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How Can They Be Singular?

Which of the following sentences is incorrect: A) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his senses. B) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his or her senses. C) It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

Those who consider themselves “old school” would likely consider C incorrect: their is plural but its antecedent, anyone, is singular. Most traditionalists would consider B the best sentence (despite the clunky his or her), although they would reluctantly accept A also.

We consider ourselves traditionalists too. But after looking long and hard at the overwhelming evidence, we cannot in good conscience say that C is incorrect.

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses” was written by the celebrated playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw was no outlier when it came to the so-called “singular they.”

Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?” Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.”

Even despite these eminent writers’ words, we know that many of you are adamant that the plural pronoun they and its variants should never be used with singular antecedents. Perhaps you will reconsider after hearing from the language scholars.

• From A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans: “The use of they in speaking of a single individual is not a modern deviation from classical English. It is found in the works of many great writers.”

• British editor Tom Freeman: “Singular ‘they’ is over 600 years old, going back into Middle English. Great writers have used it, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Thackeray and Shaw.”

The American Heritage Dictionary: “Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.”

• The irascible Tom Chivers, writing in London’s daily Telegraph: “If someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”

So do we recommend the singular they? In fact we loathe it. You will never see the singular they in our blog posts. We stand with the English scholar Paul Brians, who says in Common Errors in English Usage: “It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.” And we admire the passion of the writer Jen Doll: “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches … The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly.”

Yes. The singular they might not be incorrect, but “not incorrect” is no one’s idea of an impressive credential.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at 1:04 pm

What Kind of Rule Is Usually?

A thought-provoking inquiry showed up recently in our inbox:

I can’t decide which verb is correct in sentences like the following. Would I write There are three kilograms of flour in the kitchen or There is three kilograms of flour in the kitchen? Two meters of fabric is here or Two meters of fabric are here?

A staff member submitted this response:

A quantity of weight or measure is singular when considered as a unit. Therefore, write There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here.

That solution did not sit well with everybody. Both “correct” sentences sounded too bizarre to recommend.

True, amounts and measurements often take singular verbs. We say, “Here is that five dollars I owe you,” not “Here are those five dollars I owe you.” A Dickensian excerpt we found online gets to the crux of the matter: “Seven bright pennies were exposed on the grubby palm, but seven pennies was not enough for a candy bar.”

We went to several websites, and noticed some hedging: “Words expressing periods of time, weights, measurements, and amounts of money usually take a singular verb,” said one site. Another said “there does not appear to be universal agreement about this topic.” In other words, this is a rule, but only “usually.” (We also saw a lot of “generally” and “sometimes.”)

The National Geographic Style Manual recommended ten gallons is enough, but also ten dishfuls were slowly doled out. The manual preferred ten gallons is because ten gallons is “considered as a mass”—but many would see the ten dishfuls as a unit also.

Other sites were similarly murky. One recommended six months is needed to complete the assignment but also endorsed six months have passed since the assignment. Why not has passed, as in [a period ofsix months has passed? Another approved both ten dollars is the entry fee and ten dollars were tucked in the mattress.

When a “rule” is this subjective, maybe it should be downgraded to “guideline.”

Back to the original problem—There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here may be technically correct, but they sound terrible. The sensible solution is to recast the sentences: Three kilograms of flour can be found in the kitchen. I have two meters of fabric here.

There’s everything to gain and nothing to lose by rewriting ghastly sentences, even if they happen to be grammatical.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 19, 2015, at 2:38 pm

What Have We Learned This Year?

To close out 2014, we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s grammar tips. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may need fixing. Think you can fix them?

Our answers follow the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is by no means a pushover. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

The Year in Twenty-five Questions

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and a storm was coming.

2. He is either coming with us or he is waiting for the next train.

3. My friend (and her brother) are arriving today.

4. Dobbs is one of those people who loves Jane Austen.

5. A collection of books were on display.

6. She ordered him off of her property.

7. I asked him to lend me a couple dollars.

8. Both young actress’s dream is to play Juliet.

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simms’ car was in the shop.

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans’ food.

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his As from his Ss.

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific?

13. Their favorite classic movies are based off of old fairy tales.

14. The couple was having their first quarrel.

15. A husband, who forgets anniversaries and birthdays, may be headed for divorce court.

16. A friend of mine, living in San Diego, loves the weather there.

17. My grandmother, Gladys, claimed she once had a drink with the writer, Norman Mailer.

18. When you decide to hone in on your weaknesses, you have a hard road to hoe.

19. That fancy place had a $18 dessert on the menu.

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books, i.e., The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, were written before 1950.

