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Today we’ll look at three perplexing sentences that are the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.
• Every man and woman has arrived. Why has? The phrase man and woman denotes a plural subject. Consider the following
grammatically sound sentence: The happy man and woman have arrived. Every and happy both
function as adjectives that modify man and woman in these almost identical sentences. But every is so powerfully singular that it forces
us to say has, despite the plural subject.
• More than one person was involved. Why was? Doesn’t more mean at least two? Yet there is no
English scholar we know of who would change the verb to “were involved,” even though we would say, “More were involved than one
Reference books do not offer much help with this conundrum, and the Internet is no help at all. But John B. Bremner’s Words on Words and
Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer both address the topic. Bremner claims that more than is an adverbial phrase modifying
the adjective one, “which is singular and therefore qualifies a singular noun, which takes a singular verb.” That explanation might
fly in the rarefied air of academia, but to accept it we must ignore the inconvenient fact that more than one person means “two or more
persons,” and would seem to require the plural verb were involved.
Bernstein doesn’t try to justify More than one person was involved as good grammar, just “good idiom.” He says “was involved” is an example of attraction, a linguistic term that accounts for certain incorrect word choices: “The verb is
singular ‘by attraction’ to the one and to the subsequent noun [person].” Since “good idioms” often defy
logic, we lean toward Bernstein’s interpretation.
• All but one ship was sunk. Another example of “good idiom.” The principles that apply to more than one also apply to all but one. If we separate all from but one, the verb becomes plural: Of the five ships, all were sunk but one.
One is free to endorse elaborate justifications for the validity of More than (or All but) one person was involved. But it is just as reasonable to conclude that this oddity is nothing more than institutionalized
error—people have been saying it wrong for so long that we’ve become used to it, and More than one person were involved, the logical construction, sounds wrong. We see institutionalized error on the march today in
ungrammatical usages like “each of them were here,” “neither of you are right,” and “a person should do their best,” all of which we suspect will be standard English in a decade or two, despite the anguished screams of purists.
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Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses, and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?
This week, courtesy of language historian Anne Curzan, we continue our run of a small sampling of words that you may not have realized did not always mean what they mean today.
1. Myriad: If you had a myriad of things 600 years ago, it meant that you specifically had 10,000 of them—not just a lot.
2. Naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.
3. Eerie: Before the word eerie described things that inspire fear, it used to describe people feeling fear—as in one could feel faint and eerie.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.