The Flight of the Concord
I’m going to have a little rant today. (I know – another word-nerd hissy fit, right? Yay!) Go ahead, hate me if you must; it’ll make my post title that much more fitting. You will have guessed by now - I hope – that I’m not about to throw my toys about that expensive airliner that was discontinued after that tragic incident in 2000. No, this is about that topic most dear to my cold, black, grammar-Nazi heart: English. The Oxford Dictionary defines “concord” as follows:
- (Formal) Agreement or harmony between people or groups.
- (Grammar) Agreement between words in gender, number, case, person, or any other grammatical category, which affects the forms of the words.
- (Music) A chord that is pleasing or satisfactory in itself.
For the purposes of this post, the focus is primarily on the second of these definitions, since the maltreatment of words in this particular context has recently made itself acutely felt in my general environment. Now, there are several rules that govern agreement between words in their respective categories, but we’re only going to concern ourselves with the basics, for now, starting with subject-verb concord. And the first rule is this: When the subject of a sentence is singular, the verb that follows must also be singular, and when the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural. For example: “The boy (singular subject) walks (singular verb).” “The boys (plural subject) walk (plural verb).” The second rule is that words that come between the subject and verb do not affect subject-verb agreement. “The girl (singular subject), who is only eight years old, has (singular verb) a beautiful singing voice.” Then there’s the proximity rule, which basically states that the noun closest to the verb dictates whether the verb takes the singular or the plural form, e.g.: “Either John or his parents (is/are) responsible for the fire.” In this case, “parents” (plural noun) is closest to the verb, which dictates that the verb take the plural form. However, had the two been swapped around, the verb would be singular: “Either the parents or John is the guilty party.” It may be that all three members of this family are arsonists, but the way in which the accusation is phrased plays an important part in the choice of verb to be used. Following closely on the heels of the proximity rule is the rule that, when two subjects are joined by “and”, the verb is plural, as in, “Both the sun and the moon are celestial bodies.” However, subjects separated by “either/or”, “neither/nor”, and “not only/but also”, will take a singular verb, like so: “Either he or she will call to confirm their attendance at the party.” “Neither Jane nor Sally was able to understand what Jim was saying.” “Not only your time but also your money is wasted on pyramid schemes.” Of course, this changes in cases where the subjects are plural, because then, regardless of whether you have a single (not singular) subject, or several, the form remains plural. “Animals and children rely on adults to be properly cared for.” This is easy enough when you’re dealing with simple sentences. However, there is also the matter of subject-object agreement, which is a bit more of a grey area, and this is where people tend to lose the plot and concord flies out of the window, as in these examples: “Our group of brilliant creatives are always willing to do its share to get the job done.” Or how about: “Dogs should always have a collar so that they can be easily identified.” If you make a living from writing, you should be able to identify the errors in these examples immediately. If you can’t, I suggest you enroll in an English language course to polish those skills a bit. Collective nouns, such as “group”, “herd”, “class” and “team” take the singular verb form, so that first example above should be, “Our group of brilliant creatives is always willing…” But, because we’re also referring to more than one person, the creatives in question are willing “to do their share to get the job done.” In the example referring to dogs, though, while we aren’t singling out any one particular dog, we are also not referring to a single pack of dogs. We’re talking about all dogs in general. If all the dogs in the world had “a collar”, the gross majority of them would remain unidentified throughout their lives, because the sentence as it is shown above implies that all the dogs share that single collar. These are just a few of the basic rules governing concord, yet I have found myself stunned at the number of writing professionals who do not seem to know them. If you are often called upon to write, I highly recommend subscribing to a few language and writing blogs, or signing up for some of the many free courses available online to keep those word-wizardry skills up to standard. You might just save the English language from becoming something unspeakable.