“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door…”

Is “government” singular or plural? If we lived in Great Britain we might have more flexibility, since there are nouns that look singular but are grammatically plural because of their meaning; in the U.S. we can cavort a bit, having some nouns that are singular in form but are singular or plural for the verbs’ sake depending on the unity or disunity of their component parts, “jury” being one of note. But in the U.S., “government” can’t be plural—not even the government we’ve got now, regardless of appearances. And my student intended “government” to be singular: note the singular verb. Well, maybe “intended” isn’t what I mean; perhaps I should say my student had readily internalized the -s form of the verb to follow “government”: government is, government has, government says, government wants, etc.

But then we come to the crisis of the pronoun. In this case my student cannot use the explanation, or excuse, that she couldn’t say “he” without excluding the women: no one I know has ever substituted “he” OR “she” for “government.” “It,” the proper choice here, carries no gender issues. But maybe my student was rightly uneasy about picturing a “thing” in the place of government—surely government is a human institution, not a thing. The only other explanation, of course, is that the student didn’t think about the pronoun at all, but just wrote “their” because, to many in the rising generations, “they” is the ONLY pronoun. For people, don’t use pronouns at all: just use their names, over and over. “Jane is worried because Jane can’t convince Robert that Robert shouldn’t quit Robert’s job, and if Robert quit, that would mean that Jane and Robert would have to live on Jane’s salary.” Okay, I just made that one up. But truly, I do get whole paragraphs that use maybe two personal pronouns, the writers obsessively repeating and repeating and repeating the noun instead.

Meanwhile, of course, this plural entity hops around on only one foot, which it inserts in doorways like the Fuller Brush Man.

Not much of a blooper to devote a blog post to, eh? Okay, here’s the whole thing, and you’ll see that the government is NOT the Fuller Brush Man, having a more challenging use for that foot:

“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door and open Pandora’s box.”

Love it?

When I was in junior high, the grammar textbook was called “Warriner’s.” I’m sure the title was longer, but everyone including the teacher referred to it as Warriner’s. That was back in the days when textbook designers spent very little time making the pages look inviting, or “fun.” Most of the illustrations in Warriner’s were diagrams of sentences. But on one page of the arid desert of print was a sudden cartoon—refreshingly, set in the ocean. A raft floated on the waves, and on that raft stood a boy scratching his head (question mark in the air above) and looking at a signpost on the raft, one of those intersection signs with arrows pointing in different directions. The caption: “He came to a crossroads in the sea of life.” The lesson? Mixed metaphors. I loved that boy. I loved the fact that he had somehow found himself floating on a raft in the middle of the sea. I loved that the raft had a road sign. I loved his quizzical expression. Most of all, of course, I loved finding a cartoon in my textbook—the same delight I experienced in my college physics class when I saw the Cousin Itt cartoon among the formulae and diagrams in my text.

And my student here is mixing her metaphors. As a result, I long for the kindly cartoonist—if only Chas Addams were still alive!—who would draw for me a government-type guy (census-taker is probably the right image, but Uncle Sam might be a cute choice too) standing at a door, a housewifely Pandora (“call me Dory, dearie” she might tell her friends) leaning on the inside of the door trying to shut it. Mr. Government has inserted his right foot (okay, I’ll grant him two feet; and the choice of right foot is determined only by the design of most front doors, not politics!), the leg of which is preternaturally long and flexible, through the small gap. Behind Dory on the floor sits a box, and Mr. Government is using his foot (shod? bare, toes eagerly flexing?) to pry open that box. Mwah-ha-hah!

I can’t quite figure out why the government would want to open Pandora’s Box. We do hear politicians warn from time to time that various proposed legislative acts might, or would, open Pandora’s Box, but such warnings are meant to deter, not encourage. That box was full of all the ills of the world. Lurking at the bottom, we’re told, was Hope (can’t be totally negative here!), but I’d hate to think that the only way to acquire hope was to let all hell break loose first.

My student clearly is critical of such tactics, as should we all be. I wish I could remember what kinds of situations she believed the government “uses” to set up the door/box scenario, but the image so completely filled my mind that there was no room left for contexts.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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