Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Willing Suspension of Morhposyntactic Disbelief

The Willing Suspension of Morphosyntactic Belief

I was driving to church today and was fumbling in the car door compartment for a pair of sunglasses with a neck strap which I discovered had become entangled in a pair of pliers. But in each case it was one thing: one sunglasses and one pliers. And if you repeat that previous phrase, you may notice one sunglasses sounds ungrammatic while one pliers seems acceptable. I was wearing a pair of briefs, a pair of pants, and a pair of gloves, too. Two things which are joined are often thought of as a pair as well as two things which are not but go together. It’s a mass noun v. count noun phenomenon and requires, as Coleridge sort of said of reading Shakespeare, the willing suspension of grammar, I believe.

Or as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) states: "Pair is one of those collective nouns that take a singular or plural verb according to notional agreement. If you are thinking of the individuals in the pair, you will use a plural verb….” This is synesis, “effectively an agreement of words with the sense, instead of the morphosyntactic form.”
However, given the usage issues with all this, it’s only about a 50/50 chance the listener/reader will note the many possible nuances.

Here are some examples of these morphosyntactic curiosities:
A pair of pants, a pair of pliers, a pair of glasses, a pair of earrings, a pair of dice, a pair of scissors, a pair of socks, a pair of gloves, a pair of binoculars (which is undeniably different from a pair of monoculars), a pair of underwear (note the singular form), a pair of briefs (which oddly is in plural form), a pair of shoes. Some of these are one thing; some are two.
I’ll deal with a few of these. A pair of dice is two dice. One dice is a die – which may be an ungrammatic utterance in that dice is two of them. The singular form is die. A sound shift in the 1500s may be responsible for the changing of the plural form from “dies” to “dice”; the former sounds too mortal coming so soon after the Black Death. Previously the “s” on “dies” was unvoiced. “My gloves are on the table” could be one pair, two pair, two pairs, or more. “A pair of gloves is on the table” is two gloves which likely match. “A pair of socks is on the floor” suggests they are matched. “A pair of socks are on the floor” leaves open the possibility that one might be black and one might be brown.

We would say “My glasses are on the table, not “My glasses is on the table.” “A pair of glasses is on the table” is different from “A pair of glasses are on the table.” In the former they are those things you hang on your ears and nose to see better. In the latter, they are those things you pour whiskey into after a long day. “A pair of pliers are on the table” is different from “A pair of pliers is on the table.” The former might be two pairs of pliers; the latter sounds like one pair of pliers. Subject/Verb agreement is clearly in a state of morphosyntactic flux here.

As the Duluth Trading Company says: “Get a pair.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas

Bitter Wine - A Prayer Poem

Soldiers of the cross trample out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored.
We drink of this bitter wine
and parade on brick plaza;
our children hear the hard step echo
and watch us. Too often,
brokenness cries down their faces.
There is no such thing as child friendly tear gas.
Scarred and scared, children deserve peace.
Onward soldiers, we say.
Let us rather drink from a different vintage:
the grapes of peace, the grace of peace.
“Eat this bread and drink this wine in remembrance of me,”
the adult of the child soon born said.
How many swords
it takes to make a ploughshare,
I do not know. Let us find out.
“All things can end -- even war,” said the child soon born.
“Even war.”