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Grammatical Interlude

[ Posted Thursday, March 1st, 2012 – 17:52 UTC ]

Normally, I don't write two of these "lightweight" articles in a row, so you'll have to excuse me for doing so today (following yesterday's amusing look backwards through twentieth-century American history). But I do have what I consider a valid excuse for this slacking off: I am spending a lot of time today (and tonight, and tomorrow) preparing.... (cue drumroll)... the 200th Volume of the "Friday Talking Points" column. Woo hoo! Since we're about to get picky about grammar here today, I can finally admit that the enumeration should really be identified as the "Issue" rather than "Volume," and had I been on top of such details from the beginning, I could have more conventionally marked the passage of the column's yearly anniversary (September 14) by restarting the odometer each year ("Volume 5, Issue 1" for instance). Since I wasn't that foresighted, we are where we are... one day away from watching that odometer turn over double-zeroes for only the second time.

But enough of this preliminary blather and shameless self-promotion. Let's move along to our pet grammatical peeve of the day. One wonders, when writing that previous sentence, whether that should be "grammatic" or "grammatical," but one is going to trust one's gut feeling on this matter, hope one's gut is correct, and press on. Ahem.

We are entering a phase of the Republican nominating process where the actual delegate counts are garnering more and more press attention. Because of this, the wonky details of the contests themselves -- be they caucus or primary -- are being scrutinized more closely than they (so far) have been.

Which brings us to our point: the phrase "winner take all" is just wrong. Many news and polling organizations have begun using this phrase to differentiate states which award all their delegates in one bloc to the winner of the state vote from states which apportion their delegates proportionally. But the phrase is seriously lacking an "s" in there, somewhere.

This is basic subject/verb agreement. A winner (singular) takes all the delegates. If it was a contest between competitive teams, then you could properly say that the winners (plural) take all. But the subject has to be plural in order to use the plural form of "to take" (which has no "s").

Try it with a different subject, if you can't immediately see this. Say you were writing a journalistic piece about a circus, and describing the entry to the show. You could say, for instance, "a clown takes all the tickets at the gate," or perhaps "two clowns take all the tickets at the gate." What would be improper would be to say "a clown take all the tickets at the gate." Reading that last phrase aloud should easily prove this -- it just sounds wrong. As it should, because according to the rules of English (or even American) grammar, it is wrong.

The only possible excuse is but a thin reed to cling to -- the imperative. This would require punctuation, and it would require the winner to be addressed directly. For example (in the style of a television game show announcer): "Romney has won in Arizona, and the state responds by saying: Winner -- take all your delegates!" which could then be shortened in a news piece to: "winner, take all". But this is really not believable, for two small reasons: the punctuation. In the first place, some sort of break (comma, dash, colon, take your pick...) is necessary after "winner" to indicate that the word is being used as a label for a person who is being directly addressed. It really should be capitalized too, in such a case, but I digress. The second reason is that when using the imperative case, the normal indicator is an exclamation point at the end. As in the cry "Everybody get out!" when a fire is discovered in a building, for instance. Since punctuation is never attached to the phrase "winner take all" in any of its common uses today, this entire argument is nothing more than a red herring drawn across the righteous path which leads to correct grammar usage.

To sum up: One winner takes all the delegates. Many winners take all the delegates. But one winner cannot "take" all the delegates. The proper phrase for a single winner of a primary or caucus winning all the delegates is "winner takes all" and this phrase can never omit the crucial "s" from the verb, at least not in proper writing.

I sincerely hope editors of political commentary (and even editors of condensed phrasing on political websites) take this to heart in the coming days and weeks. Because this editor, for one, takes umbrage at the continuing misuse of this rather basic English phrase.


-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


21 Comments on “Grammatical Interlude”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    In the first place, some sort of break (comma, dash, colon, take your pick...) is necessary ... The second reason is that when using the imperative case, the normal indicator is an exclamation point at the end. As in the cry "Everybody get out!"

    Don't you mean "Everybody, get out!" or "Everybody: get out!"?

