S-V agreement

rogersgeorge on September 15th, 2012

I have mentioned subject-verb agreement before, but I found a comic that gives a good example of doing it wrong, so I’ll bring it up again.

The rule is that a singular subject gets a singular verb, and a plural subject gets a plural verb.

The problem is that sometimes you can lose track of the subject. Forgetting that you have a singular subject is fairly easy when the subject is part of a group. For example, if you say, “One of the students…” you might be tempted to use a plural verb because “students” is plural. Now maybe not, because the subject, “one,” is still pretty close, especially if you’re thinking carefully about your writing. But when the stuff between the subject and verb gets more voluminous, you can lose track fairly easily. The name for this is “attraction,” and I understand it’s okay in Latin, but it’s not in English.

So here’s the comic:

Jerry Van Amerongen’s Ballard Street is an excellent off-the-wall single panel cartoon

Now the caption to this comic is tricky. The main subject and verb are “Gary is.” Then we have five words between the subject and verb of the subordinate clause. If you said, “One of those guys has a problem,” you might get it right, but throw in the “who never” and you have a pretty good distraction from the actual subject, “one,” not “guys.”

You can find Ballard Street on gocomics.com, and I recommend it for a nice break from the conventional. And thanks for the good goof, Jerry.

Here’s what might be an exception to this rule. You would say that “many” is a plural, right? So it should get a plural verb, right? Even with a singular-feeling prepositional phrase between “many” and the verb, right? Then what about this:

Many a man likes to get his grammar correct.

Yes, the singular verb, “likes,” is correct! Sigh. That there English language, it just ain’t always gonna make sense.

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Getting “lie” right

rogersgeorge on September 13th, 2012

I’ve mentioned the verbs “lie” and “lay” several times in the past on this site. I now return to the theme with a well-done and grammatically correct comic. I’m generally favorably impressed with how careful comic writers are with their English, and David Gilbert in his Sept 10 edition of Buckles is no exception.

Now for a little change of subject. Look back at the first sentence in this post. It contains an error. Can you tell what it is? I’ll put the answer after the comic to help you resist the temptation to look.

You can find the comic on dailyink.com and bucklescomic.com.

Here’s the mistake: The sentence contains a redundancy. Since I used the present perfect tense (have mentioned), the event had to occur in the past, so the phrase “in the past” should be left out. “On this site” is okay to leave in because I could have mentioned “lie” and “lay” in lots of other places (and I have).  If you caught the mistake, congratulations! You can write!

Pronouncing “use” and “have”

rogersgeorge on September 11th, 2012

Sometimes we change the pronunciation of a word depending on how we use the word. Everybody knows about changing the accent on some words to distinguish between their noun and verb usages. Address, accent on the second syllable, is a verb (the speaker will address the crowd). Address, accent on the first syllable is a noun (my address is the name for where I live).

Never mind that there’s also a slight variation in how you pronounce the “a” at the beginning of the word. On second thought, what about that slight difference? In address, the noun, the a is pronounced like the a in AAK! (The phonetic character is æ, and we call it a short a.) But in the verb, the a is pronounced with a sound called the schwa, rather like uh, and it happens to be the most common vowel sound in English, and we don’t even have a letter for it. In fact, ASCII doesn’t have it in its character set. The phonetic symbol looks like an upside down lowercase e.

Okay, that was a long digression. Sorry. Back to “use” and “have.”

Use: Mostly we think of “use” as a verb, and we pronounce it “yuze.” When we (ahem) use the word as a noun, such as when we say that we put something to good use, we pronounce it “use.” The “s” is unvoiced. But what about when you refer to a past customary activity? That’s a verb, and it’s always in the past tense. For example, we say

We used to do it that way.

When you refer to a past customary behavior, do not betray illiteracy by spelling it “We use to do it that way.”

Have: We use “have” all the time as a helping verb, and when we want to indicate possession. We pronounce it “hav,” or to be phonetic, “hæv.”

But when we refer to an obligation, we pronounce it “haf;” the second consonant (the “v”) is unvoiced. (I have to explain the correct spelling or illiterate people will get it wrong.)

I have to help you with your English.

 When you refer to an obligation, do not betray illiteracy by spelling it “haf.”

I did, however, find something that is called a HAF: a high air flow computer case.

Another language comic

rogersgeorge on September 5th, 2012

This comic is Rhymes with Orange by Hilary B. Price. “Hilary” is descended from the Greek word for “laughter,” by the way. It’s funny to me because of how she misused “misplaced.”

I notice the title of the strip is plural, and she seems to be as bothered by the comma as Arnold is.

Okay, I can’t resist. Here are some more words that don’t have rhymes in English: purple, month, scarce, scarf, coif,fugue, gulf, and false.

Synonyms are useful

rogersgeorge on September 3rd, 2012

English, having its roots in several tongues, picked up a lot of synonyms. So we have a cow in the stall, but beef on the table. Pairs of synonyms usually have significant differences in their meanings, and it pays to learn these subtleties.

I recently ran into a comic by the very astute Darrin Bell that gives a nice description of the difference between “listen” and “hear.”

The name of the comic is Candorville, and I recommend it highly. Serious, thoughtful, intelligent, and funny.

I have collected several language-related comics lately, so expect more in the near future.