Why do the atheists bother?

Last night I felt like watching a documentary, so I had a look at what Netflix had to offer. The one that caught my eye was called The Unbelievers and was about a couple of atheists: the Englishman Dr. Richard Dawkins and an American, Dr. Lawrence Krauss.

Why would a Christian want to watch a documentary about atheists? Because they were bound to be talking about us, so I wanted to see what they said.

Something from Nothing? A Conversation with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss Critically-acclaimed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss discussed biology, cosmology, religion, and a host of other topics in a free ranging conversation at ASU's Gammage Auditorium February 3rd.
Okay Richard, time for a damning pearl of wisdom

Dawkins is an urbane, rather old fashioned kind of Englishman: smart suits, wavy hair a bit longer than you might expect, and he is reserved: an introvert.

Krauss is very different: he wears a smart jacket but likes to team it with jeans and canvas sneakers in wacky colours. And his wide mouth is always ready to burst into a smile. An extrovert.

They complement each other very well, making up for each other’s shortcomings in any given situation. If you want gravity and intensity, you’ve got Dawkins. You want a wisecracking man of the people, here’s Krauss.

The documentary followed them on a country-hopping tour, doing TV talk shows, live shows and lectures.

I couldn’t help liking them both. Dawkins might be quite interesting, and perhaps even fun when he’s had a few drinks. I was slightly surprised to find that he is married – on his second one, in fact – to an actress most famous for playing a Time Lady in the BBC scifi series Doctor Who.

And Krauss is a born entertainer.

atheists 2
Haven’t you got anything better to do?

The way they approach their atheism is through science: they’re both PhDs, Dawkins an evolutionary biologist and ethologist – dealing with knowledge of human character and its formation and evolution, and  Krauss a theoretical physicist. Clearly hyper-intelligent people, and they use their brain power, their ability to grasp details when everyone else is struggling to hold onto the general idea, to hack their way through the jungle of belief.

Dawkins found himself on an Australian talk show with the Archbishop of Sydney and proceeded to run intellectual rings around him, until you could see the brakes come on and a look in his eyes that said, “Ease up or they’ll thing you’re a smartarse and a bully”. He seems to find it frustrating talking to people of only above-average intelligence. How would he relate to a room full of people who, whatever their gifts, are not deep thinkers?

We saw him taking a telephone call and trying to keep it simple while whoever was on the other end tried valiantly to keep up.

We saw Krauss impressing and amusing a concert hall where the audience obviously considered it a good night out. He can make them laugh.

What the two doctors also did, though, was  a series of shows in which they sit together on stage on comfortable chairs and dismiss religion in a mocking way, teeing each other up to deliver witty putdowns and unanswerable conclusions.

atheists 3

The justification for this, they revealed by chance later on, was that on panel discussions, when two people are having an intense debate, they don’t like it when the chairman butts in and invites someone else to have a  say.

By implication, they are almost always the two cleverest people in the room, so why should anyone else be allowed to get in the way?

Religion, they both firmly believe, is similarly dimwitted and should not be permitted to muddy the waters of science. Incidentally, they seem to have mainly Christianity in their sights, rather than other religions – perhaps because they were brought up with it and are therefore better equipped to analyse  and ridicule it. And as they pointed out, nothing should be above ridicule. If we can make light of any other subject, from politics to sex (they dropped that sparkling, free-spirited word  in several times to show how much cooler they are than we are), why not religion?

What they didn’t explain was why they bother to tour the world, broadcasting their views in this way. If they don’t agree with religion, that’s up to them. You don’t suppose it’s anything to do with money, do you? Money from books and DVDs and touring shows.

atheists 4
This is why we have to stop fighting each other

For all their studying and theorizing, Dawkins and Krauss can’t point to any concrete proof to back up their opinions. But scientists keep discovering things and to them the Bible looks increasingly absurd. Maybe one day they or one of their hyper-intelligent ilk will accidentally stumble on something that proves to them what billions of us know from a much simpler source. Maybe they will look in their microscope and see God.

The English Pedant – Feeling fine is a fine feeling


A little while ago we looked at the potentially confusing word “quite”, with its various meanings. Another one in that vein is “fine”. It’s the sort of thing that the TEFL (English as a foreign language) teacher dreads a student bringing up, because when they ask what it means, there is more than one explanation. Even native English speakers can get confused when they start to think about this one, as I found early in my magazine-editing career when the secretary, with whom I had been at primary school, attempted to show me that education counted for nothing and anything I could do, she could do too.

So when I described a cricketer as being a fine player, she took issue with the word. Fine, she stated, meant okay. And it does. Sometimes. How is your burger? Fine. How was your day? Fine, thanks. Nothing special, just okay. Don’t worry, it’s fine.

But what about fine art and fine wines? What are they? Just average? No, they’re fine, they’re top class, exquisite. And Brian Lara, the subject of my discussion with the secretary, was a fine cricketer, as was Ian Botham and Joe Root is now. Lionel Messi isn’t just a fairly good footballer. He has a level of skill and “footballing intelligence”, if you like, that makes him exceptional. He’s a fine player.

But fine can also mean thin or very small. There is a fine line between very good and great. Sandpaper that consists of fragments of glass so small it actually feels smooth is known as fine, and its opposite in that case is coarse.

We strain fluids through a fine mesh, a fabric of very slim strands that allows liquid through but catches any solids.

Some people have fine hair. That doesn’t mean it’s just okay or even that it’s beautiful. Each strand of hair is just very thin, that’s all.

In a business document we may look at the fine detail, a close relative of “the small print”.

Then there is the weather. If that is fine, there is no rain about. There might be the odd white fluffy cloud passing through, and it might even be a bit windy, but it’s fine. Plenty of sunshine.

If someone “picked a fine time” to do something, we mean it ironically: they did it at a very inconvenient moment.

Then there is the noun; nobody wants to have to pay a fine, because it is a penalty imposed for breaking a law or rule.

And finings are substances added to beer, wine etc. to get rid of any lingering sediment or other particles, making it perfectly clear.

If we refine something, we improve it, except in cases such as sugar, where the process of removing impurities is said  to produce something that is harmful to health. It’s similar with flour, where the refining process removes the “bits” that are good for digestion and contain nutrients.

So, have you ever wanted to be teach English as a foreign language? Just steer the students away from this kind of thing, because it is almost unexplainable to an English speaker. To a Chinese speaker or even a Spaniard, it must sound a if you’re making it up as you go along.

Even writing about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wish you’d never started.

And by the way, have I missed anything?


The English Pedant – Guess what second guess means

Dear Teacher,I have created a word it is parronk and it doesn't mean anythink but who says words have to mean sumfink_ There's no lore against it I'm allowed.

There’s a term that seems to cross my path every couple of years: second guess. What makes me notice the frequency is the fact that I have never found out what it means – if indeed it means anything. I think the reason it comes and goes as it does is that no one really understands it.

The Online Oxford Dictionary, The Pedant’s preferred reference work now that too many long-distance moves have resulted in the loss of all paper books (apart, bizarrely, from  one by the late Peter Taylor about his football management partner, Brian Clough). For decades no desk of The Pedant’s was without The Concise Oxford and a Roget’s Thesaurus, but the internet makes such things expendable.

Anyway, second guess. The Online Oxford gives these examples:

Anticipate or predict (someone’s actions or thoughts) by guesswork: he had to second-guess what the environmental regulations would be in five years' time

More example sentences
  • Good art institutions should not be about second-guessing the public's taste.
  • But while clothes shoppers are revelling in the dozens of new alleys open to them, manufacturers are despairing as they try to second-guess the kaleidoscopic public mood.
  • We've been trying to second-guess Augusta all week but there's no sense in trying any longer.

