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May 24th, 2006

A group of students was or were / kids in the 1800s / X-year anniversary

by Barbara Wallraff

Alan Parks, of Mount Desert, Maine, writes: “‘A group of students was reading a book’ or ‘A group of students were reading a book’? Isn’t ‘group’ the subject and ‘students’ the object of the preposition? The plural verb sounds right but seems wrong grammatically. Help!”

Dear Alan: Whenever you have a “a (singular) of (plural)” construction, pay attention to your meaning, and don’t worry about grammar. That is, if the idea of the group is crucial, use a singular verb -- for instance, “A group of students is able to do more than one student can.” But if you are mainly thinking of students, plural, and are using “group” to mean something like “some,” as you probably are in your sentence, use a plural verb.

An odd fact is that “a (singular) of (plural)” is more likely to seem plural than “the (singular) of (plural).” For instance, “A number of students are reading the book” but “The number of students is large.” But let’s not overanalyze this or we’ll confuse ourselves. When you have trouble deciding whether one of these phrases should be plural or singular, go with the verb form that, as you say, “sounds right.”

Ruth H. Larson, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “When did it become acceptable to use the word ‘kids’ instead of ‘children’? I have been reading a nonfiction book about a monstrous blizzard that took many lives on Jan. 12, 1888. The author says one woman who lived through the blizzard wrote, years later, ‘The wagon swaying this way and that way and we poor things slipping and sliding ... trying to hang onto our kids and our belongings.’ The word ‘kids’ jumped out at me and made me suspect that this was something the author wrote, not what the pioneer woman wrote. Was I wrong to make that judgment?”

Dear Ruth: Well, you were right to write. I believe the book you’re reading is “The Children’s Blizzard,” by David Laskin. Laskin tells me the quotation comes from the memoirs of a Norwegian immigrant named Hattie Thompson Erickson, and is accurate. Erickson wrote her memoirs in 1939, at the age of 82. So when she described her ordeal, she was using the language of a half-century later. Nonetheless, “kid” has been used to mean “young goat” since about 1200, and also “child” since about 1600. It wouldn’t have been unusual if Erickson had written “kids” around the time of the blizzard.

Dave Brady, of York, Pa., writes: “When did ‘X-year anniversary’ become accepted usage? The phrase is redundant, is it not?”

Dear Dave: Yes, it’s redundant -- and not all of us consider it accepted usage. The problem is that the “anni-” part of “anniversary” comes from the Latin word for “year” and is a close relative of “annual.” So a “one-year anniversary,” for example, is more properly a “first anniversary.”

The reason so many people are tempted to say things like “one-year anniversary,” I suspect, is that they also say things like “one-month anniversary” and “one-week anniversary” -- which sound even more foolish to those of us who keep the “year” meaning of ” in mind. For instance, here’s a sentence from a recent article in the Massillon (Ohio) Independent: “Sunday, on the one-week anniversary of their last win, the Indians lost again.” Why not write “Sunday, a week to the day after their last win ...”?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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