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When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.

 

Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

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Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm


Media Watch 3

Let’s zero in once more on cringe-inducers culled from recent dailies and periodicals …

• Newspaper headline: “New look for a old test.”

One of the principles of English you would think we all learned in third grade is that the article a goes before consonants (a pen, a hat), and the article an goes before vowels and vowel sounds (an owl, an honor). But these days, items like that headline are rampant. Here’s a reporter writing of “a unusual twist in Senate process.” Here’s another, mentioning “an very unfortunately named document.” We’ve even heard the president of the United States say “a international effort.”

We can no longer dismiss such things as a slip of the tongue or a typo.

• Another rule we learned in grade school was, “Neither … nor, either  or, but never neither  or.” We thought everybody knew that one. But neither  or is gaining momentum among people who ought to know better, like the columnist who wrote: “In short, the technology, sports and political worlds seem to be saying that markets should neither be free or fair.”

Let’s change “or” to “nor,” and while we’re at it, put “be” before “neither” to make the sentence parallel: “ … saying that markets should be neither free nor fair.”

• A magazine reported that a twelve-year-old girl sold 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, calling it “an all-time record.” Delete “all-time.” All records are all-time records. Writers should also avoid new record—when a record is set, new is redundant.

• An article about a successful author offered this snarky advice: “Don’t publish anything ’til you’re fifty.” The writer of this profile should have written “till you’re fifty.” You won’t find a reference book anywhere that recommends ’til. In Words on Words, John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.” Some defend ’til as a contraction of until. However, till predates until by several centuries.

• Check out this sentence about an aggressive company: “The Comcast-run colossus may be able to dictate terms to individual cable channels and Hollywood studios who supply TV shows and movies.” Make it “that supply TV shows and movies.” Use who only when referring to humans. Businesses may be run by humans, but grammatically they are things. Avoid usages like a company who. Use that or which instead.

At least as far as grammar is concerned, there is no debate: corporations are not people.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.

1. “It was committed by two identical twin sisters.”

2. “What lengths did you go through in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for we Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there too.”

5. “It was different from the bill that they had wrote.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “It was committed by identical twin sisters.” (two twins is redundant)

2. “What lengths did you go to in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for us Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there.” (“also … too” is redundant)

5. “It was different from the bill that they had written.”

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Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, at 1:59 pm


More Of

Earlier this month we observed some of the ways that little of can bring big trouble to students of English. Unfortunately, we aren’t done yet.

We previously discussed certain sentences in which the verb is derived not from the subject, but from the object of the preposition of. Here’s an example: She is one of those people who love to travel. Not loves to travel. The verb is determined by people, not by one.

Similarly, with many words that indicate portions—some, most, all, etc.—we are guided by the object of of. If the noun after of is singular, we use a singular verb: Some of the pie is left. If it’s plural, we use a plural verb: Some of the books are gone.

With collective nouns such as crowd or family, the speaker or writer has leeway since such words, though singular in form, denote more than one person or thing. Therefore, Most of my family is here and Most of my family are here are both grammatical sentences.

Other areas of concern:

• Off of  Drop of. Off of is not a valid phrasal preposition. In sentences like Keep off of the grass or You ought to come off of your high horse, the of adds nothing.

• Outside of  We stood outside of the building. Make it outside the building. In sentences indicating location, “of is superfluous with outside,” says Roy H. Copperud. His fellow English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein calls outside of “a substandard casualism.” With sentences where outside of is not literal, such as Outside of you, I have no one, there are better alternatives available, including except for, other than, besides, apart from, and aside from.

• All of  When a pronoun is involved, the of is essential, as in phrases like all of it and all of us. When a possessive noun is preceded by a or an, or has no modifier, again the of is required: all of a book’s wisdom, all of history’s lessons. But when a noun is preceded by an adjective or by the, it’s leaner and cleaner to drop the of in all of: all my books, all the lessons of history.

• Out of  The of is necessary; only bumpkins say Get out my house. Two notable exceptions: door and window—no of is needed in We hurried out the door or I stared out the window.

