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Look Who’s Talking
On Nov. 15, a high-level government official caused quite a stir when he disparaged “white suburban moms” for resisting efforts to elevate
teaching and learning in U.S. schools. “All of a sudden,” he said, “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and
their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
Some may question the statement’s tone; what concerns us here is its grammatical absurdity. Note that “their child,” which is singular,
somehow becomes plural six words later, with “they were” referring to one child. Same with “their school”: in the span of seven
words, one school has become “they.”
There are various ways to fix this mess, but here is one we don’t recommend: “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought he or she
was.” Using he or she is a valid solution, and there are times when a writer has to use the phrase, but he or she is a dismal
option that should be avoided whenever possible.
We could change “child isn’t” to “children aren’t” and make “school” plural: “All of a sudden, their
children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” At least that
makes grammatical sense. Still, the repetition of they in “they thought they were” is grating once, let alone twice.
Effective speakers and writers are guided by this line from Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sure enough, if we look for
extraneous words in the sentence and remove them, voilà: “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought, and
their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” That’s about as good as it’s going to get.
The statement was made by, of all people, the U.S. secretary of education. Lead by example, Mr. Secretary.
Due to the E-Newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
Correct any sentences that need fixing.
1. One of every two houses you see are vacant.
2. Ten pounds are heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on their books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother.
5. No one on the bus knew their way around town.
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Our funny English language:
If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth?
If the teacher taught, why didn't the preacher praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Pop Quiz Answers
1. One of every two houses you see is vacant.
2. Ten pounds is heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on his books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother. CORRECT
5. No one on the bus knew his or her way around town. (Without a rewrite, his or her is virtually unavoidable.)
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.