Monday, October 12, 2009

Someone needs his or her head examined

Let us now thank the Newspaper of Record (OK, the Newspaper of Record Magazine) for making clear how nice "they" looks with a singular antecedent. First the setup:

There are two make-or-break factors that Jeff Ford can’t control as a vendor at the farmers’ market in Madison, Wis.: the weather and roller-coaster diet trends. His 12-year-old bakery, Cress Spring, survived Atkins, then experienced a sustained bump when Oprah urged a switch to whole grains.

Good so far? Now for the WTF sentence:

These days, Ford said with a shake of his ponytail, everyone thinks he’s allergic to wheat.

I had no problem figuring out what it meant, but I'm almost sure that my first reading wasn't what the author had in mind. Try it with some conveniently made-up facts:

The medical profession has a different story for him every few years, Jeff Ford said: first stress, then lack of exercise, then Toxic House Syndrome. These days, Ford said with a shake of his ponytail, everyone thinks he's allergic to wheat.

Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Which is why I'd bet that what he said was "These days, everybody thinks they're allergic to wheat." There's a good chance that's what the writer wrote (writers inflict a ton of damage on themselves, but not usually of this flavor). And there's a pretty persuasive case (our friends at the Log make it often; here's a not-too-fire-breathing example) that -- grammatically -- that's what should have gone into print. Even if you insist the edited version is correct, it's hard to say it isn't, at best, confusing.

I'm still teaching the gospel of no "they" with "everyone," because until we have a clear signal from all the folks out there who will start hiring editors again someday, no one wants to disarm unilaterally. But that said -- someone at the Times Magazine needs their head examined.

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5 Comments:

Blogger John Cowan said...

"Ford said with a shake of his ponytail that these days people all think they're allergic to wheat."

11:35 PM, October 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, more people have c(o)eliac sprue than an actual allergy to wheat -- and even then, that's a fairly small population.

11:58 PM, October 12, 2009  
Blogger Faldone said...

I'm still teaching the gospel of no "they" with "everyone," because until we have a clear signal from all the folks out there who will start hiring editors again someday, no one wants to disarm unilaterally.

Everyone, despite that pesky one in there, is plural. 'Everyone' is 'this one here', 'that one over there', 'the one hiding behind the water cooler', 'the one who is jumping up and down claiming that "everyone" is singular', and 'all those folks out there with the torches and pitchforks'. A plural noun phrase takes a plural pronoun.

12:22 PM, October 13, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I like to ask about this sentence: When (they/he) heard the fire alarm, everyone left.

Or

As soon as everyone got the warning, (they/he) left.

Funny sort of word that takes one agreement inside a clause and another across them...

2:31 PM, October 13, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Or 'everyone has a chance to give their views.'

I think Pullum's summary is that this species of fish agrees one way with verbs and another with pronouns, and that that's really quite all right.

2:44 PM, October 13, 2009  

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