I feel sic [sic]. Increasingly, I find myself reading sentences like: “Why hire someone, and invest time and money training them [sic], if you may be forced to fire them [sic] before they [sic] have proved themselves [sic] capable of doing their [sic] job?”
The question, no doubt, is important. More important, however, is why hire someone who turns into more than one at the first sight of a pronoun. Just because you might hire one doesn’t mean you can afford more than one, especially when you don’t know how many more.
Interrogative sentences aren’t the only ones that make me sic [sic]. So do declarative sentences like: “The military death toll is an issue one of the candidates will face the moment they [sic] are elected to office.”
It is unsettling to have to decide whether one candidate will win and turn into more than one, or all candidates, win or lose, will take office, but only one will face the military death toll.
I felt especially sic [sic] when my cell-phone provider informed me that: “The customer has the option of having the prepaid card mailed out to them [sic] or to have the card applied to their [sic] account.” Besides wondering how a single customer could turn into two or more, I puzzled over how the provider could mail them a single pre-paid card. Maybe they live at the same address and share the same card and account.
Some sic [sic] sentences are contradictory. Consider, for example: “Income-tax legislation is clear on the issue, allowing patients to access the credit for any medical treatment offered by a doctor, nurse, dentist or other practitioner who is licensed in their [sic?] own jurisdiction.”
The legislation may be clear to the writer. The sentence is anything but clear to me. Thanks to the growing misuse of the plural, I can’t tell in whose jurisdiction the medical practitioners are licensed. Is it in theirs or in their patients’?
But if writers treat number inconsistently, what’s to stop them from doing the same with gender and species? Might we read sentences like: “The man went into the rest room to brush her [sic] teeth” or “if a doctor is guilty of malpractice, it [sic] could lose its [sic] medical license”?
Like tainted meat, sic [sic] sentences upset me because they disagree with me. Which is understandable when they contain pronouns that disagree with their antecedents.
Then there are sentences like: “While walking in the park, one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen sat alone on a wooden bench.” When I first read that, I longed to meet the girl, not because of her unusual beauty, but because of her uncanny ability to walk and sit at the same time.
Or, consider: “On entering the campus through the pedestrian gate, a grove of white spruce confronts you.” Finally, we have a grammatically correct example, but only if trees walk.
My friend Dingwall, who produces theories on demand, has developed one about lax writing. When we last met, he said that it shouldn’t surprise us if disagreeable pronouns conflate individuals with groups, one sex with the other, or persons with non-human species or inanimate objects. Nor, he said, should it surprise us if dangling modifiers confer unnatural powers on persons or things.
“You must know,” he declared, “that language reflects the society in which it circulates. If the society loses touch with reality, so does the language.”
“But Dingwall,” I protested, “to be out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity. Surely, you’re not suggesting that our society is insane.”
“Possibly not insane,” he replied, “but certainly irrational. For one thing, we can no longer distinguish between singular and plural in pregnancy. Against reason, science and common observation, we consider a mother and her child one before birth but two immediately after.”
“That’s more dangerous than failing to distinguish between singular and plural in prose,” I said.
“For another thing,” he went on, “we’re no wiser about marriage than pregnancy. Marriage, two in one flesh, is morally singular. But in Canada we’ve legalized group sex and tolerate, even subsidize, polygamy, both of which are immorally plural.”
“I don’t even want to think about several in one flesh,” I said.
“When, as a society, we manifest confusion about number,” Dingwall said, “we shouldn’t expect language to manifest clarity.” He added that the same goes for gender and species. “No doubt,” he said, “you’ve heard of sex reassignment and animal-human hybrids.”
I certainly had, and I wondered whether, sooner rather than later, I might indeed read about a man going into the rest room to brush her [sic] teeth and a doctor losing its [sic] medical license.
“Intellectual and moral confusion breed grammatical discord,” Dingwall said.
“Including dangling modifiers that confer unnatural powers?” I asked.
“Undisciplined enthusiasm for the paranormal breed those,” he replied. “Language reflects all departures from reason.”