by Cherie Tucker
In today’s paper, a quote ended with:
“Therefore, we’ve fallen flat on our face.”
When a sentence like that came up in one of my classes, someone asked if it shouldn’t be “flat on our faces.” The conversation then continued like this:
“How many faces do they have?”
“Maybe they shared one.”
“So do people shake their heads or their head?”
"Does whoever they are have more than one head then, or do they own that head jointly?”
“It could be read either way.”
“Yeah, but what’s right?”
We argued like this for some time, looking everywhere in The Gregg Reference Manual, our textbook, for the answer, to no avail.· Then someone said, “Call Bill.”
“Bill” was William A. Sabin, the brilliant author of the Gregg, who had become my telephone friend over the years and who kindly included me among those he thanked for comments and suggestions in his last book.· On the rare occasion when the class was truly stumped or wanted further discussion of the answer we found in the Gregg, I would call Bill, and he would enlighten us with a clear answer.
When I called him about the face vs. faces question, however, he said the reason we couldn’t find the answer in the Gregg was that there is no answer to this one. Apparently either is correct, and it’s up to the reader (or listener) to decide what was meant.
Except for that one, we’ve always managed to find the answers in Bill’s magic book by consulting its amazingly easy-to-use index without needing to bother him. But should another conundrum arise, we will be on our own. We lost Bill Sabin on January 1, 2009, two days after he finished the 11th Edition (now called the Tribute Edition). Still my first reaction to those grammar arguments while people are looking through his book for the answers is, let’s call Bill. That we can’t has broken our hearts.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.