October 7, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Subject-verb agreement & herein

Posted in herein, subject-verb agreement at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Subject and verb agreement

A reader writes:

You have probably commented on this before, but I couldn’t find it in the archives. Is it Dean Name and the University of Pittsburgh School of Something congratulate or congratulates the following individuals?

We discussed it thoroughly last year, and did it one way . This year we changed it, so everyone discussed it again.

Some people think it’s “Dean Someone and the University of Pittsburgh School of Something congratulates…”, because Dean Someone is singular and the School of Something is singular and each one “congratulates.” Two singulars do not necessarily equal a plural, so it just sounds better to some. BUT the argument was made that they do form a plural, and/or that the School of Something can be considered plural, like the faculty.

Okay, to answer this question, I first had to make the sentence real so I could visualize the issue:

Dean Smithers and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine congratulate(s) Professor Greeley for her inestimable service to the University.

First, let’s get to the answer and get it out of the way. The Dean and the School become plural so a plural verb is required.

Dean Smithers and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine congratulate Professor Greeley for her inestimable service to the University.

When you have two nouns joined with ‘and,’ a plural verb is called for. If they were joined by ‘or,’ you would want a singular verb. For example,

Either the lecturer or the course instructor is going to come to this session.

I think the difficulty with the original sentence stems from the fact that it is an awkward construct. You are imbuing an inanimate object (the School) with the ability to take action (congratulate), and that is difficult to grasp.

The reader also mentioned that the School may be considered plural because of the people in it. Even if we think of the School as a sum of the people in it (faculty, staff, and students), it is still the sum and is singular rather than plural.

There are other ways to write this so that it sounds less awkward and it is easier to choose the appropriate verb. For example,

Dean Smithers and the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine congratulate Professor Greeley for her inestimable service to the University.

Using like nouns also helps clarify what you are trying to say.

Tip 2: Herein

A reader writes:

I’m on an editorial board for board review questions. Suddenly I’m seeing the word “herein” in all of the answer critiques. An example: “In addition to the basic laboratory work suggested herein, one should also obtain …,” and another “As noted herein, low dose heparin….” This sounds terrifically pompous to me. Is it better than simply saying “suggested above” or “as noted below”?

The reader needed a quick answer, so I wrote back a brief note:

I agree with you completely. It sounds pompous, and I would only use it in the most formal of documents-like a legal contract.

Just as quickly, the reader wrote back:

Well, they bought your response, and ‘herein’ was promptly relegated to the hereafter. Pulled from all the critiques, and now they want to receive your postings.

Well, that ended well.

I just want to add that there’s nothing wrong with ‘here’ here instead of ‘herein.’

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