The state of each other

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From reader AH:

I know I'm a little slow, but during the State of the Union, President Obama said something along the lines of the following (I'm not 100% certain that the noun was "soldier" and I don't remember the verb, but those aren't the relevant parts): "every soldier respects each other."

As soon as he'd said it, my dad and I exchanged a look of disconcertedness — Barack Obama shamelessly putting forth such a blatantly ungrammatical statement? However, when I analyzed it a moment later, I came to the conclusion that the structure "every X Ys each other" is equivalent to the structure "every X Ys each other X," which is correct, and that the more usual structure "all the Xs Y each other" is equivalent to the structure "all the Xs Y each other X," which to me seems at best ambiguous. If my reasoning is incorrect, where did I go wrong? And if my reasoning is correct, what accounts for the little jolt my dad and I (and probably other listeners) experienced as a reaction to Obama's sentence — and what accounts for the fact that we wouldn't even have noticed if he'd said "all the soldiers respect each other"?

The Fox News transcript and the whitehouse.gov transcript agree that there are three uses of each other in the 2012 SOTU, only one of which is connected with a subject noun phrase involving every:

They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.

More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.

This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.

So what about "every member of that unit trusted each other"? Is it "a blatantly ungrammatical statement", as AH and her dad first thought? Or is it OK, as she later decided?

I believe that there are several different issues here. First, there's the idea that each other must be restricted to two, with one another used for more than two. The entry on "each other, one another" in the M-W Dictionary of English Usage refutes this:

Bardeen 1883 indicates that the use of each other for one another is legitimate, though carped at by some critics [...]. Actually the prescriptive rule is that each other is to be restricted to two and one another to more than two goes back even further [...]. Goold Brown 1851 cites the rule with approbation, and quote it from an even earlier grammarian [...]. Sundby et al. 1991 have found it in a 1785 grammar by a George N. Ussher. But Goold Brown also notes that "misapplication of the foregoing reciprocal terms are very frequent in books" and goes on to cite Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster in error. He further notes that "it is strange that phrases so very common should not be rightly understood." It is perhaps easier now that it was in 1851 to see why: evidence in the OED shows that the restriction has never existed in practice; the interchangeability of each other and one another had been established centuries before Ussher or somebody even earlier thought up the rule.

Fowler 1926 notes that some writers follow the rule but goes on to state that "the differentiation is neither of present utility nor based on historical usage [...]". Even Fowler's high reputation among usage commentators has not convinced those to whom the rule is dear; many still prescribe it. A few examples may illustrate the rule's baselessness:

Sixteen ministers who meet weekly at each other's houses — Samuel Johnson, Life of Swift

Most whom live remote from each other — Noah Webster, Essays

[...]

Two negatives in English destroy one another — Lowth 1763

It is a bad thing that men should hate each other; but it is far worse that they should contract the habit of cutting one another's throats without hatred — T.B. Macaulay

[...]

We conclude that the rule restricting each other to two and one another to more than two was cut out of the whole cloth. There is no sin in its violation. It is, however, easy and painless to observe if you so wish.

But I don't think that the imaginary "restricted to two" rule is what was bothering AH and her father, since the other two examples of each other in the SOTU, which didn't evoke any reaction, also had greater-than-two antecedents.

And I agree with AH in not trusting her attempt to settle the matter by thinking through the compositional logic of the construction from first principles. The entry in the OED explains why a fully compositional account of each other (in terms of the separate meanings of each and other) is misguided. Given that each other has been a lexicalized compound for many centuries, we can't expect to predict its usage from its etymological decomposition:

Originally this was a phrase construed as in 4 ['each to each'], each being the subject, and other (inflected in Old English óðerne, óðres, óðrum, etc.) being governed in acc., genit., or dat. by a verb, prep., or n. This use still occurs arch. or poet. (each to other, etc.). The words have however long become a compound (cf. Dutch elkander), so that we can say to each other, of each other, etc.

