Q: I caught you on WNYC recently while driving through the NY area. Serendipity for sure, especially while at a dead stop on the Merritt Parkway. I have always been troubled by the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” A mind is not a “terrible” thing. It would be terrible to waste a mind. Are these proponents of higher education grammatically correct?
A: Well, grammatically (or syntactically), the slogan isn’t perfect. But sloganeers often come up with stuff designed to catch our attention precisely BECAUSE of their imperfections or their oddities or their unusual uses of language.
And you have to admit that the original slogan is sheer poetry compared with Dan Quayle’s version when he addressed the United Negro College Fund: “… what a waste it is to lose one’s mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” (The New York Times, 6-29-89.)
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