Author Topic: How the mass media can lick errors in subject-verb agreement for good  (Read 8421 times)

Joe Carillo

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Subject-verb agreement being a very basic rule in English sentence construction, it’s but natural to expect news and feature writers never to bungle it in their stories. It’s a rule that they should scrupulously observe as a matter of honor. This is because when their violations of that rule get too frequent and too flagrant for comfort, it becomes painfully obvious that the problem isn’t just due to carelessness or proofreading oversight. Those grammar violations give readers the feeling that the violators—whether writer or editor—never really got to learn and to understand what the subject-verb agreement rule is all about in the first place.

Take a look at these glaring subject-verb agreement violations that I found this weekend in two of the leading Metro Manila broadsheets: 

(1) Philippine Daily Inquirer: Wrong verb form for a long noun phrase

Quote
New marine species found off Batangas

MANILA, Philippines—A new species of sea slug and other “undiscovered” life in the rich waters off Batangas province promises not only medicinal value but also a shot at preserving the country’s threatened biodiversity.

“We’ve been on the field for only four, five days, but my team has already made new discoveries. And I have been studying the Anilao, Batangas, area for 20 years,” said Dr. Terry Gosliner of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Let’s scrutinize that lead sentence above. What’s its subject? Its subject is, of course, the noun phrase “a new species of sea slug and other ‘undiscovered’ life in the rich waters off Batangas province,” which happens to be also the doer of the action in that sentence. It’s actually a compound noun phrase with two noun phrases added together—“a new species of sea slug” and “other ‘undiscovered’ life in the rich waters off Batangas province.” So what we have here is a subject that’s in the plural form, and one that obviously needs the operative verb to be in the plural form. As it turns out, however, the writer evidently thought that the subject was the proper noun “Batangas province” alone. She used the singular form “promises” instead of the plural form “promise”—or perhaps the original manuscript had the correct usage but the editor decided to reverse it.

The subject-verb disagreement in that sentence therefore needs to be corrected as follows:

“MANILA, Philippines—A new species of sea slug and other “undiscovered” life in the rich waters off Batangas province promise not only medicinal value but also a shot at preserving the country’s threatened biodiversity.”

What seems to have happened that ultimately led to the serious grammar gaffe? My suspicion is that the writer thought that the singular proper noun “Batangas province,” being most proximate to the verb “promise,” was its logical subject. She therefore wrongly decided that the verb “promise” should take its singular form “promises”—or else, as I indicated earlier, the editor must have made that wrong decision for her. As I’ll explain very shortly, it’s not proximity to a particular noun that determines whether a verb should take the singular or plural form. Before that, though, let’s now take a look at the second subject-verb agreement violation that I found, this time in another leading broadsheet.

(2) The Manila Times: Wrong verb form for a simple compound subject

Quote
Manila, Taipei set task force vs. global crimes

THE Philippines and Taiwan has set up a joint task force that will start negotiating judicial cooperation, which is seen to pave the way for the establishment of a mechanism to fight interterritorial crimes.

The task force, which was established late on Tuesday, was designed to launch bilateral talks on building a mechanism that would help in the fight against international crimes like drug trafficking.

The subject-verb disagreement in the lead sentence above is more obvious than the preceding one we discussed. It really should have been clear to both writer and editor that the subject of the sentence is a compound one that consists of the nouns “Philippines” and “Taiwan,” so that sentence should have taken the following form:

The Philippines and Taiwan have set up a joint task force that will start negotiating judicial cooperation, which is seen to pave the way for the establishment of a mechanism to fight interterritorial crimes.”

Why, then, did that sentence end up grammatically wrong?

The fundamental rule here is, of course, that when two or more singular nouns are compounded as subject or doer of the action—meaning they are added together or are acting together (or both, as in this case)—the operative verb should take the plural form. In this case, the plural form “have set up” should have been used instead of the singular form “has set up.” But something seems to have complicated and fouled up the writer’s grammar decision here, and I suspect it’s a less than thorough familiarity with a verb’s present perfect form and its inflections. In the present perfect, of  course, the auxiliary verb “have” is in its base form, which happens to be grammatically plural; when the the subject or doer of the action is plural, “have” is therefore automatically used. When the subject or doer of the action is singular, however, the auxiliary verb “have” inflects to the singular form “has.” It therefore appears that the writer—and perhaps also the editor—doesn’t clearly understand this behavior of the auxiliary verb “have” in the present perfect, or perhaps thinks that “have” inflects to the singular “has” when positioned beside a singular noun like “Taiwan,” regardless of the presence of another noun—in this case “Philippines”—that compounds the subject of the sentence and makes it plural. The inevitable result of such a misunderstanding is, of course, a subject-verb disagreement error.

