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Verbal Illusions

Today we’ll look at three perplexing sentences that are the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.

• Every man and woman has arrived. Why has? The phrase man and woman denotes a plural subject. Consider the following grammatically sound sentence: The happy man and woman have arrivedEvery and happy both function as adjectives that modify man and woman in these almost identical sentences. But every is so powerfully singular that it forces us to say has, despite the plural subject.

• More than one person was involved. Why was? Doesn’t more mean at least two? Yet there is no English scholar we know of who would change the verb to “were involved,” even though we would say, “More were involved than one person.”

Reference books do not offer much help with this conundrum, and the Internet is no help at all. But John B. Bremner’s Words on Words and Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer both address the topic. Bremner claims that more than is an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective one, “which is singular and therefore qualifies a singular noun, which takes a singular verb.” That explanation might fly in the rarefied air of academia, but to accept it we must ignore the inconvenient fact that more than one person means “two or more persons,” and would seem to require the plural verb were involved.

Bernstein doesn’t try to justify More than one person was involved as good grammar, just “good idiom.” He says “was involved” is an example of attraction, a linguistic term that accounts for certain incorrect word choices: “The verb is singular ‘by attraction’ to the one and to the subsequent noun [person].” Since “good idioms” often defy logic, we lean toward Bernstein’s interpretation.

• All but one ship was sunk. Another example of “good idiom.” The principles that apply to more than one also apply to all but one. If we separate all from but one, the verb becomes plural: Of the five ships, all were sunk but one.

One is free to endorse elaborate justifications for the validity of More than (or All but) one person was involved. But it is just as reasonable to conclude that this oddity is nothing more than institutionalized error—people have been saying it wrong for so long that we’ve become used to it, and More than one person were involved, the logical construction, sounds wrong. We see institutionalized error on the march today in ungrammatical usages like “each of them were here,” “neither of you are right,” and “a person should do their best,” all of which we suspect will be standard English in a decade or two, despite the anguished screams of purists.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, at 2:14 pm


People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at 11:02 am


Collective Nouns and Consistency

In American English, most collective nouns take singular verbs—except when a sentence emphasizes the individuals in the group, not the group as a whole.

In a sentence like The faculty is organized into eight departments, the collective noun faculty is singular. But consider The university’s faculty are renowned scholars in their own right. In that sentence, faculty is plural because it refers to the members rather than to the unit. Some sentences could go either way. In a sentence like The faculty disagrees/disagree on the need for a new facility, it’s a judgment call whether to make faculty singular or plural.

Would it be bad form for faculty to be “it” in one sentence and “they” in another? Many authorities say yes. Claire Kehrwald Cook, a renowned copyeditor turned author, says, “Keep it consistently singular or plural … The shifting from singular to plural may be distracting if the sentences occur close together.” English scholar Bryan A. Garner takes it a step further: “If in the beginning of an essay, the phrasing is the faculty was, then every reference to faculty as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

That may be solid advice, but it feels a bit extreme. If faculty is singular in the first paragraph of a five thousand-word story and plural in the final paragraph, one in a hundred readers might notice the discrepancy, and one in a thousand might care. Nonetheless, Garner’s perfectionism is a goal worth shooting for.

If consistency with a collective noun is commendable in essays, it is essential in sentences. Yet we read things like the following all the time: I hope the company gets what they’ve asked for. The writer sees no problem in making company singular (gets), then plural two words later. It’s a mystery why nobody spotted the problem and made the obvious fix: I hope the company gets what it has asked for.

Here’s another: Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with their government. We can all agree that “with its government” is clunky. Instead let’s remove the s from interacts. There is nothing grammatically wrong with how the public interact with their government.

Still, there are those who would rather not pair a collective noun with a plural verb. All right then, why not change the public to the people? Or remove the unnecessary their, which gives us Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with the government, a decided improvement on the original.

Although collective nouns can be singular or plural, depending on context, keeping them singular is the preference of many writers. All others should avoid the trap of having it both ways—ideally in the same story, but unquestionably in the same sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? If not, can you fix them? (Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.)

1. The jury reached its verdict after they deliberated for three days.
2. The pair was last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. After they won, the team was shouting and congratulating themselves.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

There are many good alternatives. Here are our suggestions.

1. The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for three days.
2. The pair were last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. The players were shouting and congratulating themselves after the team won.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 4:43 pm


These Nouns Present Singular Problems

Let’s talk about nouns with split personalities.

A collective noun (e.g., group, team, jury, flock, herd) is a paradox: singular in form (the team, a jury, one flock) but plural in meaning—who ever heard of a one-person group or a one-goat herd?

Whenever we use a collective noun as a subject, we must decide whether it takes a singular or a plural verb. American writers and editors prefer the singular form unless logic demands the plural. The key is context: is the sentence about the group as a unit or is it more about the individuals in that group? It is advisable to write The class is studying Shakespeare. But it is also advisable to write The class are studying at their desks.

Nonetheless, most sticklers cringe when they hear or read “The class are studying …,” no matter what follows. If someone is determined never to use a plural verb with a collective noun, there are ways to avoid the problem. In the above example, a simple fix is to substitute students for class.

Let’s try a few more. The jury are fighting among themselves. Make it jurors instead. The regiment were invited to bring their friends and families. Switching to soldiers would be an improvement. Finding themselves at a stalemate, the committee decided to put down their pens and repair to their homes. You could say committee members, or you could rewrite the whole stodgy sentence: Unable to end the stalemate, the committee decided to adjourn.

Sometimes choosing the “right” form is a matter of taste. Some writers would be fine with The audience jumped to its feet. Others would insist on jumped to their feet, feeling that its turns the audience into a cartoonish beast with a plethora of lower extremities.

There is a subgroup of collective nouns that take a plural verb more often than not. Examples include bunch, handful, variety, and—though some may not agree—couple. Most readers would wince at the awkward singular verbs in these sentences: A bunch of motorcycles is speeding through town; A handful of his friends was urging him not to run; A variety of delicious fruits is used in the dessert.

As for couple, many writers want it plural unless the sentence sounds absurd otherwise—and such sentences are rare. After all, what does couple mean if not “the two of them”? Keep couple plural, and you will avoid abominations like Their friends say the couple looks alike or The couple was taking naps in adjoining rooms.

When collective nouns become roadblocks to effective sentences, resourceful writers can always find ways around them.

 

Pop quiz

1. The crowd is/are filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of/consist of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. The public is/are invited to sit anywhere on the lawn.

 

Pop quiz answers

1. The crowd is filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. A good case could be made for either option.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 9:02 pm


Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm