Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dealing with two nasty words, and more

Today I’m going to use two words you may find nasty (or, as some say, “nassy”). But think of today’s column as you do medicine — something that is good for you, even necessary. So take your meds and keep reading. Here they are, those two words. Ready? Subject, verb. KEEP READING! I promise that you will be a better language person if you’ll just soldier on with me here. It won’t hurt (much).

The problem is this: More and more people, it seems, are using singular verbs with blatantly plural subjects … and to illustrate the silliness, the ugliness, the just-plain-wrongness of that, I have collected examples from the press.

From People magazine: “Praise and solid scores from the DWTS judges wasn’t enough for [the contestant], who was sent packing Tuesday night.” Do you see the problem? Praise and solid scores wasn’t, it says. You, knowing better, would realize that X plus Y equals two things. Two things make a plural! So you’d say “X and Y weren’t enough,” or “praise and solid scores weren’t enough,” right?

Think of it this way. Would you say, “We was happy” or “We were happy”? With a plural subject, “We,” you’d use a plural verb, “were.” This is easy, right? We (plural) were (plural) happy. I’m feeling pretty pleased, myself!

So why would People — or any other publication — say that praise (that’s one thing) and solid scores (that’s at least one other thing) “wasn’t” enough? Dunno.

This from Patti Davis, daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan: “How lucky celebrities are to be able to go to one of these [rehab] facilities and to benefit from the wisdom and help that waits behind the gates.” So, we have a plural subject (“wisdom and help”) followed by a singular verb (“waits”). Yech.

Try this statement from newspapers concerning a song from the wildly successful High School Musical 2 and quoting co-star Monique Coleman: “It was performed very beautifully and the connection and chemistry was just exceptional.” You’re starting to catch the problems, right? The connection (that’s one thing) and chemistry (that’s a second thing) “was” — uh-oh! We’re in “We was happy” territory!

Now read this from the President’s Challenge Adult Fitness Test: “Muscular strength and endurance is critical to both your health and ability to carry out daily activities.” So, both strength and endurance is critical, eh? And I bet the adults is hungry, too. Maybe they even is as hungry as they is happy.

We’re not finished. I’ve been clipping examples for this peeve for a long time, and the scissored snippets are covering my desk (or, they is covering it). Here’s one from a monthly magazine talking about a baseball team’s on-field host, named Spaz: “Never before has a name and personality matched up this perfectly.” How about matching a plural subject with a plural verb?

In the paper, from last MLK Jr. Day: “The nuance and breadth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message escapes most Americans.” Evidently, plural verbs escape us, too.

This one, with the paper quoting a new author/publisher, is amazing: “The three things that helped me realize my dream is belief, determination and the preparation.” Oh my. Well, I s’pose the three things is important, all right.

Did you read any of the praise for talented Jim Schlosser when he retired from the News & Record? One award he was given had this as part of its presentation: “While newspapers and journalism has changed over many years, readers of the News & Record know when they see the Jim Schlosser byline … .” Got it?

And this from a regional radio broadcast: “More information and a list of sponsors is available … .” Look closely at that quote and you can see one of the reasons that we tend to use a singular verb with a plural subject. Whoever wrote it probably thought that “a list” was the subject, and so a singular verb was the way to go.

In truth, the more distance — and the more words — you have between the subject and the verb, the more likely you are to make the plural-singular agreement mistake. A second common reason for the error is having a collective noun (crowd, family, group, committee, etc.) as the subject. Those really do tend to take a singular verb — the crowd was dispersed, the group is ready to meet, the family was in attendance.

But don’ gimme no “We was happy” talk.


No comments: