Some points I really must insist upon

Listening to the ways English is changing sometimes means keeping an ear cocked for what's no longer being said, for words that are falling out of the language. "Must" may be falling out of American English, at least.

This thought came to me a few weeks ago when I considered inserting "must" to repair a sentence I was editing. It suddenly struck me how old-fashioned "must" sounded, and not the right word for that writer's voice.

At that point I felt some research coming on. A quick trip to Google News (a favorite search engine for gathering usage data that is up to the minute but also has been filtered through professional copy editors) showed 144,000

hits for "must." It's not ready for the ash heap of history yet.

Only four letters long, "must" is beloved of headline writers everywhere. It is certainly alive and well in editorial and opinion columns. These columns, however, are not exactly skewed to -

how shall we put it? - the iPod and body-piercing demographic, and so may not express the forward edge of the language.

Whatever. Countless gallons of ink and tons of newsprint are being devoted to articulating what Condoleezza Rice must do as secretary of State, what Kofi Annan must do at the United Nations, etc. Note the pattern here: People telling other people what they must do. It sounds so imperative.

What's going on here? Maybe we're all feeling individually less "behooved," less as if we "must" do this or that. Similarly, the subjunctive ("I insist that he come here at once") nowadays sounds a tad schoolmistressy. Or is that schoolmasterish? Schoolmasterful? Schoolmasterly?

"Must" frequently appears in sentences where it's not needed at all. Thus a publication of one of the Federal Reserve banks says, "This provision also requires that the borrower must be current on the payments required by the terms of the mortgage."

The "must" isn't needed; "requires that the borrower be current" suffices.

The usage that does seem to be relatively rare coming out of an American mouth is "I must." My Google News search of that exact phrase brought up a mere 5,210 hits. As I worked my way through the list, sorted by Google's busy Web spiders for "relevance," I was struck by the preponderance of non-US English. It also struck me that when an American used the phrase, it was often in a rather formal context.

Where "I must" seems more natural in unscripted conversation is in the set phrases "I must say" or "I must tell you," as Tom Ridge, the departing secretary of homeland security, said at his last press conference, "I had a difficult time talking to my leadership this morning, I must tell you, because they're an incredible group of people."

The idiom that is taking over for "must" is "to have to (do something)," and my Google News search for "have to" brought up 283,000 hits - not all of them, admittedly, direct replacements for "must" constructions. (There's another construction, the clunkier "I've got to do" this or that, but let's not go there now.)

As "have to" has taken over for "must," it has gained in urgency. And note how its pronunciation has changed. "I have to have this done by noon" is pronounced as if it were, "I hafta have this done..." The two "haves" are pronounced differently - and doesn't the first sound more intense? A phonetician would describe it as the difference between the voiced ("v" sound) and unvoiced ("f" sound) labiodental fricative, but let's not go there, either.

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