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Excuse me, but your subjects and your verbs should be more matchy-matchy | COMMENTARY

In Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, Ward Farnsworth describes a problem with the periodic sentence, which builds on subordinate clauses and phrases before the main point at the end: Such a sentence “takes more effort to follow” because it “asks the reader to keep in mind what is being said until the point arrives.”

The same effort is required of a writer who attempts a sentence longer than half a dozen words—keeping in the short-term memory what the original subject was while inserting material between the subject and verb. Errors in subject-verb agreement are among the fixes I make daily, I assume because the writer has been distracted by some intervening noun or pronoun and temporarily forgotten what their subject was.

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Here are some examples gleaned from my files. (Nothing too recent—I’m there to protect my colleagues, not expose them.)

Item: In Maryland, a voluntary reporting system among 25 doctors’ offices in the state show there were 2,200 visits for influenza-like illnesses this season through Jan. 20.

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Doctors’ offices appears to have distracted the writer from system, the subject of shows.

Item: A rapidly developing drought and unseasonably hot weather throughout Maryland has stolen the early promise of this year’s wet spring, parching lawns and gardens and raising fears among farmers of a return to the disastrously dry years of the mid-1980s.

Drought and hot weather, a double-barreled subject, requires have stolen as the verb.

Item: New federal rules for cost-sharing on major construction projects for local sewer systems means higher sewer bills for the average homeowner.

Perhaps the writer took cost-sharing to be the subject, rather than the object of a preposition, but rules mean.

Item: Either of the proposed parking ordinances are likely to bring an outcry from the neighbors.

 Yes, ordinances is right there next to the verb, but either, a singular pronoun, is the subject.

Item: An influx of immigrants from Uzbekistan, which has a long history of success in fight sports, have transformed New York’s high school wrestling competition.

Immigrants and sports, both objects of prepositions, seem to have exerted a gravitational pull on the verb, but influx is right there at the beginning as the subject.

You see what I’m up against. And it has always been so. I never come across novel errors in grammar.

I used to tell my students as they examined sentences such as these to look for the subject, and they always had difficulty, being confused, say, by the object of a preposition or failing to identify a gerund. I learned to ask them instead to identify the verb, and from there figure out what word or words were acting on it.

You could try that too.

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