Don’t agonise over the English language

When it comes to the English language, I always subscribe to the principle that “if it sounds right, it is right”. There are loads of grammar ‘rules’ which, quite frankly, were never more than conventions, and which stopped being used in everyday speech years ago. So don’t feel bound by something you recall from a school lesson many years ago. Prepositions are fine to end a sentence with. And conjunctions are fine at the start. Language evolves.

What I’d recommend, from experience, is that if you’re sure something is right, but it sounds wrong, don’t agonise over it. Just write it another way. Sure, it’s correct to say: “the data are available here”, but it makes the reader double-take, and the text loses its flow. If you don’t want to use the incorrect (but more usual) “the data is available here”, then take advantage of the wonderful way many verb constructions are the same in the singular or plural. Try “the data can be found here”.

Similarly, English doesn’t always discriminate between gender in the plural, unlike other languages. “He” becomes “they”, but so does “she”. You might start to write: “today’s engineer will find our product useful in his work”, and then think: “uh-oh, what about women engineers?” So you end up changing it to the horrible “today’s engineer will find our product useful in his or her work”. Not good. Why not just move the sentence into the non-gender-specific plural? “Today’s engineers will find our product useful in their work”. That’s better.

I suspect most people only have such awkwardness problems with writing. They overcome them without thinking when speaking. If you’re really struggling with a piece of writing, consider saying it out loud and transcribing it. Or even try the unbelievably good speech to text software which comes with most smartphones and tablets.

Discussion

  1. Andrew Bartlett

    Well said Chris. That’s exactly what I always say. Clarity is the only thing that matters rather than getting into ‘an hotel’ debates. One thing I have never got my head round is – football teams, singular or plural? I know the correct answer. But Manchester United have…always sounds better than Manchester United has…

  2. Chris Rand Post author

    In British English, teams are always plural! The Americans try to soldier on with the grammatically logical singular, but then run into all sorts of problems (“Seattle is top of the Western Division” but “The Seahawks are…”).

    “Manchester United has won the league” sounds like the speaker has never watched a football match before, although I doubt it’s a phrase anyone is ever likely to use again anyway.

  3. Simon Densley

    I’m normally fairly stringent about grammar. I find the current trend of saying ‘I was sat’ as opposed to ‘sitting’ quite toe curling. (It was funny to start with but the joke’s over now – get over it.)

    One thing I won’t accept as good grammar however is the word data being plural. Data like sand is uncountable. You can have a piece of data just like a bucket of sand but you can’t have 3 datas any more than you can have 3 sands. Therefore ‘The data is available’ must be correct just as ‘The sand is over there’.

    Conversely anything that uses ‘are’ must have a singular version to use ‘is’ with. For example ‘The cups are over there’ -> ‘There is a cup here’. If data is plural as opposed to uncountable, what is the singular?

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