Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Every City, Township, County and Village

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2004

I feel sorry for whoever had to edit this sentence from the front page of the Columbus Dispatch of July 31:

What the advertisements don’t say is that nearly every city, township, county and village dictate where a pool can go and how to secure it.

I can just picture someone sitting there, saying, “Every city, township, county and village dictates … oh, wait a minute, there’s an and; the verb has to be plural. Every city, township, county and village dictate … Hmmm, that doesn’t sound right. Dictates sounded better. Oh, well, I know that subjects coordinated by and take a plural verb unless they’re taken as a single entity, like fish and chips, and that’s not the case here. Dictate it is.”

This would be an ordinary case of being blinded by the rules if the above rule were all that the grammar manuals had to say about agreement with coordinated subjects. But that’s not all they have to say. At least some of them list another exception for subjects coordinated by each or every. For example, this is from a webpage for a college writing center:

Subjects joined by “and” are usually plural and take a plural verb. However, when “each” or “every” precedes singular subjects joined by “and,” a singular verb should be used.

Examples: Mike and Sally exercise every day.

Every man and woman has the right to vote. (link)

It’s silly enough when someone editing their work refers to a prescriptive grammar rule that doesn’t make an exception for the situation at hand, and doesn’t have enough confidence in their own instincts about the language to conclude that there must have been an oversight, and that an exception needs to be entered into the books. But it’s downright sad when they defer so quickly that they never investigate enough to find out that the exception has been recognized and sanctioned.

Sometimes the prescriptive rules and the descriptive ones agree!

One Response to “Every City, Township, County and Village”

  1. Anton said

    Alas that it did not occur to anyone to sidestep the question by changing and to or.

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