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Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm


How Did They Get In Here?

Writers today have problems keeping their sentences internally consistent. This is especially true of print journalists. Because of staff cutbacks at financially challenged newspapers, many articles are proofread hastily, if at all.

Combine that with the shocking decline in Americans’ English language skills over the last fifty years or so and you get sentences unworthy of the average sixth-grader in 1963. Here is a sentence from a recent article in a major metropolitan newspaper on the West Coast: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on their campaigns…”

Everything is fine until that jarring “their” at the end. Go back to the subject: “each side.” The writer is talking about two things but is taking them one at a time—each side has spent, not have spent. So writing “their” confounds the ground rules of the sentence. It’s like setting the table with a fork and then eating with your hands.

This is an easy one to fix: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on its campaign…”

 

POP QUIZ

The following sentences or fragments from recent print or broadcast media reflect contemporary bad habits. Can you fix them?

1. McDonalds is doing everything they can to shift costs to operators.
2. There needs to be better screening and a more foolproof monitoring system.
3. East Haven, Conn. plane crash…
4. No listener is ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the peoples’ right to know.

 

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. McDonalds is doing everything it can to shift costs to operators.
2. There need to be better screening and a more foolproof monitoring system.
3. East Haven, Conn., plane crash…
4. No listeners are ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the people’s right to know.

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Posted on Sunday, August 11, 2013, at 11:06 am


Subject and Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns

Do you use a singular or plural verb to match a collective noun such as team or staff? The answer is, It depends. If these nouns are acting as a unit, use a singular verb.

Example: The team is heading for practice this afternoon.

If the sentence indicates more individuality, use a plural verb.

Example: The team are eating with their families tonight.

Would you choose is or are in the example below?

Example (an actual headline from CNN.com): Nearly one in four people worldwide is/are Muslim.

People is NOT a collective noun like team or staff. It is a plural noun. However, the subject is one, which is singular and takes a singular verb. So the answer is is. In the above sentence, the prepositional phrase is in four people. This means that people is the object of the preposition.

Let’s get real here, however: The intention in this headline is to let us know that nearly 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. That intention gets lost by focusing on one is. It might be better to reword the sentence: Nearly 25% of people in the world are Muslim.

Why is 25% of people are correct? The subject of this sentence is 25%. Fractions and percentages, like team and staff, can be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition following. In this case people is the object of the preposition of. We have already said that people is plural. Therefore, 25% becomes plural in meaning.

Example: Twelve percent of the building has/have been renovated.

The subject is twelve percent, which will be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition that follows. In this sentence, the object of the preposition is building, which is always singular. So the correct answer is has.

To learn more about subject and verb agreement, click here.

Ready to challenge yourself?

Pop Quiz

1. The team is/are headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.

2. The mock trial team was/were happy with their presentations to the judge.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is/are Muslim.

4. Our staff meets/meet on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.

5. Our staff works/work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The team is headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.
Team is being used as a cohesive unit so a singular verb is required.

2. The mock trial team were happy with their presentations to the judge.
Team is plural because separate presentations were given. Also, when the plural their is used, the implication is that the collective noun is being used as a plural.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is Muslim.
The word population is a collective noun that can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on the intention of the author. The intention here is to indicate that this percentage represents a single group.

4. Our staff meets on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.
Staff, a collective noun, is acting as a single unit in this sentence.

5. Our staff work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.
Their is a clue that staff is not acting as a unit. Therefore, the plural work is needed.

How do you know that work, not works, is plural? Think about which word you would use with he and which word you would use with they.

Examples:
She works too hard for her age.
They work harder when the foreman is around.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 10, 2010, at 2:47 pm


The Subjunctive Mood

An E-Newsletter fan came across this sentence:
If I were very lucky, I would get the chance to go. She asked, “Shouldn’t I be followed by was, not were, since I is singular?”

Let me answer that by asking you a question: Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle that began, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…”? These two sentences are both examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. The subjunctive mood often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive is often used in “that,” “if,” and “wish” clauses.

Examples:
She requested that he raise his hand.
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the first example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise is correct. In the next two examples, a thought or wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

In general, use the past perfect tense when using the subjunctive mood with verbs besides were.

Examples:
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

Pop Quiz

Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

1. If I was/were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he was/were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she was/were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I practiced/had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone/went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, at 9:11 am


None Were vs. None Was

Rule: The word none is versatile. It has a plural sense (“not any”) as well as a singular sense (“not a single one”). When none is followed by of, look at the noun in your of phrase (object of the preposition). If the object of the preposition is singular, use a singular verb. If the object of the preposition is plural, there is more leeway. Most of the time, but not always, you will want to use a plural verb.

Examples:
None of the pie was eaten.
None of the children were hungry. BUT None (as in, “not a single one”) of the children was hungry is not incorrect.

In a sentence like “None were missing,” there is an implicit noun that answers the question, “None of what?” If that noun is singular, none takes a singular verb. If that noun is plural, it is up to the writer and the sense of the sentence to determine whether none takes a singular or a plural verb.

Examples:
None was missing. (None of the pie was missing.)
None were missing. (None of the cookies were missing. But there may be times when a writer prefers was, as in Not a single one of the cookies was missing.)

Note: Apparently, the SAT testing service considers none as a singular word only. However, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “Clearly none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century. If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism” (p. 664)

 

Pop Quiz

  1. None of the garbage was/were picked up.
  2. None of the chairs was/were comfortable.
  3. She inspected all of the plates and none was/were chipped.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. None of the garbage was picked up.
  2. None of the chairs were or was comfortable.
  3. She inspected all of the plates and none were or was chipped.

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Posted on Sunday, June 14, 2009, at 2:15 pm