I don’t know about you, but to these eyes they look like examples of the single word ‘guess’.

There was a glimmer of hope a couple of years ago, when someone somewhere suggested it meant literally having the second guess, or prediction, so if the question is who is going to win the European Championship in football and one person says Germany, you can use your guess, i.e. the second, to say Belgium.

Merriam-Webster Online offers:

 “to criticize or question the actions or decisions of someone”

which at least is different, even if it is not convincing.

Meanwhile over at Urban Dictionary, infamous home of the puerile and crude, they racked their brains and cobbled together this attempt at grownupness:

To predict, criticize often after results are know. This normally occurs from a person who you are having a conversion with and is trying to demerit someone else or you.

From Showtime series Weeds Season 3 Episode 7-He Taught Me How to Drive By 
 Marvin: Are you second guessing me bitch?!

Thanks, guys, you really are the natural reference work of the illiterate internet.

So, I guess, as the Americans would have it, that second guess doesn’t mean anything at all. Somebody used it once and it sounded good, so other people used it, but only once, because they couldn’t make it work.

It’s nonsense, it’s a myth. Unless you know better, in which case please let us know with a comment or email.


The English Pedant – Why fun is not funny

Funny is a funny word, isn’t it? Funny haha or funny peculiar, that is the question. Or it’s one question, anyway: there is also the similar but not identical concept of fun.

Lots of things in life can be fun but don’t make us laugh. A trip to the zoo or a game of darts. Flying a kite. Having sex. These things are fun, but they don’t necessarily cause us to giggle, cackle or any of the other variants of laughter.

To the non-native English speaker, though, it’s not so much that the two words are interchangeable, but more that fun doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to exist anymore. They experience something that is what we would call fun and they say it’s funny.

Anyone who has ever explained the difference will know the look of disbelief, pity, almost contempt, on their face. “I enjoyed it,” they’re thinking. “And English adjectives often end in y. Therefore it was not fun, it was funny. Fun is a noun.”

We can and do use it as a noun, in fact. That was fun. We had fun.

So it can be “that was fun” or equally well “that was funny”?

Well, you think, it’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been speaking English all my life and there has always been that difference.

So no. It was either fun or it wasn’t. Unless it caused hilarity, in which case it was funny.

And then there’s the “peculiar” meaning of funny. How did that come about? Probably simple misuse a few generations back, because it doesn’t mean hilarious or even mildly amusing. It means puzzling. The Pedant’s ancestors would have been hard at work, pointlessly pointing out that the King’s English was being corrupted. Or the Queen’s if it happened in Victorian times.

There’s another strain of the word, too, which is particularly prevalent in British English: meaning awkward, difficult, or argumentative. You find “I’m not being funny” or perhaps “I’m not trying to be funny” as a disclaimer before a question or statement criticizing something. “I’m not being funny, but are you going to wear that cap in court?” or “I’m not trying to be funny, but haven’t you got any decent CDs?”

It’s a losing battle, of course, just as resisting any language change is. Many Americans are now saying funny when they mean fun. You get swamped with it and start doing it yourself.

With the worldwide issue of immigration  as prominent as it is, we come to the question of whether people settling in a new country should be obliged not only to speak the language but to speak it properly.

And that, frankly, is unenforceable, because there are so many variants among the native population. When there are Scots asking “How?” when they mean “What?”, we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

When there are millions of African Americans saying “Ah ight” instead of “All right” how can we insist that Spanish speakers learn the difference between v and b, so they can differentiate between very and berry?

But shouldn’t we at least try? And shouldn’t newcomers at least listen to what we’re saying, just as we try to pronounce their language properly?

I once worked with a Polish woman, well-educated and highly intelligent, who insisted on pronouncing salmon as sal monn. And when I say she insisted, I mean I pointed out to her that it was one of the most common mistakes among non-native English speakers, and that it should sound something like sammen, but she said, “Well, you say it your way and I’ll say it mine.”

