Monday, May 30, 2011

The need to be more thorough in subject-verb agreement knowhow

As can be gleaned from my weekly grammar critiques in My Media English Watch, the significant incidence of subject-verb disagreement errors in the English of the major Philippine newspapers and news websites is something that should give us pause. Ensuring subject-verb agreement in sentences appears to be a growing weakness among the new crop of news reporters and feature writers, and I’m afraid among the new crop of editors and copyeditors as well. Indeed, whenever I encounter subject-verb disagreement errors in their written English, I get a feeling that although the new breed of journalists appears very well-trained in the mass communication craft, they are not as well-grounded in their English grammar and usage.

Of course, like most of us, the current breed of English-language journalists is capable of routinely making subject and verb agree when the subject is a single-word noun or pronoun in a form other than the third-person singular and when the verb isn’t in the present tense, but often takes a tumble when the subject is compounded or is in the form of a long noun phrase or verbal phrase, and sometimes appears altogether clueless on what to do when notion and grammar disagree in a sentence under construction. In short, the understanding of subject-verb agreement by many of today’s crop of English-language journalists isn’t thorough enough for them to routinely come up with grammar-perfect sentences of whatever form or structure.

Way back in 2005, I wrote for my English-language column in The Manila Times a two-part essay on how to ensure subject-verb agreement when notion and grammar disagree in sentences under construction.  I am posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to make the grammar knowhow needed to ensure subject-verb agreement more widely and conveniently available. I hope that not only you but also our friends in the mass media will benefit from reading that essay. (May 29, 2011)

When notion and grammar disagree

Part I:

One of the earliest and most useful grammar rules we learn in English is that a verb should always agree with its subject in both person and number. Stated more simply, singular subjects should take the singular form of the verb and plural subjects should take the plural form of the verb. This is actually an easy rule to follow because in English, in contrast to highly inflected languages such as Spanish and French, verbs in general—with some notable exceptions that include the irregular verb “be”—don’t inflect or change in form to agree with the subject in number.

In fact, it is only in the present tense, third-person singular that English verbs change form to agree with their subject in number. As we all know, this involves adding  –s or –es to the tail end of the verb: “He speaks.” “She laughs.” “It flies.” In both the first-person and second-person present tense, however, verbs don’t change form at all regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural: “I speak.” “You speak.” “We speak.” “They laugh.” “They [as a plural of “it”] fly.” Of course, verbs do change in form in the past tense, mostly by adding –ed at their tail ends, but the number of the subject does not influence the change in any way: “I laughed.” “She laughed.” “It laughed.” “You laughed.” “We laughed.” “They laughed.”

The subject-verb agreement rule is no doubt one of the most important and most pervasive frameworks of English usage, but as most of us have discovered, applying this rule is not always that simple. This is because aside from ensuring grammatical agreement between verb and subject, English also takes into account notional agreement—or agreement in meaning—between them. Of course, when there is both grammatical agreement and notional agreement between verb and subject, applying the subject-verb agreement rule is simplicity itself. Such is the case with this sentence: “She dances.” Both subject and verb are singular here, so they are grammatically and notionally in agreement. When grammar and notion are in conflict, however, the subject-verb agreement rule cannot be as easily and as confidently applied.

One such conflict situation arises when the subject is singular form but plural in meaning, such as “team,” “family,” “electorate,” and certain other nouns denoting a group. Take this sentence: “The team are quarreling among themselves.” At first sight, it looks like a badly constructed sentence because “team” is singular in form, so it stands to reason that the verb shouldn’t be in the plural form “are” but in the singular form “is” instead, as in this sentence: “The team is quarreling among itself.” When we examine that sentence closely, however, we find that the word “team” is actually intended to mean its individual members and not the group as a whole, so “team” here definitely has a plural meaning and role. The correct usage is therefore the original plural-verb construction, “The team are quarreling among themselves,” in which there is notional agreement between subject and verb.

In certain other cases, however, grammatical agreement can take precedence over notional agreement in determining the number to be taken by the verb. Consider these sentences: “Everybody has taken lunch.” “Everyone has finished dinner.” Although the subjects “everybody” and “everyone” are both grammatically singular in form, they are actually plural in meaning, being both notionally similar to the plural “all.” Thus, a strong argument can be made that the nouns “everybody” and “everyone” should use a plural verb. What has evolved as the standard usage in English, however, is that verbs in such cases should agree in number with the singular form of “everybody” or “everyone” and not with its plural meaning. This is why “everybody” and “everyone,” despite their being notionally plural, consistently use the singular “has” instead of the plural “have” in such present-tense constructions.

