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Sorry, but no

Much as we love and treasure our readers and yearn to respond to their concerns, we sometimes have to disappoint their expectations.

A daily reader of The Sun who teaches at an area university sent in a complaint about “basic grammatical errors in stories and headlines in the paper,” singling out the lead sentence of an article that began, "A relatively high NUMBER of Maryland high school students ARE....” He adds that he wonders whether he should continue advising his students to read the newspaper and emulate the writing in it.

He would do well to advise his charges to emulate the sentence he disparages, because collective nouns in English can be either singular or plural, depending on context. American usage generally prefers words such as team, committee, panel and the like as a singular. (British usage tends to prefer the reverse.) But there are words such as couple, majority and, yes, number that can be used in either singular or plural sense.

This is as good a place as any to repeat the regularly unheeded point that none is another word that swings both ways.

Another reader bemoans one of our headlines, Whom would a Democratic president talk to? “It HURTS to see a headline end with a preposition,” she says.

I wish that I could relieve the pain, but there is no objection in idiomatic English, and never has been, to ending a sentence with a preposition. That superstition, along with the bogus prohibition on splitting infinitives, has had a long span, with generations of English teachers and editors to blame. And even the complaining reader acknowledges that With whom would a Democratic president talk? “sounds a little stilted.”

It takes considerable time and energy to keep real mistakes out of the paper, and we don’t catch all of them. We don’t have time — or interest — in addressing things that aren’t mistakes in the first place.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:16 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

I frequently run into this same response every time we use "couple,", in reference to two people in a relationship. I usually apply the ear test:

"The couple hopes to marry soon" vs. "The couple hope to marry soon"

Given that neither use confuses the reader about what both people wish to do, the only question that remains is: "What sounds more natural to the ear"? (Or "ears"?)

"Given that neither use confuses the reader about what both people wish to do, the only question that remains is: 'What sounds more natural to the ear'? (Or 'ears'?)"

It may depend on which side of the Atlantic the ears were born.

Ouch. That last sentence was a bit harsh.

Even English teachers are allowed to get it wrong.

You can't blame them in one breath and then damn them in the next.

(Although I love the sparring. Good stuff.)

Several months ago, my well-meaning family gifted me with a T-shirt that reads "Prepositions are not words to end sentences with." So far, it has managed to remain buried beneath a pile of shirts I would rather be seen in.

I suppose it depends whose definition of 'collective noun' you like, but for me 'number' doesn't qualify. I agree that 'a number of Xs are' is fully grammatical, but I believe the head of the noun phrase is being analyzed as X rather than as 'number', but of course that's something of a shell game. Now instead of 'why is "number" plural?', we get 'why isn't "number" the head'. I'm afraid I don't know.

I am sorry but I must take issue with the author's claim that 'couple' goes either way, and agree with Jim Thomsen. Consider the sentence: 'That couple hope to marry soon.' Well, if 'couple' could swing either way, why do we have to use a singular demonstrative pronoun? The answer is that one cannot, because 'couple' clearly cannot swing either way. 'That couple hopes to marry soon' is correct. If one considers 'couple' either singular or plural simply because it comprises more than one individual, one would have to apply the same rule to words such as 'team,' 'throng,' 'group,' and so on. Consider: 'The team hope to win the NCAA tournament.' ? I think not!

So, I suppose that when they divorce, you will insist on writing, "The couple is going its separate ways."

Probably not, John. You know much better than I the eternal writer's rule of thumb: When in doubt, rewrite.

That said, yes, it sounds better to me than 'The couple are going their separate ways.' But I admit they both stink. That's why I'd rewrite.

(If it's any consolation, English is not the only language with such debates. As a graduate student in Russian many years ago, I recall debates among (not between) faculty, students, and others on what to do with accusative plurals of numbers. Russian does different things with numbers and other nominals in the accusative case depending on the animacy of the direct object. The debate over how to decline such sentences as 'I saw five guys walking down the street' could take a whole class period. One native speaker faculty member admitted that even native speakers sometimes got confused, and would rewrite in their heads and say something like 'Five guys were walking down the street; I saw them.')

Another "rule" that may not be:

I'd be interested to know how y'all feel about sentences that begin with conjunctions, i.e., "But his objections were ignored."

I think they're useful for smooth transitions and strong narrative flow. But my paper's retired-teacher readership regularly recoils in horror at such usage — and insists it's "wrong."

Not to whip a dead horse, I will post this last comment on this subject and then leave it alone (until the next time it becomes timely): I want to offer my hand in marriage to the editor, male or female, who allowed the following two sentences to stand in today's real estate section:

"With a job transfer in the wings, the couple is bound for San Francisco." (from the article "Spacious, well-lit house in Fells Point")

And:

"The couple has new habits. They put things away...."

(from "Clutter control")

See how easy that was, people?

I have no idea who this editor is (and I'm assuming there can't be more than one), but I'm in love.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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