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Introduction to "What Are We to Say?"
By Dan Wichlan
This is a brief essay constituting a clever exercise in language, logic and humor on the part of London. In it, he exposes the ungrammatical and illogical teaching practice of his day and even later, as I recall.
Charmian London in The Book of Jack London bibliography lists "Strange Verbs" as appearing in this same publication in the same month. (She incorrectly identifies the publication as The American Journal of Education.) However, she is most likely referring to the same article under a different title — perhaps a working or pre-publication title that London had used. Woodbridge does not list either title in his bibliography.
What Are We to Say?
By Jack London
(Journal of Education (Boston), July 13, 1899
How often our grammatic nerve has rebelled as we listened to school children going through the multiplication tables. And surely we have had many a hot dispute over the right or wrong of the same. Which is correct? Are we to say "two and two are four," or "two and two is four?"
Taken as an arithmetical proposition, it is no more right to say "two and two are four" than it is to say "two is four and two is four." Thus, in such an instance, the verb should be in the singular, and the correct expression is "two and two is four."
But a change is at once manifest when we understand the two and the four to apply to something. Thus two apples and two apples make four apples, or are four apples. At first, this explanation may appear incorrect; but we can readily prove it by conversing the proposition: "Four are two and two." Notice the jar on the grammatic nerve. But see the harmony when we add to it in this manner: "Four apples are two apples and two apples."
Another case in point is where the teacher makes her pupils say "twice one are two." "Twice one" is certainly singular, and can only take a singular verb. "Twice one is two" is correct. When a child says "four times four are sixteen," converse it and you obtain the absurdity "Sixteen are four times four".
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