Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Agreeing to Disagree

While talking about healthcare yesterday, the president mentioned "Americans who like their doctor."

These constructions drive me nuts. On the one hand, it's odd to refer to a large group of Americans as having a single "doctor." On the other hand, "Americans who like their doctors" could be construed to mean that each American has at least two doctors.

So what's the right answer?

There isn't one. In fact, we don't even need a right answer. In all my years of being frustrated by this situation -- which is sometimes called "subject-complement agreement" -- I've never once seen it create confusion. Not even momentary confusion.

So, no problem, no frustration, right?


It must be because I work as a copy editor, but I can't seem to let this one go. In copy editing, precision is a virtue. We copy editors spend all day seeking out and destroying loose, imprecise, and ambiguous word arrangements. When we see, "Jen and Stephanie jumped into her car," it's our job to question that "her." Has the writer already explained that the women were standing next to Jen's Toyota? Then fine. But if not, we have to start looking for alternatives.

"The women jumped into Jen's car" could work, but only if we've already made clear who "the women" are.

And so on.

Seek out imprecision. Destroy it. Rebuild from the rubble. Then seek out imprecision in the new construction. The whole process relies on there being some concrete solution. It may be elusive, but somewhere out there is a wording that will nail it exactly, leaving no gray area, no possibility of confusion. "Jen and Stephanie jumped into Jen's car" is inelegant. But it's an option, dammit.

So my problem with Americans and "their doctor" is not about pedantry. It's about powerlessness. For example, I'm perfectly okay with using "their" in place of "his or her" in a sentence like, "Every visitor should lock their car." That's because, in this situation, you have a choice. You could say "his or her" car if you wanted to. A precision alternative exists. Eschewing it is a choice.

But when we say "Americans who like their doctor," we're not deliberately discarding a more precise alternative. The closest we can come to such an alternative would be a sentence that uses "respective." But that wouldn't work with our singular "doctor." "Americans who like their respective doctors" takes a plural. Therefore, "Americans who like their doctor" is not a pared-down version of a sentence that otherwise would contain the word "respective."

I prefer "Americans who like their doctors." It doesn't specify the exact American-to-doctor ratio, but it at least leaves open the possibility that each American has only one doctor.

That is, when you have 50 million Americans and 1 million doctors -- plural -- it's possible that each of those Americans sees just one of those doctors. But when you have 50 million Americans and a singular doctor, there's no way in hell that one doctor cares for all those Americans.

Here's a more eloquent illustration. It's from Barbara Wallraff: "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."

That example aside, I think I'm in the minority on this. In the unscientific survey that is my life, I notice more people opting for the singular in these situations than for the plural.

The good news is that I've finally stopped trying to "fix" every sentence like this that comes across my desk. The bad news is that it feels more like defeat than choice.

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Faldone said...

But then, in '[b]oth men rely heavily on their wife,' you raise the possibility that the woman is practicing biandry. I think Ms. Wallraff's solution is more open to misunderstanding than that which she purports to correct.

June Casagrande said...

"Biandry"? A doubled-up and reversed "misandry," which Webster's tells my is hatred of men?

But what if she's one, twice, THREE times a lady? Or what if both husbands are named Andy?

Seriously, though, you're right. No solution manages to wrap up the speaker's intended meaning into a neat little package.

Faldone said...

I was going to say 'polyandry' but decided against it. On the other hand, my proposed "correct" reading of the 'like their wife' alternative, when applied to the 'like their doctor' line would imply that every American has the same doctor. As far as having at least two doctors, I have four. A primary, a urologist, a cardiologist and a somnologist.


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