With so much uncertainty in our socially distanced world, everyone is searching for answers. Fortunately, when it comes to grammar, answers are both available and, as presented here, 100% correct.

This week, let’s dig into the mailbag.

Should companies be written as “it” or “they”? I think it should be “it,” but I’ve been grading Wharton student essays, and they are all writing “they.” — Julia T., Center City

In Whartonworld, corporations are people, my friend, so of course those students would use “they.” In the real world, corporations are singular, immovable behemoths that wield outsize economic influence and demand the tribute of a singular pronoun. Use “it” and smack the Wharton kids if they give you any lip.

I don’t know if it’s grammatically problematic, but I’d swear “weaponize” wasn’t a word until recently and now it’s a word that’s everywhere. — Robert G., Glenolden

It’s not problematic and it’s not especially new: The Oxford English Dictionary dates weaponize to 1957, when it was used by Wernher von Braun, the talented NASA engineer who also happened to be a Nazi. Which, yes, is problematic.

Isn’t the term “co-conspirator” blatantly redundant? The “con” in “conspirator” means “with.” I think this all started in the ’70s with the conspirators around Nixon. — Ralph V., West Chester

Here’s another one that’s older than you think: It originated more than a century earlier, in 1863, and was attached to another unfortunate American politician: “Jefferson Davis and his co-conspirators” are referenced in Richard Hopwood Thornton’s An American Glossary, which defines the word simply as “a fellow conspirator.”

But your question is trickier than it looks, and the answer differs depending on whether the conspiring is done transitively or intransitively. Intransitive verbs don’t need a direct or indirect object to work: He ran, she jumped, they conspired. No objects are needed for any of those examples to function, and the conspiring has to be done by at least two people. In that usage, yes, co-conspirator would be redundant. But transitive verbs need something to receive that action: He took the car, she loves spaghetti. When conspire is a transitive verb, the definition is slightly different — in this usage, it can simply mean “plot,” but you can’t stop there: You have to conspire to do something. An individual can conspire to cover up the Watergate break-in, for example. That person can also have co-conspirators helping in that action — each one a conspirator in their own right.

There’s one thing that’s changed, though: Once upon a time, that conspiring was enough to bring down a president.

The Independence Blue Cross slogan “LIVE FEARLESS” has been bothering me. Shouldn’t the tagline be “LIVE FEARLESSLY”? — Art H., Harleysville

On the one hand, this is a rough week to pick on anyone in the health-care industry. On the other hand, rules are rules.

There exist a few scenarios under which “LIVE FEARLESS” could maybe be legit: 1) If they were trying to say “live in a fearless manner,” and were just being extra concise about it. 2) If “live” could somehow be used as a noun, and “fearless” could be an adjective modifying it. 3) If “fearless” were a more concise spelling of the adverb “fearlessly.” But they weren’t, it can’t, and it isn’t. So instead, one of our city’s biggest corporations has its grammatically incorrect slogan smeared all over town.

Come to think of it, maybe it would be better if corporations were people. With any luck, a couple of those people might be copy editors.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and etymological fallacies to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.


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