But the phrase  "every member of that unit trusted each other" has another possible flaw, not engaged by MWDEU's examples. Every member is grammatically singular, and may seem to focus semantically on the members one at a time, which would lead to an absurd enumeration: "Member 1 trusted each other, and member 2 trusted each other, and …"

This seems to be the factor that took AH and her father aback — and when I think of it that way, it seems odd to me as well.

Since we can't apply logic to the question until we figure out what the semantic analysis of each other really is, we have no choice but to look at usage. What does Norma Loquendi have to say? Well, there are a large number of classical examples of the form "everybody VERBed each other" or "everyone VERBed each other". Thus Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, 1847:

I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

"Playfulness in High Life", Punch 1857:

A Lovely Creature had just been warbling, "Drink to me only with thine Eyes." There was a pause. Everybody stared unmeaningly at each other. There was not a sound, save the splash of the gold fish  that, with unwearied fins, were carrying on their swimming-matches round the large glass bowl, when Lord Edgar Swann (the lineal descendant of the united houses of Swann and Edgar) leant forward, and said lovingly to his partner, "I wonder, by the bye, what kind of tipple it is that the Eye does drink?" "Why, Champagne d'Aï, to be sure!", exclaimed the every-ready Agnes, and, tapping his fingers playfully with her fan, she split the coffee over his legs.

The lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire (The Tatler No. 95), 1711:

I sate with them till it was very late, sometimes in merry, sometimes in serious, Discourse, with this particular Pleasure, which gives the only true Relish to all Conversation, a Sense that every one of us like each other.

Phoebe Allen, Thanksgiving Tabernacle, 1888:

Altogether, she was very glad when the last hymn had been sung, and everyone had finished telling each other what a happy evening it had been, and how gratifying it was to feel themselves all so saintly in this world and so safe in the next, and it was with real relief that Jane found herself once more in the van.

And similarly, phrases like "Every NOUN VERBED each other" have a long and apparently respectable history:

Andrew Henderson, The life of John Earl of Stair, 1748:

Every Officer, and every Soldier, vied with each other in distinguishing himself under the Eye of his August Commander; but none more than the deceas'd Lord: For, being made Colonel of the Royal North British Dragoons, upon the 9th March 1702, he endeavoured to raise the Reputation of that Regisment; and, being sent to support a Battery, he stood at the Head of his Regiment, for several Hours, while the Troops were falling on each Hand of him, without the least Alternation of Countenance, or the last Desire to draw off, notwithstanding a furious Cannonade from that Quarter of the Town.

Charles Rollin, The Roman History, from the foundation of Rome to the battle of Actium. Translated from the French, 1711:

Every thing resembled each other in these two wars: the extraordinary efforts and preparations employed in them; the splendor of arms; the terrible ceremonies used for rendering the gods propitious, and initiating in some measure the soldiers by an oath of ancient form; and lastly the levies made universally throughout the whole extent of Smanium under that form, which devoted to Jupiter, and loaded with curses, all such among the youth, as should not present themselves for the service on the general's order, or should retire from it without his permission.

James Elmes, A general and bibliographical dictionary of the fine arts, 1824:

In defining the styles which prevailed at this period of history, we should consider that the orders are not only Greek and Roman, but Phoenician, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Assyrian; therefore are founded upon the experience of all ages, promoted by the vast treasure of all the great monarchs, and skill of the greatest artists and geometricians, every one emulating each other: experiments in this kind being very expensive, and errors incorrigible, is the reason tha the principle of architecture should be founded more on the study of antiquity than a dependance [sic] on fancy.

"Two Years Lost", in The Argosy, volume 26, 1878:

Another thing; their tastes and pursuits were so dissimilar. These balls and kettledrums and insane gatherings, which made her life, he hated. The social, sober partes ad Candelford, where every lady knew each other, were quite different.

Margaret Winslow, "Easter Eggs: A Russian Story", in The Churchman, 1880:

Everywhere they met other parties, on foot in carts, bound in the same direction, and every group greeted each other with the prescribed words, "Christ is risen," or answered again, "He is risen indeed."

George Jacob Holyoake, "The History of the Rochdale Pioneers", in Cooperation, Volume 1, 1909:

The Store very early began to exercise educational functions. Besides supplying the members with provisions, the Store became a meeting place, where almost every member met each other every evening after working hours.

