Small Dishes



• Here is the type of sentence that makes grammar sticklers crazy: one of the students forgot to bring their lunch. You probably know this old tune: laissez-faire scholars and editors say the sentence is just fine, whereas nitpickers demand a rewrite because one is singular and their is plural. Things took a turn in January, when the American Dialect Society, siding with the freethinkers, proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015, hoping to put to rest a rancorous, energy-draining dispute that has raged for decades.

We now expect to see a revival of themself, as in one of the students helped themself to my lunch. Many proponents of the singular they reject themself, although it has been around for centuries. But when they is singular, themself rather than themselves seems the logical choice. Surely anyone who champions the singular they should also embrace themself, recognizing that monumental decisions have unintended consequences.

May the best man win is an old catchphrase that boxing referees used to say to two fighters about to contend for the championship. It has also been applied to politics—the author Gore Vidal wrote a memorable 1960 Broadway play titled The Best Man, a sophisticated study of two political rivals vying for the presidency. The saying seems to violate a basic grammatical principle: A superlative adjective (best) should only be used to compare three or more entities. When comparing A to B, we say A is better than B; we do not say A is the best of the two. Therefore, shouldn’t the referee say, “May the better man win”? And shouldn’t the play be retitled The Better Man?

Context is all. To qualify for a shot at the boxing championship, both combatants have had to take on and beat top contenders in their weight class. So when the referee says “best man,” he is including and saluting all the valiant fighters who came up short. Similarly, in U.S. politics the race comes down to the nominees from the two major parties, but only after a ferocious, protracted process of elimination. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential brawl, with its never-ending parade of challengers, will vouch for the legitimacy—grammatically speaking—of Vidal’s title.

Amazing and awesome are the two reigning go-to adjectives for those afflicted with acute vocabulary anemia. Now a third word has joined this select company: surreal. It is used to describe everything from a transformative experience to a chocolate cookie. Some random online examples: “It is, in many ways, a surreal conflict.” “Realtor: Irvington housing market is surreal.” “ ‘It’s a surreal moment I’ll never forget,’ Carlson said of putting on the Cardinals uniform.”

Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got? If you dig deep, you might come up with astounding, memorable, outlandish, peculiar, startling, unearthly … really, the possibilities are endless.

Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 1:07 pm

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

14 Comments on Small Dishes

14 responses to “Small Dishes”

  1. Ravi Bedi says:

    One of the students (belonging to a group of students) forgot to bring ‘their’ lunch (meaning lunch for all the students)… is right if that is what one wishes to convey.

    If only a particular student forgot to bring her lunch, then ‘their’ is wrong.
    So the sentence is right or wrong would depend upon what you wish to convey.

    • The sentence lacks clarity if you are trying to say that one student is responsible for bringing lunch for the entire group. It seems that if you were referring to all of the students you would say, “One of the students forgot to bring lunch for the group.”

  2. Lisa R. says:

    What is the correct version of One of the students forgot to bring their lunch?

    • As we stated, the sentence is now considered acceptable by many editors. Other, more conservative, editors would replace “their” with “his or her.” Our solution would be to rewrite the sentence.

  3. Jim W. says:

    “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got? If you dig deep, you might come up with astounding, memorable, outlandish, peculiar, startling, unearthly … really, the possibilities are endless.”
    Really? “is that all you’ve got?” How about all you have?

    • We felt that “all you’ve got” was the right phrase for the occasion. Using simply “have” struck us as too fussy for the tone we wanted.

      Please bear in mind that our weekly post is not a doctoral thesis. There are many levels of proper English, and it is no virtue to speak in exaggerated formality to a group of friends.

      Furthermore, there is nothing incorrect about “have got”; it has been used by fine writers since at least the 19th century——a few examples: Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Trollope.

  4. Robin H. says:

    So the only problem you see with “may the best man win” is the superlative vs comparative? Tell that to Ms. Hillary Clinton! Shame on you.

  5. Chris says:

    Do you also object to the use of “you” as both singular and plural? Do you advocate for the return of “thou” and “thee”?

  6. Jared says:

    I have a question on a topic that is tangential to this post. I hear quite often “So-and-so is one of the better tennis players I’ve ever seen” or “So-and-so is one of the nicer bosses I’ve had.” This always bugs me, because I think to myself (“You’ve only seen two tennis players!?” / “You’ve only had two bosses?!”). But then, even if they had only seen two tennis players / had two bosses, then these sentences still don’t make sense.

    I feel like the only way to express this type of sentiment is to say “one of the best,” “one of the nicest,” etc. Is it possible to get away with the above type of sentences and follow “one of the” with anything other than a superlative? The only way I could imagine the above sentences making sense is to interpret that the person has evaluated many separate pairs of tennis players, or many distinct pairs of bosses, and ranks the subject of the sentence as one of the 50% who rank better than their partners.

    Any insight you could provide on this issue would really help explain a lot. Thank you!

    • These are idiomatic usages that don’t fit the mold of comparisons between two items vs. more than two. In a strict sense, your suggestion of “one of the best” is just as incorrect as “one of the better” since there is only one thing or person that can be the best. Thus, it’s generally understood that when someone says “Bob is one of the nicer bosses I’ve had,” the meaning is that Bob may not be the nicest, but he’s right up there in the ranks of nice bosses.

  7. Lillian says:

    The family (wishes or wish) to express…….
    Which is correct?

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *