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Questions from the Inbox

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 1, 2008, page 21)

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 colleagues—writers, editors, translators and teachers who are experiencing "brain fry," to quote a fellow 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. That’s when they e-mail me.

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

Question (noun-verb agreement)

Frances, what’s your advice regarding noun-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 (has) been described.
Scientific editor, Ottawa

Answer (noun-verb agreement)

Plural is fine in this sentence, largely for the reason you’ve given. There are other similar phrases, including a number of, a variety of and a myriad of, that are usually considered plural because they denote several or many.

Question (punctuation)

I have a punctuation question that’s causing quite the debate among my coworkers, all of whom have taken your class. 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 (punctuation)

Definitely number 2. The apostrophe indicates an understood of phrase: notice of several days. We treat several days’ notice just like the more straightforward a day’s pay: both involve an understood of, so both need an apostrophe. This oft-omitted apostrophe so incensed Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling punctuation book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that she once stood in Leicester Square holding aloft a painted apostrophe on a stick to temporarily amend the title of the Hugh Grant flick Two Weeks Notice.

Question (comma)

If a sentence starts with a question but after a comma becomes a statement, does it still get a question mark?

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 (comma)

A question mark will skew things because part two of the sentence 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, this makes the second sentence 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 going on.

Question (lag)

I’ve recently seen some usages of lag in the newspaper 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, Montreal

Answer (lag)

You’re right to be nagged by lag, which is misused in these sentences for one simple grammatical reason. Lag is an intransitive verb, meaning it can’t be followed by an object. Yet here it is with objects galore: that in sentence 1; the US and deployment in sentence 2. In each case, the simple fix is to insert behind after lag. Like all prepositions, behind can (in fact, must) be followed by an object.

Question (sentence constructions)

What do you think of these three sentence constructions?

  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 or rationale 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 constructions)

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

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. Doesn’t 3 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.)

Question (third person to second)

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.
Corporate proofreader, Vancouver

Answer (third person to second)

I’d have done the same thing to keep the passage consistently in third person. Or I’d have gone with "gives you the best of both worlds: leading-edge GPS . . . to develop your own." There is some persuasive advantage in addressing readers directly, especially in sales material. However, I realize that this edit would bury the fact that the kit is for developers, which might be important.

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

Question (other than)

What would you do with this?

There are beings other than __ 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 (other than)

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

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.) 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, by the way, 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.

Look for more questions and answers in the next issue of Language Update.