Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Lot of People Is Confused

No, this isn't another entry on notional agreement, but it is about one of its cousins -- another of those subject-verb matters that send self-styled sticklers into a tizzy and prove once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

A recent Washington Post article used a plural verb with the noun politics. The same article used a singular verb in a parallel example, and a reader pointed out that we were inconsistent (true) and that the latter was correct (false). Observe:

Politics is a noble pursuit. My politics are none of your business.

Economics was her first choice for a major, but she opted for business. The economics of the idea make it unfeasible.

Genetics is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Our genetics conspire to make having children a very bad idea.

All of the above are correct. Citations? I have plenty.

The Washington Post stylebook:
Words ending in -ics, such as politics, economics and tactics, may be singular or plural, depending on context: Politics is my business. Their politics are dirty. Tactics is a science. His tactics are irrational.

Garner's Modern American Usage:
Politics may be either singular or plural. Today it is more commonly singular than plural (politics is a dirty business ), although formerly the opposite was true. As with similar -ics words denoting disciplines of academics and human endavor, politics is treated as singular when it refers to the field itself (all politics is local) and as plural when it refers to a collective set of political stands (her politics were too mainstream for the party's activists).

The Associated Press Stylebook:
Usually it takes a plural verb: My politics are my own business.

As a study or science, it takes a singular verb: Politics is a demanding profession.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage:
Politics can be singular or plural. Use a singular verb when the word refers to an art or science: Politics is the study of government. But use a plural verb in reference to practices: His politics are contemptible.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage:
It can take a singular or plural verb. But as an art or science, it is singular: All politics is local.

I would quarrel only with the emphasis of the Garner and WSJ entries (I think most writers and editors would start with a bias toward the singular and would need a prod in the plural direction) and with the use of "All politics is local" as an example of the discipline usage as opposed to the practice usage. Quite the contrary, I think it's a tricky exception to the rule. The politics in "All politics is local" look(s) to me identical to the politics in "My politics are none of your business," but the former expression, attributed to Tip O'Neill, is well established, and to give it a plural verb invites the reader to interpret it as referring to each and every "politic" being local.


Linda said...

Mm, I think I disagree about "all politics is local." I don't think that's the set of beliefs; that's the "politics," to me, that means "the game of politics." That's the way I think of the difference, other than when you're talking about an academic discipline. "[The game of] politics is my business." "[The game of] politics makes me want to throw up."

On the contrary, you wouldn't say "my [game of] politics is none of your concern." There, it means to me something more like "political sensibilities."

I think Tip's phrase refers to the political game, not the concept of political ideas or sensibilities. I think it's right that it would be "politics is local."

Aranfell said...

Here's a nit in reference to the popular saying about "a little knowledge". Alexander Pope actually wrote "A little learning is a dangerous thing" -- "learning", not "knowledge".

Dictionaries seem to use these words in each others' definitions, but I've always felt that "knowledge" indicates a deeper (though perhaps narrow) understanding or experience than is implied by "learning".

So to me, Pope's phrase "a little learning" more clearly suggests that it is the shallowness of the information, not the narrowness, that is the problem. That certainly seems to be the case with those who blindly apply plural rules without thinking about whether the object in question is considered a single entity or not.