Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Am Loathe to See This Phenomena Be Given Free Reign

Plenty of people have had nasty things to say about Obama's health care bill (it's his now, just as Afghanistan and Iraq are his wars), and I don't have anything to add to them. Obama loyalists are manning the barricades to cast dust in the people's eyes, but both sides are really irrelevant anyway, aren't they? Obama didn't have private meetings with critics of the bill, any more than he spends afternoons playing golf with them.

Though as Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday, "the mere fact that the health insurance industry and the market generally sees this 'reform' bill as a huge boost to the industry's profitability does not prove, by itself, that this is a bad bill." No, it's "the corrupt, mandate-based strengthening of the private insurance industry, the major advancement of the corporatism model of government, the harm this is likely to do to some who are now covered and some who cannot afford the forced premiums, and the chances for a better bill if this one is defeated." (To be fair and balanced, I should add that Greenwald is probably far too optimistic on that last point, and that he sees some benefits in the bill as it stands.)

But something small caught my bleary eye last night while I was surfing the Web. As a grammar neurotic, I couldn't help noticing that President Obama told the Washington Post (via), "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill." That should have been "every single criterion", of course: "criteria" is plural.

This doesn't affect my opinion of Obama; it's a common slip. But I was reminded of all the Democrats who've been exulting for the past year that we finally have a President who can speak proper English. Do they notice Obama's errors? Probably not: in contrast to "nukular," which is a regional variation associated with the supposedly backward South, ignorance of plural and singular forms of certain nouns is common among the Obamatariat -- "phenomena" also seems well on its way to joining "data" and "media" as a singular form. So are the inability to use apostrophes correctly, the confusion of "rein" and "reign", and so on. Such things wouldn't be worth noticing or mentioning if the people involved hadn't been so self-righteous about Obama's predecessor. I've often thought that what really upset so many liberals was not Bush's policies but his accent; their reaction when Obama continues his policies, their reluctance to speak out against his wars for example, tends to confirm my suspicion.

P.S. Here's another example (via) from Nashville Toys for Tots coordinator Staff Sgt. David Carrier, explaining why children of parents without Social Security cards will receive only coal in their stockings: " ... but we have set a criteria." Susie of Suburban Guerilla called it "a very un-Christian thing to do", which reminds me of a Bible story.
24Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27"First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."

28"Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

29Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter."

30She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus, to his limited credit, had a sense of shame. Luckily for her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman had her wits about her, even if she didn't have a Social Security card.

P.P.S. I'm reading Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary by Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois-Urbana, originally published in 1989. In Chapter 10, "Academies of One: The Critics and English Usage," Baron discusses plurals and the confusion that surrounds them. Children, it turns out, is really a "double plural ... which shows an -en plural (as in oxen and brethren) to an obsolete plural in -er".
Double plurals are more common than we think. Quite a few of our singulars were once plural, including a number of French borrowings that developed new plurals once they came into English: apprentice is from the French apprentis (sg. apprenti), invoice from envois (sg. envoi) ... Tweezers comes from the French etuis (sg. etui), 'case,' and was originally (a pair of) twees. Native English breeches (from Old English singular broc, plural breech) is a double plural, as is bodices (bodice is actually bodies, plural of body).
Since criteria comes from Latin, it may not be surprising that even a Harvard man like President Obama is unclear that it's a plural. Certainly many Americans are, though it still seems weird to me -- is criterion so much rarer than criteria that they haven't heard of it? Language changes, though, and it may well be that in a generation or two, criteria will be a standard English singular, with a new double plural form added on.