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Author Topic: Dealing with annoying English grammar errors (5th in a series of 14)  (Read 85 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 21, 2017, 12:38:18 AM »

This is the fifth in a series of 14 essays on what I consider as the most annoying English grammar errors. It is running consecutively here in the Forum from November 7, 2017 every Tuesday and Friday until December 22.

3 – Verbs positioned too far from the subject
4 – Subject-verb disagreement


We’ll take up this time the third and fourth kinds of grammar errors that I find most annoying: (a) operative verbs positioned too far from the subject, and (b) subject-verb disagreements. I’m bunching the two because they often feed on each other’s grammar or semantic vulnerabilities.

Operative verbs positioned too far from the subject. This grammar problem has an irritating way of slowing down the reader’s momentum, as in the case of this sentence from a newspaper editorial: “Horror stories about Filipinos who were wrongly convicted and released after proving their innocence abound.” (All italicizations in this and later sentence specimens mine.)



Which is the operative verb of the problematic sentence above? Is it “were,” “convicted,” “released,” “proving,” or “abound”? From the logic of the sentence, it should be “abound,” but why does it seem to be working as an adjective modifying the noun “innocence”?

Despite its seemingly airtight grammar, the sentence confuses us. It doesn’t help that the 14-word noun phrase “horror stories about Filipinos who were wrongly convicted and released after proving their innocence” is a perfectly grammatically valid subject, and that the operative verb “abound” agrees with it in number. Indeed, a problem worse than plain grammatical error—incomprehensibility—has arisen because there’s a 12-word barrier between “abound” and “stories” and it’s preventing “abound” from doing its job properly.

Recall now that one characteristic of English is that its verbs perform optimally when closest to the nouns they are acting upon. Thus, in the problematic sentence above, by just bringing the verb “abound” sufficiently close and grammatically “connected” to the noun “stories,” we should be able to make the sentence clearer and more readable.

One way is to use the so-called discontinuous noun phrase strategy, which means breaking an unduly long noun phrase to allow for an earlier appearance of the operative verb, as in this reconstruction of that sentence: “Horror stories abound about Filipinos who were wrongly convicted and released after proving their innocence.” With “stories” and “abound” now side by side, there’s no longer any doubt that the two are the true subject-and-verb partners in the sentence.

Subject-verb disagreement. The basic English grammar rule is, of course, that the verb should always agree in number with its subject; that is, the verb should be in its singular form when the subject is singular, and should be in its plural form when the subject is plural. Quite often, though, this rule gets violated when the operative verb of a sentence gets positioned too far from its subject—and the farther the separation, the more annoyingly confusing the construction becomes.




Take a look at this signboard at a mall establishment: “Smoking in the premises are strictly prohibited.” Here, the plural noun “premises” has obviously been mistaken for the subject of the sentence, resulting in the erroneous use of the plural verb “are.” But the true subject of that sentence is actually the gerund phrase “smoking in the premises”—a singular form that needs the singular verb “is.” The correct signboard statement is therefore this: “Smoking in the premises is strictly prohibited.”

The converse is true for this flawed magazine advertising pitch for a TV show: “Get your hands working with three brand-new crafting shows that is sure to get you going!” This time, the gerund phrase “working with three brand-new crafting shows” is mistaken for the operative noun of the verb “is.” On the contrary, the true operative noun here is the plural “shows,” so the verb should be in the plural form “are”: “Get your hands working with three brand-new crafting shows that are sure to get you going!”

But the worst subject-verb disagreements happen when the writer is sadly not even aware of the basic grammar rule, as in this print advertising pitch for a cooking range in a magazine sometime ago: “Versatility and high performance is what you will get with our new [cooking range brand]…Recessed stainless steel main surface provide cooktops a lower profile to contain spills for easy clean-up.”

Here, of course, the first sentence should use the plural “are,” and the second sentence, the singular “provides”: “Versatility and high performance are what you will get with our new [cooking range brand]…Recessed stainless steel main surface provides cooktops a lower profile to contain spills for easy clean-up.” (2007)
 
(Next: Intransitive verbs forced to act as transitives)   November 24, 2017

This essay, 5th in a series of 14, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the August 25, 2007 issue of The Manila Times. It subsequently formed part of the book The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors, ©2008 by the author, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2017, 12:45:27 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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