English is very, very weird, and it shows no signs of stopping. As a global language, the combined pressure of millions of speakers has conspired, over centuries, to push it in multiple different directions, far from its Germanic roots, and leaving it as a fascinating linguistic hybrid.
Thus, it is a shame that the forms of English to which we are exposed are often so sanitized and dull, whitewashed versions of colloquial norms (as in most of our media) or impenetrable, mind-curdling Bureaucrat-ese. As a result, and because people mostly experience media through digital formats, rather than literarily, an understanding of different modes of English is not foremost in the average person’s mind. It is also why trying to read Dickens or Austen, who did not write so very long ago, can feel like such a chore: they rely upon a manner of expression and register of language which has been discarded with the advent of electronic communication.
This is not to say that we are all illiterate goblins when compared to our pre-20th Century cultural masters – writing a concise e-mail is an art all its own, and Dickens was paid by the word, so it is hardly as though he should be considered the benchmark of pure literary execution – but rather that the pace at which English is changing is rather odd, and that we are teaching and learning a language which is surprisingly different from our linguistic inheritance. Moreover, because most people who teach English are not language specialists, and because they in turn learned English in different contexts, they will have preserved the prejudices and mistakes that they were taught.
Here are five “mistakes” which are actually perfectly acceptable English.
English has jettisoned most of its case-based grammar over the years, with only the occasional lingering pronoun and troublesome possessive apostrophe bearing witness to the fact that it ever had any cases at all. Likewise, it is now only lightly inflected, and has so little mutation it probably would not qualify even for an X-Men spin-off.
However, it still has all sorts of odd rules, one of which is the formation of the indefinite article. Before a consonant, use a; before a vowel, use an. This rule is chiefly relevant to words as they are spoken, rather than written, hence a Utopia and an honour have the articles that they do because of how they are pronounced, rather than how they are written.
However, one can occasionally find expressions like an historical account and it can be tempting to correct them because the h in historical is generally regarded as being pronounced by default, and only omitted in regional accents. Yet, dive into any book written more than forty years ago, and formulations like an historical can be found everywhere.
There are several reasons why this might be the case: an historical (fnar!) tendency to avoid the initial h in the word, and an unwarranted Francophilia of the sort that encouraged English writers to replace the z with an s in words like civilize are just two, and however they are squared, internally consistent they are not: I once read an article which argued that it depends entirely upon whether the h in such a word is fully realized or not. How this could possibly be assessed, I ‘aven’t a clue.
Regardless, this curious quirk is an established part of the language and, although perhaps pretentious, is not necessarily wrong.
Collective Nouns with Singular Verbs
Not too long ago, I witnessed a conversation in which all manner of style guides were employed to try to demonstrate that collective nouns should only take plural verb forms, as in My family love party games.
Now, in speech, we quite naturally do this all the time, and even reputable news agencies – such as the BBC – regularly use expressions like the government are doing all they can. This is not wrong, as such, but it is not terribly elegant, and it restricts the writer in an unexpected way.
The default should be, in my opinion, that collective nouns take singular verbs, much as this might jar some people who have embraced the *insert style guide du jour here* which says otherwise. I assert this firstly because the natural conclusion of this blanket rule is manifest nonsense: The Social Democratic Party is Svetisland’s biggest party is much more awkward to read when the is is replaced with are.
Secondly, the use of the verb allows the reader to understand the actions being undertaken either by the subject as a single unit, or as a group of individuals, depending upon which is used. For example, The panel is busy this evening implies that the panel is meeting in an official capacity; The panel are busy this evening implies that the members of the panel are all individually preoccupied, perhaps on official business, but perhaps separately and as private individuals. The first could be an observation of industriousness; the second, a condemnation of a workshy attitude.
Note that collective nouns are not to be mistaken for nouns which always take plural (cattle, people) or plural nouns which are inexplicably used as though they were singular, such as
The word data is the plural of datum, and so, for those aspiring to a scientific/literary/pretentious tone, should always be used as such, never as a singular: these data show us and such. Likewise, but less prissily, words such as criteria (singular: criterion), phenomena (singular: phenomenon) and media (singular: medium) should retain their plurality. Remember, the liberal mainstream media is not lying to: the liberal mainstream media are lying to you. The only real conspiracy is a grammatically correct conspiracy.
Much like an historical, none is is a phrase more often observed in historical documents rather than in modern discourse. None is wise as Socrates we might read, as opposed to None are as good at Counter Battlefield: Modern Snorefare which is more common in the digital chronicles of today. This is because none is short for not one, and so takes the singular.
But does it? ‘Is there any cake left?’ ‘None, sorry’. Here, the none clearly means not any, so that must mean it takes the plural, right?
But what about ‘Is there any cake left?’ ‘No, there’s none’? The none here clearly does not mean, not one [cake], because the question is about quantity of cake, not number of cakes, yet still the singular verb appears.
The answer is that none can function both as not one and as not any, used in both a singular and uncountable sense.* Strategic deployment of none is can raise the register and clarity of a piece, as long as it does not clash with the tone of the rest of it (even the most miserable of pedants is likely to use none are in casual conversation these days), but it requires a certain amount of consideration and awareness of its context.
The Passive Voice
Nine times out of ten, would-be writers and would-be editors who identify the passive voice at the heart of a troublesome sentence have actually located something else: the subjunctive, the past continuous, the pluperfect, the so-called simple present, and so on. The passive voice is not in itself bad, as a wise, insightful, and incredibly humble blogger once noted: its bad reputation is almost entirely a creation of a pair of misguided grammarians, and it ossified because (as I mentioned above), non-specialists will inevitably end up teaching the same mistakes which they were taught.**
When the urge to put a big red line through a passive construction rears its ugly head, take a moment to think. Firstly, is it actually in the passive voice? Is it really? Are you sure? Do you know how to identify the agent and the patient? The subject and the object?
You do? Good.
Now, what is the problem? If you answered, ‘It’s in the passive, and the passive is bad’ then please try again. Sometimes it is better to render something in the passive for the purposes of flow, for clarity, or for some other, more esoteric reason. The passive actually needs to be detracting from a passage to warrant alteration. Of course, overuse is a perfectly valid reason (it is very easy to resort to the passive too much, especially in academic writing, such that it enervates and obfuscates the prose), but its mere presence on the page does not indicate a mistake any more than the use of adverbs or the word octopuses.***
*Compare with its German cousin kein, which takes singular verbs.
**Good luck rendering that sentiment neatly without the passive!
***Octopus does not become octopi in the plural, because it would have to be a second declension Latin noun to do so, whereas it is a third declension noun in both Latin and Greek, from the latter of which it ultimately derives. That makes the plural for the pedantic and pretentious octopodes. Or stick with octopuses, if you want to be understood by anyone around you.