In last week‚Äôs edition of My Media English Watch, I reported this very serious grammar faux pas‚ÄĒa Facebook friend of mine called it an ‚Äúepic fail‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒin the front-page headline story of one of the leading Metro Manila broadsheets: ‚ÄúThe president of the Catholic Bishops‚Äô Conference of the Philippines on Wednesday reminded President Aquino III that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.‚ÄĚ
I already did a detailed grammar postmortem
of that sentence in the Forum, including an analysis of the egregious subject-verb disagreement in its subordinate clause, but I think it would be worthwhile for Forum members to steel themselves once and for all against such subject-verb agreement pitfalls. I therefore decided to post in this week‚Äôs Forum an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times
in May last year, ‚ÄúCommon subject-verb agreement pitfalls,‚ÄĚ where I explained why both native and nonnative English speakers often commit such errors and how we can methodically avoid committing them.
Here now for your continuing guidance is that essay (October 9, 2010).Common subject-verb agreement pitfalls
A Baguio City-based reader, Dr. Antonio Bautista, raised the following interesting question about subject-verb agreement sometime ago.
Which one is correct, he asked, ‚ÄúThe plural of nouns are formed
in a number of different ways,‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúThe plural of nouns is formed
in a number of different ways‚ÄĚ? And could you say, ‚ÄúThe plurals of nouns are formed
in a number of different ways‚ÄĚ? The first is a direct quote from a book entitled Master English Grammar in 28 Days
In my reply to Tony, I said that the first sentence is grammatically incorrect. The operative subject of the sentence is the singular noun ‚Äúplural,‚ÄĚ not the plural noun ‚Äúnouns,‚ÄĚ so the operative verb should be ‚Äúis,‚ÄĚ not ‚Äúare.‚ÄĚ The second sentence is the correct one. The third sentence is also grammatically correct because the plural-form verb ‚Äúare‚ÄĚ agrees in number with the plural noun ‚Äúplurals.‚ÄĚ (I must note belatedly, however, that the concept of ‚Äúthe plural of nouns‚ÄĚ being notionally singular, it is more advisable to always treat it as grammatically singular‚ÄĒwithout the ‚Äús‚ÄĚ in ‚Äúplural.‚ÄĚ Indeed, strictly speaking, the plurality of nouns as a concept is inherently singular.)
The basic English grammar rule that applies here is, of course, that the verb should always agree in number with its subject: it should take the singular form when the subject is singular, and the plural form when the subject is plural. Quite often, though, this rule gets violated when the operative verb of a sentence is not close to its subject. Indeed, the farther they are from each other, the harder it is to figure out whether to use the singular or plural form of the verb.
This is what happened in that grammatically flawed sentence Tony sent in for analysis. The author was apparently distracted by the words ‚Äúof nouns‚ÄĚ separating the verb ‚Äúare formed‚ÄĚ from its true subject, the noun ‚Äúplural,‚ÄĚ which he must have thought was an adjective. In fact, it was being used as a noun for the form denoting ‚Äúmore than one.‚ÄĚ
To avoid this very common grammatical error, we need to more closely inspect the form of the subject in a sentence before deciding whether it is singular or plural. As we all know, a multiword subject in a sentence typically takes any of three forms: noun phrase, gerund phrase, or infinitive phrase
If the subject is a noun phrase, we need to figure out first which word in it is the operative noun; we shouldn‚Äôt be distracted by other nouns that may intrude in the phrase. For instance, in this sentence, ‚ÄúThe lingering dispute between the second cousins [is, are] getting worse with each passing day,‚ÄĚ the noun ‚Äúsecond cousins‚ÄĚ gets in the way between the verb and the noun ‚Äúdispute.‚ÄĚ It is clear, though, that the subject of the sentence, the noun phrase ‚Äúthe lingering dispute between the second cousins,‚ÄĚ is singular, so the verb form should also be singular: ‚Äúis getting.‚ÄĚ
If the subject of a sentence is a gerund phrase, it is always singular no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows it might be. For instance, in this sentence, ‚ÄúLooking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees [was, were] like looking for a needle in a haystack,‚ÄĚ the singular ‚Äúwas‚ÄĚ is the correct choice. This is because the gerund phrase ‚Äúlooking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees,‚ÄĚ despite its length and long modifier, is undoubtedly singular.
Infinitive phrases, like gerund phrases, are also always singular when used as the subject of a sentence, no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows them might be.
Consider this sentence: ‚ÄúTo seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders [does, do] not appeal to the incumbent provincial governor.‚ÄĚ The correct choice here is ‚Äúdoes‚ÄĚ because the infinitive phrase ‚Äúto seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders,‚ÄĚ despite its length and complicating noun phrases, is undoubtedly singular. (May 23, 2009)
---------From the weekly column ‚ÄúEnglish Plain and Simple‚ÄĚ by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2009, ¬© 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.