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Further questions from the inbox

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 3, 2010, page 12)

Before sharing another round of questions from my email inbox, I feel compelled to comment on how rich a season spring 2010 was for grammatical blunders and language slip-ups. In the world of Canadian language professionals, phones rang, emails dinged and Twitter tweeted, spreading the news of one juicy error after another.

In April, Penguin Australia had to destroy 7,000 copies of a cookbook that advised readers to season a pasta dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.”

In February (which counts as spring when you’re in Vancouver) the international press, with UK papers gleefully in the lead, broke a story that caused proofreaders around the world to blanch. The Chilean mint had produced thousands of 50-peso coins with the country’s name misspelled “C‑H‑I‑I‑E.” The coins, worth a paltry 10 cents each, cost the mint manager, and several of the 80 or so employees who had reviewed the die beforehand, their jobs. The media made much of the fact that though the coins had been issued in 2008, the typo wasn’t reported until late 2009, suggesting in a sniffing WASP-y sort of way (or so it seemed to me) that those Chileans must be awfully lax. But I ask you: when was the last time you scrutinized every dime that crossed your palm?

Another much-trumpeted error from February is the topic of my first question from the inbox.

Question (“I Believe,”)

I’ve been following the Olympics and I keep hearing the song “I Believe,” which is catchy but, I believe (ha, ha), wrong. Doesn’t the chorus contain a grammar mistake?

—Editing student, Vancouver

Answer (“I Believe,”)

It certainly does, and it’s a mistake made daily by native speakers and writers of English.

Alan Frew, former lead singer of the ’80s band Glass Tiger, penned the lyrics to “I Believe,” the pop anthem commissioned by Canada’s Olympic broadcast consortium, led by CTV. The error, not even tucked away in the lyrics, where it could hide its head, occurs at the very end of the chorus, where Quebec chanteuse Nikki Yanofsky is forced to linger on it:

I believe in the power that comes
From a world brought together as one.
I believe together we’ll fly.
I believe in the power of you and I.

The “power of I,” however inspiring a sentiment it might be, is just wrong. This is the millionth example of the stubborn belief among anglophones that I is always correct and formal and me is unschooled and sloppy, akin to would of or ain’t. But in this song, of course, the preposition of requires the object form of the pronoun (me), not the subject form (I).

Footnote: During the Olympics this error inspired public diatribes by grammarians, journalists and other exasperated listeners, but it didn’t stop “I Believe” from going #1 on iTunes.

Question (foods)

We deal with the word food a lot. But what about foods, a term we often use? Is it actually a word? I’ve checked several dictionaries and usage guides but haven’t found an answer. Also, if food is a collective noun, does it take a singular verb like other collective nouns? E.g., “Avoid food that is at a higher risk of being contaminated with Listeria.”

—Editor, federal government agency

Answer (foods)

I’ve been asked about food/foods before, so you’re not alone in wondering.

Both forms of the word are correct. Food, which does take the singular form of the verb, as you suggested, is the more common form and also the more useful, since it serves as both a singular noun (“one food”) and a collective noun (“some food”). There’s little point going through the many contexts in which you’d use the singular food; it’s simpler to say it’s the form you’d use most of the time.

Foods is rarer, but only because its meaning is one we’re unlikely to use in daily discourse. Foods refers not to edibles in general but rather to different types or categories of food, or different food groups. The “Choosing Foods” section of the Web version of Canada’s Food Guide (hosted by Health Canada) illustrates the difference:

It’s easy to choose foods [meaning different types of food] wisely when you follow Canada’s Food Guide. Find out more about:

  • How much food you need from each food group; [here the meaning is food in general]
  • What foods [which individual foods] can be found in each food group;…
  • Tips for choosing and preparing foods. [meaning different kinds of food that we’d prepare in different ways]

There’s a similar distinction between meat and meats. The singular is more common (“Do you eat meat?” “Is there any meat in this burger?”), but occasionally, to convey the idea of different types of meat, we use the plural (“Choose leaner meats.” “The chef prepared a platter of meats and cheeses.”).

If you google “food versus foods,” you’ll find a smattering of comments on the semantic differences, but none of the sites I’ve seen are authoritative enough to recommend. This is a usage point that’s better illustrated by contexts rather than texts.

Question (following)

Would you say “The following was required” or “The following were required” when introducing a bulleted list of several items?

—Editor, B.C. provincial government

Answer (following)

You could mount a grammatical argument for either, depending on how you interpret the following. You could view it as a gerund (the “-ing” verb form that serves as a noun). In that case the following would be a singular noun and would take was. Or you could view it as a participle (the “-ing” verb form that serves as an adjective), one that modifies an understood noun such as actions or steps or safeguards (whatever it’s a list of). In that case the verb would be were to agree with the understood plural noun.

One option is to add a plural noun so that the structure is undeniably plural (and arguably clearer): “The following actions/steps/safeguards were required….”

Question (comprise)

I am hoping you could clarify the use and misuse of comprise. The following sentence by an author alerted me: “We selected the 13 items that comprise the initial version of the interview because they represent symptoms that are highly prevalent….” I immediately thought of that saying “The whole comprises the parts but the part does not comprise the whole,” but the Canadian Oxford definition of comprise seems to suggest the sentence is okay. What is your opinion?

—Freelance editor, Toronto

Answer (comprise)

Sigh. Comprise is almost never used correctly. I wish it would just go away.

While it’s with us, the saying you’ve mentioned is still a good test of whether the word is used correctly. Another aid is to remember that comprise means “to contain” or “to consist of.” You can’t substitute either verb in your author’s sentence, which means comprise is misused. The sentence should read “the 13 items that constitute/make up the initial version of the interview.” Or consider “the 13 items in the initial version of the interview.” It’s often easy to eliminate the troublesome verb altogether—being careful, of course, that the meaning doesn’t change.

I understand why you’re confused by the entry in Canadian Oxford. It does define comprise as “make up, compose” (i.e., the disputed meaning) but then follows with a usage note saying on the one hand that the disputed uses “have traditionally been criticized and are still strongly opposed by some,” and on the other that these uses are “common, however, and considered unobjectionable by many.”

There’s no question that comprise is increasingly used to mean “compose”; the question is how near this use is to acceptability. Most usage authorities, while acknowledging the spread of the misuse, counsel writers to stick with the established meaning of comprise, and especially to steer clear of the passive “is comprised of.” The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed.) sums it up nicely: “Thus comprise is currently an anomalous and confusing verb. To avoid criticism, it is best to use comprise only in the active voice to mean ‘consist of ’.”

Question (possessive)

When we met last week, I stuttered over the possessive of your name. I’m assuming, like Jesus, you don’t take an extra “s.” Or do you? Did I recall Frances’s reference to the serial comma or was that Frances’ reference?

—Freelance editor, Edmonton

Answer (possessive)

As egotistically tempting as it is to align oneself with Jesus, I always say (and write) Frances’s. Punctuation and style guides nowadays recommend adding the apostrophe + “s” to all singular nouns, even those that end in “s,” if the end result is what you would pronounce (a radical notion for a language renowned for flouting the connection between spelling and pronunciation). Everyone I know says “Frances’s,” pronouncing the extra “s,” just as they say “Charles’s,” “James’s” and so forth, and since that’s what we say, that’s what we should write.

Many people now say and write “Jesus’s” too. Some style guides suggest leaving off the extra “s” for reasons of tradition, but others, like The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.), disagree. Chicago lists “Jesus’s” as the usual possessive, though it does list “for Jesus’ sake” as an exception because the extra “s” in that instance is too hard to pronounce.

Language is never straightforward, is it?