We’re In Agreement

By Paulo Ordoveza from Washington, DC - Pandora Are Serious Cat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3446628

You most likely remember that about ten to fifteen years ago there was an Internet phenomenon known as LOLcats: memes featuring pictures of cats with silly, grammatically challenged captions. Perhaps the idea behind the bad grammar was to imitate baby talk—but whatever the reason, it worked. We all laughed at them and probably shared many of them on social media.

Of course all native speakers of English, as well as non-natives who have mastered the basics, recognize that these sentences are not grammatically correct: 

I are serious cat.

Nobody hear you scream.

The problem here is that the subject and verb do not agree: singular subjects need a verb with a singular ending, and plural subjects need a verb with a plural ending. If we were to correct those examples, they would look like this:

I am [a] serious cat.

Nobody hears you scream.

And in English, we actually have it pretty easy when it comes to verb endings: in the present tense, almost all verbs do not need an ending, except for -s or sometimes -es for third person singular (he/she/it):

I hear                                    We hear

You hear                              You hear

He/she/it hears                  They hear

Of course the verb to be has to be difficult, as always:

I am                                       We are                                                 I was                     We were

You are                                 You are                                               You were               You were

He/she/it is                         They are                                             He/she/it was       They were

When you have a short, simple sentence, such as those above, it’s easy to spot a lack of subject-verb agreement. But how about this one—is it in agreement or not?

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books were considerable.

This sentence is in fact not in agreement, and here’s how you can tell: you have to pare the sentence down to just its main subject and main verb. It starts out with the subject, The difficulty, which is then followed by a long prepositional phrase which modifies it: of reading all those long, tedious books. If we remove that phrase, we’re left with The difficulty were considerable, which we can tell right away is not grammatical—it should of course be The difficulty was considerable. Even though the plural books is the word right before the verb was, it doesn’t govern the verb—the true subject is the singular difficulty.

So put back together, the correct version is:

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books was considerable.

Figuring out subject-verb agreement can get even trickier in sentences with relative clauses, that is, phrases that start with wh- words such as who and which.

The impact, which current predictions indicate are coming soon, could be huge.

This sentence is not in agreement either, but in all fairness, it is difficult to spot. The first few times I saw examples like this I could not find the error until it was pointed out to me. But it’s because of the relative clause which current predictions indicate are coming soon: phrases of this type usually do not repeat the word being modified. No wonder it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on!

So let’s pick this apart: the main subject of the sentence is The impact. When we get to the relative clause which modifies it, we have to mentally re-word it briefly, re-inserting the subject, the impact, which gives us: current predictions indicate [the impact] are coming soon. Ah, ha! Now we can see that it should in fact be

The impact, which current predictions indicate is coming soon, could be huge.

If you’d like to read in a lot (and I mean a LOT) more depth about how to get to the bottom of complex constructions such as these, I highly recommend a book that has helped me tremendously: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.) This book is a must-have if you’re serious about improving your writing. But best of all, Pinker writes with a lot of humor—this book is anything but dry!

Can you find any sentences “in the wild” that are not in agreement? Please share them below!

Working Out on the Elliptical

For several years my husband and I owned an elliptical machine—you know, the piece of equipment that has two large pedals that move in an oval-shaped path. I actually used it quite a bit; it was just the ticket for a good workout on days when the weather was cold or rainy (or both). And the low-impact design helped me stay in decent shape while still being kind to my aging knees.

Believe it or not, grammar has its own elliptical machine. Just like its workout equipment counterpart, elliptical construction is low-impact—it’s pretty easy to do—but it can help keep your sentences from picking up too much weight.

To show you what I mean, let’s quickly revisit our last installment, where we talked about the importance of parallel construction–that is, making grammatical structure similar:

(Not parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and my husband gets me to edit his blog.   

(Parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and I edit my husband’s blog.

The first sentence is not parallel because the two clauses—the two parts—have two different subjects: I in the first, but my husband in the second. We’ve made this sentence parallel by making I the subject of both. But now it’s a bit repetitive, isn’t it? Because we have plenty of context, we can trim the repeated elements from the second part of the sentence, leaving us with:

(Parallel and elliptical) I post to my blog every two weeks and edit my husband’s.

This is elliptical construction, also known as ellipsis: leaving out the parts that can be recovered from the context. In the second half of the sentence the reader can infer the subject I and the remainder of the phrase my husband’s, which is blog.

Not all sentences where you use parallel construction will also need ellipsis, but it’s always something to consider in order to keep your writing as tight as possible. Let’s run through one more example:

(Not parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family agrees with her.

To make this sentence parallel, let’s make Italian food the object of both clauses:

(Parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family likes Italian food too.

And yes, I’m making these examples obvious so you can see how the ellipsis works. We do it so naturally that it sounds repetitive and clunky without it, doesn’t it? Anyhow, here’s the final version:

(Parallel and elliptical) Anna likes Italian food and her family does too.

When creating elliptical structure, just be sure to always double-check that you haven’t removed so much information that your sentence could be ambiguous. For example:

Sally likes John more than Bob.

Does this mean that 1, Sally likes John more than she likes Bob, or that 2, Sally likes John more than Bob likes John? If you mean 1, a good elliptical sentence would be:

Sally likes John more than she does Bob.

For option 2, it would look like this:

Sally likes John more than Bob does.

By the way, there’s one other kind of ellipsis out there—it’s the punctuation mark that consists of three periods in a row used to show the location of missing words in a direct quote, or to indicate a long pause or speech trailing off.

And finally, if you’d like to go down a grammar nerd rabbit hole, check out this article, with no fewer than six different types of elliptical construction sorted by their technical names. I had no idea there were so many. It may sound daunting, but as it turns out, we use these sorts of constructions all the time quite naturally, especially when we talk.   

Please feel free to ask any questions or to share your favorite examples of elliptical construction below!