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More Dubious Agreement

   

One of the beauties of jazz, they say, is that so many of its musicians can play by ear. Relying on what sounds right seems to work for them, jazz artists being some of the most gifted and nimble around.

But what about writing by ear? True, a finely tuned ear is indispensable to the poet, who relies on sound and cadence the way some of us rely on sentences and paragraphs. And an ear for dialogue can be the making of a fiction writer. In the workplace, though, where mechanical precision often matters more than flair, writing by ear can be a little like wearing stiletto heels: striking, but not altogether . . . correct.

What does your ear, for instance, tell you about this passage?

  • There’s only three ways to scale Mount Sheerface. Each of the three routes are technically advanced, and none of them have ever been successfully attempted. But Thor Stoutleg is one of those climbers who insists that every mountain can be conquered, and he is determined to stand on the summit.

If you identified three errors in subject-verb agreement, congratulations. Your brain has just triumphed over your ear. But have you spotted the right three errors?

There is, there are

First there’s what we hear around us:

  • There’s a few reality shows I’d like to ban from the airwaves.
  • There’s a lot of bold performers out there, but not much true talent.
  • Grandma says there’s some nice headcheese sandwiches in the fridge. (Okay, maybe we don’t hear this one so often.)

Then there’s what is correct—namely, none of the above.

The word there to many people looks and sounds like a singular subject. Is it? That’s a trick question. There, when it’s teamed up with the verb to be, is not a subject at all. It’s an anticipatory subject, a word that carries little or no meaning and that precedes the real subject, which appears later.

In the sentences above, the real subjects are shows, performers and sandwiches. All are plural, which means the verbs should all be are. As should the first verb in our mountain-climbing passage.

Did your ear fool you? Don’t be surprised if it did. Mistakes with there, and particularly with there’s, the contracted form, are multiplying like derricks in the Alberta oil patch. These errors have sullied speech for some time, but now they’re spreading to printed material, including, heaven help us, edited text. In recent months I’ve read three books (two fiction, one non-fiction) from leading publishers in which the singular there’s appears with plural subjects—not just once or twice, but all through the book.

Each and every one

Indefinite pronouns—words like everyone and no one, somebody and nothing—are pronouns whose antecedents (the nouns they replace) are hard to pinpoint. Many indefinite pronouns are grammatically singular and team up with singular verbs. Recognizing the singular pronouns is for the most part easy. Many of them carry decidedly singular endings: -one, -body and -thing.

Four indefinite pronouns do not fit this pattern. Each, every, either and neither don’t sport obviously singular endings, but they are nonetheless singular—even when linked to plural words, even when the singular sounds clunky.

  • Each of the candidates is amply qualified to proofread this philosophy journal.
  • Every cup, saucer and soup ladle has its place in the kitchen.
  • Do you think that either of the bloggers handles satire well?
  • Of the two fast food jobs, neither offers Tami much promise of promotion.

That brings us to error number two in the climbing passage. The second sentence should begin: "Each of the three routes is technically advanced . . . ."

None

What about the third error? Did you think it was "none of them have"?

Different people hear different things with none. Some are pretty sure that "none of them" is plural and takes the plural verb have. Others, especially those of a certain age or anyone educated in an old-school milieu, hear ghostly schoolmarms repeating that none is always singular.

The fact is, none has morphed. Once steadfastly singular, like no one and nothing, it now goes both ways, singular or plural, depending on the word it combines with. When tied to a plural word (like them), none is plural. When tied to a singular word, it’s singular: "none of the driveway has been shovelled." In this way none has become like its opposites, all and some, both of which change their number depending on what they’re linked with.

What’s with who, that and which?

That brings us to the real third error. The last sentence in the climbing passage begins "But Thor Stoutleg is one of those climbers who insists that every mountain can be conquered . . . ." Even the keenest ear is deaf to the agreement error here: the second verb should be plural, insist.

If your jaw just dropped, you’re not alone—there’s a whole world of English writers with their chins on their chests. We’ve finally come to the most common agreement problem in the language: how to treat the relative pronouns who, that and which.

The trouble with these pronouns is that they (like some, all and none) change their number according to their antecedent. The trick is to correctly identify the antecedent. That sounds straightforward, but like so many things that combine the ear and grammar, it’s not.

In sentences like the Thor example, which say that someone is "one . . . who," it’s easy to get sidetracked by the word one and think that everything in its wake should be singular. In fact, the antecedent of who in that sentence is climbers, not one. The sentence is saying that there are climbers (plural) out there who insist (plural) that every mountain can be conquered, and Thor is one of them (plural). Put another way, the sentence is saying "Those climbers, of whom Thor is one, insist . . . ."

Besides who, watch out for that and which, which cause just as many agreement errors.

  • NO Uncle Leo has just invested in one of those pyramid schemes that always brings disaster.
  • YES Uncle Leo has just invested in one of those pyramid schemes that always bring disaster. (subject that refers to schemes, plural)
  • NO Schemes like this one, which has brought down intrepid investors worldwide, are surprisingly popular in my uncle’s small town.
  • YES Schemes like this one, which have brought down intrepid investors worldwide, are surprisingly popular in my uncle’s small town. (subject which refers to schemes, plural)
  • NO Uncle Leo is one of the few members of our family who still goes to the Russian Orthodox church.
  • YES Uncle Leo is one of the few members of our family who still go to the Russian Orthodox church. (And when he does, he always packs one of Grandma’s headcheese sandwiches.)

Test yourself