Cooking up some grammar answers

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A reader from Kansas asked the following free grammar question:

Anyone can become a good cook if they tries?

My answer:

Your question exposes one of the basic flaws of the English language: we don’t have a third person singular gender neutral pronoun.

What does that mean? If the cook in the question is male, then we can write: Anyone can become a good cook if he tries.

If the cook in the question is female, then we can write: Anyone can become a good cook if she tries.

But we don’t know the gender of the cook in question!

The old-fashioned solution in the English language is to simply use the male pronoun when we don’t know the gender of the person. There are plenty of rule books supporting this.

But in these modern, politically correct, gender sensitive days, it seems insensitive.

Some people try to get around the lack of a third person singular pronoun by using the third person plural pronoun: Anyone can become a good cook if they try. But you see the problem in this sentence is that we have shifted from a single person at the beginning of the sentence to more than one person (they) at the end of the sentence.

One proposed solution is the hybrid word s/he. Anyone can become a good cook if s/he tries. It looks ugly to me and I don’t think many teachers are liberal enough with the language to accept that.

So, really the best solution is to revise the sentence to avoid the dilemma: One can become a good cook if one tries. (Seems a little upper class English to me; I bet you don’t hear that sentence often in Kansas.) With effort, anyone can become a good cook (or writer).

Here’s another question; this time it’s from New York.

Hi, Can you please explain which statements below are correct?

3 cupcakes is the limit per student.
3 cupcakes are the limit per student.

3 crayons is the most you may have.
3 crayons are the most you may have.

Think of it this way: The limit is three cupcakes; The most you may have is 3 crayons.

The subject of the first sentence is “limit” and of the second sentence is “most.” This is true in the way I’ve re-arranged the sentence, but also in the original form.

The verb has to agree with the subject. These subjects are singular, therefore the verb has to be “is”.

And finally, a question from way down under in Brisbane, Australia:

If using an abbreviation derived from a plural term, is a singular or plural verb used. Eg: the abbreviation for communication and information systems is CIS. Should I use: CIS is or CIS are? Is there a reference for this? (My boss will want one!!)

My gut told be to treat it as a whatever it is, so I would treat a singular abbreviation as singular and a plural abbreviation as a plural.

However, I did look for a reference for you and I learned: “As subjects, acronyms should be treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals; therefore, they require a singular verb (“NIOSH is committed to . . .”).” This is from Pennsylvania State University in a technical writing resource.

Thanks for your enquiry, I learned something new.

I love getting these grammar questions. Your questions keep me on my toes and I often learn something new. Keep them coming!