Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why Can't We Agree?

A couple of days ago, I was reading a BBC news story when I came across the following passage:
And what's happened since the election?

The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.

The anger felt by Clinton supporters were compounded when it emerged that the FBI had been looking into any links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Mr Comey chose not to go public with it.

In May, he gave evidence to a Senate Judiciary Committee and defended himself.

He said that it was a "painful" dilemma when he decided to make his October pronouncement, but if he had not come forward about the new Clinton emails, he would have been guilty of concealment.

Mr Comey said he felt "nauseous" at the thought he might have had an impact.
I felt a little "nauseous" myself. Can you guess why? (If you're an English major, I'm sure you can. If not, I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with politics.)

I immediately fired off an e-mail to "the Beeb," the gist of which was:
I spotted a couple of glaring grammatical errors in your article. I have been hearing such errors more and more frequently on TV and radio, but to see two of them in writing (and from the BBC!) makes me despair for the future of the English language. You should be better than this.
Okay, that was pretty harsh, but BBC newswriters really should be better, as should anyone who writes for a living. Subject-verb agreement is pretty basic grammar—although I can see where a layperson might get lost when there are prepositional phrases involved. In such cases, it can help to diagram the sentence. For example, here's a diagram I found of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

Don't worry. We're not going to do that, because I hate diagramming sentences. All you really need to do to ensure subject-verb agreement is to ask yourself three questions:
  1. What is the verb in the sentence?,
  2. What is the subject of that verb?, and
  3. Do they agree?
Let's take a look at the first sentence in the passage:
The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.
This is a compound sentence, with two clauses separated by the conjunction "but." Actually, it's a run-on sentence; there should be a comma before the "but," but I won't quibble about that now. See what I did there? In pointing out the missing comma, I gave you an example of a correctly punctuated compound sentence. Impressed? (Never mind; don't answer that.)

In the second clause of this compound sentence, the verb is obviously "rage." Now, we ask ourselves, what is the subject of that verb? What is it that is raging? Is it "Mr Comey's actions?" Well, let's try it:
Mr Comey's actions rage on.
Please! The only way that sentence could possibly make sense is if it were part of the dialogue from some far-fetched science fiction film:
First Scientist: "Mr. Comey's actions have taken on a life of their own! They are destroying the city!"

Second Scientist: "They cannot be stopped! Mr. Comey's actions rage on!"
Okay, maybe not so far-fetched, and I should seriously think about developing it into a screenplay, but the fact is, "Mr Comey's actions" is not the subject of the verb "rage," it is the object of the preposition "about." The phrase "about Mr Comey's actions" modifies the noun "debate." If we remove the phrase, we are left with the simple sentence:
The debate rage on.
Does that sound right to you? Of course not! That's because "debate" is a singular subject, and "rage" is a plural verb. They do not agree. Here's the corrected sentence (just for fun, we'll put that missing comma in—and what the heck, because we are a bit OCD, a period after "Mr" as well):
The investigation remains closed, but the debate about Mr. Comey's actions rages on.
Much better! See if you can find the second subject-verb error in the passage. If you didn't notice it before, it should be much easier now. After you've done this sort of analysis a few times, you should be able to spot such errors immediately. If only politics were that simple.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Comey, the word is nauseated.

(Note: Before publishing this post, I took another look at the story and found that both errors had been fixed. Bravo, BBC!)