The cartoon Brit in France turns up at a campsite and is looking for the office. “Essa kerr – eel ee ah – ern byoroe eecee?” If he’s staying, should the French let him labour in this way or should they teach him how to say it correctly? Surely a polite and helpful demonstration would be better for all concerned.

Shouldn’t we accept we still have a lot to learn and keep trying?

The English Pedant – The right to be wrong

Rod Yard-Kipplin

There was something on Facebook last week about common English errors – you might have seen it before, because we all see different things. It was a list including there, they’re and their etc, explaining what each one meant and asking something like “Is it really that difficult?”

It’s the kind of thing we look at every week on The English Pedant, but whereas here it is just pointing things out, that appeared to be one person’s one-off attempt to get it off their chest. This being the internet, where there is freedom to express an opinion, along with the messages of agreement there were two people who defended their right to write badly.

Oddly, both claimed to be “a writer”, and both said they could write perfectly well but chose not to do so on Facebook because, as one said, “this isn’t school”.

I’m not going to quote them verbatim, because for one thing the standard of their English in this context is likely to be an amalgam of being sloppy because it’s FB and wanting to show they are not morons. And the other thing is I would have to go hunting for the posts, and I’ve actually got more important things to do.

The point is, if these people are to believed, there are those who can write perfectly well but actually choose to write badly, which begs the question: is it easier to do something badly than to do it well? Is it easier to write a sentence with no punctuation than to put in the occasional comma? Can somebody’s brain be so tired that they don’t have the energy to select one from there, they’re and their?

Perhaps it’s a question of habit. On Thursdays on this blog you will find Kaycee’s Klasic Films , which I write in the character of a 30-something London woman, Siobhan Kennedy-Clark (her mates call her Kaycee), who didn’t have much of an education and can’t write to save her life. She is different from me in several ways: she’s a woman and I’m not, she’s younger than me, she’s unmarried, didn’t do well at school and all in all she looks at the world very differently, but her views and opinions come out in a way they wouldn’t if I was just being me.

Because I spend most of my time trying to produce clean, flowing, clear work, it pains me to deliberately make mistakes and I have to go through sentences and remove punctuation, because I’m in character and this woman doesn’t know the rules, so to be convincing I have to break them. Her paragraphs can be two or three sentences long and often the thread changes in the middle of them, whereas one of the purposes of the paragraph is to let the reader know you’ve changed tack. Siobhan’s writing is almost like stream-of-consciousness.

When I have bashed out 600 words as Siobhan, I read it through and see how it’s come out. And funnily enough, it’s not that hard to follow what she’s saying, sometimes to the extent that I find I’m slipping when I move on to the next post, which is meant to be written properly.

Here is how she would wrap up this post:

So what do you think is it okay to not try when your on Facebook cos it ain’t like being at school is it we had enough of that when we was kids and I no if I had of listened a bit more to the teachers I would of been able to do it without thinking but their’s no point worrying about it now is they’re what’s done is done and you no what I’m saying so who cares.


How faith came and got me


Many of my old friends know nothing of my Christian faith, because when I got to know them I was a mickey-taking unbeliever. I even once wrote a column for the Guernsey Press with some disparaging comments and skeptical smartarsery about the Ten Commandments.

That changed around 2005 when, while working as a journalist, I was asked to look into the Alpha Course, which is a one-evening-a-week get-together in small groups, in which anyone interested in finding out what Christianity is all about can go along and ask any question they like and be given an answer. It’s mainly for adults who have let the church pass them by and wonder if they’re missing something.

I phoned the head of the Church of England in Guernsey, the Dean, and he told me I should go and talk to Rev. Gerard Storey at Holy Trinity. So I phoned Gerard and arranged to meet him at the church the next day.

Standard procedure: I turned up with a photographer (who, as it happened, was a musician, as I am). We were both surprised and impressed to find a band’s gear set up in a corner at the front: drums, amplifiers, guitar, bass, a keyboard, microphones. Ady took some pictures and left, as press photographers do.

