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Going to bat against the dictionary

he T-shirt, commonly misspelled "tee shirt," is so named because it resembles the letter T when spread out. Tee ball, commonly misspelled "T-ball," is so named because a ball is hit off a tee.

Is that so difficult?

Apparently it is. Unanimously, as far as I can tell, dictionaries favor the non-informative T-ball. Some of those dictionaries don't even recognize tee ball as an alternative spelling. Some very smart people think I'm out of my mind for having such strong feelings in favor of the tee- version.

OK, then, so why am I wrong? Let me go over every possible explanation I can think of.

  • That's just the way it is. Sometimes that's a good answer. In this case, I'd accept it if tee ball were unheard of in the tee-ball community. But clearly it isn't. My two younger brothers played tee ball, not T-ball, in the '70s. So then maybe the term has evolved? No. Steer your browser to www.teeballusa.org (I win! Well, not so fast . . .), the Web site of the organization T-Ball USA (I lose? Well, not so fast . . .), and investigate this juxtaposition. T-Ball USA, you see, publishes The Official T-Ball USA Family Guide to Tee Ball. Its explanatory link is labeled "What Is Tee Ball?" See what's happening here? This tee-ball organization considers T-ball a punny little twist on reality, a spelling worthy of a logo but not of the language.

    And T-Ball USA, as everyone knows, is the world's premier tee-ball organization. "Really?" you ask. Hell, I don't know. Does it matter? My point is that it's incorrect to say the people who play tee ball unanimously call it T-ball. Whether or not T-Ball USA is a leader in its field, it's obviously pretty well invested in that field. For mainstream writers to use T-ball when this group uses tee ball is a lot like using email when PC Magazine uses e-mail.

  • The tee is shaped like a T. No, it isn't.

  • The players wear T-shirts. So? By that logic I play polo every time I step on a tennis court.

  • T is an abbreviation for tee. An abbreviation that sounds exactly like the word it abbreviates, eh? That sounds like homonym confusion to me. And that's understandable, considering who plays the game -- 6-year-olds aren't usually up to speed on its and it's either.

    And why would we need an abbreviation for a three-letter word? Do you have T-parties? (If you did, incidentally, you might use a "T-ball" -- a perforated metal container that holds loose tea -- instead of a "T-bag.")

    Unless you buy the idea that T-ball is "short" for tee ball -- that it's like A-bomb and e-mail -- to write T-ball is as ridiculous as writing of B-pollen, C-water, I-exams, blue J's, taking a P or a pool Q. Phonetic letter and number art is fun 4 U and me, but it isn't the way grown-ups write for publication.


  • I'm writing this on a morning when my newspaper, The Washington Post, is publishing a front-page story about President Bush's White House tee-ball game. My colleagues, following Webster's New World Dictionary, used "T-ball." I can't blame them. Absent an emergency meeting of the style committee, that's what they were bound to do. No, my quarrel is with the dictionary people. I know that dictionaries are supposed to reflect usage rather than dictate it, but when there's a split in popular usage, why not reflect the literate choice? Well, at least it isn't "tball." Not yet, anyway.

    This episode would have been a lot easier to swallow, though, if our "T-Ball" headline hadn't appeared above a photograph of the ticket to the game, which reads "Tee Ball." You're in trouble when you lose a spelling bee to Dubya. (Or should that be "spelling B"?)

    Addendum: C-SPAN also got it right.

  • Now what?


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