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A Word, Please:

It all has to agree, so we don’t disagree

April 09, 2008|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

Bill in Los Angeles wrote recently to ask about agreement issues.

“Which of these,” he asked, “is correct? 1. When women smoke, they may damage their fetus. 2. When women smoke, they may damage their fetuses. Joseph Williams’ ‘Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace’ gives No. 1 with the singular as the correct answer. What is the rule for this problem? To be honest, I’ve polled a dozen grammar experts across the country and received different answers. Each expert seems pretty certain that he or she is right.”

I find it very interesting that Bill has received different answers for this. I can’t imagine why someone would think the singular “fetus” would be preferable. (Then again, I’m writing this before I’ve had my coffee. So maybe that’s why.)

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A woman has a fetus. Women have fetuses. The word “their” seems to make this even clearer. “Their fetus” suggests group ownership of a single one.

I’m not familiar with the book Bill referred to, but I do happen to know that just about any hack can write a grammar book (trust me). So I turned to one I suspect is a lot more authoritative.

“Garner’s Modern American Usage” was written by the same guy who wrote the grammar section of the “Chicago Manual of Style.” The Chicago manual is pretty much the bible of the book-publishing world. So I suspect that Garner trumps this Williams character.

Here’s what “Garner’s” says: “Another common mistake, in American English and British English alike, is to attribute one result to two separate subjects, when logically a separate result necessarily occurred with each subject — e.g.: “In school, seats are not assigned, yet students tend to sit in the same seats or nearly the same each time, and sometimes feel vaguely resentful if someone else gets [read ‘others get’] there first and takes their seat [read ‘take their seats’]. .?.?. Sometimes neither the singular nor the plural can prevent ambiguity. As [Barbara Wallraff] pointed out, in ‘Both men rely heavily on their wives,’ the men may or may not be bigamists; but if the sentence is written ‘Both men rely heavily on their wife,’ then she most certainly is one.”

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