The subject-verb agreement rule becomes even tougher to apply in constructions where there is strong ambiguity in the choice of the number to be taken by the verb. Take this sentence, for instance: “A wide assortment of dishes has been/have been ordered for the party.” The traditional approach is, of course, to make the verb agree with the grammatical subject of the sentence, which in this case is the singular noun “assortment,” so the singular verb “has been” becomes the logical choice. However, it can also be convincingly argued that the noun phrase “a wide assortment of dishes,” which is plural in sense, is the proper subject, so the plural “have been” can also be a logical choice. Using the plural verb for such constructions is actually gaining wider acceptance, but the singular verb remains the favored usage. What this means is that we can have it either way without messing up our grammar.

We will discuss more subject-verb agreement quandaries in Part II of this essay. (August 15, 2005)

Part II:

We saw in the previous essay that although English-language verbs generally don’t inflect or change in form to agree with the subject in number, they do so in the present tense, third-person singular. All of us learn very early in English grammar that in this unique instance, verbs simply add –s or –es to their tail end when the subject is singular: “He hunts.” “She dances gracefully.” “The baby cries.” “The car runs well, but it shakes badly at high speeds.” When the subject is plural, however, verbs drop the –s or –es to make themselves also plural and thus agree with the noun in number: “They hunt.” “Ronald and Alicia dance beautifully.” “Babies normally cry at birth.” “Those cars run well, but they shake badly at high speeds.” (Another way of saying this, of course, is that present-tense verbs become plural by taking their base form, or the verb’s infinitive form without the “to.”)

This subject-verb agreement rule is, as we know very well, very easy to apply when there is both grammatical agreement and notional agreement in the sentence. When grammar and notion are at odds, however, following this rule becomes problematic. We have already taken up three situations in which that conflict usually arises: (1) when the subject is singular in form but plural in meaning, (2) when the subject is plural in form but singular in meaning, and (3) when the sentence is constructed such that the number to be taken by the verb becomes ambiguous. This time, we will take up four other situations that can put us in a quandary when applying the subject-verb agreement rule.

As all of us no doubt have already encountered, the rule actually fails when sentences have two subjects, one singular and the other plural, such that the verb cannot agree in number with both of them. Take a look at this sentence: “Either Eduardo or his parents is/are responsible for this mess.” Which of the subjects should determine the number of the verb—the singular “Eduardo” or the plural “parents”? The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t of much help here, so English takes recourse to the so-called “agreement by proximity” rule. This rule says that in the case of compound subjects in “either…or” constructions, the verb should agree in number with the subject closer to it. Thus, by virtue of the proximity of their subjects to the verb, these sentences are both grammatically correct: “Either Armand or his parents are responsible for this mess.” “Either his parents or Armand (himself) is responsible for this mess.”

Another complication to the subject-verb agreement rule arises when a singular subject is followed by the conjoining prepositional phrases “as well as,” “in addition to,” and “along with,” which all serve to add another subject to a sentence. We therefore would expect that the resulting compound subject is a plural one that needs a plural verb. On the contrary, however, the accepted usage is that the verb in such constructions should be singular in form: “Rowena as well as Ana commutes to work every day.” “The luggage in addition to his laptop is missing.” “The corner lot along with the four-door apartment is being auctioned off.”

We similarly expect—and rightly so—that an “and” between two subjects is a sure sign of a compound subject needing a plural verb, as in the following sentences: “The car and the motorcycle are brand new.” “Celine and Stella work in the same office.” However, there are instances when the notional sense of unity between two subjects can actually prevail over grammatical agreement, such that the compound subject—although plural in form—takes a singular verb: “Her name and telephone number is [instead of “are”] scribbled on the address book.” “My better half and only love is with me today.” “The long and the short of it is that we got married.”

One other grammar situation where the subject-verb agreement rule often proves difficult to apply is when the subject involves expressions that use the word “number,” as in this sentence: “A small number of stockholders is/are unhappy with how we run the company.” Should the verb be singular or plural? The general rule is that when the expression is “a number of…” and its intended sense is “some,” “few,” or “many,” the verb should take the plural: “A small number of stockholders are unhappy with how we run the company.” On the other hand, when the expression is “the number of…”, the verb always takes the singular because here, “number” is being used to express a literal sum, which is singular in sense: “The number of seminar participants is bigger today than last time.” “The number of absentees in your class is very disturbing.” (August 22, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 15 and 22, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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