June 07, 2006

One of those who

From reader Adam Drew this morning, a posting (of 6/1/06) he found on the Defective Yeti website:


I posted this question to a discussion group and it incited a veritable brawl:

Which is grammatically correct: "I have had sex with each and every member of Avenged Sevenfold, one of the bands that [is|are] part of Ozzfest 2006."

No consensus was reached, so we can settle the matter once and for all, right here on this humble little webpage. Fight!

In the seven days since then the responses have piled up alarmingly.  Some people said only the plural was correct, period, and one of them cited Bryan Garner (who is inflexible on this point in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage) in support.  At least one reader was disbelieving that anyone could EVER use the singular here.  Others maintained that only the singular was grammatical.  Several said that both were possible; one of these helpfully and painstakingly provided sentence diagrams for each of the variants.  Pandemonium reigned.  Or maybe even rained.

This is a venerable controversy --  people have complained about the singular variant since at least 1770 -- and this variant goes back even farther, at least to Shakespeare.  (The plural variant is attested in the 10th century.)  What's interesting here is that passionate discussions on points of grammar, usage, and style break out in all sorts of places that have nothing in particular to do with language: child-care forums, techie mailing lists, lgbt newsgroups, for instance.  People CARE.  And the issues that exercise them so much are mostly famous ones in the Ling Biz, like this one, issues that are treated with some care in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- a volume that scarcely anyone outside of the Ling Biz seems to know about.  Forget Strunk & White.  Go for MWDEU.

If you look in MWDEU under one of those who you will find capsule histories of the variation in usage and of the controversy about it among the various "authorities" on grammar, usage, and style.  The article observes that each variant appears with some frequency, including by respected writers in formal contexts, and that often both appear in the work of a single writer (Joseph Addison in The Spectator, for instance).  MWDEU ultimately takes the position of John S. Kenyon in a 1951 American Speech article, that (in the dictionary's words) "it is simply a matter of which is to be master" -- the singular one or the plural NP (those, the bands, whatever) that follows it.  This is in fact the position of "Umrain Zero", who produced those sentence diagrams.  Both variants are ok, and they might even be conveying slightly different things (with greater discourse salience of the one thing, with singular agreement, or of the reference class from which this thing is drawn, with plural agreement).

The advice literature on grammar, usage, and style is on the whole inimical to alternative expressions with the "same meaning", generally advising that one of the alternatives be banned entirely (as in this case) or else relegated to conversation and informal writing (as in the case of a lot of vs. much, which I've recently written about here).  There are two problems here.  First, again and again it turns out (as Dwight Bolinger used to explain so often) that the alternatives are not truly free variants, but convey different meanings or discourse statuses.  Second, free variation (without semantic or discourse-structuring concomitants) is still a great thing to have around, indicating all sorts of other things: your mood, your persona, your attitude towards the people you're talking or writing to, your social group membership, and so on.  This is true even if we confine ourselves to the standard language.  We can do more things if we have more choices.

So I say: try to steer clear of people who want to impoverish your set of choices.  And don't go around constraining other people's sets of choices, especially if they might be doing something subtle with them.  Your life will be calmer, less stressful, and less contentious.  Go out and get (as Geoff Pullum advised here) a copy of MWDEU, and apply it soothingly when you feel a fit of grammar-wrangling coming on.  (Geoff recommended the concise version, but I usually suggest that people spring for the full volume.  Note: I am in no way associated with the Merriam-Webster company.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 7, 2006 08:59 PM