In a word - States of confusion

18:18, Nov 02 2012

I had a nice email from reader Anne Saunders, written after she watched the news one night recently - the Hurricane Sandy coverage. The newsreader talked about the state of emergencies declared.

It's a common mistake, and she's quite right to point it out. There was only the one emergency, wasn't there? It was named Sandy. What the newsreader meant was various US states had declared an emergency. The plural should have been states of emergency.

You also hear things like mother-in-laws and passer-bys, which should be mothers-in-law and passers-by. Indeed, I object to the dropping of the hyphen in the latter because of this. I'm not sure about Fairfax's style, which is rigidly adhered to by our subbing hub (which also puts that illiterate hyphen in no one), but Oxford hasn't dropped the hyphen yet in passer-by, and I find Oxford a greater authority.

Another pluralisation problem I see fairly often comes from a knee-jerk rigidity in treating collective nouns as singulars, with singular verbs. The most common of these by far involves the word couple. The problem with rigidity, however, is it can often produce nonsense, as in The couple was married on Sunday afternoon. Clearly, it takes two to get married. The verb should be were.

What I find inexplicable is the frequency of this type of sentence in newspaper pages: The couple was in Fiji when the storm hit and they flew out on the next available flight.

You'd think the plural pronoun would be a clue that perhaps the singular verb was should be changed to were, but most editors don't catch it. That little grammatical rule called agreement comes into play for that example. A singular subject needs a singular verb and a singular pronoun. If the pronoun is nonsensical as a singular (and it would be ridiculous in that sentence), then the verb must become plural, too.

And one final plural problem. If you're talking about each other, as in They lived in each other's pockets, the word each means the possessive must be singular. Each others' is a nonsense.

Got a gripe about grammar? Email Deborah Sloan on


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