Couple of  The of stays. This includes phrases such as a couple of things, a couple of more things, a couple of hundred things. “Omitting the of is slipshod,” says Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Using couple not as a noun but as an adjective is poor usage.”

That’s enough of for a while. Amazing the confusion that one pint-size preposition can cause.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any problems with of that you come across.

1. One of those trees that’s been around for over a century is standing just outside of the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside of San Rafael, just off of Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out of the window as a couple dozen people rushed out the burning building.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. One of those trees that have been around for over a century is standing just outside the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside San Rafael, just off Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all of Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out the window as a couple of dozen people rushed out of the burning building.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at 3:49 pm


Wisdom of Yogi Berra

April means major-league baseball is back, so I want to talk about Yogi Berra, who played for the New York Yankees from 1946 to ’63, when they were perennial World Series champs. His name is familiar to everyone. He has given the culture more memorable epigrams than have some of our most esteemed wits. I rarely go a week without hearing “It’s déjà vu all over again” or “It ain’t over till it’s over,” two of Yogi’s greatest hits.

Berra, who is about to turn 89, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. Because he talks like a kid off the streets, he is often mistaken for a lovable idiot. However, his best sayings have a profundity that belies such an appraisal. Yogi has been blessed with a wit and wisdom both rare and sublime.

Oh, please, you say, he’s a semiliterate goon who spent his adult life reading comic books and playing a child’s game. All I can say is, talent doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, or educated and uneducated. As surely as were Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Yogi the everyman philosopher-poet has been given a rare gift. His vision—and the unique way he expresses it—allows us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Berra’s formula is elegantly simple: He establishes a premise and then promptly sabotages it, making listeners squirm until they recognize the unmistakable logic, even insight, behind the thicket of nonsense. It’s that last-second rescue of sagacity from absurdity that generates our laughter.

If you meet someone who’s unfamiliar with Yogi’s sayings and you want to get a sure-fire laugh, just repeat his classic “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” People dismiss this line as laughably absurd because of the Berra “formula,” which in this instance creates a “90 percent/half” comical paradox. But a closer look reveals the remark as a baseball verity: physical prowess alone isn’t enough.

Here’s how I’d say it: “If you want to succeed at baseball, in nine cases out of ten staying focused while banishing doubts and distractions from the mind is half the battle.” Note that I needed four times as many words as Yogi did. His unforgettable seven-word one-liner imparts its Zen-like philosophy with none of the heavy-handedness of my paraphrase.

That attitude is echoed in one of his less-quoted declarations: “I ain’t in no slump; I just ain’t hitting.” It’s a funny line because a hitter who isn’t hitting is, by most people’s definition, in a “slump.” But Yogi was serious. To him, it wasn’t that simple—over the long season, hitters go through spells when they’re unsuccessful, but a slump is something more insidious. It’s a mental malfunction, an expectation to fail. You’re never “in no slump” if you believe in yourself.

Another great Yogi-ism concerned a trendy restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Remember, this man was sports royalty, a star player in a legendary organization at the peak of its success. Make no mistake: Berra meant, “Nobody who matters goes there anymore,” though he is too much of a gentleman to have said it out loud. (It also would have spoiled the beauty of the “nobody goes there/too crowded” paradox.)

Later in Berra’s career, he switched from catcher to left fielder. Around World Series time one year, speaking of the difficulty of fielding in the autumn darkness, he said, “It gets late early out there.” That’s vintage Yogi: the paradox, the concision. Six everyday words that rise almost to poetry.

Last month Yogi’s wife of sixty-five years died. He isn’t seen around much anymore. But his wacky-wise adages will always be with us.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 9:48 am


The Wicked Of

What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?

Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.”

Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.

Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.

Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).

But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one, calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.

Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men, requiring the plural verb are.

Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?

If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—necessitates the plural verb have led.

Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.

Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.

 1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.

 5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

 1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT

 5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.

 

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Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 5:03 pm