I interviewed Gerard for half an hour and it was funny; I just felt good listening to him and being in that environment. I decided there and then that I would go to the first meeting, which wasn’t part of the assignment. I was supposed to just find out what it was all about and write  a few hundred words on it. But actually going to a meeting would give me an extra insight, and I told myself it would be like going undercover, infiltrating an organization.

The meeting was out in a particularly beautiful part of the island, up a narrow, winding road that led to a cliff with a car park where people often went just to admire the view of the sea and some smaller islands.

This was Sue’s house, and I didn’t realize I had met her before.

It’s not that easy to find, but there in the darkness was a baseball-capped figure out in the road, looking for slow-moving vehicles with drivers peering at the houses. Under the cap was Gerard, the vicar of Holy Trinity.

Sue greeted us at the door and I recognized her immediately. I had met her briefly at my son’s school sports day and she had given me a warm, beaming smile and talked in a friendly way, while most of the other mums seemed reluctant to acknowledge my presence. Maybe they were in mum mode and afraid that talking to any man except their husband could be misconstrued. But that smile had made my day and here it was again.

There were about a dozen of us plus Gerard and a church pastoral worker called Wendy, who , on hearing my surname, announced  that she had known my Dad; and she had obviously liked him. She spent the evening introducing me as Eric. A pastoral worker, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an established member of a church who helps the minister out, doing things like visiting people who are sick or housebound, or who just need someone to talk to.

After a few weeks, Gerard dropped out and Wendy took over the meetings. She knew her stuff about the Bible and religion in general, and we all took a huge liking to her. She is far too modest and humble to accept this, but we hung on her every word as if she were the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was a mixed group of people: a painter and decorator, a dentist, a teacher, a couple of stay-at-home wives with high-earning husbands, a nurse and a hotel worker, among others. And this journalist, taking it all in and writing an extra article about it because I liked it and wanted to pass it on.

We grew into a tight-knit little group and I looked forward to Wednesday nights – but I still wasn’t going to church. I had grown up in a church-going family but had opted out at 17 and my parents soon stopped going too. It just didn’t mean anything to me.

I had drifted away, still nominally believing in God but only involving him when I needed something. When I was about 30 and living in London my younger brother had been a bit of a worry: great guy, good person, decent job, but he was lonely and life was passing him by. I prayed for him, but rather than having his life transformed by God, he had been stabbed to death. Not run over by a bus, but murdered violently and terrifyingly.

That was the last straw for me: how could there be a God if he allowed such a thing to happen? And in flagrant contravention of my prayers. I joined the mouthy majority with no respect for religion. And that is how I was when I had that first meeting with Gerard Storey. Then suddenly the cloud lifted.

But I still wasn’t going to church. I wasn’t going to muscle in; I needed to be invited. And one Wednesday night it happened. As we walked to our cars in the car park after a meeting at Wendy’s house, the painter and decorator, Mark, said, “Why don’t you come to church on Sunday?”


That was all it needed. The next year I was baptized (in the sea, beautiful day, warm as bathwater).

So that’s how it started for me. Everybody’s got a story – and that is mine.

The English Pedant – Why is it wrong to talk properly?


The Campaign Against Posh Accents (CAPA), which has been running unofficially and without that handy acronym, has led to the fact that it is increasingly rare to hear the crystal clear, honeyed tones of a Charlotte Green, to name  one of the most recent of a breed  of BBC Radio Four announcers. She might sound a bit like a Victorian governess, but is there really anything wrong with that?

It’s only British people who find it offensive in some inverted-snobbery way. People from other countries may find it slightly amusing, but they tend to like it.

You still hear voices of that type all over the BBC outside the UK (Katty Kay, for instance, talks to millions on BBC World News America in her nice-English-girl accent).  But you will never hear a classic English broadcaster’s voice on the youth-orientated Radio One, where a regional accent – and preferably a sloppy one – is regarded as having more credibility. Thus you will find accents from the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland, Belfast and particularly the Londonish south, but not the sound of the previously respected, educated English person.

