Language police blotter

How many art directors, assistant art directors, editors, fact-checkers, internes, and plain native English speakers of all kinds did this go through? Gentlepersons of The Economist, using the archaic -eth verb ending to sound olde-fashioned or biblical is pretty lame already, but using a third-person singular [thanks, KenD] form with a plural subject just showeth you be as fools, and in 44 point type to boot. If you can’t say makes, you need to find a different silly affectation , and if you haven’t had training, don’t mess with the tools.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

18 thoughts on “Language police blotter”

  1. Methinks the subject of the sentence is “man,” and “microbes” the direct object. The singular verb “maketh” agrees with the singular noun “man.” In olden days, such word-order inversion was more common than it is now.

    Rendering it into contemporary English, the headline would read, “Man makes microbes.”

    It’s a story about artificial life created in the laboratory.

    1. This would be a reasonable interpretation if it were remotely accurate. From the article (or is it a free preview?):

      The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

      This is a fascinating topic: there’s all sorts of evidence that not only your health but also your lifestyle and even aspects of your behavior and thus what you might consider your mental “self” are influenced by your flora. To be human is to be an ecosystem that includes but is not limited to the cells descended from the fusion of an egg and a sperm.

  2. Theognis got there first. It’s a riff on the motto of New College, Oxford, which has been around in its original form since the 14th century.

    1. The Old English present plural ended in -ath, and I suspect it would be fairly easy to find it spelled and indeed pronounced as -eth, given the wide variety of pronunciations throughout Britain. Middle English replaced -ath with -e(n). Manner(s) is thought to have come into English c. 1200 A.D., which puts it roughly 50 years after the “end” of Old English and its replacement with Middle English. That said, these things are rarely as tidy as linguists (and affixers of dates!) sometimes seem to suppose.

      However, the alternation between -es and -eth is more likely to be due to the fact that northern -es replaced southern -eth over time. Wykeham himself was a southerner (from Hampshire) and so would naturally use -eth rather than -es.

      Judging by the other citations on the page to which you link, I would guess that manners was treated as effectively a singular form.

      One possible theory: there is a Yorkshire (?) proverb “Meat is mickle but mense is mair”, which makes me wonder whether “mense” (from menske Middle English “courtesy, honour” and ultimately Old Norse menska “humanity”) was the English original that was later transformed into “manners” in more Francophone times, perhaps to avoid the various Latinate words relating to mensis/menses etc, while preserving the play on the “man/men” root. However, this is just my speculation.

      1. Incidentally, I seem to have anonymized myself in the above comment. Sorry and all that, chaps!

    2. Perhaps “manners” (= “conduct”) is treated as a collective noun, which would be plural in American English but is singular in British English.

  3. internes? Is that the require misspelling when critiquing. Oh, it’s brit-sprache. Neva mind.

  4. I have no particular knowledge of this idiom, but I suspect that “manners” is used here as a quasi-collective, and hence grammatically singular despite the plural form. The idea is that “manners” is a collection of attributes that in toto make the man. Compare this with the King James translation of Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.”

    That being said, the Economist’s paraphrase is unduly clumsy.

  5. If you can’t say makes, you need to find a different silly affectation , and if you haven’t had training, don’t mess with the tools.

    So…. Microbes Makes Man?

  6. When you refer to “using a third-person form with a plural subject”, do you mean “using a singular [verb] form with a plural subject”? If so, I think you are right; “maketh” is old style for third-person-singular “makes”, but the third-person-plural form “make” hasn’t changed. If not, I am seriously confused.

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