Grammar Moses: Red herrings, necessary verbs and treating people as fractions
This is not a treatise on the horrible Three-fifths Compromise that determined during the Constitutional Convention that slaves should be counted as 60% of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation.
This is about the common "1 in 500" construction.
Constant reader Jane Charmelo wrote me with a question:
"This was on the front page of the Oct. 30 edition: '1 in 500 Illinoisans have died from virus.' If the verb is to match the subject, isn't '1 in 500 Illinoisans HAS died from virus' correct? 'Illinoisans' is not the subject."
There are two schools of thought on this, and even disagreement among editors at my newspaper.
Ordinarily, I would agree with you, Jane. "One has" makes more sense than "one have." There is a subject-verb issue here.
But my thinking is: Are we are really talking about one person (I'll call him Laszlo) who died while the other 499 people survived?
Yes, the subject of the sentence is still "one," but the fraction is implied.
I'm not talking about "Squid Game," either, folks.
There are about 12 million Illinoisans, not 500. And Laszlo is not the only person to have died from COVID-19.
We're not talking about 1 or 500 specific people. We're talking about a fraction of the population of Illinois equal to the population of Rolling Meadows, and that's a sobering thought.
Saying "1 in 500 Illinoisans" is the same as saying 1/500 Illinoisans or 0.2% of Illinoisans.
And I prefer to say X% of Illinoisans HAVE died.
But the best construction is to simply write around it -- something that will satisfy those on both sides of the argument: "Coronavirus has killed 1 in every 500."
But that's not all the questions I received about this headline.
I received a nastygram from a reader who said that by writing "1 in 500" instead of 0.2% percent we were trying to make the number sound more alarming.
Au contraire, sir. We wrote "1 in 500" because it's a lot easier to visualize that than .2%.
I feel the need to preface this item with some clarification, too. This is not a treatise on the killing of police or the killing of others by police.
It's about a missing "do."
Again, Jane had this to say:
"The headline was 'Armed citizens killed more criminals than police.' My initial reaction was, 'Well I should hope they aren't killing police!' Not that I want armed citizens to kill criminals, either, mind you.
"However, that headline struck me as awkwardly structured, although I presume the writer meant to convey this: 'Armed citizens killed more criminals than police DID.'"
On this point, Jane and I agree. Oftentimes, headline writers omit all sorts of words so they can fit a large thought into a small space. If you read a printed newspaper, you catch on to the rhythm and omissions.
In this case, however, the tiny auxiliary verb "did" changes the meaning of the sentence entirely.
The good folks who bring you the Oxford English Dictionary have named "vax" its Word of the Year for 2021.
Not surprising, I know.
The word has been around since the 1980s as a noun and during this century as a verb, but the OED says that by September, its usage grew 72-fold over September 2020.
Let's see what we can do about making "Grammar Moses" a household name by 2022.
• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at
grammarmosesthebook.com. You can write him at email@example.com and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.