August 6, 2009

Language Tips: Compound subjects and verb agreement & myriad

Posted in compound subject and verb agreement, myriad at 8:43 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Compound subjects and verb agreement

A reader writes:

Is this correct:

‘Information is needed in advance to make informed decisions about the selection of providers and programs, particularly when one or both options are not available.

Should this ‘are’ be ‘is’? One is; both are? If the conjunction were ‘and’ or ‘but not,’ the answer would be simple.

To be honest, my first inclination was to rewrite the sentence to avoid any awkward structures, but the sentence was in the proof of a manuscript awaiting publication, so the reader wanted to minimize changes.

This brings us to compound subjects and verb agreement. At first blush, the rules are pretty simple: If both subjects that make the compound subject are connected by ‘and,’ the verb is plural.

The harpsichord and the lute are going to be featured at tomorrow’s concert.

The gulls and the herons are circling the lake.

If both subjects are singular and they are connected by ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ the verb is singular.

Neither the pitcher nor the third baseman is in a position to catch that ball.

Either Shakespeare or Francis Bacon was the real author of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

If both subjects are plural and they are connected by ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ the verb is plural.

Neither the storm clouds nor the lightning strikes are going to scare me into staying inside.

According to recent research, either dogs or cats are very intelligent. (According to the news reports, it is dogs-but I’m sure cat people will disagree.)

So far so good. But the rule is a little trickier when there is one singular and one plural subject involved: When one of the subjects comprising the compound subject is singular and the other is plural and they are connected by ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ the verb should agree with the subject closest to the verb.

The bouquet or the left-over flowers are going to look beautiful in the arrangement.

Neither the offensive linemen nor the kicker is going to play in the Pro Bowl.

Some people say that the plural subject should always be moved closest to the verb so a plural verb is always used. I don’t buy that. If you make the verb agree with its closest subject, you’ll be fine.

To further complicate the issue of compound subjects and verb agreement, there are two instances in which the subjects of a compound subject are joined by ‘and’ but still take a singular verb.

One is when the subjects denote a single unit:

Bacon and eggs is my favorite breakfast.

Tom and Jerry is the funniest cartoon.

The other is when the compound subject is preceded by ‘each’ or ‘every’:

Every child and parent is going to the school picnic.

Each salmon and swordfish is packed in ice to prepare for transport.

[ASIDE: I sometimes wonder what an analyst would make of the sentences I make up to use as examples, but I don’t think I want to go there.]

Tip 2: Myriad once again

A reader writes:


I have always written, “Myriad problems occur to people who use the word ‘myriad.'” Yet I typically see people write, “A myriad of problemsā€¦”

This grates on my nerves.

What’s the scoop?

Well reader, we touched on the subject of ‘myriad’ a while ago, but it’s been a long while, and I think we’re due for an update. So here’s the scoop:

Another contentious grammar issue. It’s amazing how grammarians can get so worked up about a word.

But we do.

Let me jump to the bottom line. Myriad may be used both as a noun (a myriad of) and an adjective (myriad) and has been used both ways for centuries. As a noun, it means ‘a great number.’ As an adjective, it means ‘innumerable.’

A myriad of stars lit the evening sky.

Myriad politicians descended upon the halls of congress to tout their views.

It is also used as a plural noun which I don’t really like. Since, as a noun, it means a great number, how would you distinguish a myriad from myriads?

Personally, I prefer it used as an adjective if, for no other reason, it saves some words and is economical, but either usage is fine.

Since my brand new, third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage arrived this morning, I’ll let him have the last word.

Myriad is more concise as an adjective than as a noun…But the mere fact that the adjective is handier than the noun doesn’t mean the latter is substandard.

Some examples:

Lulled in the countless chambers of the brain, our thoughts are linked by many a hidden chain; awake but one, and in, what myriads rise!
Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)

I don’t like going where I’ve already been. Life is a myriad of territories to discover. I don’t want to waste time with what I already know.
Jeanne Moreau (1928 – )

Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms.
Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481)

Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence and like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; and it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style.
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)


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