Journal of the Scientific Laboratories, Denison University, 1943:

It should be noted that every group overlaps each other; that every item is both a "cause" and "effect" of every other single item; that the numerical order does not imply any priority whether causal, etiological, or temporal …

John P. Wilson, "Reversing Cultures: The Wounded Teaching the Healers", in Voices of Trauma: Treating psychological trauma across cultures, 2007:

The ritual of the "Talking Circle" is a most powerful one. [...] Eventually, I returned to my "seat" on the log and the next person got up and repeated the process. In this way then, the "Talking Circle" meant that every person encountered each other at least twice.

So I conclude that "every member of that unit trusted each other", though not to everyone's taste, can't be considered ."a blatantly ungrammatical statement".

From a rhetorical point of view, it's obvious that the triple repetition of each other in this year's SOTU relates to the speech's theme of teamwork, associated with the military and also with traditional American values. The "every member of that unit trusted each other" phrase at the end of the speech echoes the speech's beginning:

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces.  At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations.  They’re not consumed with personal ambition.  They don’t obsess over their differences.  They focus on the mission at hand.  They work together.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

FWIW, the 2012 SOTU message is far from the only one to feature each other. Among the 209 previous SOTU messages, James Buchanan used each other six times in 1857; Andrew Jackson used it five times in 1833; James K. Polk in 1848 and William McKinley in 1899 used it four times; and there were eight other messages with three instances of "each other": John Quincy Adams in 1825 and 1826, Andrew Jackson in 1831, James Buchanan in 1860, Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 and 1906,  Harry Truman in 1946, and Bill Clinton in 1995.  There have been 19 SOTU messages with two instances of "each other", from James Monroe in 1820 to Bill Clinton in 1997; 50 SOTU messages with one instance of "each other"; and 128 with none.

Fans of Zipf's Law will be pleased to see that doesn't fail to apply here:

As far as I can tell, though, none of the previous SOTU uses are of the form "Every NOUN VERBed each other".



32 Comments

  1. Antariksh Bothale said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

    I am surprised that this doesn't have an entry in everyone's 'beloved little book'.

    One would imagine that this is just the kind of injunction they'd have loved—Use 'each other' for two people; 'one another' for more than two people.

    Now!

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 12:11 am

    Putting aside AH's intuition (which I'm in accord with), I'm intrigued by past generations felt a responsibility to each other, which to me seems to say, nonsensically, that one past generation (say, the Lost Generation) felt a responsibility to another generation, and vice versa. Instead, it means "In past generations, people felt a responsibility to other people." So there's some kind of synechdoche between people and their generations there.

    The same thing happens later on with group and member. Compare every member met each other with every member met every other, which seems to say the same thing, against every group greeted each other vs. every group greeted every other, not the same thing at all.

  3. The Ridger said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    "Every" may be grammatically singular, but it's clearly notionally plural. "Every book on the table IS red, but some are crimson and some are more like puce." When grammar collides with reality, it sometimes loses.

    [(myl) There's clearly a connection between the "every ... each other" issue and the singular they constructions where the antecedent is a grammatically-singular universally-quantified noun. But it seems to me that each other has not gone as far down the ad sensum road as they has: Compare "The committee ordained each other" and "The committee resumed their labors". Both of these examples can be found in printed and presumably copy-edited books, but the first of them gives (me) pause, while the second doesn't. ]

  4. J. Goard said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 7:51 am

    Speaking of ungrammaticality (or semantic anomaly), this current CNN article quotes Mitt Romney on the Florida primary as saying:

    "If you're attacked, I'm not going to just sit back."

    (It's clear enough from the context that in the mental space set up by the conditional, "you" corresponds to Romney.)

  5. GeorgeW said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    I (AmE) feel like 'one another' is a little dated or maybe stilted.

    [(myl) There's no indication of a serious decline in published usage. On the other hand, in LDC conversational transcripts, "each other" is more than 11 times more common than "one another" (4471 to 392), while in the New York Times archive since 1981, it's only about 2.3 times more common (97,623 to 43,124). So "stilted" (or at least formal) yes, "dated" apparently not.]

