Another Rule Bites the Dust

I’m a great believer in treats, and one of my favorites is relaxing on the sofa with the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine.

But sometimes it’s anything but relaxing. When I scanned the table of contents last week, I saw this:

      Hannah Goldfield     32   Kitchen Shift
                                              A band of famously hard-living chefs clean up their act.

In case you missed it, the world just came to an end. The New Yorker magazine – yes, The New Yorker! – just threw out one of the most important grammatical rules in the English language: a subject can’t appear in a prepositional phrase.

Here’s how I (and every other English teacher who ever lived) would have written that subtitle:

A band of famously hard-living chefs cleans up its act.

The subject is band. So: the band…cleans up its act. (I also would change their to its. Yeah, The New Yorker threw out a pronoun agreement rule as well.)

A few months ago I spotted the same thing – an apparent SV agreement error – in an article by Mary Norris (Mary Norris, for heaven’s sake!). Clearly something was afoot. Not only was it published in The New Yorker: Mary herself – a former copyeditor for the magazine – was the author.

I Tweeted her about it, and she said that the rule doesn’t always apply. Sometimes you go for emphasis.

Please note that I’m not complaining about any of this. Life marches on, and so does language. It’s just that I keep having to delete rules from my teaching materials. My two-page pronoun rules handout is down to one page. (I deleted the “better than she” rule and the prohibition against the singular they. Well, The New Yorker is still resisting the singular they, but I’m all for it.)

(In case you’re wondering, here’s the Mary Norris sentence I’d mentioned earlier: “In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-travelling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past.” I would have made it “a band…plunders.”)

Not long ago, a book by linguistics expert John McWhorter convinced me that “It’s me” is perfectly good English. (After all, the French – sticklers for grammar – use “C’est moi” all the time.)

As I said, time marches on. My grandmother spent most of her life in a tiny house that didn’t have electricity when she and her husband first lived in it. Decades later, when I used to spend weekends in that house, my grandmother lit a kerosene lamp every night before she went to sleep – even though there was a light switch in her room.

I’m not asking anyone to throw out the traditional rules of grammar (although I do encourage you to drop the his-or-her habit). I’m urging you to let go of some of the convictions you’ve been hanging on to since high school. (Are you still spacing twice after a period? Stop! Your typing teacher probably gave up that practice decades ago, and you should too.)

Back in Shakespeare’s day, grammarians were up in arms because thee/thy/thou was disappearing. It’s the end of the world! The language is dying!

Do you miss it? Do you really need to spend time every day deciding whether to use thee or you? Trust me…English is going to be okay.

The passage of time

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2 thoughts on “Another Rule Bites the Dust

  1. AvatarKelly Pomeroy

    Jean, you wouldn’t say “a bunch of people eats its lunch there every day,” so you shouldn’t be bothered a band of chefs that clean up their act.

    As for “it’s me,” the problem goes away if we adopt a rule that the nominative case pronouns are used only when they are the subject of an expressed verb. “It’s me. I am here.” “He’s older than me,” but “he’s older than I am.”

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    It’s great to hear from you, Kelly – I’ve been thinking about you! I love your comment. Bravo. “A bunch” eating “its lunch” illustrates how nonsensical traditional grammar rules can be. And your “expressed verb” rule is wonderful. But – since I don’t do grammar terminology – I just go with “It’s me” sounds better. I hope the move is progressing well! I was just in a show at the ballet school – lots of rehearsals. Tomorrow life gets back to normal (whatever that is!).

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