Now, having dissected the two subject-verb disagreement errors above, I think we are now ready to discuss the broader aspect of such errors in terms of the grammatical structure of noun phrases. In English grammar, a noun phrase is categorized as a nominal group, which by definition consists of a noun and all the other words that modify or characterize that noun. Within a clause, a nominal group functions as though it is that noun itself, which is referred to as the head or head noun; the items that precede the head noun are called its premodifiers, and the items that come after it are its qualifiers.

This being the case, in a noun phrase, it is the head noun that determines whether the noun phrase is singular or plural. In other words, in a noun phrase, the form of the operative verb is always determined by the number of the head noun—singular when the head noun is singular, and plural when the head noun is plural. As a rule, any other noun or pronoun found in the premodifier or in the qualifier of the head noun doesn’t determine or affect its being singular or plural. For instance, in the case of the noun phrase in that problematic lead sentence of the Inquirer, “a new species of sea slug and other ‘undiscovered’ life in the rich waters off Batangas province,” the nouns “sea slug,” “rich waters,” and “Batangas province” have no bearing or influence whatsoever in determining whether the noun phrase is singular or plural. The only determinant of this is the head noun or head nouns--there are two in this case, “species“ and “'other undiscovered' life”--and whether they are singular or plural in form.

In the case of simple compounded subjects, as in the case of “the Philippines and Taiwan” in that problematic sentence of the Times, the mere presence of the additive conjunction “and” should already alert writers and editors that they are dealing with a plural subject—one that always requires the verb to take the plural form no matter what its tense is.

SHORT TAKES IN MY MEDIA ENGLISH WATCH:

(1) Philippine Star: Footloose modifier wreaking havoc on a sentence

Quote
World watches Pacman
 
LAS VEGAS – Once again, the whole world will be watching Manny Pacquiao, the fighting congressman from the Philippines, defend his World Boxing Organization welterweight crown against American Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand today.

All 17,000 tickets to the fight have been sold, and when the opening bell sounds, millions more will be watching on television around the globe. It’s the biggest fight of the year so far, and there’s no doubt it will be a memorable one, regardless of the outcome.

The lead sentence in the passage above is semantically ruined because it conveys the wrong sense that Manny Pacquiao will again “defend his World Boxing Organization welterweight crown against American Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand today” today, May 8, 2011 (Philippine time), at the MGM Grand. We all know, of course, that Manny will be fighting Mosley for the first time, so why is that sentence telling us otherwise—that he’s doing so for the second time?

It’s because the modifier “once again” is footloose in that sentence, modifying everything that follows it, thus giving us the wrong impression that everything in that sentence is déjà vu, the feeling that the boxing bout being described had taken place before.

A quick cure for that defective sentence is to strategically use the phrase “this time” to make it clear that the world will be witnessing an altogether different boxing event, as follows:

“Once again, the whole world will be watching Manny Pacquiao, the fighting congressman from the Philippines, this time to defend his World Boxing Organization welterweight crown against American Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand today.”

(2) Manila Bulletin: Misplaced modifying phrase

Quote
HGC cites FLI for its OFW housing program

MANILA, Philippines – For catering to the most number of OFW clients, the Home Guarantee Corporation (HGC) recognized Filinvest Land, Inc. (FLI) for Excellence in Shelter Development for OFWs. The award was given during the 11th Charter Day Celebration of HGC held recently in Makati City.

HGC is a government-owned and controlled corporation that plays a major role in implementing the government’s shelter program. As the lead agency in housing finance, HGC supports home ownership among Filipinos by encouraging banks and financial institutions to lend to individual homebuyers and housing developers.

The lead sentence of the news story above is a classic case of a sentence bedeviled by a misplaced modifying phrase. Take note that because of its wrong position, the prepositional phrase “for catering to the most number of OFW clients” erroneously modifies the proper noun “Home Guarantee Corporation,” giving the absurd sense that “Home Guarantee Corporation” is the entity catering to the most number of clients. Of course, that prepositional phrase should logically be modifying the proper noun “Filinvest Land, Inc.” instead.

That sentence would yield the correct sense if it’s corrected in either of these two ways:

(a) Convert the main clause from active voice into passive voice:

 “For catering to the most number of OFW clients, Filinvest Land, Inc. (FLI) was recognized by the Home Guarantee Corporation (HGC) for Excellence in Shelter Development for OFWs. The award was given during the 11th Charter Day Celebration of HGC held recently in Makati City.

(b) Retain the active voice but make the proper noun “Home Guarantee Corporation” the subject of the sentence, then move out the prepositional phrase from its frontline position:

Home Guarantee Corporation (HGC) recognized Filinvest Land, Inc. (FLI) with an award for Excellence in Shelter Development for OFWs for catering to the most number of OFW clients.”

(3) ABS-CBN News: Structurally defective sentence

Quote
New cookbook fuses food icon's journal and recipes

MANILA, Philippines - For years, her name can be seen on rows of sauces, mixes and condiments in supermarket shelves that some people have begun to believe the name is just a brand, and not a real person.