  6. Mr Punch said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:03 am

    @ Rod Johnson – But that's just what Obama was saying: that in the past, one generation felt responsible for another. Nothing nonsensical there, in the context of public policy – education, Medicare, debt, etc.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    In my internal grammar, "each other" needs a plural subject. (If it matters, I can't remember encountering a prescription on that.) However, "Everybody [VERB] each other" jars me less than "Every [SINGULAR NOUN] [VERB] each other."

    If I were the President's speechwriter (pause for laugh), I'd have said "Every member of that unit trusted every other" or "Every member of that unit trusted [all] the others" or since the speech repeated "each other", "All the members of that unit trusted each other."

    At the moment I can't think of another situation where "every" is grammatical for me but "each" isn't.

    [(myl) I share your intuition about plural subjects with each other, but it's clear that not everyone feels the same way. A few random examples:

    The group hushed each other, but their silence was bursting with anticipation. [Jean Auel, The Valley of Horses]
    [Y]ou can let the group belay each other as long as you are on hand to oversee the whole operation. [Nigel Shepard, The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques]
    The group eyed each other, each hoping another would respond. [Robin Cook, Abduction]

    The more of these I read, the weaker my intuition gets…]

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    @Mr. Punch… really? Hmm, OK. Does the reciprocal meaning really fit there? I guess, maybe–it didn't come across to me.

  9. wally said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    What I want to know is this: while reading the text from AH I formed a picture in the back of my mind of AH being female. When I later came across the pronoun "her" this was confirmed, but then I thought, nothing actually told me this while reading the text. What subtle linguistic clues were there? Looking back, the only remotely relevant things seems to be the phrase "my dad and I". Is this really enough? Are there other hidden clues?

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    COHA results:

    every [NOUN] [VERB] each other: 1
    every [NOUN] [VERB] one another: 0
    all [NOUN] [VERB] each other: 9 (+ 2 irrelevant)
    all [NOUN] [VERB] one another: 8

    everybody [VERB] each other: 5
    everybody [VERB] one another: 1
    everyone [VERB] each other: 6
    everyone [VERB] one another: 1
    they all [VERB] each other: 37
    they all [VERB] one another: 8

    Not great numbers, but I'd say there's a strong preference for plural subjects with "each other" and "one another". A quick glance suggests that most of the hits with "every" are from fictional dialogue. I think one could make a case that "each other" with "every" is non-standard in writing.

    One more result:

    all of them [VERB] each other: 0

    That surprised me. There can't be too many constructions where "they all" is popular but "all of them" is so rare. Google gives me big numbers with "all of them know each other" (as "know" seems to be the most popular verb in this construction), but "they all know each other" gets many more hits at Google Books than "all of them know each other", and the latter doesn't even show up at the ngram search.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    @Rod Johnson: I think it does make sense to say that past generations felt a responsibility to treat past generations with respect and gratitude and a responsibility to provide for future generations (but I don't know how true it is). Maybe your problem is with "a responsibility", which might suggest that a given past generation felt the same kind of responsibility to generations before it as to those after it? (Though one might have to provide for one's parents.)

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    @MYL: I should have checked for a reply to my post before talking about making a case that that construction was non-standard. (Though what numbers would be required to make such a case?)

    One more result:

    the [NOUN] [VERB] each other: 120

  13. Barbara Partee said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    @Rod Johnson and those who commented on his query — there are lots of well known examples where "each other" isn't really symmetrically reciprocal — "The chairs were stacked up on each other", "There was a big pileup where the cars in the northbound lane ran into each other in the fog" [That could well describe a single-file pileup]. I once even heard a kid on a school playground say "Look, there's two planes following each other" — it was two planes in a close formation, one behind the other. And when asked to describe what bunk beds are, people will often say "That's two beds on top of each other." You may reject these when you think about them, but they occur with great frequency. There are other kinds of exceptions to the paradigm cases of total symmetrical relations that we think of as the core meaning of 'each other', as in "the telephone poles are 100 feet from each other", which only applies to adjacent pairs if it's talking about a normal situation. These have been studied, for instance, in Dalrymple, Kanazawa, Kim, Mchombo, and Peters (1998). Reciprocal expressions and the concept of reciprocity. Linguistics and Philosophy 21:159-210.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    Maybe the restricted-to-two phantom rule wasn't what caught AH's attention, but I found it interesting that the Pres. Buchanan SOTU with six hits had four that essentially dealt with pairs of two with the remaining two dealing with substantially larger groups (1,400 banks in one instance, an unspecified from context but presumably significantly >2 number of bellicose Indian tribes in the other). There are a bunch of similar phantom rules premised on what you might call the old dual/plural distinction, e.g. the notion that it must be "between A & B" but "among A, B & C," which may be a tendency but not an inflexible rule.

    [(myl) Even though the etymological decomposition of each other is no longer tenable as the whole analytic story, I'm sure that it continues to play a role. The child of a friend, at the age of four or so, re-analyzed "each other" as "each chudder" or something of the sort, and generalized the result to generate phrases like "they're hitting their chudders".]

    Switching from syntax to rhetoric (w/o intending to politicize since I'm sure its a bipartisan phenomenon), I wonder if the final "if we followed their example" point in combination with the original "every member of that unit" point is a variant of what the late Wm. Safire dubbed the MEOW phenomenon in Pres. Carter's rhetoric.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    Regarding, "past generations felt a responsibility to each other", assuming we are talking about society in general (not individual families), there's no such thing as generations. The dividing lines between generations are arbitrary, artificial. So, any highly literal reading of that is going to fall apart, it seems to me.

  16. Peter G. Howland said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

    Consider me both dated and stilted. It never would have occurred to me to say anything other than “every member of that unit trusted one another.” There are no conscious prescriptive “rules” involved, it’s just what falls naturally out of my (ancient) face and (formal) fingertips.

  17. John Lawler said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    The fact that each is separable from other (e.g, Each man admired the other(s) = The men admired each other), and can thus be subjected to different syntactic forces, no doubt contributes to the fun as well. I remember writing a squib long ago which featured the example sentence

    Eachᵢ man considered the otherᴶ to be superior to himselfᵢ.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    Okay, if everybody insists, here's one more excerpt from my internal grammar:

    Each member of the unit trusted each other member.

    *Each member of the unit trusted each other.

  19. Rod Johnson said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

    Barbara: Interesting, thanks! Those examples all seem obvious when I see them. So how would you characterize the meaning? It seems to have a detransitivizing function (in the sense of Li and Thompson's work on transitivity)–expressing the involvement of Plane A and Plane B in the following activity, but blurring the focus on which is the agent and which is the patient.

    Ellen K: there are so many things that are referentially vague, though, and we manage to talk about them. The Midwest is west of the Appalachians, though there are many places that could be in either, and there's no clear boundary between them.

  20. Barbara Partee said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    Rod, yes they do all detransitivize — well, really, not always; they take a verb with n arguments and put in "each other" for one of the arguments (never the subject) and the result takes n-1 arguments. (In that way they are similar to reflexives, and lots of languages, including Romance and Slavic, have constructions that can be interpreted as either, often depending on context to disambiguate.)
    Lots of people, including Terry Langendoen and Emmon Bach and undoubtedly others, looked for a single meaning broad enough to cover all these cases. Dalrymple et al argued (persuasively, to me, but I know it wasn't the last word and I'm not up on the last word) that we have a kind of ranking of kinds of meanings from the strongest (for every pair a and b in the set in question, aRb and bRa) through various weaker ones — I don't remember details. And then there is a kind of pragmatic principle, the "Strongest meaning hypothesis", that says in any given case, assume the 'strongest' meaning consistent with what you know about the context. So the context eliminates the strong "aRb and bRa" reading in the case of the bunk beds and the 2 airplanes 'following each other', but we'll get that strong reading for "John and Mary kissed each other" because nothing blocks it. Something like that.