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, etc.

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, alexandrites, etc.

23. When they doubled my salary, I literally started living like a king.

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was disinterested in poetry.

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware begs the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?


Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and stormy.* (An Unparalleled Letdown, 2-18)

2. He is either coming with us or waiting for the next train.* (Simple Words, Fancy Label, 2-25)

3. My friend (and her brother) is arriving today. [(All About) Parentheses, 3-23]

4. Dobbs is one of those people who love Jane Austen. (The Wicked Of, 3-31)

5. A collection of books was on display. (The Wicked Of, 3-31)

6. She ordered him off her property. (More Of, 4-16)

7. I asked him to lend me a couple of dollars. (More Of, 4-16)

8. Both young actresses’ dream is to play Juliet. (Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble, 5-6)

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simmses’ car was in the shop. (Apostrophes and Proper Nouns, 5-13)

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans food. (Apostrophes and False Possessives, 5-19)

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his A’s from his S’s. (Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive, 6-3)

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific? (Italics vs. Quotation Marks, 6-16)

13. Their favorite classic movies are based on old fairy tales. (Based Off Is Off Base , 6-23)

14. The couple were having their first quarrel. (Collective Nouns and Consistency, 7-8)

15. A husband who forgets anniversaries and birthdays may be headed for divorce court. (Essential, but Is It Important? 8-19)

16. A friend of mine living in San Diego loves the weather there. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II, 8-26)

17. My grandmother Gladys claimed she once had a drink with the writer Norman Mailer. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III, 9-2)

18. When you decide to home in on your weaknesses, you have a hard row to hoe. (A House Is Not a Hone, 9-23)

19. That fancy place had an $18 dessert on the menu. (Wails from My Inbox, 10-2)

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books (e.g.The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) were written before 1950.* (Note also the added parentheses in the sentence.) (i.e. vs. e.g., 10-7)

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, et al. (All About etc., 10-15)

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, and alexandrites. (All About etc., 10-15)

23. When they doubled my salary, I really started living like a king.* (Fighting for Literally, 11-11)

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was uninterested in poetry. (Don’t Dis Disinterested, 11-18)

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware raises the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?* ( Begging the Question, 12-1)


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Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014, at 7:40 pm

Media Watch

Here is another batch of bloopers from dailies and periodicals.

• “Canada is sending between 50 to 100 military advisers.” Can anyone explain the presence of “between” in that sentence?

• “He showed a much improved grasp of the English language than a year ago.” Someone who writes “much improved than a year ago” should concentrate on his own grasp.

• “It was as bad, if not worse, than expected.” Without the nonessential phrase “if not worse” we are left with “It was as bad than expected.” Here is the grammatical version of the sentence: “It was as bad as, if not worse than, expected.” That may be correct, but it’s no prize package. How about “It was as bad as expected, if not worse.”

• “Roast lamb and venison comprise the meat course.” Writers love to use comprise, but they keep getting it wrong. The word means “to consist of.” Do roast lamb and venison consist of the meat course? No, the meat course comprises roast lamb and venison. (Note: comprised of is always incorrect.)

• “The goal is to showcase the oddly gentle enormity of this 46-foot-high room.” This strange sentence becomes bizarre when one realizes that enormity means “great wickedness.” Better make it “immensity” or “vastness.”

• “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone in the world.” The sentence, taken literally, means that South Koreans and “anyone in the world” are two separate groups. One key word solves the problem: “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone else in the world.”

• Let’s close with two examples of the havoc caused by losing track of your subject …

“The first thing Ryan saw were her knees.” How’s that again? The first thing were? If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular: The first thing he saw was her knees. If the writer doesn’t like how that looks and sounds, how about “The first things Ryan saw were her knees.”

“Reading ‘thought pieces’ on our mobile devices are making us shallow.” Reading are making us shallow? The writer got distracted by “devices” and forgot that the subject, “Reading,” is singular.

That’s all for now. We’d love to retire Media Watch, but we can’t until the happy day that all writers proof their articles and avoid fancy words that they may have forgotten to look up.


Pop Quiz

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

1. “We’re in unchartered waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
3. “Many Americans despise we in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks are very low.”
5. “There was twelve men and one women in the room.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning.” (Writing “a.m.” would be redundant)
3. “Many Americans despise us in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks is very low.”
5. “There were twelve men and one woman in the room.” (Did you spot both mistakes?)

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Posted on Monday, November 24, 2014, at 8:41 pm

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