Is Our People Learning?

If former president George W. Bush took plenty of knocks for adding “Is our children learning?” to his catalog  of verbal gaffes, he was among the millions upon millions of us who sometimes break the rule governing subject-verb agreement. In fact, switching the verb is with are (and vice versa) is so common in broadcast media we hardly pay it any mind.

Low expectations aside, something strange is going on in the television talk show world. What began in 2012 as a noticeable increase in is/are mix-ups has reached epic proportions of late. WTF?* Without even listening for them, I caught four instances in a 48-hour period during the week of June 24, all from highly respected journalists or politicos – and the fact that my exposure to radio or TV talksters amounts to no more than a couple of hours each day tells me these glaring errors (indicated below by boldfaced italics) are the tip of the iceberg.

  • “Late last year there was rumblings about putting such a bill on the table.’
  • “The programs we have in place is the best tools we have to go after these guys.”
  • “The roots of jihad is in Checyna.”
  • One of the terms we’re hearing now are evidence-based solutions.”
  • “There is an asymmetry to these numbers, aren’t there?”
  • “My favorite football team are the Dallas Cowboys.” (Ten yard penalty!)

I would think I was losing my hearing if I hadn’t watched rerun of two of the talk shows to double-check the mangled grammar. But before puzzling over what might have caused the outbreak, let’s look at the bigger picture.

Tripper-Uppers

On the surface, subject-verb agreement is one the simplest of all grammatical rules: A singular subject (Bill, racing) takes a singular verb (is, thrills); a plural subject (colleges, dogs) takes a plural verb (are, bark). At the same time, it is one of the most  frequently broken rules. Why? Because a minefield awaits on the way to subject-verb agreement. One of the most dangerous is the innocuous word thing, as used in “one thing that…” or “the thing I…” An example fresh off a June 30 Sunday morning talk show: “ The most profound thing I received were the tweet messages from all over.”

Another tripper is a singular term or phrase or company name ending in s. Two examples from the past month, the first from TV, the second from a newspaper in a major Sunbelt city: “I really don’t know what Wiki-Leaks are, and I didn’t track them” and “The Bill of Rights protect our efforts to preserve privacy.”

Still more hazards on the road to agreement:

Neighboring plurals The closer a plural noun to the verb that follows, the more often a subject-verb disagreement occurs. The culprits in these two examples are rooms and candies: “The design [subject] of these rooms allow [verb] for good cross ventilation.”; The choice [subject] of candies were [verb] almost too much for Jayden.” If on a pop quiz you chose allows and was as correct, you’d be right.

The singular number Three oft-used singulars – number and variety and array – are among the nouns regulary paired with a (wrongly) plural verb. In fact, this particular disagreement has become so common it’s acceptable to all but the pickiest sticklers. Why? Because meaning isn’t affected in the least, nor does the disagreement sound wrong to most ears: “A number of seniors are invited”’; “A variety of dishes were served.”; A dazzling array of desserts were enjoyed.” Nevertheless, the Prescriptivist insistivist (an endangered species, but still hanging on) demands the verbs are, is, was, and were in the preceding examples. Picky, yes, yet that doesn’t mean you can get away with similar lapses.**

Other vexing singulars Singular pronouns on the order of everyone and anybody often sound fine when used with a plural verb, and it was E. B. White who, in The Elements of Style, declared that “ear” takes precedence over grammar in some cases. So while you can safely say, “Everybody felt good because they found the movie so funny,” avoid usages like “Anyone who thinks those folks are on the up-and-up are nuts.” Potentially vexing singulars #2: none, any, all, most, and some. Whether these pronouns are paired with a singuar or plural verb depends on the prepositional phrase that follows: “None of the talk from that guy is sensible” and “Are any of their CDs available?

Is the flash flood of subject-verb disagreement explainable? Possibly, but you won’t find the reason here. All I can think of is that the men and women whose job is to keep talking virtually nonstop day in, day out simply have no time to think about which noun goes with which verb. The exception is when a correct pairing comes as second nature – but otherwise, WTF?

*WTF? = What the, er, fugue

**Playing fast and loose with number of and its close kin is one thing, but some similar disagreements announce themselves loud and clear. For instance, In his New York Times review of the recently released film World War  Z,  film critic A. O Scott starts a paragraph with “What [Brad Pitt] finds are a scattering of interesting actors…” Did Scott himself fail to notice that the gerund scattering is singular in number?Or did AutoCorrect or a not-up-to-snuff copyeditor change the fourth word in the correctly phrased “What he finds is a scattering…”? A verb choice this obvious makes me think Scott isn’t at fault.

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