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.