A singular tale of when plurals don't matter

'A decent docent," wrote David McCord, "doesn't doze," and the woods is full of grammarians if I slur a gerundive or dissect bluntly the passive periphrastic. This being so, why do (does) the populace crudely insist on the vulgar usage that prevails?

Not long ago, I wrote that "pot after pot of lobsters were," and a gentleman with decent-docent disposition hastened to remind me that a pot following a pot has to be "was," and so much for me. Alas. I wrote back telling him that here on the coast of Maine, there is nothing whatever singular about a pot of lobsters.

I fear the gentleman may not have been persuaded, for he writes again with lexicological determination, and I am penitent.

I heard long ago from Mr. L.L. Bean on a similar subject. Before Mr. Bean started his mail-order business, he kept a gents' clothing store in partnership with his brother Guy. As a boy, I went in to buy some pants for my summer job.

Mr. Bean said he had just what I wanted, measured me, and reached under the counter. He held a pair of pants against my front and said, "That's the best pant in the store, and it's yours for $1.19."

I had never heard a pair of pants called a "pant," so I asked him about that, assuming he was an authority on clothing. Mr. Bean was an affable man, and he chuckled as he said, "Well. I've been asked that before. The garment trade likes 'pant,' I guess. My answer has always been that if a man wears them they're plural, and it is singular if he does not." He also said another answer is that pants are plural at the bottom and singular at the top.

I don't mind having my grammar and usage challenged and have been known to challenge those of others. I wish people would stop saying "you know," and I'd be happy if they'd stop telling me to "contact" them. And more and more people should hear about the exasperated English instructor who persistently wrote on freshman themes, "Avoid excessive use of the word 'very'; it is very poor grammar and very seldom necessary."

Every evening on TV, the weatherman says "right now"; "Right now, it is raining in Boston." What does "is" mean, if not "now"?

Another is "presently," which does not mean "now," and even if it did mean "now," why not just say "now"? Or how about "this point in time"?

Years ago, a recently graduated divinity student was called to the pulpit of the first parish at Limerock Center, in eastern Maine. He entered upon his duties with zeal. He was unwed, and the deacons suggested to him that it might be prudent for him to take a bride, as one would be a help in his church work. If he did so, they would increase his stipend accordingly.

This appealed to the young man, and he gazed about. In the next town, across the river, he met a most desirable young lady named Dorcas Rankin, who was of good family, was politely educated with a conservatory diploma in the pianoforte, and seemed not averse to his approach.

He consulted the deacons. They asked questions about the young lady, and everybody spoke highly of her.

The romance developed in good shape. Every other weekday or so, he'd saddle his horse and ride over to press his suit, as the saying went. He would cross the river at a ford where the water, even at high tide, was no more than halfway up his steed's legs.

This brought him ashore in front of the home of his lady fair, and usually he could hear her at the piano as his horse stepped onto dry land.

Now it happened that one day the young man bought a new pair of pants, and it was on his mind to stop by the wooded roadside at the river, just before he crossed, and put them on in the shady privacy that prevailed there. In this way, he would not spoil the tailor's new crease, and he would look nice when he arrived to clasp her in fond embrace.

But he fell to pondering texts and forgot. All at once he was halfway across the river and still in his old pants (or pant). Neat in a package by his knee were his new pants (or pant). He stopped the horse. And there, halfway over, he changed his pants. That is, he started to, but found at once this is not something to be done while astride a horse. The horse became restless, then confused, and then it ran away.

He galloped past the damsel's abode the way Paul Revere went through Lexington. The clergyman called "Whoa!" and tried to get his pants (or pant) on.

The young lady, seeing her swain thus occupied, was greatly disturbed, not so much by his appearance as by the realization that he was foolish enough to do such a thing.

It was, in fact, a long time before she got over this experience, although in time the couple married and lived happily ever after.

But the incident was the origin of the oft-heard aphorism: "Never change pants on horseback while crossing a stream."

Even the most disinterested bystander will see from this parable that there can be times when it matters little if pants be singular or plural, and will understand why I instantly thought of that poor minister when the gentleman upbraided me for a plural verb with a singular subject.

There are some things you just don't try again.

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