But “Mama Sita” is as real as real can be. The eldest daughter of Doña Engracia "Aling Asiang" Reyes of Aristocrat Restaurant, Teresita Reyes or Mama Sita grew up with a love for food. She created her own recipes, reinventing old favorites into new exciting culinary delights.

The lead sentence of the news story above is structurally defective because its subordinate clause, “that some people have begun to believe the name is just a brand, and not a real person,” fails to grammatically, semantically, and logically link with the main clause “her name can be seen on rows of sauces, mixes and condiments in supermarket shelves.” In fact, that sentence isn’t a grammatically functional sentence.

One quick way to make that sentence work properly is to provide an intensifier phrase for the modal verb phrase “can be seen” in the main clause—say, “so often”—to semantically and logically justify the conclusion in the subordinate clause:

“For years, her name can be seen so often on rows of sauces, mixes and condiments in supermarket shelves that some people have begun to believe the name is just a brand and not a real person.

(4) The Manila Times: Improper use of phrasal verb

Quote
GPS tapped in war against drugs

CAMP BADO DANGWA, Benguet: Some 35 personnel of the Philippine Drug Enforce Agency-Cordillera Administrative Region boned up skills in using the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google earth as weapons in the war against drugs. With the GPS training, the PDEA agents will be more adept in navigation and determining data for pattern of marijuana cultivation areas; map-making, particularly foot trails of usual plantation sites. Such know-how could be helpful in times of medical emergency during eradication operations or when there are hostile forces in the area to be engaged.

The lead sentence above suffers from its use of the wrong phrasal verb “boned up skills.” The intransitive verb “bone up” already subsumes the word “skill”; to “bone up” is by definition “to renew one’s skill or refresh one’s memory. For this reason, “boned up skills” is a redundant phrase. 

In the context of that problematic sentence, “bone up” needs the preposition “on” to link it to its objects, “Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google earth as weapons in the war against drugs,” as follows:

“Some 35 personnel of the Philippine Drug Enforce Agency-Cordillera Administrative Region boned up on the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google earth as weapons in the war against drugs.”

The verb “bone up” can also use the preposition “for” to properly effect that grammatical linkage:

“Some 35 personnel of the Philippine Drug Enforce Agency-Cordillera Administrative Region boned up for the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google earth as weapons in the war against drugs.”

An alternative to “bone up” is, of course, the transitive verb “hone” in the sense of “to make more acute, intense, or effective.” This time, the verb needs the noun “skills” as direct object, as in the following version of that sentence:

“Some 35 personnel of the Philippine Drug Enforce Agency-Cordillera Administrative Region honed their skills in using the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google earth as weapons in the war against drugs.”

(5) Manila Bulletin: Mixed-up tenses in a sentence

Quote
Drug syndicates clone credit cards – PDEA

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Friday bared that drug syndicates are now cloning credit cards, which they used in their nefarious activities.

“Credit cardholders should be made aware of this scheme. They should never divulge information in unsecured settings over the Internet, and they should always be vigilant when making purchases,” PDEA Director General Jose Gutierrez Jr. said.

In the lead sentence above, the relative modifying clause “which they used in their nefarious activities” uses a verb whose tense doesn’t agree with the tense of the verb in the main clause. Since the verb “are now cloning” in the main clause is in the present progressive tense, the verb in that modifying clause should also take the present progressive tense, as follows:

“The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Friday bared that drug syndicates are now cloning credit cards, which they are using in their nefarious activities.”

Here’s a more concise and smoother construction of that sentence:

“The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Friday bared that drug syndicates are now cloning the credit cards they are using in their nefarious activities.”

Another good construction:

“The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Friday bared that drug syndicates are now cloning credit cards for use in their nefarious activities.”

(6) Manila Bulletin: Use of wrong verb

Quote
Maguindanao wins tilt

COTABATO CITY — The recent regional Qur’an reading contest in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was bested anew by the reigning male and female champions of Maguindanao who would represent the region for the second time to the May 28 national tilt. Ustadz Montazir Abdulguiaber and Suraida Ampatuan, male and female defending champs of Maguindanao, respectively, prevailed over ten provincial champs in the regional Qur’an reading contest held at the ARMM’s Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Center here last Wednesday.

The transitive verb “best” means to “outdo” or “to get the better of” somebody in a contest over something, not to “outdo” the contest itself. This is the wrong sense conveyed by the faulty construction of that underlined clause in the lead sentence above, “The recent regional Qur’an reading contest in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was bested anew.”

That clause will yield the correct sense by replacing “bested anew” with “won again” or “won anew,” as follows:

“The recent regional Qur’an reading contest in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was won anew by the reigning male and female champions of Maguindanao who would represent the region for the second time to the May 28 national tilt.”
« Last Edit: May 09, 2011, 10:13:42 AM by Joe Carillo »