I was deeply chagrined by a letter I received recently from an old friend and colleague, Lincoln Haynes of the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
"Jack," it said. " 'A couple has. . . ?'
"Say it ain't so!"
Haynes referred to a recent column of mine that began, "For several months a young couple has been working on an old house across the street from ours."
Haynes continued: "Would you say, 'The couple was married and left on its honeymoon'?
"Maybe Fred Holley's stylebook has it different." (Holley is the former editor of The Times' stylebook.)
"Merry Christmas," Haynes went on. "You is a nice couple."
That "You is a nice couple" did it to me.
I couldn't believe I had written "a young couple has been working." For years I have known that couple is a plural noun, guided by such works as Roy Copperud's "American Usage and Style."
Copperud says, "In reference to people couple, like pair, takes a plural verb. The couple are (not is) honeymooning." Copperud adds that Bryant says either the singular or plural verb is acceptable--whoever Bryant is.
Haynes also enclosed a paragraph from the Associated Press stylebook, which says, "Couple. When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns. The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday on their honeymoon. In the sense of a single unit, use a singular verb. Each couple was asked to give $10."
As I say, though, I could not believe that I had written, "a young couple has been working on an old house." So I called up the disc on which I had written that column and found that, indeed, I had not written the sentence that almost ruined Haynes' holidays.
I wrote the following sentence: "For several months a young couple have been working on an old house across the street from ours on Mt. Washington."
I am obliged to assume that some editor along the way, believing that the sentence called for the singular verb, altered it to read "has been working."
A small error, perhaps, but it almost ruined Linc Haynes' Christmas, not to mention mine. It is hard to forgive. That editor must have been a pupil of Bryant, whoever he is.
In my column about the couple remodeling the old house, I quoted the young man, William De Jong, as saying that in the past few months most of their new Mt. Washington neighbors had come to their door to say hello. On the other hand, he said, in the eight years he had lived in a house in Pasadena, near the Rose Bowl, only one neighbor had called.
In response to that sentiment I have received the following letter from James R. Pratley of Rancho Bernardo, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger.
"Your column today, 'No Fences Make Good Neighbors,' brings back fond memories of the way it used to be with regard to newcomers in the neighborhood.
"Back in my youth, and continuing on the ranger station, it was standard practice to call upon the newcomers with a pot of coffee and cookies, to not only introduce ourselves, but to make them welcome, offering our phone or other services that might not be available in the early stages of moving.
"But unfortunately, today's hectic lifestyle precludes this most gentle and neighborly gesture. Thank you for reminding me that it still is practiced and that I am not alone in this friendly attitude."
My wife and I have lived on Mt. Washington for 45 years, yet most people we meet, no matter where they live, do not know where Mt. Washington is. In a way I don't mind. It means fewer casual intrusions. On the other hand, no one likes to live in a place that has no identity.
If you ever drive out the Pasadena Freeway you must have noticed that Spanish castle-like structure that rises from a hilltop north of Dodger Stadium. That's the Southwest Museum, and the hill is Mt. Washington.
It has a grammar school, a small park and many small homes, some of them quaint, most of them set amid luxuriant vegetation. At the top of the hill stands the former Mt. Washington Hotel, now headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship. We couldn't ask for better neighbors. As for ambience, almost every evening during baseball season we hear the organist at Dodger Stadium playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
The hill has many species of birds, including the common grackle, which is indeed rare in these parts. However, one individual grackle has been sighted on the hill by none other than yours truly.
Its like has not been seen here again.
I'm glad that the betrothed young couple, William and Michelle, will be joining us in our happiness here on the hill.
* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.