I hereby refute this almost unique grammatical error

Miles Kington
Monday 13 December 1993 00:02 GMT

RECENTLY I drew attention to a piece signed by John Gummer in which he had mated a singular verb to a plural subject. (This is the very same man who used to be John Selwyn Gummer before his operation. In fact, it is the very same man who, after another operation, will presumably become Gummer.)

Anyway, he had attached his name, or what was left of his name, to this grammatical error, and I thought it was strange that he had made this simple mistake because he could so easily have sought enlightenment from his colleague, the educated John Patten. (Who, of course, used to be John Selwyn Patten before his recent operation.)

This prompted a letter from a reader, thanking me for pointing out Gummer's howler and hoping it would lead to an improvement in these things.

The letter-writer was, he said, driven bonkers by the constant and unceasing tendency to match singular verbs with plural subjects, in headlines such as 'Law and order breaks down in Yugoslavia', and he would not cease from mortal fight until he had got everyone back on the narrow path of righteousness, etc, etc.

What was interesting was that this was the one grammatical error which really annoyed him. I got the impression that he was not overmuch bothered by split infinitives, or even annoyed by the thing that drives so many people potty: the sound of people saying 'Laura Norder' instead of 'law and order'.

It was only subjects and verbs that did not agree which seemed to drive him to the point of madness. 'What can we do about it?' he asked me, piteously.

Before I come to the answer (which is 'absolutely nothing'), I have to say that in my experience very few people are pained by grammatical errors generally. Like this correspondent, they tend to fix on one particular example of abuse and then grind their teeth every time it comes along.

For instance, I had a friend once who was obsessed with the difference between 'less' and 'fewer'. Until I met him, I do not think I had bothered much about the difference - which is, of course, that 'less' refers to volume and 'fewer' refers to quantity. (You should ask for 'less petrol' but for 'fewer litres of petrol'.)

I do not think my friend was pained by anything else, just by that one abuse.

I can see the historical reasons for the existence of 'less' and 'fewer', but I cannot say the misuse of it worries me that much.

In any case, if the distinction between 'less' and 'fewer' is so important, why isn't there the same distinction when it comes to 'more'? But there is not.

We say 'more petrol' and we say 'more litres of petrol', and understanding is not impaired thereby. So why bother with 'less' and 'fewer'?

Nor have I ever understood the holy adoration of the unsplit infinitive. To split an infinitive can sometimes be unavoidable, and stylish, and quite sensible, and there's an end on't.

I myself have tried to remain serene about grammar and usage over the years, but I have failed. There are one or two things that always make me grind my teeth. For example, I hate hearing 'disinterested' when it is used to mean 'uninterested'.

I hate hearing people say 'I refute that' when they are not refuting anything, just denying it.

And I hate hearing people saying pompously, as John Patten said pompously the other day on the radio, that a thing cannot be very unique or nearly unique - it is either unique or it is not.

Now, this to me is the kind of pedantic rule-of-iron that a third- rate schoolteacher falls back on. Not only that, but it is demonstrably untrue. For example, if there were two unicorns left in the world, and one was very ill, then the other one would be nearly unique . . .

This is terrible. I am descending to John Patten's level of argument. Let me ascend once more and recommend to my correspondent - and everyone else who is driven bonkers by grammatical murder - to follow my example and realise there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

All you can do is what I do, which is to set aside half an hour a week just for fuming. For 30 minutes I lock myself in a room and shout: 'Hopefully things will improve] I refute that] Shibboleth] Stop flaunting the rules] I am very aggravated]' and all the other common mistakes I can think of. Then I emerge feeling purged and stronger and more able to withstand other people's maiming of the English language for at least a week.

I am, in fact, taking personal responsibility for my own linguistic well-being.

I think John Major would approve of that. Or, as he used to be, I believe, John Selwyn Major.

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