Couples Are People Too

By Rob Kyff

September 25, 2007 4 min read

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.

A. Not yet, but it's very close to being accepted. Picture the traditional use of "disinterested" to mean "unbiased" as a skinny dude on a surfboard, swinging his arms desperately to avoid falling off.

"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 [email protected] 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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