Errors Inflict 'Mind Game' Headaches Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan's play "The Rivals," replaced familiar terms with similar-sounding words and phrases, often with hilarious results. Can you find 35 malapropisms in this character profile? My eccentric uncle, Mal A. …Read more. Telling Some 'Folk' Tales Q. During a recent plane trip, the chief flight attendant repeatedly referred to us passengers as "folks." There was not a single "ladies and gentlemen." But how appropriate is "folks" to begin with? I was taught that "folk" is already plural (as is …Read more. 'Who' or 'Whom'? Heed the Verb Q: This headline appeared over a newspaper story about anonymous kidney donations: "For whomever needs it most." Is "whomever" correct because it is the object of the preposition "for"? Or should it be "whoever," the subject of "whoever needs it …Read more. Shrubbery on Wall Street Is there a hedge in "hedge fund"? Judging from the manicured hedges around the secluded estates of hedge-fund managers in North Greenwich, Connecticut, you might think so. In fact, there is a connection between fancy bushes and financial bets. "…Read more.more articles
Couples Are People Too
Q. My local TV news people are suddenly making many collective nouns neutral. Example: "The couple and its three sons." I think this should be "their three sons," since the people had names and were not a couple of bookends. What is the rule governing this usage? — Roberta Werbaneth, Allison Park, Pa.
A. While it seems natural to refer to certain collective entities, such as a team, a board or a faculty, as a single unit (the team held its first practice), it's jarring to refer to something as human as a couple or a family with an impersonal, gender-neutral pronoun ("the family held its annual party"). As you point out, we tend to think of couples and families as people, not as bookends, no matter how bookish those families might be.
That's why it's not uncommon to see sentences with "couple" or "family" as the subject followed by a singular verb but a plural pronoun, e.g. "the couple is selling their condominium," "the family is returning to their home state."
While technically ungrammatical, these sentences are preferable to "the couple is selling its condominium," "the family is moving back to its home state," and, yes, "the couple and its three sons watched TV news people who imposed pronoun agreement too rigidly."
Q. From today's newspaper: "Not blinking, Wood says, 'can mean that you're disinterested and that you've checked out.'" Has this use of "disinterested" for "uninterested" reached the tipping point? — Larry Bulgier, Suffield, Conn.
"Disinterested" and "uninterested" share a curious history. "Disinterested" originally meant "not interested," and "uninterested" originally meant "impartial."
But about a century ago, the two terms switched definitions, and since then traditionalists have insisted that "disinterested" be reserved to mean "impartial," as in "disinterested observer."
Given the similarity of these two words, it's understandable that more and more people think it's totally tubular to use "disinterested" to mean "not interested, as in "the students were disruptive and disinterested," and "she became disinterested in coin collecting."
Nevertheless, the "impartial" meaning of "disinterested" is still up on that surfboard, hanging 10 (well, maybe five), and most experts continue to regard the use of "disinterested" to mean "not interested" as a linguistic wipeout.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045. To find out more about Rob Kyff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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