August 03, 2006

Each had his own strange tale to tell

I agree with Sally Thomason that Winston Churchill didn't write the passage attributed to him in a recent Dear Abby column. However, I wasn't sure about whether Churchill reliably conformed with the prescription against use of they with each, which Sally takes as determinative evidence. He might, after all, have written like Jane Austen. So in order to look into the question further, I devoted my breakfast reading this morning to Churchill's "The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan" described by the Wikipedia entry as an "1899 book written by Winston Churchill while he was still an officer in the British army, a first-hand account of the conquest of the Sudan by the English-Egyptian force under Lord Kitchener".

In this work, everyone usually takes he, and so does "each N":

Everyone held his breath.

... thereafter each man saw the world along his lance, under his guard, or through the back-sight of his pistol; and each had his own strange tale to tell.

At the mosque two fanatics charged the Soudanese escort, and each killed or badly wounded a soldier before he was shot.

I did find one example of everyone with they:

[The steamer] had already arrived, and the sight of the funnel in the distance and the anticipation of a good meal cheered everyone, for they had scarcely had anything to eat since the night before the battle.

This example is interesting, in that substitution of he for they would be incoherent:

??[The steamer] had already arrived, and the sight of the funnel in the distance and the anticipation of a good meal cheered everyone, for he had scarcely had anything to eat since the night before the battle.

However, there weren't enough examples of either sort in this one book to compile a clear enough picture, and my breakfast coffee ran out before I had time to consult any other works. But this is part of the larger question of what pronouns to use with nominal expressions that are grammatically singular but (from some angles) semantically plural, discussed in earlier Language Log posts such as "Collective nouns with singular verbs" (2/5/2005). So to look at Churchill's habits in this area (at least as filtered through the editing process), I looked at what he does with the noun army, which is very common in The River War.

Churchill uses "the army was" and "the army were" equally often in this work -- four times each. For example:

The army was by then occupying Dongola, and was in actual expectation of a Dervish counter-attack, and it was evident that the military operations could not be suspended or arrested.

For two hours the army were the only living things visible on the smooth sand, but at seven o'clock a large body of Dervish horse appeared on the right flank.

Similarly, he sometimes uses the singular it in connection with "the army", but slightly more often, he uses plural they. Examples with it:

Within three months of its formation the army had its first review.

All the time that the army was operating on the Atbara it drew its supplies from the fort at the confluence...

With the cool of the evening the army left its bed of torment on the ridge and returned to Umdabia.

The army which the Khedives maintained in the Delta was, judged by European standards, only a rabble. It was badly trained, rarely paid, and very cowardly.

By these movements the army, instead of facing south in echelon, with its left on the river and its right in the desert, was made to face west in line, with its left in the desert and its right reaching back to the river.

And with "they":

The army of the Government approached slowly. Their leaders anticipated an easy victory.

In December the army returned to Gallabat, which they commenced to fortify, and their victorious general followed his grisly but convincing despatch to Omdurman, where he received the usual welcome accorded by warlike peoples to military heroes.

The army had now passed beyond the scope of a camel, or other pack-animal, system of supply, except for very short distances, and it was obvious that they could only advance in future along either the railway or a navigable reach of the river, and preferably along both.

The army were now dependent for their existence on the partly finished railway, from the head of which supplies were conveyed by an elaborate system of camel transport.

The distance, ten miles, was accomplished in five hours, and the army reached Hudi in time to construct a strong zeriba before the night. Here they were joined from Atbara fort by Lewis's brigade of Egyptians...

Communications with the Atbara encampment and with Cairo were dropped, and the army carried with them in their boats sufficient supplies to last until after the capture of Omdurman, when the British division would be immediately sent back.

It seems to me (post hoc) that Churchill is choosing it or they according to the feeling of the passage, though I'm not sure that I can make a convincing argument for this view.

Whatever the verdict on they with grammatically singular antecedents, I agree with Sally that Dear Abby's mock-Churchill passage is too clumsy to have been written by the same man who wrote The River War. As stylistic evidence, I chose a sample of passages that mix current relevance with shockingly casual racism. Let's start with Churchill's look at the two sides of nation building:

What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain--what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort? The act is virtuous, the exercise invigorating, and the result often extremely profitable. Yet as the mind turns from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement, a succession of opposite ideas arises. Industrious races are displayed stinted and starved for the sake of an expensive Imperialism which they can only enjoy if they are well fed. Wild peoples, ignorant of their barbarism, callous of suffering, careless of life but tenacious of liberty, are seen to resist with fury the philanthropic invaders, and to perish in thousands before they are convinced of their mistake. The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors. And as the eye of thought rests on these sinister features, it hardly seems possible for us to believe that any fair prospect is approached by so foul a path.

And here Churchill muses on the degeneration of the Sudanese movement founded by the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, whom he admired:

All great movements, every vigorous impulse that a community may feel, become perverted and distorted as time passes, and the atmosphere of the earth seems fatal to the noble aspirations of its peoples. A wide humanitarian sympathy in a nation easily degenerates into hysteria. A military spirit tends towards brutality. Liberty leads to licence, restraint to tyranny. The pride of race is distended to blustering arrogance. The fear of God produces bigotry and superstition. There appears no exception to the mournful rule, and the best efforts of men, however glorious their early results, have dismal endings, like plants which shoot and bud and put forth beautiful flowers, and then grow rank and coarse and are withered by the winter. It is only when we reflect that the decay gives birth to fresh life, and that new enthusiasms spring up to take the places of those that die, as the acorn is nourished by the dead leaves of the oak, the hope strengthens that the rise and fall of men and their movements are only the changing foliage of the ever-growing tree of life, while underneath a greater evolution goes on continually.

And this is his description of "the situation in the Soudan for several centuries":

The qualities of mongrels are rarely admirable, and the mixture of the Arab and negro types has produced a debased and cruel breed, more shocking because they are more intelligent than the primitive savages. The stronger race soon began to prey upon the simple aboriginals; some of the Arab tribes were camel-breeders; some were goat-herds; some were Baggaras or cow-herds. But all, without exception, were hunters of men. To the great slave-market at Jedda a continual stream of negro captives has flowed for hundreds of years. The invention of gunpowder and the adoption by the Arabs of firearms facilitated the traffic by placing the ignorant negroes at a further disadvantage. Thus the situation in the Soudan for several centuries may be summed up as follows: The dominant race of Arab invaders was unceasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them.

Coby Lubliner points out that in the last sentence of the last quote, race takes it while population takes them. Churchill was clearly not one of of Emerson's "little minds", at least as far as pronominal reference to collective nouns is concerned.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 3, 2006 08:47 AM