Sometimes “Their” is a Plural

rogersgeorge on November 14th, 2017

For years grammarians and writers have unsuccessfully tried to figure out a good singular alternative to “him or her” (and its variants), because using three words is awkward. We have examples going clear back to Edmund Spencer of using the technically plural “their” or “they” as that singular. We even call it the singular they.

For example:

Somebody left his or her car running.

Usually we say

Somebody left their car running.

Sometimes you can recast the sentence to avoid the problem:

A car was left running out front.

But let’s face it, the singular they is pretty useful, and I think we curmudgeons just have to learn to live with it.

PS—I ran into an interesting (read tactful) use of the singular them:

Individuals who have shared intimate, nude or sexual images with partners and are worried that the partner (or ex-partner) might distribute them without their consent can use Messenger to send the images to be “hashed.”

Now having said all that, “they” and “their” are legitimate plurals, and you should be alert for when you have an actual plural. Here’s one where a professional writer (and the editor) missed the boat:

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imagination.

Plural “kids,” plural “their”—so far so good. But what about “imagination”? That should be a plural! Each kid has his or her own imagination, so the sentence should read

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imaginations.

I won’t embarrass the writer by identifying him. (I considered a little tongue-in-cheek humor by using “them” or “the person,” but I figured out that the writer is a guy, so I can safely use “him.”)

Mainly so I can have a picture in this post, here’s part of what he was writing about:

Rodney pond

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Hah! I Found a Mistake in One of those Lists of Facts

rogersgeorge on November 4th, 2017

The list is titled English language did you knows, and it’s here. It’s someplace on did-you-knows .com, too. The rest of the list seems reasonable enough, but this goof makes me suspicious of the veracity of the rest of the list, even though no doubt at least some of them are true.

Anyway, here’s the mistake:

The first English dictionary was written in 1755

That’s a reference to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the most famous early dictionary, but at least a dozen dictionaries preceded it. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia, and easy enough place to do research in.

Johnson’s dictionary was not the first English dictionary, nor even among the first dozen. Over the previous 150 years more than twenty dictionaries had been published in England, the oldest of these being a Latin-English “wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot published in 1538.

So there.

While I’m at it, the reference to “durst” being the past tense of “dare” isn’t quite right. “Durst” is obsolete. We use “dared” now. This list appears to be a collection of statements for several sources of varying quality.

By the way, the statement about “e” being the most common letter is true. The 12 most common letters, in order of frequency are etaoinshrdlu, a list I happen to have memorized.

 

Another Writer gets Comprise right

rogersgeorge on October 30th, 2017

“Comprise” is frequently treated as a fancy (read pretentious) synonym for “compose,” particularly in the circumlocution “is comprised of.” Ick. Don’t ever say (or write) that.

So when I see someone do it right, the sentence is worth mentioning. It’s from This Day in History for October 25:

The work of Picasso, which comprises more than 50,000 paintings, drawings, engravings, sculptures, and ceramics produced over 80 years, is described in a series of overlapping periods.

Here’s the rule: One comprises many, many compose one. In this case, one (work) comprises 50,000 works of art.

I try to include an illustration of some sort in these posts, so here’s me killing two birds with one stone: Pictures of Picasso himself, painted by Picasso himself.I’m not particularly a fan of Picasso’s work—I rather prefer the Pre-Raphaelites myself—but there you have it.

Why Can’t We Say “Ain’t”?

rogersgeorge on October 28th, 2017

This Speed Bump comic reminds me of the joke: There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary, and those who don’t. You know, of course, that 10 is binary for “two,” right?

When I was a kid, the conventional wisdom was that people tended to be good at (or like) math or language, but not both. I think it’s kind of true, but I’ve met a lot of exceptions, including myself.

But this comic also reminds me of a problem we have in English. (ahem) We ain’t got a good contraction for “am not.” I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling us that if we wanted to ask “ain’t I?” we should say “am I not?” It sounded strange to me, but I’ve gotten used to it.

“Ain’t” is a perfectly good word, but I’m afraid it’ll never escape its low class roots. Of course you can still use the word—just say you’re being just a wee bit folksy.

Another Curmudgeon!

rogersgeorge on October 18th, 2017

His name is Brian Patrick Byrne and he wrote an article about a NASA-sponsored computer game that he says is riddled with errors, both of fact and of English. He seems to be correct. If you’re interested in mistakes in video games, go read the article. It’s not bad, (though once he used “within” when just “in” would have been fine). Here’s a quote:

Cosmic Quest teaches players bad math about the size of solar arrays, and gives false instructions for an important process used to make fuel and water in space. It also screws up the name of a vital chemical element needed to power NASA spacecraft. Among the game’s typos are misspellings of the words “analyze” and “oxide,” and confusing the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

As a writer and editor, I think these are pretty serious errors, even if they occur only once each. NASA has the excuse that an outside company did the development, and I’m certainly glad it’s not a real NASA project. Here’s a screen shot, by the way. I put the pointer under the misspelled word, but you probably didn’t need the assistance, did you?