Tuesday, February 3, 2015

U.S. President favors eloquence over grammar-perfect English

Should the chief executive of a powerful English-speaking nation knowingly commit a subject-verb disagreement error just to make a single line in a major speech more eloquent and compelling? Indeed, as an English-savvy speaker and with all the powers at his command, why had President Barack Obama not chosen to be a role model for good English by being grammar-perfect in his recent State of the Union address? In the essay below that I wrote for my weekly English-usage column in the January 31, 2015 issue of The Manila Times, I offer some answers in response to what I initially thought was a Filipino lawyer’s red herring* of a question about faulty English in the U.S. president’s speech. (February 1, 2015)
*Just for those encountering this old idiom for the first time, a “red herring” is something used to divert attention from the real matter, issue or object. It is often deliberately used in fiction and nonfiction to plant a false clue that can lead readers or characters towards a false conclusion.

Grammatical pitfalls when ‘everyone’ is the antecedent

I thought I was being presented with a red herring when I received e-mail a few days ago from a Quezon City-based lawyer who made this observation: “In his recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama said: ‘Everyone must do their share...’ That is now very common. We hear a lot about ‘everyone’ being asked to do ‘their’ part in nation-building, etc. And what’s the deal with ‘between you and I’?”

Atty. Stephen Monsanto evidently meant to say that President Obama could have said “Everyone must do his or her share” instead but didn’t because even if that usage is grammatically airtight, the preferred option now is the plural adjective “their” for such constructions even if it’s grammatically faulty.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly checked the quote with the text of President Obama’s speech and found that it wasn’t a red herring after all. It wasn’t exactly what the president said but close to it, with the debatable usage even repeated in this scrupulously parallel construction (italicizations mine): “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success—we want everyone to contribute to our success.”

Now the big question is: Did President Obama unknowingly commit a subject-verb agreement blunder in that speech?

My opinion is a qualified “No, he didn’t,” and I’ll now proceed to explain why.

Recall that “everyone” is a singular pronoun that refers to every unspecified person in a group; there’s a presumed zone of ignorance on whether the group is all-male, all-female, or mixed-gender. In President Obama’s speech, however, “everyone” clearly refers to the American people as a whole, which is unquestionably a mix of males and females. I therefore think that it would have sounded odd—and distractingly repetitious—for him to use “him or her” with that certain knowledge about his constituency: “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets his or her fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules…”

But hardline grammar prescriptivists would insist that to be an exemplar for correct English, President Obama should have avoided the obvious subject-verb disagreement altogether by replacing “everyone” with the  pronoun “all”: “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when all get their fair shot, all do their fair share, and all play by the same set of rules…” That’s grammatically faultless all the way, but we can see and feel that the eloquence, fluidity, and sense of urgency of the original statement are gone.

The problem with using “everyone” is, of course, that English doesn’t have a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All it has are the masculine adjective “his” and the feminine adjective “her,” and in contemporary usage, the classic recourse to “his” as default possessive adjective when the antecedent pronoun’s gender isn’t specified is now widely frowned upon as sexist. Also, as I’ve shown above, we can replace “everyone” with “all” to sidestep the gender problem but this tends to depersonalize the statement and make it less compelling.

This is actually why even at the risk of being looked upon as less than perfect in their grammar, many English-savvy people like President Obama now use “their” as possessive adjective for “everyone” as antecedent even in their formal English—and I do think that it’s not an unwise and illogical decision.

P.S. “Between you and I” is indefensibly wrong usage, though; it should be “between you and me.” A pronoun that follows “between” should always be in the objective case, like “me” instead of the subjective-case “I.”

This essay first appeared in the  weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 31, 2015,  © 2015 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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