Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mike Mulligan and His Grammar Issue

Over the years I have gone a few rounds with colleagues (and even members of my household) about the value of extensive instruction in grammar.   Put me in the fuzzy-headed “they’ll pick up grammar as they read and write” camp, an attitude that I freely admit arises from my own high school education, which happened in a college town in the seventies (sentence diagramming was as anathema as short hair).   But my aversion to spending hours training kids to recognize different kinds of clauses doesn’t mean I’m not interested in grammar.   Far from it.  Grammar is especially interesting when people fight about it.  Everybody and their brother loves a good grammar controversy, right?

There goes one right there.   Everybody and their brother?   Everybody is singular.   You know it is singular because you'd never say "Everybody are tired."  So why their?   We do it all the time.   There is a big list of indefinite pronouns – anyone, everyone, anybody, everybody, somebody, etc. – that ought to take singular possessives such as his or her, but we routinely use plural possessives instead.    That is, instead of saying “Everyone should open up his or her book” we say “Everyone should open up their book.”  When I was a kid we were told to say “his” instead of “their” and let the male gender stand for everyone.  For some reason the women of the world had an issue with that practice.  So now if we want to be correct we can say “Everyone should open up his or her book.”  But that’s clunky, and it gets even worse if you have to say things like “Anyone who forgets his or her lunch is going to have to call his or her parents.”  So, in a display of what Steven Pinker celebrates as “the linguistic wherewithal of the average Joe,” we strive for the dual virtues of gender neutrality and brevity by breaking the rules and using a plural possessive – their.   

This problem may seem like a small matter, but I once had in my possession (and probably still do) a Georgia college’s freshman English placement test, one that had a whole section designed to trip students up on this piece of pointless fastidiousness.  You could find yourself in remedial English because you marked as correct a “mistake” you could hear educated people make in everyday speech ten times a day. 

The best explanation I have read of why this apparent violation is just fine can be found in Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar.  In addition to pointing out that that those indefinite pronouns uncontroversially take plural pronouns in the subjective and objective cases (“Everyone in the class cheered when the teacher told them the test had been cancelled”), she observes that the old rule of using the singular masculine is not only sexist but can actually cause needless confusion. 

And within days of reading her excellent disquisition on this subject, I had the problem brought to life for me by one of my own children. 

I was reading my son an old-time favorite picture book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.   You know how that one goes:  Mike Mulligan, friend and operator of the anthropomorphic steam shovel Mary Anne, makes a desperate effort to prove that the two of them aren’t obsolete by volunteering to dig the cellar for the new Popperville town hall in just one day.  They pull it off in dramatic fashion, but make the mistake of leaving no way for Mary Anne to get out.  Trapped!  Finally a kid hits on the bright idea of leaving her there as the new furnace, with Mike as the custodian.  Problem solved.

But a passage of text from when the townspeople are trying to figure out what to do about Mary Anne perfectly embodies Professor Kolln’s reasons to oppose sticklerism on this point of grammar.

Here is the line:   “Everybody started talking at once, and everybody had a different idea, and everybody thought that his idea was the best.”

My son heard me read this aloud, scanned the page carefully, looked up at me in confusion and said, “Whose idea?”

Writing in 1939, Virginia Lee Burton was doing it the right way:  her “his” is supposed to mean everybody.  But my son logically concluded that “his” referred to one of the many men pictured.  He wanted me to point out which one.   

Everybody thought their idea was the best.   But that’s always the way it is with grammar. 

NOTE:  If you have never experienced Werner Herzog’s reading of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, give it a listen.  

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