Watch your subject

rogersgeorge on July 10th, 2017

The rule is that if you have a singular subject, you must have a singular verb. (And if you have a plural subject, the verb must be plural.) We call it subject-verb agreement. Take a look at this sentence:

By July 15, an average of 2,500 tons of supplies was being flown into the city every day.

It’s from a passage in This Day in History for June 26. Is the sentence correct or not?

It’s an easy sentence to get wrong, but they got it right! The subject is average, not tons, and not supplies. The latter two words are objects of prepositions, so neither can be the subject of the sentence. So average has to be the subject.

Be careful out there. Those prepositional objects’ll get you if you’re not alert.

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Bad Grammar in a Headline

rogersgeorge on January 8th, 2017

From Engadget, which generally gets things right. The headline is in their newsletter. If you go to the site, they have it correct.

Intel’s next generation of PC chips are here

Do you see the goof? What’s the subject of the sentence? Is it singular or plural? Now look at the verb; singular or plural?

This mistake appears a lot in amateur writing, when the plural object of a preposition is right next to the verb, and the subject, a singular, is farther away.  Don’t let that proximity fool you!

(The answers, in case you didn’t get it: the subject is “generation,” a singular. The verb is “are,” a plural! It was attracted to all those chips. Guess you can’t eat just one, eh?)

Be Agreeable! part 1

rogersgeorge on June 7th, 2016

The technical term is subject-verb agreement. This means that if you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb form. Singular subject gets a singular verb. Third grade stuff. But sometimes it’s easy to get agreement wrong. The biggest pitfall is when you have a compound (more than one) subject. (The second pitfall is when you’re not sure what the subject is; you have so much stuff between the subject and its verb, you lose track. We’ll get to that in another post (ahem) the next one.)

Here’s the rule when you have more than one subject: If they’re joined by “and,” use a plural verb. If they’re joined by “or,” agree with the subject closest to the verb.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are types of transportation.

A plane, a train, and an automobile are in your display of transportation toys.

Trains, planes, or an automobile gets you there.

A train, a plane, or two automobiles get you there.

And now, a curve!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the name of a movie.

If the subject is a single entity, no matter what its form, it’s singular. You have to think!

Now an exercise for you. I found this sentence on the website of a place where I used to have a job, many years ago.

A welcome stop along the Glacial Ridge Trail, the Terrace Mill and the Terrace Mill Historic District features a 1903 Vintage Flour Mill, Keystone Arch Bridge, Weir Dam, Mill Pond, Log Cabin, and a Heritage Cottage.

Is the sentence correct or not?

Beware False Plurals

rogersgeorge on May 31st, 2016

I wrote about false plurals before, but it was several years back, and I just ran into a nice example of someone falling into that trap, so I thought I’d mention this little pothole again. Here’s the sentence:

However, that effort has been going about as well as Tennessee politics have been going, which is to say, not very well.

This is from a newsletter sent occasionally by the excellent cartoonist Hilary Price, who writes the comic Rhymes with Orange, and whom I recommend to all of you.

The sentence says “…politics have been going…” Looks like “politics” is a plural, doesn’t it? It’s not! That “-ics” is a noun suffix meaning that it’s a field of study, like physics, fluidics, and phonics. (Beware of words that happen to already end in “-ic” such as “picnic.” They’re different.)

It works the other way sometimes, too, mostly with words originating in languages (such as Latin) that don’t necessarily use “-s” to indicate the plural. “Apocrypha,” for example, is actually the plural of “apocryphon,” but we consider it a singular now, especially since the most common usage is the single collection of spurious books in the Bible. I mentioned recently that the word “media” is headed that way now.

And don’t get me started on “the hoi polloi.”

Remember, get rid of the “-ics” when you use the word as another part of speech: Do your mathematizing in math class. It was an athletic tour-de-force.

Yes, the first sentence in this post contains a mixed metaphor, but that’s a topic for another day.

Apostrophe humor

rogersgeorge on February 22nd, 2014

I have mentioned apostrophes now and then, so don’t expect much new today. This comic, by  Jon Kudelka, who might be an Australian, appeared recently, though, and I can’t resist repeating  myself.

How many apostrophic solecisms can you count?

Apostrophes are replacements for letters you leave out of a word. The apostrophe as the sign of the possessive in nouns (not pronouns!) came from the German, where the possessive ending is usually -es. We take out the e.

Rule 1: Plurals don’t get an apostrophe, even if you’re writing grocery store vegetable signs.

Rule 2: For possessives, look at the noun (not pronoun!) that you want to make into a possessive. If it ends in an single s, put an apostrophe on the end and you’re done. If it doesn’t end in s, add apostrophe s.

Rule 3: You don’t need an apostrophe to pluralize an acronym.

Want a couple complications?

Complication 1: If the word you want to pluralize ends in a vowel or laryngeal sound before the s, you do the apostrophe followed by nothing, but you pronounce the missing -es ending. For example, “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” is pronounced “Jesuses Sermon etc.”  and my first name, “Rogers,” has the possessive form “Rogers’ ” and you pronounce it “Rogerses.” Both of these, with the -es, are how you spell and pronounce the plural, by the way.

Complication 2: Use apostrophe s for the possessive of acronyms, even if the acronym ends in ss (for example, the Office of Strategic Services is the OSS). This is the only time in English where you can have three of the same letter in a row. “The OSS’s pronouncement” is grammatical. (Okay, onomatopoetic words can have any number of repeated letters. A snake goes “ssssssss,” and a cow goes “moooo.”)

Complication 3: Pronouns have their own possessive forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their. No apostrophe! That’s not really a complication, is it?