  21. Jake said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    "Charles Rollin, The Roman History, from the foundation of Rome to the battle of Actium. Translated from the French, 1711:"

    The appeal should be to the translator, not to M. Rollin. Rollin no more wrote "to each other" than Homer wrote "O goddess sing what woe the discontent of Thetis’ son brought to the Greeks."

  22. Ted said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

    I'm not sure I understand the fuss. To me this appears simple. I think President Obama meant "Every member of that unit trusted each other member of that unit." "Each" is a simple adjective here, and "other" is either effectively a pronoun (standing in place of "other member of that unit") or an adjective describing an implied direct object. Nothing ungrammatical about that.

    "Past generations felt a responsibility to each other" is more problematic. The meaning is obvious, but I think it's an informal equivalent of the grammatically-correct but rhetorically-weaker "members of past generations felt a responsibility for each other."

  23. Ted said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

    Looking back at the comments, I see that Jerry Friedman anticipated my first point.

    On another note, my personal idiolect – is that redundant? – permits one another for two items or more, but permits each other for two only.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    Rod Johnson: there are so many things that are referentially vague, though, and we manage to talk about them.

    Which doesn't at all take away from my point.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    That any highly literal reading is going to fall apart? Does a highly literal reading of "The Midwest is west of the Appalachians" fall apart?

  26. Ellen said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    Again, Rod, irrelevant. It's really not parallel. That's more parallel to saying that the Generation X came after the Baby Boomers.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    P.S. A better parallel with geographical regions would be:

    The regions of the U.S. feel a responsibility towards each other.

    And that does fall about with a highly literal reading. And if you don't agree, you haven't yet found the most literal reading. (Hint: regions don't have feelings, people in regions have feelings.)

    Of course, many things we say aren't meant to be understood in a highly literal way. That can include uses of the phrase "each other".

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    @Ted: Actually, I think I was making the opposite point from you. I was saying that even though the sentence could be grammatical with "each other member", I found it ungrammatical with just "each other". (However, I've been undergoing the intuition-weakening phenomenon that MYL mentioned.)

  29. Rod Johnson said,

    February 3, 2012 @ 9:24 am

    Ellen: Well, now you're just recapitulating my original point above about synecdoche. So if "literal meaning" excludes synecdoche, sure–except "generations don't have feelings" is not the same point as "the dividing lines between generations are arbitrary, artificial" (which is what my geographical regions analogy is responding to). So now I'm not sure what the point you're defending is exactly.

    And to Mr Punch, waaay up there: good point, I missed that reading.

  30. Viseguy said,

    February 3, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

    Don't think of "each other" as a lexicalized compound, think of it as two separate words, an adjective modifying an (adjectival) noun.

    Every member of that unit trusted each other (member of that unit).

    It also works if you swap "every" and "each":

    Each member of that unit trusted every other (member of that unit).

    That's the only way I can make sense of it, anyway.

  31. Terry said,

    February 4, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    It sounds to me like the construction is more of a shortening (or whatever the technical word is) of a longer phrase:

    The [members of] unit VERB[s] each other

    with the shortened phrase resulting in the verb becoming singular to match the (collective) noun rather than the plural that would refer to the implied-but-missing [members of]. To the extent the [members of] part is "implied", neither singular nor plural sounds quite right in the shortened form.

    So, on first glance, to me it becomes another example of how schizophrenic we English speakers are about collective nouns, or perhaps that the language is in the process of shifting usage in that area.

    This also speaks to the discomfort I felt when I heard the situation referred to as "singular they." Yes, the "they" is being used to refer in many cases to a collective noun, but I hear it as "the members of [group] are plural therefore we must refer to [group] as plural" rather than "group is a singular noun so 'they' must be becoming singular in usage." I agree "they" is sometimes [mis]used with other singular referents, but I think the usage with collective nouns like "the team … they" is mirrored by other uses where the same speaker clearly thinks of "team" as plural both numerically and grammatically.

  32. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 10:16 am

    [...] Language Log, Geoff Pullum discussed some faulty noun choices while Mark Liberman assessed the state of the phrase each other. Victor Mair examined the effect of the retroflex final -r on allegro, or abbreviated, Mandarin; [...]

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