    The actual grammatical form that's in "winner-take-all" is the subjunctive. We don't use subjunctive much. The only familiar one is "were", as in "if I were a rich man". Note that it's the same as the plural form. But if you were being so pseudo-Shakespearian as to try using the subjunctive form of another verb, you wouldn't say "I command that he goes ...". You would say "I command that he go ...".

    In looking for a helping-verb-free example of subjunctive in the wild, as it were, I find "Would that he stay forever . . .".

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    I sincerely hope editors of political commentary (and even editors of condensed phrasing on political websites) take this to heart

    Ok, let's try specifically for "he take". Here we go: "would that he take from the richness of the selfsame vineyard an offering ..."

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    "Can you imagine suggesting to le Carré that he give up espionage?”

    Not "that he gives".

  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    Then there's "will he, nill he", now written as "willy-nilly". Not willsy-nillsy, as it would be if it had been "wills he, nills he".

  5. [5] 
    Kevin wrote:

    And I thought I didn't have a life...D

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    But isn't subjunctive usually dependent on the sentence around it? How can it be used as a standalone phrase?

    I assume you're talking about present subjunctive, because past and future would be a different form of "take" ("that winner took" or "if winner were to take").

    But I still say it's tough to make a case for a standalone subjunctive phrase of only three words without the context of a full sentence.

    The full sentence, I supposed, would be: "X is a state where the winner takes all the delegates." That's where the short form comes from, at least the way I was interpreting it.

    Good point about the comma, though, although "everyone" is a collective address, where as "winner" is singular. So, if I was speaking directly to someone, I might say "Frank, get out!" whereas "Everyone get out!" still seems better without a comma, because "everyone" specifies who "get out" applies to, rather than being a direct address. In other words, I think I chose a bad example.

    Anyway, please provide a stand-alone example which does not rely on: "if", "that", or "would", as all of your above examples do.


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    I should admit that I don't really know that it's subjunctive. It sounds subjunctive to me, but that's no substitute for scholarship. I don't know whether anyone has done the scholarship, and neither does the first relevant google hit:

    On that page they mention the phrase dog-eat-dog, i.e. not dog-eats-dog, nor dogs-eat-dogs, and suggest that it's really the infinitive. Lousy ending-deficient language.

  8. [8] 
    dsws wrote:

    Ah, [6] showed up while I was typing [7].

    Anyway, please provide a stand-alone example which does not rely on: "if", "that", or "would", as all of your above examples do.

    On second thought, I think it perfectly well could be the infinitive not the subjunctive, as in "let the winner take all".

    In "Gin a body meet a body / Comin' thro the rye", that's infinitive, isn't it?

    All I know for sure is that "winner takes all" is absolutely painful to read. It's just viscerally wrong, even though the pattern seems to only have the two examples.

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    You forgot "willi nilhi." My OED says it could have just as easily have come from "will I, nill I" or even "will ye, nill ye".

    In the "I" and "you" ("ye") forms, "will" would be correct rather than "wills".

    Or even from the form "be I/he/ye willing" rather than "I will" or "you will."

    Also, isn't "he wills" only applicable for the exercise of the will ("he wants" or even "he tries to make" would be close), whereas "Will he?" is the correct question, when asking if someone is going to do something or not. "Will" is a much slipperier verb that "take" in other words, with far more possible meanings.

    But thanks for the trip through the OED. Heh.


  10. [10] 
    dsws wrote:

    "Winner takes all" is wrong.

    It's just wrong: not morally wrong per se, not aesthetically wrong per se, not logically wrong per se, but just wrong. It's the wrong that all of those come from. Something in me rebels at the thought of even having to give a reason.

    Is this what it feels like to be a right-winger?

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    OK, the "let the winner take all" sounds pretty good, actually.

    However, it could just be wrong, and we've all read it so many times as "winner take all" that we're inured to the incorrect usage of it. New phrases are often coined this way, so that's another possibility.

    Dang it, this was supposed to be a fun and easy column, and now you've made me think.

    My English, truth be told, is totally gut-feeling. My gut, however, is better than most as I had two teachers for parents, and was corrected on proper usage all the time, growing up.

    Anyway, I gotta get to work on the FTP thing...



