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Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.

1. Subjects connected by or

Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.

The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.

Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.

2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb

The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.

It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.

3. Sentences with indefinite subjects

The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • either
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • no one
  • someone
  • something

Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.

No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.

If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”

Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)

Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)

The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)

Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.

Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:

If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.

If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.

Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.

I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.

Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)

References

Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.

Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.

Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.

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Rock bands and sports teams cause chaos among grammarians. In the last post, I described how collective nouns — words like jury that refer to a group of people acting as one unit — take singular pronouns. (They also take singular verbs.) Therefore, these sentences are correct:

The band released its latest CD.

The team posted its injury report on the Internet.

But what about these sentences?

The Rolling Stones released its latest CD.

The Pittsburgh Steelers posted its injury report on the Internet.

They sound terrible! And good luck finding guidance in grammar books, most of which avoid the tricky issue of whether the names of rock bands and sports teams are singular or plural.

However, other reference books have declared usage rules for the fields of sports and entertainment, where the names of collective units usually sound plural. (A note to my international readers: These are guidelines for American English. The British have a different outlook on collective nouns.)

The Associated Press Stylebook offers this somewhat contradictory entry:

Team names and musical groups that are plural take plural verbs. The Yankees are in first place. The Jonas Brothers are popular. Team or group names with no plural forms also take plural verbs: The Miami Heat are battling for third place…. Many singular names take singular verbs: Coldplay is on tour. Boston is favored in the playoffs. The Cardinal is in the NCAA tournament.

Linguistic nitpicker William Safire wrote a column on the topic after receiving queries about how to handle situations where teams like the Miami Heat or Colorado Avalanche play teams with plural names:

I see a headline atop The Washington Post: “Jazz Beats Bulls,” with the verb construing the first team, from Utah, as singular. Had the game gone the other way, however, the headline would have read “Bulls Beat Jazz,” construing the Chicago team as plural.

His verdict? Writers should “go with the natural sound of the language. If the team name ends in s, go with the plural verb…. If not, construe it as singular.”

However, most journalists shun the idea of mixing and matching. Rolling Stone magazine disregards the AP stylebook and uses all band names as plurals, as evidenced by these examples from the magazine’s web site:

On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. 

U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. 

Sports Illustrated and ESPN use plural references for all teams, even the Heat and the Jazz.

That usage clashes with the rules for corporate names. General Motors and Dunkin’ Donuts are singular entities that take singular verbs and pronouns even though their names end in s. Therefore, all of these are correct:

General Motors is firing three executives.

The Packers are firing three trainers.

The Foo Fighters are firing three crew members.

What’s the difference? Maybe having the word the in front of band and team names makes the plural version a natural choice.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t stand and cheer at the end of a board meeting.

Additional reading

For more information about the controversy over team names (and more details about British English rules on the subject), read this post from Minnesota Public Radio News that uses the Minnesota Wild hockey team as an example:

Grammar Gone Wild

References

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Robicheau, Paul. “A Beautiful Night for U2. Rolling Stone. 26 March 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

Safire, William. “Singular Heat?” No Uncertain Terms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 273-276. Print.

Serpick, Evan. “In the Studio: Coldplay.” Rolling Stone. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

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Unfortunate fact: Grammar and style books don’t agree about apostrophe use. Even the simplest apostrophe rule is the subject of controversy:

Add an apostrophe and an s to show possession of singular nouns.

I followed up on the client’s request.

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

Some grammar books grant an exception if adding an apostrophe and an s to a name ending in s creates an awkward pronunciation:

Sophocles’ works were required reading in college.

Illinois’ current business climate will affect our decision.

To make it more confusing, the Associated Press style book contradicts what you were taught in school and says to add only the apostrophe to any proper name ending in s. However, this leads to awkward and unrealistic pronunciations:

I borrowed Agnes’ employee manual.

I studied Elvis’ life.

Our company will be affected by Congress’ latest bill.

So unless you’re writing for the Associated Press, use the apostrophe and the s if you would pronounce the extra s in a name.

