Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Subject-Verb Agreement: A Wordy Stir-Fry


Alan e-mailed me about this article in Time magazine, which was written by Stephen Fry back in April about the launch of Apple's iPad. The article contained the following passage:
I do believe Jobs to be a truly great figure, one of the small group of innovators who have changed the world. He exists somewhere between showman, perfectionist overseer, visionary, enthusiast and opportunist, and his insistence upon design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability are a huge part of Apple's success.

Alan, who also blogged about the Time article, points out, "Since the real subject of the last phrase is insistence, the corresponding verb should be singular." 

I'm impressed! With no fewer than 14 nouns in that second sentence, Alan managed to find the one that mattered most, grammatically speaking.

Where does Stephen go wrong? He got tripped up in his own wordiness. In building a very long sentence that contains two phrases, each of which includes a litany of nouns, Stephen lost track of his own subject in the second phrase. He would have been better off breaking that extra-long sentence into two shorter sentences.

Writer beware: When we hear (or say) a long list, our minds often get thinking in the plural. 

Quick rule: A singular subject takes a singular verb.

Correction: He exists somewhere between showman, perfectionist overseer, visionary, enthusiast and opportunist, and his insistence upon design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability is a huge part of Apple's success.

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