Singular or plural? Revisited

The New Yorker is legendary for its meticulous copy editing. So when it deviates from established grammar, as in Larissa MacFarquhar’s Oct. 8 article “The Memory House,” it’s an event. The piece repeatedly used plural verbs and pronouns with singular nouns like a person or each patient. A few examples:

Each patient wore a nametag at all times; there was another nametag attached to their bed, and a third tag identified their seat in the dining room. Before the patient ate each meal, they were reminded of what time it was.

In order to keep a person safely inside their world, it was necessary to figure out the boundaries and contents of that world. 

If, for example, the person asked often where their son was, it was necessary to find out, by experimenting with answers and watching their reactions, how old they believed their son to be at that moment.

Surely I’m not the only grammar nerd who was taken aback, even though the rules on singular/plural agreement are not what they used to be. Other publications with reputations for good editing also seem to be relaxing their standards (perhaps following the growing trend of treating media as singular — which it’s not). From The New York Times:

Allowing each county elections supervisor to make their own decision on questionable signatures results in a patchwork of criteria that is unconstitutional, the lawsuit says.

And from Columbia Journalism Review:

To ban someone from the airwaves for their accent can be illegal.

“What’s the problem?” normal people may wonder. Briefly, it’s that in English singular nouns require singular verbs and pronouns; plural ones take plural. Words like somebody/someone, anybody/anyone, nobody/no one, each and every are singular. Believe it or not, so is everybody/everyone. 

The New Yorker did not respond to a request for comment, but my guess is that in “The Memory House,” the copy desk allowed the rule-breaking to avoid sexism. Until the 1970s, the masculine pronouns — he, him and his — were assumed to cover the entire human race. (Even in “The Memory House,” I found this sentence: In the class, the teacher told each patient his name, where he was, and the date.) The feminist movement largely put an end to that. Suddenly journalists started writing he or she, him or her, his or her, but that construction becomes very awkward, especially with repetition:

Each patient wore a nametag at all times; there was another nametag attached to his or her bed, and a third tag identified his or her seat in the dining room. Before the patient ate each meal, he or she was reminded of what time it was.

Often, a better solution is to make the entire sentence plural:

Allowing all county elections supervisors to make their own decisions on questionable signatures results in a patchwork of criteria that is unconstitutional, the lawsuit says. (Or should that be are constitutional? That depends on whether the intended subject is patchwork or criteria.)

To ban broadcasters from the airwaves for their accents can be illegal.

Among other reasons for waiving the rules, people who are transgender or have non-binary gender identification may prefer that people refer to them with plural pronouns rather than gendered ones.  In a doctoral dissertation I’m editing, the author used plural pronouns to refer to a special-needs child, whom she gave an androgynous name, to further protect the child’s privacy:

Sim washes their hands in the sink next to the board.

Sim wants to get up but the pedagogue holds on to their arm.

Grammatically, it grates on my ear, but I defer to the author’s purpose.

Two social journalism students recently grappled with singular/plural agreement:

Every immigrant I approached welcomed my presence, gladly exchanged contact information, told me they want to help.

He or she could fix it, but making the sentence plural is more graceful:

All the immigrants I approached welcomed my presence, gladly exchanged contact information, told me they want to help.

Same here (in quoted material, so technically it wasn’t the student’s fault):

Chatbots can help inform a user, or help them with fulfilling a task.

Better:

Chatbots can help inform users or help them with fulfilling tasks.

This one is trickier:

Among additional new tools is newsletter that Willens edits and a podcast feed of which she’s overseeing the production. 

The tricky part is that the subjects — yes,  a compound subject, newsletter and podcast feed — follow the verb. so is should be are.

In casual everyday speech, of course, we mix singular and plural all the time. But writing, which lasts longer, tends to be more formal, and therefore more correct. If you choose to deviate from standard grammar, make sure you have a good reason. But first, understand the rules you’re breaking.

 

 

 

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