The Associated Press also has an odd rule saying that even for singular common nouns ending in s, you should add only the apostrophe if the subsequent word begins in s:

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

I stepped on the boss’ stiletto heel.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is more relaxed: unlike the AP manual, it says to use the apostrophe and s for proper names ending in s. However, it offers an exception for names ending in a sibilant sound that follows a vowel and another sibilant. Sounds complicated, but it refers to simple words like Kansas, Texas, and Moses.

Why should you care about the journalism rules if you’re not a journalist? The news stories you read each day in newspapers and magazines or on the Internet are edited according to these alternate punctuation rules, so they may have affected your apostrophe use. Also, maybe your workplace writing includes press releases. So knowing the purpose and audience for your piece of writing is important.

The apostrophe rules for plural nouns — nouns referring to more than one item – are largely undisputed:

Add only an apostrophe to plural words ending in s.

He was docked eight weeks’ pay.

The three agents’ sales for August totaled $8 million.

Add an apostrophe and an s to plural words not ending in s.

The publishing house is adding children’s books to its line.

It’s a real problem

The most common apostrophe problem arises around the word it. The word is a solid, everyday pronoun, so it seems natural to add an apostrophe and an s to make it possessive. “Wrong!” your English teacher screams. Don’t worry — you’re not stupid. It makes perfect sense to add an apostrophe and s just as you would to any other word. However, it’s wrong because its has been corralled into the group of possessive pronouns by a sadistic grammarian.

To understand this tricky word, it’s important to understand that the apostrophe is used to show possession in words that are not usually possessive. For example, a computer is a thing, so the word computer is a noun. But sometimes the word isn’t serving its normal function of being a noun: it is acting as a describing word showing possession:

My computer’s constant beeping drove my coworkers crazy.

In that sentence, beeping is the noun, and computer’s is a describing word. The apostrophe signals to the reader that the word is being used in a different way than expected.

But certain words exist in our language solely to show possession: his, hers, theirs, ours, its. So they don’t need an apostrophe because their usage isn’t changing.

Two easy ways to remember how to do it right:

  1. If you write it’s, you mean it is. Always.
  2. Picture its with other possessive pronouns: his, hers, theirs, ours. You wouldn’t write hi’s or her’s. So keep the apostrophe out of its as a possessive word, even if you think it’s stupid.
More controversy
Disagreement also arises about using an apostrophe for plurals of letters, numbers, abbreviations, and words used as words. Here’s a rundown:
MOST GRAMMAR BOOKS (not all agree)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of words used as words, letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and acronyms/abbreviations. But use only the s for plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many and‘s at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of single letters used as letters. But use only the s to show plurals of numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, words used as words and the plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
NEW YORK TIMES
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. But use only the s for words used as words:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990’s.
MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION (MLA style is used for academic writing in the humanities)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters. But use only the s for numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. No specific rule is given for words used as words, but there’s a strong indication to omit the apostrophe:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE (used in the publishing industry and certain academic applications)
Use an apostrophe and an s to form the plural of lowercase letters used as letters and abbreviations containing periods. Use only the s for capital letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and the plurals of decades. Also use only the s for words used as words, with possible exceptions for such examples that are awkward or in quotation marks:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two Bs and an A on its marketing scorecard. (Exception: Mind your p’s and q’s.)
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately. (Exception: Even three Ph.D’s couldn’t solve the problem.)
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
Confused? You should be. Each set of rules is slightly different. Find out the accepted style in your workplace.*

Next time: Quarrelsome Quotation Marks

Interesting related links

A fun blog that posts examples of misused apostrophes:

http://www.apostropheabuse.com/

An article about the struggle over its vs it’s:

http://www.newsweek.com/1995/11/05/its-academic-or-is-it.html

An article about how punctuation is being lost in the new age of texting:

http://www.newsweek.com/2008/08/01/the-death-of-english-lol.html

A story about how Arkansas struggled with apostrophe use with its name, proposing a bill that became law:

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/02/27/arkansas_house_to_argue_over_apostrophes/

*Special note: Words used as words, numbers used as numbers, and letters used as letters are usually italicized but not in boldface. However, for purposes of drawing attention to words used as words in my blog, I have chosen to add the boldface.

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