or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 04, 2005


You wouldn't think subject-verb agreement would be a particularly tricky thing to manage in English. It's usually pretty clear when a subject is singular and when it's plural, and it isn't any great challenge to craft a verb to match. But as usual, English has a way of making things difficult.

I ran across three problematic sentences on websites in the last day or so that gave me pause. One of them is completely wrong, but understandably so: another is technically correct and yet feels wrong; and the third is just sloppy.

Our first example comes from James Randi's invaluable website; here's today's commentary, where we find the following shovelful of crap:

The atomic structure of the outer shell of The Tesla Purple Energy Shield TM has been altered, allowing the atoms and electrons of the aluminum to resonate in tune with the basic energy that causes the particles of every atom and molecule to be in constant vibration. Once the structure of the atoms of the aluminum have [sic] been altered, they will remain in that condition — possibly indefinitely. The plates create a positive energy field around themselves that will penetrate any material substance by osmosis.

Mr. Randi has thoughtfully tagged the offending verb with a [sic]. The problem, of course, is that the subject of the sentence is "structure", which is singular, and yet the writer has used a plural verb. It shouldn't have happened, and any careful writer would never have made the mistake, but it's clear that the gravitational pull of the plural noun ("atoms of the aluminum") confused the writer into using that plural verb. I don't usually expect too much in the way of grammar from such woo-woo nonsense, though.

The second example comes from this this Slate.com article about the new movie Cinderella Man. Here's the sentence in question:

Schaap writes that, on the night of the Braddock fight, "Of the 30,000 people in the Bowl, virtually everyone except the Jews was cheering for Braddock."

Well. To my ear the sentence is undeniably jarring, with a plural noun ("Jews") immediately preceding a singular verb ("was"), and yet it's clear that the singular verb belongs to the self-evidently singular noun "everyone" (that is, "every one"); it's correct, and yet it feels wrong. The only way around this, in my humble opinion, is to have rewritten the sentence to skirt the awkwardness: "...only the Jews were not cheering for Braddock", perhaps, or "There were 30,000 people in the Bowl, and all except the Jews were cheering for Braddock". (If a construction pulls me out of the flow of the text, then I automatically assume there's something wrong with it; that's certainly the case with the quoted sentence.)

And my third example comes from Slate as well, from this article about military recruiting:

Both active-duty and reserve recruiting has suffered.

Now that should never have happened. The sentence has two clues in it--the plural markers "both" and "and"--which indicate that the subject must take a plural verb. How on earth did a singular verb creep into the sentence? There's just no excuse.

I want to note again that I really don't go hunting for these things. That would be pathetic. They lunge up at me as I read.


Anonymous Septimus said...

Did you ever reveal the answer to the hair dye clue?

Sunday, November 25, 2007 1:33:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home