Sunday, January 9, 2011

It's a boy!

Transatlantic pronoun problems

I was writing some example sentences for my post on lay and lie, when I wrote this sentence:

She wrapped the baby up and laid it in its cot.

Then I remembered a post I'd read recently on the excellent language blog Separated by a common language. The blogger is an American linguist, who is currently working at a British university and writes about the differences between British and American English. And the penny has just dropped that Lynne Guist is not in fact her real name. What an idiot I am!

Anyway apparently it's quite normal for Brits to call very young babies it, as I had done there without even thinking, and Americans find this somewhat shocking. So, not wanting to offend anyone's sensibilities, I changed it to him and its to his.

Then for some light relief from 'lay and lie', which was involving quite a lot of work, I 'popped over' to 'Newsroom 101' to do a quiz or two, as you do. Newsroom 101 is not run by Associated Press, but has lots of quizzes based on Associated Press rules. I don't take them too seriously, but it's quite fun trying to guess how their minds work. Well, I came across these sentences:

1. The family of four was returning to hometown.
Whose hometown? - their - its
2. A couple in 30s with two children sees the bittersweet choice.

[bittersweet choice of what, they don't tell us].
In whose 30s? - its - their
Before I go any further, what do you think? Click on its or their in the options. Then check your answers and see if you think like AP.

Well, if you got them both right, congratulations. I think. if you got them both wrong, congratulations, you're in good company. Mine! I just went with my instinct, knowing that it probably wasn't going to meet with their approval. Now, I know that AP is a stickler for verb agreement, but how can a couple or a family be an it?

It's not even a matter of singular they; this is plural they! A couple is by definition two people, and presumably a family has a minimum of at least two members. OK, I know I used the singular there, but I was talking about them as impersonal units. The example sentences are describing flesh and blood people.

And what does that mean, a couple in its thirties? A person can be in their thirties (or his or her thirties if you really insist), but a couple? Does that mean that the relationship is thirtysomething years old?

OK. I'm probably going over the top here a bit. Couple and family presumably fall into that category of group or collective nouns such as government, team, company etc, that Americans and British don't quite see eye to eye on. In British English we have a choice, but probably tend to see them as plural, except when discussing them as a unit. This is apparently known as notional agreement. American English seems to prefer formal (that is, grammatical) agreement, and the evidence from dictionary usage groups would suggest that Americans tend to feel uncomfortable with use of the plural with these nouns. But conversely, boy do I feel uncomfortable with families and couples being called it. I promise never to call a baby it again!

I suppose this is just another case of 'East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet'. The twain in this case being the UK and the US. Or as we say in Scotland, and no doubt there's an American equivalent: 'East, west, hame's best.'
Lynne Guist is right. We really are separated by a common language.

Incidentally, can anyone tell me why our first thought is to say 'ne'er the twain shall meet', when Rudyard Kipliing's original seems to have 'never'?


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