An ‘I’ for an ‘i’

Pic by David Blackwell

I HAD a couple of fascinating questions from reader Brett G Marshall the other day that gave me the perfect excuse to indulge my passion for plain English.

Brett wanted to know – “without sounding too stodgy” – why it’s the only language to give capital letter status to the personal pronoun and also “who gave  newspaper) sports writers the right to ignore the rules of agreement between verb and subject”.

They’re far from stodgy questions, Brett – we word nerds find language puzzles endlessly entertaining.

As far as the personal pronoun’s concerned, its derivation can apparently be put down to simple expediency. In Old English, “I” was originally “ich” or “ik”. Over time it was reduced to the single “i”, but it was difficult to read – manuscripts were handwritten, of course – and it was often mistaken for part of the previous or next word.

To quote from the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “The form ich or ik, especially before vowels, lingered in northern England until c1400 and survived in southern dialects until 18c. The dot on the “small” letter -i- began
to appear in 11c Latin manuscripts, to distinguish the letter from the stroke of another letter (such as -m- or -n-).”

As for sports writers and collective nouns, well, that’s a distinctively journalistic device.

Brett gives the example of a front page story carrying the headline: Germany goes to war with Poland and, on the back page: Germany are through to the semi-finals.

Talking about teams can get extremely messy. It sounds downright awkward to say something like: “Germany did well. It said it was happy with the result.” So, once again, expediency rules.

And I’ve got news for you, Brett – the same device is starting to spill over into news pages in English language newspapers around the world.

As late style guru Leslie Sellers – a mentor of mine who I met when I was just starting my career and he was coming to the end of his – said in his classic newspaper guide Keeping up the Style, the hard-and-fast rules that direct journalists often lead to an unforgivable mess, “because the rules lead them into sounding wrong”.

Leslie was all for changing them and, at last, commonsense is starting to prevail.

You wouldn’t – well, you shouldn’t – say: “The couple lives in Durban. It’s a great city, it says.”

Instead, you’d say: “The couple live in Durban. It’s a great city, they say.”

As long as the verb agrees with the subject, we’re all on the same page, so to speak. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch.)



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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, April 17th, 2011 at 10:36 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Chris Godfrey says:

    The latest oddities that harrass me are continuous use of any country’s name “as is” such as “the Germany coach” or “the Japan team” “the England roads” etc….is this to ease the language for “furriners”???

    • stevieg says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Chris. Can’t see any justification at all. We occasionally have it in headlines – ‘Libya rebels fight back’, for example. We’re so constrained by space in those cases that we have no choice but to let them go through, much as it pains me.

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