How Many are We Talking?
I often feel like Don Quixote, crusading after a nobility and honor that perhaps have quietly passed into the mists of history some time ago. The same feels true of my yearning for a communal interest in accurate use of language. Maybe that shared value never existed. Still, with a sigh, I soldier on.
Now, you’d like to make sense when you speak and write, wouldn’t you? Why, of course you would. So, here’s a fun pop quiz for you. Find what’s wrong with these sentences:
There is a lot of people in this room.
There is plenty of reasons to get more sleep.
They were a tall woman.
Three people brought his own lunch.
I stuck to my diet, so we’re slimmer than ever.
Well, that was easy enough. The errors above are all examples of what’s known by the dry-sounding descriptor, singular-plural disagreement. You’ve got a singular thing (“his”) that doesn’t get along with a plural thing (“three people”). They disagree. And if you say those sentences out loud, they sound downright stupid, don’t they?
So far, so good.
Now, our language has given us these convenient space savers called contractions. They were probably invented back when quills were getting pricey, or during some sort of ink shortage. As you know, a contraction happens when we squeeze together two words, and just agree that the one word equals the two. “We’re” is “we are.” “It’s” is “it is.” (Yes, I know you know. I’m just making sure we're all on the same page.)
But people often forget to pay attention to what they’re saying. As a result, it’s become common linguistic practice to misuse our contractions, saying stuff like, “There’s a lot of people here” or “Every artist has their own style.” It’s so common, in fact, that when I typed those ridiculous sentences, my grammar-check feature just sat there, staring into space, letting the errors pass. But if you think about it (and I wish we all would), saying “There’s ten places I want to visit.” is the exact equivalent of saying, “There is ten places I want to visit.” This is why we can’t have nice things, like contractions.
The gender one is awfully tricky in today’s social climate. The crusty old rule still on the books is to use the masculine pronoun when the gender isn’t known. And yes, that’s sexist. So it becomes comfier to opt for word combinations that make no sense (“A chef must know their sauces.”) rather than using the correct grammatical construct (“A chef must know his sauces.”).
One answer is to use “he or she,” “him or her,” and “his or her” in each instance. That gets tedious and unwieldy in about one sentences. And talk about wearing out quills.
One workable solution that I quite like is to randomly alter the singular pronouns whenever the gender is not known. Each person reading this will have to decide for herself whether to adopt this practice. But here’s the case I make for it: the words make sense and aren’t stupid.
And then there are the folks who militantly demand that we throw singular-plural agreement completely out the window so as to honor each person who self-identifies as a singular “they.” I know I may provoke anger and accusations when I say this, but from a strictly grammatical point of view, this portends chaos (see “Mom, Dad, I’m They”). I’m all for respecting people, but not at the expense of our already embattled language.
Now, when I point out that “There’s two ways to get there” is non-English, I’m often met with scoffing. How silly, to care about a little thing like that. Well, scoff away, say I. I’ll still be able to communicate when much of the citizenry has whittled away its skills by aggressively campaigning for the right to not make sense.
As I often say, if we keep misusing our words, then wagon postcard dental walnut packing scramble fish leotard nuzzle pocket %Rq *^}} /hxmpw ;)~--. Know what I mean?
Be good to our language, and it—not they—will be good to you.
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