<< back to the archive list

January 16th, 2008

Isn't that right? / are two men taking wives or a wife?

by Barbara Wallraff

Damaris Fish, of Central Point, Ore., writes: “What is the phrase ‘Isn’t that right?’ Are we really asking if ‘that’ is wrong? What is the name of this literary device? I am trying to explain this scripture in the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4: ‘I would exhort you that ye would ask God ... if these things are not true.’”

Dear Damaris: “Isn’t that right?” is a negative rhetorical question. A question is rhetorical if we are not trying to obtain information by asking it. Assorted examples include “What in the world are you talking about?” “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” and “How cool is that?”

As for negative rhetorical questions, oddly enough, they tend to have an affirmative meaning. For instance, “Don’t you want dessert?” means “I’ll bet you do want dessert.” And “Isn’t that right?” means “I think it’s right.” Of course, your quotation from the Book of Mormon doesn’t actually ask a question. The direct question being referred to is “Are these things not true?” When a question is referred to but not asked, that’s called an indirect question. So, the quotation includes an indirect negative rhetorical question. Please tell me if that isn’t what you wanted to know!

Beniah C. Harding, of Thomaston, Maine, writes: “Which of the following is correct: ‘Bill and Jim take their wives to dinner’ or ‘Bill and Jim take their wife to dinner’? To me, the first version implies that Bill and Jim have more than one wife apiece, and the second one says that Bill and Jim share one wife.”

Dear Beniah: Whoever invented English didn’t think it through to this level of detail. Your sentence is going to be ambiguous one way or another, so you might as well have it be ambiguous in a grammatically orderly way. “Bill and Jim” and “their” are plural, so “wives” should be too. Furthermore, no one is truly likely to misunderstand “take their wives to dinner.” Only someone who is looking for trouble will find it.

All the same, carefully matching the parts of a sentence can sometimes make it worse. “At the end of the evening, the wives gave each other goodbye kisses” sounds a bit steamy, don’t you think? If you want to be very precise, you could say, “Each wife gave the other a goodbye kiss.” But most people would say, “The wives gave each other a goodbye kiss” -- and that’s perfectly correct.

People who insist it’s not correct and they would never be so sloppy haven’t done as much painstaking editing as I have. Constructions of that kind are common -- so common that we scarcely notice them unless the misreading is funny. (Please note the first sentence of the second paragraph of my answer to Damaris.) In fact, the one hard-and-fast rule about them -- which native speakers instinctively follow -- requires certain nouns to remain singular no matter how many people they relate to. Those nouns are abstractions, such as “enjoyment” -- as in, “The couples’ enjoyment (not ‘enjoyments’) of the evening was complete.”

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

<< back to the archive list