There is a curious double standard in operation here. As the world celebrated the 90th birthday of Sir David Attenborough, was there a word of criticism of his accent? I certainly didn’t see or hear any. So if Attenborough is allowed to do it, why isn’t everyone else?

I’m not advocating a return to the stilted tones of a British newsreel of the 1950s, or the refined voices of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, because those accents died out in the 60s anyway, but is there really any need to pronounce past  like pasta rather than parst, if that’s how you were brought up to say it?

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it is my duty to allow students some leeway in their pronunciation. There is British English (or rather English English, because the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish sound very different), there’s American English, Canadian English, Australian English and variants from New Zealand and India to the Caribbean. They are all perfectly valid. As long as a student communicates clearly and unambiguously, that’s fine.

What I can’t (or won’t) do is change the way I sound. I don’t have a regional accent. There is such a thing as a Guernsey accent, but I don’t think I’ve got one. People refer to me as English and I don’t usually correct them unless we have the time and they have the language skills for my description of where and what Guernsey is.

I’ve been told that the way I pronounce water (waw-ter rather than wadda) sounds like an orgasm, but I have never thought that was a complaint.

Several students have told me they like my neutral accent, which they no doubt compare with what they hear on films and TV, largely from America. That, of course, is a big influence, and the popular British films such as the James Bond series give people an idea of how a Brit “should” sound. There has never been a “frightfully English” Bond, although Roger Moore had a bigger touch of posh about him than most. The supporting cast, such as Douglas Llewellyn’s Q and Judi Dench’s M, led the way in Englishness, but even then, they weren’t cartoon upper class twits, just ordinary British people. And Sean Connery, let’s not forget, is Scottish, so when he talks to “Blawfelt”, he doesn’t sound like David Cameron.

Given the global obsession with youth and the dumbing-down which proclaims, “my ignorance is just as good as your education”, how long before James Bond is played by a monosyllabic cockney goth who can’t make a th sound and is therefore a goff?


Jesus was no angel


One of the characteristics the non-religious find least appealing about Christians is the tendency to be goody-goodies. You see it all the time in their portrayal of priests in films and on TV. The popular image of the Anglican priest is as a quiet man (and it’s always a man) out of touch with the real world. He doesn’t drink, smoke or swear and he doesn’t like it when other people do.

Catholic priests, on the other hand, are commonly thought of as boozy men, and in recent years the slur of child abuse has crept into the description.

I remember my father, a basically clean-living Christian with more than his fair share of demons, discussing a local sex scandal. The man in question was a Methodist. “See,” my father glibly told my mother. “With Methodists it’s sex and with Catholics it’s drink.” As a bit of a boozer himself, he didn’t really have a leg to stand on, but most of us don’t let that get in the way, and he certainly didn’t.

We’re all fallible and we all have weaknesses. That doesn’t mean we’re not Christians or not worthy of being Christians.

The only person in history regarded as having never sinned is Jesus Christ. But was he a goody-goody?

I would say not. All we have to go on is what is in the Bible, and there is hardly a torrent of complaints about his behaviour in there.

However, he was known to get angry from time to time. When he kicked the money-changers out of the temple he threw their tables over. He didn’t say, “Listen, guys, this isn’t very nice. Please go and do it somewhere else.”

Jesus could also get fed up with people who didn’t understand or acknowledge what he was telling them.

When he was asleep in a bpat with some of the disciples and a storm blew up, they were naturally scared. He wasn’t, and he was disappointed that they should be.

After a while in the New Testament, he speaks mainly in parables, some of which even his closest followers had trouble understanding. But when challenged about it, he confided that some people were never going to get it anyway, so he had given up trying to talk to them in a straightforward way.

In Matthew 13, verse 11, we read:

 He replied, “The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.

