Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Cosmos Were or the Cosmos Was

A guy who reads my newspaper column wrote to scold me about using "the cosmos were" in the column in the sentence "I realized the cosmos were begging me to question 'beg the question.'"

The reader had "double-checked" a dictionary and saw that "cosmos" is singular. Therefore, it should have been "cosmos was."

After writing this column for nearly nine years, you'd think I'd be used to stuff like that. But I'm not. I always bristle and get defensive and run around my house looking for books that back me up.

I didn't like what I found. All three of the dictionaries I checked treated "cosmos" as, basically, a singular. There is a plural form, spelled the same way, but, as the dictionaries very briefly mention it, it seems to apply only when you're talking about two or more cosmos (cosmoses?). And who the heck ever does that?

Plus, none of the dictionaries I checked had any discussion/usage notes that you see with words like "politics," which can take a singular or plural verb depending on the sentence.

But, after fifteen minutes of scrambling for weapons with which to defend myself, I had a strange urge to check the original article I had turned in to my editors. Turns out, I had written "the cosmos was." An editor changed it "were."

Often, "gotcha" e-mails inspire columns. Whether I'm right or wrong, these correspondences with readers usually deal with issues that make good columns. I'm always more eager write about the arguments I win, of course. But I can sometimes man up enough to publicly admit when I'm wrong.

But this time is different. Neither the reader nor I was wrong, per se. If there was an error (and I find that highly disputable), it was an editor's. Even if it wasn't a language error, it's always an error for an editor to make a chance s/he hasn't researched.

Still, can you imagine a column in which a columnist whines about how an editor made her look bad in a prior column? Not cool.

Will the reader believe my reply of "It wasn't my fault. Honest! I was framed!"? Probably not.

I'm not sure why I chose the singular verb to go with "cosmos." I didn't put any thought into it. Still, I'm not sure where I stand. "The cosmos are cruel" sounds much better to me than "The cosmos is cruel." And I don't know if I agree with the interpretation that the dictionaries support only the singular verb.

I'm still too frazzled to make up my mind. But someday I'll be grown-up enough to handle these things better ....

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