Verbal Energy

The companies we keep – singular and plural

English speakers have been wrestling with singulars and plurals for centuries – and the grammar rules don't always help.

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"Everyone was here, but he has gone home."

This sentence, etched into thought during my school days – Mrs. Barletta's sixth grade, perhaps? – is my earliest memory of an example of how the rules of English grammar don't always make sense, and how there are some things that you just can't say within those rules.

Indefinite pronouns – everyone, anyone, and the like – take a singular verb, so that "everyone was here" makes sense, even though "everyone" refers to quite a number of people. But then, for the second part of the sentence, if you don't want to repeat "everyone," you need another pronoun – a word that stands in for another noun or pronoun.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

That other pronoun, according to the rule, has to be singular, and in those days when I first heard it, it hadn't yet been deemed "sexist" to insist further that it had to be "he."

Oh, come on, you may counter, in real life, what people would say is, "Everyone was here, but they have all gone home."

Indeed. And the concern isn't necessarily sexism in the language.

A few years ago, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, a linguist and a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, had this to say in an interview published on a Vocabulary.com blog:

"English speakers have been using the singular they for centuries," she said. "I've done research on the history of gender constructions in English, and you can find the singular they back into at least Middle English. English speakers and writers have been using this solution for years."

But then, at the end of the 18th century, grammarian Lindley Murray advocated using the singular generic he instead. "And that got picked up in other grammars," Ms. Curzan said. "So we had a rule prescribing singular generic he until the 1980s, when feminists urged a different solution, the result being he or she. But in the spoken language we say they all the time."

As I try to whip other people's prose into shape for the printing press, where a different standard prevails, I'm struck by how much editorial energy goes into issues not just of gender but of number.

Is a company or other organization an "it" or a "they"? It's not that hard to write, "Apple has its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif."

But is there any doubt in your mind that, every day, millions of people say things like "Apple has their headquarters ..."?

It occurs to me to call what's going on here an "offstage antecedent," an implied concept that "the rules" may not help express. In the original "Everyone was here" example, the offstage antecedent is some undetermined number of people, even though "everyone" is determinedly singular. Similarly, "Apple" is singular, but we know a company is a group of people, inherently plural.

And so we end up, in the spoken language at least, with singular nouns and verbs but plural possessives ("their headquarters"), and constructions such as, "I called the store this afternoon and they said they won't be able to deliver the fridge until Wednesday." The one who hears this does not imagine a conference call involving the speaker, the receptionist at the store, and a couple of beefy guys with hand trucks.

This kind of construction may eventually affect the rules of standard English. But for now, I have to accept that as an editor, I sometimes am presented with a singular problem.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!
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