Thursday, July 18, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #5: Subject verb agreement

Oh dear. I hate these mistakes.

But you would think an author - a professional writer - would know better, wouldn't you? Or that the editor in charge of publishing this writer's guest column in the newspaper would take a good look? Apparently not. Even the most experienced writers make mistakes. Read on.

Subject-verb agreement is a very simple concept:

Singular noun takes a singular verb:

The man reads.  He reads.

Plural noun takes a plural verb:

The children read. They read.

Problems arise when additional words are placed between the subject and its verb:

The man travelling with a pile of suitcases and two teenagers reads.

"Teenagers reads"?  Our ear picks up that the verb doesn't sound right next to the plural noun - but the noun teenagers is not the subject of the verb reads. The subject of the verb is man.

And that's exactly the problem that arises in this excerpt.

The subject of the sentence is surgeon, and its verb is state (circled in red).

But wait a minute... The ship's surgeon state...?

The phrase talking of novels separates the noun from its verb. And because the last word of the phrase is plural, the writer chose a plural verb to follow....


Why? Because the verb state doesn't belong to the noun novels; it belongs to surgeon. Yes, the singular surgeon. Take out the modifying phrase and the subject-verb relationship becomes clear.

The ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, states that...

(I've added the required comma, too. I mean, how many ship's surgeons were there, anyway?? Don't get me started...!)

Which all goes to prove that even the most accomplished writers make mistakes. Editors, please take note!

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