August 20, 2009

Language Tips: Subject-verb agreement & orientate or orient

Posted in orientate or orient, preventive/preventative, subject-verb agreement at 6:14 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: More on subject-verb agreement

I was reading an article in Academic Medicine the other day and came across this:

A mentoring relationship is one that may vary along a continuum from informal/short-term to formal/long-term in which faculty with useful experience, knowledge, skills, and/or wisdom offers advice, information, guidance, support, or opportunity to another faculty member or student for that individual’s professional development.

Berk, R, Berg, J, et al. Measuring the effectiveness of faculty mentoring relationships. Academic Medicine. 80(1):66-71, January 2005.

What bothered me was not the definition of a mentoring relationship which seems to be a reasonable attempt at defining mentoring but the use of ‘offers’ with ‘faculty.’ In this context, that is just wrong. We talked about collective nouns and verb choice a while ago, but I think it’s worth addressing once more because it can be a bit tricky.

Collective nouns are troublesome because they can be singular or plural depending on how they are used. If the collective noun refers to a group acting as a unit, that is, all members are doing the same thing together at the same time, then a singular verb is called for.

The committee is meeting to vote on the new regulations.

The soccer team is going to the state championship.

In these examples, the committee is acting as a unit and so is the team.

However, if the collective noun refers to a group acting as individuals, then a plural noun is what is needed.

The committee are at odds with each other on whether to join the union.

The soccer team are working on their writing assignments despite their desire to practice.

In these examples, the members of the committee and the members of the team are working individually-not as a unit.

So going back to the passage that bothered me, are the faculty acting as a unit or as individuals when they offering advice, information, support, etc. to another faculty member?

Well, one tip off in the sentence is the reference to ‘another faculty member.’ That clearly implies that we are talking about individual faculty members and not the faculty as a group.

Another tip off is the nature of what is being done. Mentors provide advice and support to others, and this task is performed individually, not as a group. I believe in team-mentoring, but having all of the faculty as a group mentor is more than a little bit daunting.

So the faculty are acting as individuals and as such must take a plural rather than a singular verb. The correct wording would be this:

A mentoring relationship is one that may vary along a continuum from informal/short-term to formal/long-term in which faculty with useful experience, knowledge, skills, and/or wisdom offer advice, information, guidance, support, or opportunity to another faculty member or student for that individual’s professional development.

There are two other points I want to make about subject-verb agreement.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about subject-verb agreement when multiple subjects are joined by ‘and,’ e.g., the flautist and the percussionist are planning to start a family. But what about sentences where the nouns are joined by connecting phrases such as ‘as well as,’ ‘along with,’ and ‘in addition to’?

When the subjects are joined by a connecting phrase, the nouns following the connective phrase are NOT considered part of a compound subject and are NOT included in the subject count, so the verb should agree with the initial subject.

John, as well as his parents, are going to the Jersey Shore. WRONG

John, as well as his parents, is going to the Jersey Shore. CORRECT

This study, along with a dozen other studies, prove that this treatment is the most effective. WRONG

This study, along with a dozen other studies, proves that this treatment is the most effective. CORRECT

Dr. Cutter, in addition to Drs. Slice and Knives, are going to perform the surgery. WRONG

Dr. Cutter, in addition to Drs. Slice and Knives, is going to perform the surgery. CORRECT

The other point I want to make is this:

A number of’ always takes a plural verb, and ‘the number of’ always takes a singular verb.

A number of dragons have flown in to participate in the tournament.

The number of dragons is smaller than it used to be.

That’s it.

I had a great idea for my second tip. I see it all the time in grant proposals. People talk about ‘preventative’ medicine or ‘preventative’ schedules or something of that ilk. I was all set to get up on my soap box and rant about how it is nonstandard and should NOT be used. ‘Preventive’ is a far better, not to mention more correct, choice. Then I checked to see if I had addressed this in the past. It turns out that I addressed this issue not just once, but twice! So I think I will forgo that particular lecture for now.

Tip 2: Orient or orientate

Remember all the stuff that I was going to say about ‘preventative,’ about it being nonstandard, a needless variant. And I was going to tell you to stop using ‘preventative.’ Forget it even exists! Ban it from your vocabulary! Slash it from your dictionaries!

Well, all that applies to ‘orientate,’ too.

1 Comment »

  1. galen said,

    Interesting column this week as always!

    I just wanted to comment on your examples using the phrase “a number of”. My personal opinion is that this phrase should be banned from academic writing. I see it often in grant proposals and manuscripts and it always makes me cringe because it is so vague as to be completely uninformative. Presumably, when this phrase is used, the author really means something like “many”, “several”, or “multiple”. However, because “a number of” can be interpreted as any number at all (including zero), the phrase is meaningless.

    That is my soapbox for the day.


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