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Look Who’s Talking

On Nov. 15, a high-level government official caused quite a stir when he disparaged “white suburban moms” for resisting efforts to elevate teaching and learning in U.S. schools. “All of a sudden,” he said, “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Some may question the statement’s tone; what concerns us here is its grammatical absurdity. Note that “their child,” which is singular, somehow becomes plural six words later, with “they were” referring to one child. Same with “their school”: in the span of seven words, one school has become “they.”

There are various ways to fix this mess, but here is one we don’t recommend: “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought he or she was.” Using he or she is a valid solution, and there are times when a writer has to use the phrase, but he or she is a dismal option that should be avoided whenever possible.

We could change “child isn’t” to “children aren’t” and make “school” plural: “All of a sudden, their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” At least that makes grammatical sense. Still, the repetition of they in “they thought they were” is grating once, let alone twice.

Effective speakers and writers are guided by this line from Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sure enough, if we look for extraneous words in the sentence and remove them, voilà: “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” That’s about as good as it’s going to get.

The statement was made by, of all people, the U.S. secretary of education. Lead by example, Mr. Secretary.

Pop Quiz
Correct any sentences that need fixing.
1. One of every two houses you see are vacant.
2. Ten pounds are heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on their books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother.
5. No one on the bus knew their way around town.

Pop Quiz Answers
1. One of every two houses you see is vacant.
2. Ten pounds is heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on his books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother. CORRECT
5. No one on the bus knew his or her way around town. (Without a rewrite, his or her is virtually unavoidable.)

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, at 12:27 pm


14 Comments

14 Responses to “Look Who’s Talking”

  1. Jesse Strauss says:

    I wanted to make one further edit to the secretary’s sentence. Here is the last bit, taken from the post:

    “Sure enough, if we look for extraneous words in the sentence and remove them, voilà: ‘All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.’ That’s about as good as it’s going to get.”

    Although the sentence has become less weighty, less wordy, and grammatically correct, it does not portray the correct circumstances. “Their,” used at the front of the sentence, refers back to “White suburban moms.” The moms in suburbia have their own separate children and schools; they do not collectively own a single child. So, it seems to me, that the sentence, in its least cumbersome and most correct form, should read:

    “All of a sudden, their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought, and their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought.”

    Then again, this correction was made by the author in the previous paragraph. So why did this author not carry the correction to the end?

    • Jane says:

      That’s a good observation, but we were trying to see if we could improve the sentence while changing as little of the wording as possible. Though the phrase may irritate you, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about “their child.” Compare a sentence like “People should be careful on their way home.” Notice you wouldn’t need to say “on their ways home.” OR “He doesn’t have a brain in his head.” How would you say it if They were the subject? “They don’t have brains in their heads” simply doesn’t mean the same thing. (We’d probably go with “a brain in their heads.”)

  2. Gail M. says:

    Actually, I would leave out the “that” in the sentence below; it’s not necessary.

    4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother.

    • Jane says:

      The word that could certainly be omitted there, but the writer may have solid reasons to leave it in. For instance, he may be using that as an adjective, i.e., that particular twenty dollars.

  3. Robert M. says:

    A child belongs to “them” instead of a particular mother?

  4. Allan G. says:

    How about: “Suddenly their child isn’t as brilliant or the school quite as good as they thought.”

    • Jane says:

      Your remedy is simple and direct. It might be preferable in written English, but since the secretary was speaking to a gathering, we can grant him some oratorical license.

  5. Brandy K. says:

    Great newsletter! I find all kinds of simple grammatical errors on the website of my son’s high school, as well as the district office. Pathetic!

    Thanks for the newsletters. They’re great!

  6. El B. says:

    You have a blatantly incorrect quiz question. [Question No. 8 in "Subject and Verb Agreement" Subscribers' Quiz No. 5.] The correct answer is: “Nora is one of the candidates who is worthy of my vote.” It is not who “are” because the primary subject is Nora and the who refers back to Nora being one of the candidates. I am not sure why this was an oversight. Normally, the pronoun, which is considered a subject corresponds to the number before the noun in the prepositional phrase.

  7. PM says:

    Is the following sentence correct?
    “Described is the development and application of a versatile strategy.” I think at least the verb “is” should be “are.” I actually edited it to “The development and application of a versatile strategy are described.” The confusion is that a native author wrote that.

    • Jane says:

      We prefer your edited version of the sentence. As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and. However, there are terms which function as compound nouns, such as bed and breakfast. In this case, the sentence “The bed and breakfast was charming” is correct. Since development and application seem to us to function as two separate terms, the plural verb are should be used.

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