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Questions from the Inbox

   

In the two decades I’ve been teaching, editing and writing about the English language, I’ve fielded thousands of questions. None are more fascinating to me than those from my colleagues—fellow language professionals who are experiencing "brain fry," to quote an editor and neighbour of mine. They’ve stared at a sentence too long, they’ve checked every resource on hand, they’ve polled their co-workers (and sometimes argued with them), but still they’re not sure. Then they email me.

As you can imagine, I’ve netted some intriguing and downright perplexing queries over the years. What follows is a sampling of the best. Read each question and think about how you’d respond. Then read my answer. Warning: the questions get harder as they go along.

Subject-verb agreement

Question: What’s your advice regarding subject-verb agreement in the following example? I lean toward the plural, because I think the emphasis is on the fact that the frameworks have been described as separate entities. But what do you say?

  • A range of integrative frameworks have (have/has) been described.
    Scientific editor, Ottawa

Answer: Plural is fine, for the reason you’ve given. Besides a range of, there are other phrases—including a number of, a variety of and a myriad of—that are usually treated as plural because they denote several or many. But a range of can also be singular, if the emphasis is on the range itself: "A range of hotels to choose from is a nicer prospect than only one or two."

Apostrophe

Question: I have a punctuation question that’s causing quite the debate among my co-workers. Which is correct?

  1. The submarines now require several days notice to launch.
  2. The submarines now require several days’ notice to launch.
    Federal department writer, Ottawa

Answer: Definitely sentence 2. The apostrophe signals an understood of phrase: notice of several days. We treat "several days’ notice" just like "one day’s pay": both involve an understood of, so both need an apostrophe. The tendency to omit this apostrophe so incensed Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling punctuation book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that she once stood in front of a billboard in Leicester Square, hoisting a painted apostrophe on a stick to temporarily amend the title of the Hugh Grant film Two Weeks Notice.

Question mark

Question: If a sentence starts with a question, but then after a comma becomes a statement, does it still get a question mark? Here’s an example:

  • Example: Is it okay to bring the kids to your house, because after last time I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it. (?)
    Freelance book editor, Penticton, BC

Answer: A question mark will skew this sentence because the second part is so obviously a statement. Try two sentences instead:

  • Is it okay to bring the kids to your house? Because after last time I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it.

Of course, the second sentence is a fragment. If you’re dealing with dialogue, which I suspect is the case, fragments are fine. But if the material is more formal and needs full sentences, just delete because from sentence two. It serves little purpose anyway, since there’s no real cause-and-effect relationship.

Usage of lag

Question: I’ve recently seen some usages of lag in the Montreal Gazette that strike me as odd. What do you think?

  1. The region’s economic growth has lagged that of Quebec as a whole.
  2. Canadian deployment of 3G wireless systems lags not only the US . . . but also significantly lags deployment in Europe, South Korea and Japan.
    English teacher, Montréal

Answer: There are differences of opinion, possibly regional, as to whether lag (in the sense of "to trail behind") can be used as a transitive verb—a verb that’s completed by an object—as is the case in both your sentences. Because dictionaries are inconsistent and the matter isn’t treated in any major usage guide, it’s hard to say exactly where Canadian English fits in.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed., 2004) is always a good place to start. It lists lag as an intransitive verb only, meaning it cannot be followed by an object. That explains why the verb is often followed by behind: as a preposition, behind serves to attach the object to the verb. The online versions of Collins Dictionary (http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/lag) and Macmillan Dictionary (http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/lag) agree, listing lag as intransitive only, the latter in both its British and American dictionaries.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003) lists lag as both intransitive and transitive. In other words, it permits both of your sentences. Dictionary.com (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lag) and the online American Heritage Dictionary (http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=lag) do the same.

There’s no question that to the Canadian ear, lag sounds odd as a transitive verb. However, given that it’s sanctioned by American dictionaries, and that your examples come from a Canadian newspaper, it may not be long before the usage is standard in Canada.

Hyphens

Question: What do you think of these three sentences?

  1. Small- and medium-size enterprises create the most jobs.
  2. He has been employed full- and part-time in the Public Service.
  3. The plan includes country-led and -driven initiatives.

I know that 1 and 2 are accepted, but I’m trying to find a source for 3. The original sentence repeated the word country, which I’d like to avoid. I know I can always recast sentence 3, but is anything actually wrong with it?
Federal agency editor, Gatineau

Answer:

Sentence 1
I’d look again if I were you. Medium-size enterprises, yes. But small-size? The reference is to small enterprises and medium-size enterprises, so really, the hyphen shouldn’t be suspended. It should read small and medium-size enterprises.

Sentence 2
Correct.

Sentence 3
This seems fine to me, though oddly I can’t put my hands on a source either. The Canadian Style (2.12) refers fittingly to "when an element common to successive compound adjectives is omitted," but all the examples that follow show suspended compounds in which the second word is omitted, not the first, as in your sample. Still, the definition of "suspended compound" suggests that your rendering of sentence 3 is fine.

One footnote on Sentence 3. Does it strike you as a tad redundant? Isn’t a country-led initiative the same thing as a country-driven one? In both cases, the country is moving the thing along, right? (I could be missing some nuance, of course.)

Third person to second

Question: I normally copy and paste text directly from datasheets into our product catalogue. But in this case, I thought it odd that the datasheet text switched from third person to second, so I eliminated "your own" from my version. Did I do the right thing?

  • Built to work with a range of reliable, accurate GPS receivers, the GPS XXX software development kit gives developers the best of both worlds: leading edge GPS technology with the flexibility to develop your own custom field software applications.
    Federal agency editor, Gatineau

Answer: I’d have done the same thing to keep the passage consistently in the third person. Or I’d have gone with "gives you the best of both worlds: leading-edge GPS . . . to develop your own," since there’s some persuasive advantage in addressing readers directly. However, I realize that this edit would bury the fact that the kit is for developers, which might be important. And second person may not fit with the rest of the catalogue. Consistency throughout the publication matters above all.

BTW, note that leading-edge should be hyphenated when it appears before the word it modifies. Those danged hyphens . . . . :-)

Usage of other than

Question: What would you do with this?

  • There are beings other than (we/us) humans who . . .

If than is a subordinating conjunction, which it surely is, should it be followed by we as the subject of a subordinate clause? I think my grammar is slipping!
Freelance translator, Toronto

Answer: Oh, this is a tricky question—at least tricky to explain rationally, without falling back on what "sounds right."

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary labels than as a conjunction only. Then it supplies definition 2: "introducing the second element in a statement of difference (anyone other than me)." But curiously, than is not a conjunction in this phrase; it’s a preposition. More specifically, it’s half of the phrasal preposition other than. Phrasal prepositions are simply prepositions made up of more than one word.

We can deduce that we’re dealing with a phrasal preposition, not a conjunction, for several reasons. First, in the dictionary example, than is followed by me, the objective form. Prepositions (not conjunctions) are the joining words that require objects.

Second, phrasal prepositions, though made up of several words, always convey a single meaning. That’s certainly the case with other than. The closest synonym I can think of is besides, also a preposition that requires an object.

Finally, there’s a persuasive parallel in the phrasal preposition as well as. As, like than, is routinely a conjunction used for comparison, but here it’s part of a preposition.

To my mind, the only logical explanation is that other than is a phrasal preposition that must be followed by an object. That makes us the right choice in your sentence.

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