Grammatical Number

William H. Smith wh5mith at ATL.MINDSPRING.COM
Thu May 6 02:49:37 UTC 1999

We all know that English has shifted from grammatical number (e.g.
"everyone"--"he" unless all of "everyone" is female) to natural number
("everyone"--"they"), so that not any +Human noun of unspecified sex takes a
plural pronoun.  Have you noticed that this change is extending to any
+Human, even when sex is specified?  In answering a test question on Pope's
"Rape of the Lock," a student of mine wrote that "a coquette does not stay
with one man long enough to lose their virginity."  Some time ago I heard an
NPR commentator say "Any woman who has given birth...they...."  Today an NPR
reporter in Denver said that "Each of them [Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold]
took their own life."  Does anyone else have examples of this shift to a new
form of grammatical number?

For something completely different, my wife, a seventh-grade language arts
teacher, would like examples of humorous dangling modifiers, such as "Flying
low, a herd of cows was seen."  (Incidentally, about a year ago a man in
Texas was killed by a flying cow.  The cow had strayed onto a freeway, been
hit by a car, and was thrown onto the victim's car.)

Bill Smith
Piedmont College

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