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Words, Feb. 18



What is the sound of one politic marring?

“Stop execution, murderer pleads;

‘Politics mar death penalty, he says”

Or should it be “Politics mars death penalty”? In other words, is politics singular or plural? We've wrestled with this question before, but I decided to give it a rematch.

William Safire knew where he stood, on this and most everything else. Safire's Political Dictionary says, “The word ‘politics' is construed as singular, as in ‘Politics is fun,' but when it is used to denote a set of beliefs, the plural takes over, as ‘My politics are nobody's business.' ”

That distinction is too fine for Random House, which says simply that politics is “used with a singular or plural verb.”

Garner's Modern American Usage leans Safire's way. “As with similar –ics words denoting disciplines of academics and human endeavor, 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>.”

Following that rule, I'd say that politics in the headline quoted above is singular: Politics mars, it doesn't mar. Politicians now, they can do some marring.

William Lindsey writes:

“When did the phrase ‘a couple' followed by a plural noun become standard English usage? Publications including the Arkansas Times now use this construction unapologetically — ‘At worst, you'll get a solid hamburger for a couple bucks.'

“I don't recall ever hearing this usage in Arkansas until recently. I have heard it in the urban northeast before. But to my ear as an Arkansas native, it sounds imposed — and incorrect.”

It sounds funny to me too, and I agree that “couple of bucks” used to be much more common in this part of the country. Garner says that when couple is used as a noun, it requires the preposition of to link it to another noun. He concedes that the of is often omitted these days, “But idiom has not yet admitted this casual expression as standard.” Admission is not far off, I suspect, though I won't like it.

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