The Last Word : Word Wonk
The other day my husband and I were on the beach, enjoying a quick dip at the end of a busy Sunday, and we got into a rather intense conversation about subject verb agreement when the word "neither" is used. Is it plural, or singular? Now this question had been posed to me by a friend, and I'd fumbled the answer, resorting to a quick check online at one of those marvelous grammar sites, in this case Grammar Girl.
At some point in our discussion, I wondered what anyone sitting nearby would think of a seemingly normal looking middle-aged couple having such a discussion, with wide gestures and a lot of head shaking. Probably weird. Then I thought, well, if we were doctors, wouldn't it be possible that we'd be sitting here discussing the relative merits of medical procedures? I do it this way, you do it that way. Well, we're in the English language biz. One of us uses it, the other teaches it.
Thinking about this, the word "wonk" came to mind, as in policy wonk, as in Al Gore. What a great word. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes the noun, etymology unknown, as: a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field. Wikipedia's dictionary allows that a wonk is a 'persnickety person overly focused on details; a nerd'; more flatteringly, an overly studious or hard working person. The last reminds me that anyone can submit definitions to Wikipedia and I suspect that some wonk did just that.
Wonks are generally perceived to be people obsessed with the minutia of fine print, being the people who not only read it, but write it. As the definition suggests, these are people who understand the reasons over which hairs are split.
But I'm not sure that wonks aren't just people who might also be called buffs. A buff is someone who takes great pleasure in informing himself about something that interests him: trains, boats, airplanes, the Civil War. The buff immerses himself (and I'm risking a sexist observation by suggesting that most of the bone fide buffs I have known have been men) in the details of a topic - the schedules, nuts and bolts, supply inventories, or tonnage of his area of interest.
Then there are mavens. I had to hunt for the definition of that one as it turns out that maven, taken from the Yiddish word mevyn, didn't even appear in Miriam Webster until after 1975. As my home dictionaries are a 1939 unabridged library dictionary and a 1974 Collegiate, I had to, once again, resort to the web to get my information. To be a maven is to be a trusted expert in the field who wishes to impart that wisdom, e.g. William Safire is a self-described language maven; or, in a definition related more closely to the buff and wonk, an expert or knowledgeable enthusiast.
But getting back to that subject/verb agreement. The confusion stemmed from identifying the correct tense when the word neither is used. Neither, as a word, is a slippery devil. It can take the role of adjective, pronoun or adverb. The sentence in question: "Neither Gene nor I have-or has-the expertise to be a trapeze artist." (I paraphrase to protect the innocent.) If you start breaking the sentence down in to component parts, Gene has or I have. Does neither take the place of the conjunctive combination of the two people? So is it singular or plural? We're entering wonk-dom here.
My answer: "Gene and I don't have the expertise." When in doubt, change the sentence. Reckon I'm more a buff than a wonk, and certainly not a maven - and I fully expect commentary from true wonks who will be able to parse this example without breaking a sweat.