Let's agree on health care reform and, oh, yeah, grammar

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2009 - 10:16 AM

The web of lies surrounding the health care debate are making it difficult to discuss the issue reasonably. None of the groups involved in this debate are stupid. The opposition, which includes supporters of the status quo, want slower change or no change. They believe that private industry, rather than government programs, are the solution. One of the reasons, they argue, are that government cannot be trusted. Reasonable people on both sides of the debate believe honest discussion and not scare tactics are needed for a democracy to function.

When emotions run high, we sometimes forget the rules not only for civil discourse but also for subject-verb agreement. And sometimes our emotions obscure the obvious: Every sentence in the previous paragraph contains an error in subject-verb agreement.

Did you notice the errors?

Most educated people have no problem with simple sentence structures. For them, the error in this sentence are obvious.

But even people with a good command of language get tripped up by special cases involving subject-verb agreement:

Prepositional phrases. Verbs agree with the subjects, not the objects, in prepositional phrases, as in "The web of lies ... is," not "the web of lies ... are."

None. Although usage regarding this word is becoming more relaxed, none takes a singular verb, as in "None of the groups ... is," not "none of the groups ... are."

Asides. Asides do not make a singular subject plural. It should be "The opposition, which includes supporters of the status quo, wants," not "the opposition, which includes supporters of the status quo, want." Likewise, it should be "They believe that private industry, rather than government programs, is the solution," not "private industry, rather than government programs, are ...."

Take care when using in addition to and as well as. It should be "Lack of coverage, as well as high costs, is the main flaw of the current system," not "lack of coverage, as well as high costs, re."

Compound subjects containing both positive and negative elements. When subjects have two parts and one part is positive and the other is negative, the verb agrees with the positive part, as in "Reasonable people on both sides of the debate believe honest discussion and not scare tactics is needed for a democracy to function," not "reasonable people ... believe honest discussion and not scare tactics are needed...."

Compound subjects joined by or and nor. When subjects have two parts and the second part is joined by or or nor, verbs agree with the closer element, as in "Neither honest people nor a person who lies is exempt," not "neither honest people nor a person who lies are exempt."

Other special cases are collective nouns such as faculty and staff, Latin words such as data and media and the phrases the number of, a number of, one of the, and one of the [plural noun] that/who. For a review of these special cases and other rules governing subject-verb agreement, see www.wilbers.com.

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