Washington Post writers sometimes stray from accepted usage. When we do, I hear from our best critics and severest friends, The Post's readers.
A recent dispatch said that "a group of refugees they tried to flee." Cleo C. Talbott underlined the were and sent the clipping to me for comment.
According to most authorities, the question of whether a collective noun like group takes a singular or plural verb depends on whether the writer regards the group as a unit or as a collection of individuals. It also depends on logic, adds Roy H. Copperud in his book, American Usage and Style."
He offers these examples: "A score were injured in the wreck." "The crowd was dispersed." "The audience were waving their programs."
However, Copperud reminds us that we must be consistent. We should say, "The team is proud of its season." We should not say, "The team is proud of their season." If the team is regard as a singular unit and is proud, the pronoun that follows must also be singular.
Some weeks ago, I described a video display terminal by saying it looked like its mother had been a typewriter and its father had been a television receiver. An enormous amount of mail arrived with the information that I should have written, "looked as if its mother" etc.
Coperud says four top usage experts consider like standard as a conjunction. Thee is widespread prejudice against like in such constructions, but Shakespeare, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, and many other writers and grammarians have approved it and used it. Copperud notes, "It is universally condemned by teachers and editors, notwithstanding its wide currency."
Copperud adds that criticism of like has generated in some writers "an undiscriminating fear of like in any context. Thus they shun it even when it is required in its legitimate role as a preposition, and out of overcorrectness commit errot. They write things like 'He ate as a beast,' 'She trembled as a leaf,' and 'Editors, as inventors, are creative people.' In all three instances, like is not only right but inescapable, and as is wrong. Of one such error, (Theodore M.) Bernstein commented, 'It sounds as hell.'"
In a recent column I commented that pernickety has been misspelled and mispronounced for so long that "newer" dictionaries now accept persnickety .
Don V. Harris Jr. immediately sent me a note that said: "My mother always used persnickety when i was a youngster in Indiana in the 1920s."
I yeild to Don's mother. Lexicographers move slowly, but i guess 60 years of usage and acceptance do merit recognition.
A word on which I will not yield, however, is loadstone , which was one of the definitions in our crossword puzzle for nov. 14. Elizabeth C. Kimball of Winchester, Va., objected, and I agree with her. The word (the puzzle's clue for magnet ) is almost always spelled loadestone .
Several readers have recently asked me to inveigh against the use of can where may is needed. My feeling is that can is now so often used to indicate permission (e.g.: Can I go now?) that is pointless to oppose the usage. Many people continue to preserve the distinction between can and may , but most Americans couldn't care less -- or as they say it, "Could care less," which is the opposite of what they mean.
Deaf and dumb , and which Mary L. Knieser of Arlington saw in a recent comic strip, offends deaf people who use sign language. Deaf alone is preferble because most deaf people have normal vocal cords.
Earl B. Abrams of Arlington sent me a clipping that said, "Irregardless of West Springfield Coach Jim Jensen's reason . . ." One of the many things for which I am thankful today is that the clipping was from The Washington Star, not from our paper.
A recent letter from E. E. Griffith reported that a newsman on Channel 7 said after a recent storm that "trees were laying" all over the road. Griffith thinks the distinction between lay and lie out to be preserved, and I agree.
His letter ended with the words, "I remember you addressing our student body in a certain high school many years ago. You have grown in many ways since then."
Yes. Thanks for reminding me to pick up the two pairs of pants that a tailor is letting out for me.