Rantings of a sub-editor

September 10, 2010

Do you has a problem with this?

Filed under: grammar,singular/plural — substuff @ 10:38 am
Tags: , ,

I have been having a lot of plural/singular strife over the past couple of days. First, there was the old “one in three people” monkey.

Should it be “one in three people believes Anna Friel is the most gorgeous woman in Britain” or “one in three people believe Anna Friel is the most gorgeous woman in Britain”?*

The production editor and the other subs at Which? all plumped for the latter – because the “one” is representative of many people and although it’s technically incorrect, it sounds more natural. However, when I put the question out on Twitter, the responses were unanimously (and indignantly) for the former – “one in three people believes”. And who says no-one cares about grammar on the web?

When I proposed the Which? stance that in this case “one” represented many, it provoked a Twitflurry. My favourite response came from @dannybirchall:

“I don’t think that deeper metaphysical concepts about ‘one being many and many being one’ apply to grammar. ‘One’ is singular.”

You have been told. Metaphysics don’t matter. Actually, I’m inclined to agree.

That was the first instance. Then, this morning, there was a second. This one combined the single/plural dilemma with the singular “they”. I had issued a proof with the following construction on it:

“Which? research has found that a typical household has a choice of more than 20 thingamyjigs if they decide to pay by direct debit.”

It’s an ugly sentence and I admit that it shouldn’t have slipped through my net. But on one of the returned proofs, it had been changed to:

“Which? research has found that a typical household has a choice of more than 75 energy tariffs if it decides to pay by direct debit.”

Ohh, nice. “It”? That’s just prioritising grammar above sense and downright decency.  It needed changing, but not this! Oh, not this.

In the end, I went for:

“Which? research has found that a typical householder who has chosen to pay by direct debit has a choice of more than 75 energy tariffs.”

I’d be interested to hear what others would have done, in either of the above situations. Suggestions on a postcard…

*Reference to Anna Friel is entirely gratuitous

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15 Comments »

  1. You could have perhaps gone for:

    “Which? research has found that a typical household has a choice of more than 75 energy tariffs when deciding to pay by direct debit.” (or “…when paying…” for conciseness)

    to get around having to refer to the object in the second part of the sentence, but that’s a bit ugly, and not better than what you ended up with.

    I find this problem cropping up a lot, actually, i.e. singular nouns that stand for a number of people. A ‘group’ can often comfortably be ‘it’, but for some reason a ‘family’ or a ‘couple’ (and yes, sometimes a group, team or gang as well) can sound odd if you refer to it as an ‘it’. It cries out to be a ‘they’. You can’t say, for example:

    “The couple met when it was invited to a mutual friend’s party.”

    or “The family holidayed in Blackpool where it liked to ride the rollercoasters.”

    On the other hand, constructions like “The couple were both tennis fans.” or “The family all enjoyed watching X-Factor.” are unlikely to stop many readers in their tracks. They just keep sad grammar geeks like myself awake at night, worried about their validity.

    Perhaps metaphysics does play a part in grammar sometimes? A couple stands for two people, a family for at least three. Because everyone understands this, referring to them in the singular can sound pedantic at best. But how can I end up with grammatically correct sentences, then, without tying myself in knots?

    What do you think?

    Comment by raggieroo — September 10, 2010 @ 11:35 am | Reply

    • Ok, here goes. Sorry for the slow reply!

      I think a couple is pretty much always plural – it has to be “they’re a really nice couple”, rather than “it’s a really nice couple”, because the latter just sounds daft. But then, you would say “remember that couple?” rather than “remember those couple?”, so I contradict myself. Family is trickier and depends on context. To me, “my family is coming to visit” and “my family are coming to visit” both sound fine. But it has to be “they’ll be here at three” – “it’ll be here at three” is silly.

      I suspect that, as you say, metaphysics does [singular!] play a part, in that it depends whether you are talking about the individuals that make up the whole, or simply the whole itself. I can’t come up with a better explanation than that at the moment, though I’m sure there is one. It’s good exercise for the brain, though…

      Sports teams are always treated as a plural and companies are always singular.

      I’m at the Guardian today, so here’s the entry from its (narrowly avoided writing “their”!) style guide. Didn’t know the bit about rock bands!

      ‘Corporate entities take the singular: eg, The BBC has decided (not “have”). In subsequent references make sure the pronoun is singular: “It [not “they”] will press for an increase in the licence fee.”

      ‘Sporting teams and rock bands are the exception – Thus “England have an uphill task” is OK, as is “Nirvana are overrated”)’

      Comment by substuff — September 12, 2010 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

  2. It should be “metaphysics doesn’t matter”, shouldn’t it. Should it? Oh my.

    Comment by substuff — September 10, 2010 @ 12:29 pm | Reply

  3. I’d say yes, it probably should. It’s not a plural of ‘metaphysic’, after all. You wouldn’t say “Chemistry/Biology don’t matter.”

    Not that I picked that up when I read the post. *Puts self in corner*

    Comment by raggieroo — September 10, 2010 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

    • Hehe. I will reply to your post properly, btw, but am at work at the moment and it’s a meaty one!

      Comment by substuff — September 10, 2010 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

      • No worries. It’s my day off and I’m supposed to be cleaning the house. Hence the meaty post…

        Comment by raggieroo — September 10, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  4. A couple of points:

    1] Metaphysics doesn’t matter, perhaps, as Metaphysics is a discipline, rather than a collection of single Metaphysic things.

    2] The statistic is completely out of wack.It is actually “two in three people believes Anna Friel is the most gorgeous woman in Britain”. At least.

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — September 10, 2010 @ 1:48 pm | Reply

    • “Two in three people believeS”? Blinded by the Friel!

      Comment by substuff — September 10, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  5. Or “whack”. Sorry. I went all youf for a second…

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — September 10, 2010 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  6. I’d agree with your production editor and colleagues – certainly that’s what we do at work! As for the “households” example, what do you think of this?

    “Which? research has found that a typical household, if paying by direct debit, has a choice of more than 75 energy tariffs.”

    Comment by Mike — September 10, 2010 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  7. Oh that copy and paste. Curse the digital era…

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — September 10, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  8. Just wait til you lob in a subjunctive and watch people delicately suggest you might have made a mistake.

    “If it were true…? Um…I think that…shouldn’t that be ‘was’?…”

    Comment by Michael — September 14, 2010 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

    • I was told the other day that by starting a sentence “If I were down with the kids…” I had proved… that I wasn’t.

      Comment by substuff — September 14, 2010 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

      • Whoever said that may well have a point 🙂

        I wonder if you’d ended the sentence with “fo shizzle ma nizzle” whether that might have helped.

        Comment by Michael — September 15, 2010 @ 1:54 am | Reply

  9. How about: “A typical household that decides to pay by direct debit has a choice of bla bla bla”. Either ‘that decide’ and ‘have’, or ‘that decides’ and ‘has’. Both work and no nasty present participle.

    Comment by Robin Kelly — September 15, 2010 @ 5:45 pm | Reply


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