  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws [10] -

    Aha! We arrive at the crux of the matter, Sir.

    It's your gut versus my gut, with drawn style guides, at ten paces. At dawn, of course.


    I still say "the winner takes all" is entirely correct, but concede that your "let the winner take all" is a strong contender as well.


  13. [13] 
    dsws wrote:

    My gut, however, is better than most as I had two teachers for parents, and was corrected on proper usage all the time, growing up.

    Ha! Two teachers for parents here too, but my hereditary language instincts were so good they never had to correct me. **draws a pair of style guides from their holsters**

    I'll be asleep at dawn. My circadian rhythm is all messed up from a minor bout of gastrointestinal distress a couple days ago. Soda (or pop, where I grew up) was easy to absorb, but left me wired when I should have been sleeping.

    I'm not finding the exact phrase in either of the style guides I have on hand, but they do illuminate the subjunctive vs infinitive question. The Oxford Companion to the English Language describes relevant use of the bare infinitive (i.e. without "to") specifically as occurring with the helping verbs, whereas it mentions the imperative-sounding combinations "God save the queen" and "Heaven forbid" as the formulaic subjunctive. Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says, "The subjunctive is preserved like a fossil in a number of fixed formulas — so be it, be that as it may, Heaven forbid, come what may, suffice it to say, and so forth". They also have a couple other examples I can list if need be.

    OED, for those who don't have one at home, describes winner-take(s)-all as an attributive phrase, and notes the occurrence of both versions. "Take" shows up in examples from 1969 and 1972, and "takes" is in examples from 1973 and 1978. They also have versions that stand as a clause: from 1972 there's "In California, winner takes all" and from 1976, "The outcome was that winner took all".

    I agree that if you make it a clause like that, it should have be changed to takes or took. It's only in its role as an adjective phrase that it has its natural affinity for the formulaic subjunctive. Of course, I recognize that by asserting this affinity I'm denying the strictly formulaic nature of the so-called formulaic subjunctive.

    But OED is the definitive resource only for descriptive purposes. Webster is more prescriptive, but I don't have one.

  14. [14] 
    dsws wrote:

    You're right about willy-nilly. I shot from the hip with that one, and misfired.

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:


    And I thought I didn't have a life...D

    Ditto... :D


  16. [16] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Ha! Two teachers for parents here too

    me three. am i the only one who went into the family business?

  17. [17] 
    Annui wrote:

    Maybe if winner take all is written as
    winner-take-all to describe a style of organising a competition of some sort, or an election, would it be acceptable? The phrase reminds me of
    "Devil take the hindmost" - which I suppose is a command (or a wish) though and should have an exclamation mark.

  18. [18] 
    dsws wrote:

    Hey, one with "take". And it's another sort-of command, sort-of wish, which definitely seems to fit the same pattern as "God save the queen" and "heaven forbid". The difference is "the": I think we hear "the Devil take the hindmost" about as often as we hear it without the "the".

  19. [19] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Annui -

    First, let me welcome you to the site! Your first comment was held for moderation, but from now on you should be able to post comments and have them appear instantly.

    The only caveat: don't post more than one link per comment, or it will automatically be held for moderation. This is to cut down on comment spam.

    As for your point, you know I was thinking along the same lines: maybe the phrase just needs hyphens. After all, "dog-eat-dog" is rarely written without hyphens, and the hyphenation seems to put the phrase into a nebulous area in grammar, where rules are more easily broken.

    I guess I could live with "a winner-take-all state," in other words...


  20. [20] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    OK, where'd you find the phrase in the OED? I looked under "winner" maybe I should have looked under "take"?

    All I know is, the entry for "will" was like eight pages long... that's a lot of reading with the magnifying glass! Luckily, I checked "willy-nilly" first...



  21. [21] 
    dsws wrote:

    It's under "winner", at least in the 1991 edition.

    Hyphenation seems pretty optional to me, in a formulaic phrase like this. I guess I somewhat favor the hyphenated version.

    Since I've already agreed to have the verb conjugated in the uses where it would be unambiguously unhyphenated, it sounds as though harmony has been restored to the unwritten style sheet of

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