Saturday, January 07, 2006

"If you love somebody, set them free"

Did it vex you mightily that the Sting lyric followed the singular "somebody" with the the plural "them"? Were you taught that "if you love somebody, set him or her free" or "if you love some people, set them free" would be the preferred usage?

Well, rest your battle-wearied head, because Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log says it's OK. No less an authority than The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes the stance that they can follow a singular antecedent. Pullum writes, "It's a position that couldn't really be doubted by anyone who had devoted even a few minutes to looking at the facts of usage, be it literary (over the past 600 years) or everyday conversational. Excellent advice."

Pullum scorns the "American backwardness" of "Strunk and White, and their thousands of latter-day co-religionists such as Stanley Fish and the style guides of the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association. Why do these sources continue to damn singular antecedents for they in defiance of all the evidence of its constant use by respectable authors during at least the past six centuries? I have no idea."

I can accept the singular they, Sting or no Sting. But what I still vehemently deplore is the misguided use of the subjective I where an objective me belongs, as in the Bodeans song, "Good Things": "No, no, no, don't pass me over. No, no, no, don't pass me by. See I can see good things for you and I." I like the song, but I have no choice but to edit while singing along, making "for you and me" rhyme with "see I can see." (The Bodeans should have thought of that themselves.) And don't get me started on "just between you and I," okay?


Cricket said...

Jeez, I suck at the me/I thing. Suck. I do try and am aware, tho, but I think I fail often.

I am pretty good at who/whom, so I figure that counts for something.

I guess if somebody ready my blog, it might make them crazy, tho.

Charlie said...

I screw up the who/whom thing regularly. "Whom" is not really a part of my vocabulary, I'm sad to say.

Orange said...

Charlie, I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm hoping that in the future, when we all wear silver jumpsuits, that "whom" will be used only immediately after a preposition (e.g., "with whom") but will otherwise be replaced by "who." I want to be able to ask, "Who are you going to Sundance with?" without guilt.

Excellent deployment of somebody/they, Cricket!

Krupskaya said...

I hate somebody/them. Hate it. When Uncle Tupelo sings, "It's every person for themself" (which is grammatically painful anyway), I sing, "It's all thepeople for themselves," or "It's every person for hizzorherself." Because I'm like that.

I agree with the silver jumpsuit thing. Er, I mean, the who/m thing.

Anonymous said...

I like whom, but it has become increasingly clear that it is a word that is on its way out. Use of whom is oftem bizarre; I'm not sure what many people think it means. On the radio once, I hear two announcers discussing a recent act of vandalism. One said, "Authorities will find who did this." The second said, "Or whom." The first thanked him and said, "Authorities will find who or whom did this."

I really dislike fiction when a character alternately uses whom correctly and abuses it. It makes sense that not every character is going to use whom correctly, but to have a character use it correctly one week and abuse it the next irks me.

Krupskaya said...

Oh, also? Paula Cole. "Say a little prayer for I"? How about: "I pray you stop writing songs with bad grammar in them. Amen."

T.A.N. said...

good thing there aren't editors for songwriting (at least not officially/professionally) ... we'd have many a song ruined for the sake of proper grammar.

Mrs. Harridan said...

"Someone/they" especially grates on my nerves if I see it in a BOOK (which has happened)! But in a song, it's totally irritating, too. And didn't Sting used to be an English teacher? He traded his grammar cred for rock and tantric sex cred, I guess.

DoctorMama said...

I for one feel utterly relieved about the someone/they thing. Because it was a stupid, clunky rule that nonetheless I had a very hard time breaking because I do not have enough guts.

But "to you and I"? Can't. Stand. It. The reason that one bugs me is that the speaker obviously thinks they're (broke the rule! Heady rush of danger and freedom!) using especially correct grammar.

Anonymous said...

I too feel relieved about the somebody/them thing--using "his or her" repeatedly sounds so clunky, and I feel like a sham when I correct writers on it. I also agree about despising the common I/me mistake.

While I'm on the subject... what about the notorious "nauseated" and "nauseous"? I was taught that the former was the state of feeling throw-uppy (how'd you like that word?), and that the latter denoted causing a state of nausea. As in, "The nauseous fumes made me nauseated." But now everyone seems to use "nauseous" exclusively. What's the official rule?

Gee we're big nerds. It's downright nauseous.

Orange said...

MWDB, do you smirk every time you hear someone complain that they're nauseous? Do you secretly want to fake-retch to make an honest person out of them? (I do.)