Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"There's things going on"

At the Grammy Awards the other night, the surprise winner for best new artist, Esperanza Spalding, was interviewed. Excitedly she told an NPR correspondent, "there's things going on in jazz right now that..."

So what is it with the (relatively recent) move toward people using a singular verb followed by a plural noun? We hear this all the time, don't we? Hasn't it become so common that we don't even notice it anymore--more importantly, we don't notice it as wrong?

How grammatically wrong can it be to say "there's things"? If you think about it, you quickly realize that you wouldn't dream of saying "there is things..." and yet most people will say, as Ms. Spalding did, "there's things..." Or "there's lots of reasons for..." or "there's times when I really want..." Really, I could go on and on with the examples, but I'm sure you get my drift by now.

If you wouldn't write "there is things going on" why would you say "there's things"? We all need to realize that something like this really does degrade our language. I'm all for the evolution and the improvement of language. Something like using the plural pronoun "they" after a singular subject, as in:

Each citizen needs to voice their concerns

is wrong. It needs to be

Each citizen needs to voice his or her concerns

Or, better yet:

All citizens should voice their concerns. 

BUT, this modification to spoken English serves a purpose: we feel that we're being sexist when we say "Each citizen needs to voice his concerns" (which was, by the way, the only correct way to say/write this until the 1960s or so when people became concerned about gendered language and the preference for the masculine). So, in spoken English, while the grammarian in me still winces each time I hear it, I can accept

Every citizen needs to voice their concerns 

in spoken English.  (Sorry, but I couldn't resist that repetition there.) Written English needs to remain his/her.

As you can see, then, I'm not a total purist about spoken English. But, I do recoil every time I hear a singular verb with a plural noun. That's just plain wrong and we all need to pay attention to it and correct it in our own voice.

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