Writers, trust your ears to know best

Writers learn at least one rule of prose composition in their cradles: Subject and predicate must agree in number. It's a splendid rule — but what if the subject is “number”?

The question irked reader Jonathan Siegle in Springfield, Ore. He was reading a column in The New York Times by David Brooks. He stumbled over: “The number of people who could credibly claim to have had a meeting like that with McCain are vanishingly small.”

Rambunctious homophones

Should that verb have been “IS vanishingly small”? Reader Siegle thinks so, and I agree, but the topic merits some kicking around. The trouble with “number” is that it won't stay still. It bobs and weaves and wiggles away. Suppose we are writing about a gaggle of golfers. A number of them seem to like the course, but the number of those who like it seems likely to diminish. Now it's singular; now it's plural. What it is, is synesis. Kindly look it up.

Trust your ears, you writers! There's no short and simple rule to guide you.

The best advice is to trust your ears, but read your copy. A contributor to Our Ohio magazine missed that lesson last month in writing about a farm for gourmets. The proprietors strive “to keep up with Americans' changing pallets.” After years of hard work, they “won over East Coast pallets.”

The writer wanted “palates,” of course, but was unhorsed by a rambunctious homophone. Hundreds of homophones roam the literary range. They are defined as two or more words that (1) sound alike, (2) are spelled differently, and (3) have different meanings. The list begins with ail/ale and winds up with wail/whale. The computerized spell-checker is a great invention, but it's no match for the chameleons that roam our alphabet. They bite!

American idioms are hazardous in a different way. They contribute immensely to the vigor of our speech, but sometimes … I don't know. The Associated Press filed a story out of Fayetteville, N.C. “Authorities have charged the husband of a Fort Bragg Army nurse with murder after the woman's remains were found in a brush fire three days after she went missing.”

Went missing? The idiom and its inexplicable cousin, “turned up missing,” are parts of our everyday speech. Would it have been more fittin' to write that the nurse vanished, or disappeared, or was simply “reported missing”? It's a judgment call.

Cadence counts

A question of first impression, at least in this space, comes from Robert Wooten in Raleigh, N.C., and Catherine Lyle in Seattle. Why, they wonder, do we need three words — till, ‘til and until — to do the work that could be done more economically by a single word?

My first thought on this matter is an old thought. You have heard me voice it many times: Ordinarily we read in silence. That is, we read to ourselves, but in the process we read not only with our eyes but also with our inner ears. At least in prose, the meaning of words must always be paramount. Good writers are also attentive to the unheard sound of what they write.

The answer to the pending question must be, it depends. That is, it depends upon the rhythm of the sentence. Would the cadence be better served by two syllables or one? Surely, “Wait ‘til the cows come home” is better than asking a girl to wait “until” the cows amble back to the barn. On the other hand, there are times when that second syllable is demanded: The lovers of immortal ballad pledged their fidelity “until we meet again.” Cadence counts.

As a matter of everyday usage, The New York Times forbids the apostrophized ‘til except in quoted matter. The Associated Press stands indifferent in the cause. Translators of the King James Bible used “until” 32 times, “till” only twice. See Romans 5:13. Go in peace.