’t think it is becoming increasingly corrupted,” observes one. “Nor going to the dogs, either.” If anyone should know, it’s him. Make that he.

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