I don’t know about you, but if he had given me that answer, I wouldn’t have been happy with it, because it’s about as clear as the parables themselves. It is open to interpretation. It is not a careful explanation designed to make sure his disciples understood and could share their knowledge.

Why did Jesus act this way? We don’t know. And most Christians gloss over it, because they don’t really have the answer but they don’t want to spoil the image of the perfect man.

Jesus was a complex character. He was capable of great kindness. He advocated forgiveness of sins and the writing off of debts which could simply not be paid.

But if he was there with you now, you wouldn’t want to ask him a stupid question, just in case you got one of his withering responses.

It is something that should provide comfort for us all. We sin; we make the same bad choices over and over again; we seem to have no power over our weaknesses, so we keep giving in to them without really trying.

If Jesus had been a wishy washy character, he wouldn’t have been able to relate to us. But he battled his way through life, making enemies as well as friends.

We are warned not to keep bad company, but Jesus took Matthew as a disciple, and Matthew was  a  tax collector, a member of a rather dodgy group of people who made a living not just through their wages but by taking more than people really needed to pay.

Even if Mary Magdalene really was a prostitute – and there is a school of thought that she wasn’t – it didn’t stop Jesus from welcoming her into his fold. And if she was labeled a prostitute by people who resented her being a strong, outspoken character, that was still a bold move by Jesus, because in those days women we meant to be hardly seen and certainly not heard.

He saw something in Matthew and Mary Magdalene, and we just have to do our best and hope he sees something in us too.

The English Pedant – When is an it really a they?

Do you ever find yourself deliberately avoiding a word or a phrase because you’re not sure it’s correct? If you do, it can mean only one thing: you think about what you say and write. You care. And that is an admirable quality in this day and age.

One such item that concerns me is this: when should a single entity be treated as a plural? In other words, when is an it a they?

This is the sort of thing that proofreaders have to make a decision on. You and I might refer to sports clubs and teams as they, but the stickler insists it should be it: Manchester United is one of the most famous clubs in the world of football. But when we talk about how Manchester United played in 2015/6, we have to conclude that they had a disappointing season (by their standards).

A different sort of stickler might permit the plural, but only in the third person, whereas a Man U supporter is likely to say we. “We haven’t been the same since Fergie retired .”

As a Chelsea fan, I would have to say to the Man U people, “I agree, but you haven’t had such a bad season as we have”. Chelsea have had an abysmal nine months. We are a shadow of our former selves. I can only hope we get back to normal next time.

We make this grammatical exception because we’re talking about a team. Similarly, when a team is representing a country, it becomes they. Brazil is a country in South America, but when its football team plays in the World Cup, it becomes a plural. Brazil are always a force to be reckoned with. So are Germany. As for the US, they haven’t quite got there so far, but they have put up a good showing several times.

You will notice that the person doing the objecting here is referred to as a stickler rather than a pedant. That is because this is The English Pedant, and for once The Pedant is on the side of the  transgressor. So I have permitted myself a bit of leeway with forms of address, and the stickler (more commonly a “stickler for detail”) is a close relative of the pedant, but perhaps a sub species.

What other single things do we refer to as they? Bands, groups, collections of musicians.

The same newspaper proofreader who used to  object to the sports department’s use of they for sports teams was also of the opinion that The Beatles was the most popular band in history, whereas most of us would agree that they were, not it was.

The late, lamented English DJ, John Peel, got himself caught up in this through being a thinker in a world where talking about bands and groups happened all the time. He came to question something that everyone else failed to notice: we say “this is the Rolling Stones, this is One Dimension, that was Bob Marley and the Wailers”. Peel eventually found himself saying “Those were The Crabs on the Crab label with I’m a Crab. And these are The Velvet Underground”.

So where do you draw the line? Perhaps we should all admit that we are pedants up to a point. Those of us who have come out already will not insist that the rest come out with their hands up, just that they  acknowledge that they too have standards.