Subject-verb agreement can promote mediocrity

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People who don’t understand the language are doing things they ought not to be doing.

Take the Los Angeles Times … please.

The Times is goose stepping its way toward a style book that demands that “subjects and verbs must agree no matter what lies between.”

Certainly, editors at the Times have this option, but in doing so they are abandoning thought and embracing mediocrity

Subject-verb agreement has never been easy, and making yules to eliminate decisions may not be the correct route.

In reporting this LA Times decision, the Copy Editor offered this example to discuss the problems associated with subject-verb agreement:

— A handful of protesters (was/were) arrested.

Most editors interpret “a handful of protesters” as a plural subject so they would write that “ a handful of protesters were arrested.”

When Worlds Collide, a good word book, has this to say about subject-verb agreement: The verb must agree with the intended number of the subject. This means that the writer or editor must take two steps to make a decision: identifying the real subject and determining whether the subject’s meaning is singular or plural.

Example: A number of houses are/is for sale. Some would say that “number” is the subject so a singular verb should follow. Others would argue that the subject is, in fact, “a number of houses,” a phrase that gives a plural connotation.

I would assume that the LA Times would rule that “a number of houses is for sale.”

To make it more complicated, write it this way: The number of houses for sale is 25.

Thoughtful editors, including Theodore Bernstein, say that when the subject is preceded by the, use a singular verb. When its preceded by a, use a plural verb.

According to the Copy Editor, thoughtful editors say the subject should take a singular verb if the idea of oneness dominates.

The subject should take a plural verb if the idea of a number of individuals is stressed.

Writers and editors have to make these decisions. The good ones develop guidelines and try to follow them, while the mediocre ones make rules.

There are rules in this language, but you still have to think. This problem requires thought, not legislation.

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A thing or two about words and the mind from a NYT obituary on Solomon E. Asch, a social psychologist:

“Early in World War II, when Hitler was at the height of his power, Dr, Asch … studied the effects of propaganda and indoctrination. Propaganda is the most effective, he concluded, when fear and ignorance mix. ‘But the human mind,’ he added, ‘is an organ for the discovery of truths rather than of falsehoods.’ “

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In one of my recent columns, the only misspelled word was spelling — three “Is.” What is a word columnist to do?

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From Bits of Mountain Speech:

— Choicey (adjective): particular, fastidious. “You needn’t be so choicey about it.”

— Come (preposition): by or about. “They’ll git here come night.”

 

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgarg7@aol.com

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