Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis quick tutorial is on a point of grammar that often trips people up. But before I begin, I want to offer an observation and a disclaimer.

Over the years, some of the writers whose work I’ve edited have expressed embarrassment over their lack of grammar knowledge. But, as I always tell them, it’s probably more to do with failures of the education system than with any lack of aptitude on their part. From about the 1960s, education theorists decided that grammar—the structural basis of language—inhibited children’s creativity. It imposed on them too many rules. It was boring. It was hard. And so it was pretty much wiped from the curriculum. (You can read more here and here.)

Thankfully, grammar is making a comeback in today’s schools (more about that here)—too late, of course, for those generations who missed out.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who was ‘good at English’, and I’m so glad she instilled in me a few boring rules when I was in primary school. I want to emphasise that: I was lucky. And then, in high school, I learned more about English grammar by learning French and German than I had ever learned in an English class. Since then, my work as an editor has required the study of grammar, and frequent revision, although I don’t consider myself to be an expert—a term I reserve for the few editors I know who studied Latin and for whom the parsing of a sentence was a primary school exercise as familiar as reciting the times table.

So that’s the context for my posts on grammar. For greater authority than mine, there are any number of tomes available, though I confess to a fondness for one that is delightfully quirky and satisfyingly gothic: Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: the ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.

And so on to today’s quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise.

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Being able to identify the subject of a sentence is important, because the verb needs to agree in number with the subject—that is, a singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb.

The girl is eating ice-cream. (singular subject = The girl; singular verb = is eating; object = ice-cream)

The girls are eating ice-cream. (plural subject = The girls; plural verb = are eating; object = ice-cream)

But the subjects above are simple subjects, and subjects are not always simple. They can come carrying baggage in the form of modifiers. Take a look at the following sentences. In each of these, the subject (including all of its modifying baggage) is highlighted in blue:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.

As you can see, these are complex subjects with many modifiers (words that tell us something about the subject), but the base element of the subject is The girl. She’s the one eating the ice-cream. She’s the singular subject taking the singular verb. In terms of the sentence, all these other words, all these other people, are subordinate to her, performing the following modifying roles:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one who told us about the snakes

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.
gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar, is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas; and gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, and her friends are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl is the subject of the action. Power to the girl!

29 Comments

Filed under Tips for writers

29 responses to “Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

  1. Ian

    ‘Of’ as a verb… this is one of the most perplexing of errors in grammar. So often we now read – even written by people in the professions: “I should OF worked harder in school.”

    • It’s certainly common, Ian! I guess it comes from the sound of the contraction ‘should’ve’—and the fact that a lot of people haven’t been taught how to construct tenses.

  2. Thank you Amanda! I am so buying “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” – with a title like, who can resist, and why would they want to!

    • An editor friend recommended this to me years ago, Karen, and I had exactly the same reaction as yours! 🙂

      • Ian

        Here’s an interesting new development in our language: “I am so buying…” Either you are buying or you’re not Karen M…

      • Ian, that’s little colloquialism I rather like, although it’s better when delivered verbally. As in: I am SOOOOO going to make an orange and pecan cake tomorrow! 🙂

      • You got it, Amanda! And Ian, I’m so not offended by your engineery tendency to absolute accuracy, maybe I’m like, just 14? Not buying that? OK, no probs 🙂 No need to fret about the indeterminate state of purchase either, I so got it straight away, and now it’s winging it’s way to my desk. You can borrow it if you’re nice, and depending on where you are 🙂

  3. Glen Hunting

    I am one of the unlucky/lucky generation of which you speak. Unlucky in that I was not taught grammar in school. Lucky in that I managed to pick some of it up subsequently.

    I can say, without a shadow of a lie, that I received my very basic grounding in grammar (which has stuck with me ever since) from studying engineering at university. Yes, folks, you heard right. All first year students in my course had to sit through a year long course of grammar, report writing, and English comprehension. And you weren’t allowed to progress unless you passed it.
    Our task in second semester was to write weekly chapter summaries of a book called “Straight And Crooked Thinking,” by Robert H. Thouless. These summaries were supposed to put into practice the same theories of clear argument and expression that Mr. Thouless expounded, and we were marked according to how successful (or otherwise) our efforts were.

    I don’t think there was anything drastically wrong with my sentence structure or verb agreements before first year uni. By the same token, I couldn’t have told you when it was necessary to use a semi-colon instead of a comma. My tutors at UWA sorted that one out for me, though, and I’ve never forgotten it. If memory serves, one of them was Peter Forrestal, who wrote Look it Up (I think.)

    • That’s a surprising source of grammar knowledge, Glen, but you’ve certainly been well served! An author I worked with who taught politics at Curtin used to begin each semester with a short sermon on grammar, so it’s not unprecedented. 🙂

      • Ian

        Living with my parents, my Uncle Les, and my grandparents in London, I was taught grammar long before I went to school… Very fortunate to have been born into such a word-aware family…

      • You are indeed a fortunate man. 🙂

      • Glen Hunting

        Indeed, Ian.
        I was just speculating to myself about the best role of grammar, and its best emphasis in a person’s development. Any linguists who might be listening in on this conversation might be able to shed some light on this, but I tend to think we learn to write in the same way we learn to speak and read. That is, by recognising patterns of stress and emphasis in what we hear and see, and then imitating them. Thereafter, I’m guessing that the rules of grammar ‘step in’ to remove confusion once more complex meanings and expressions arise, and once misinterpretations become more likely.
        I imagine the development of grammar in a language is rather like the development of traffic rules; people were driving on public roads before rules existed, but the rules were formulated soon thereafter once various difficulties (collisions etc.) arose. In other words, grammar arises out of neccesity once the limits of intuition are reached. This makes me think that an awareness of grammar should be given to children or young people a little time after they’ve developed their own basic oral and written language skills. This is overstating the point, perhaps, but I can’t help thinking that if I’d had to pass quizzes on present and past participles as a six year-old, I might never have wanted to open my mouth again.
        Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

  4. Glen Hunting

    And before anyone else picks up on it, I have indeed misspelt ‘necessity’ above…

    • 🙂

      I imagine the teaching of grammar to six-year-olds is more in the realm of ‘verbs are doing words’ than rules and quizzes. But I guess at some point you need the language of grammar in order to turn awareness into understanding.

      Interesting thoughts, Glen.

  5. Thank you, once again, for this series of posts. I learned most of my grammar in French lessons, too, but then had many years of not needing it. I didn’t write a complete sentence for years, just phrases, and nobody apart from me could read my handwriting anyway, so it didn’t matter what I wrote!

    I find the singular subject fairly easy. It’s when there’s a group that comes under a collective term, like ‘class’ or ‘family’, that I get confused. For example, which is correct:

    The class was eating lunch.
    The class were eating lunch.

    The family is watching a movie.
    The family are watching a movie.

    • Hi Louise. The collectives can be singular or plural, depending on the context. So you ask yourself whether the action concerns the group as a whole or the members. You might have:

      The family is watching a movie. [the group]
      or
      The family have different ideas about which movie they should watch. [the family members]

      It’s not always that clear-cut, but it’s a good place to start. 🙂

  6. marlish glorie

    Thank you for this invaluable tutorial on grammar Amanda. I so totally love these tutorials, and like Karen I am going to buy The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. Also thank you for being sympathetic towards grammar idiots like me who think grammar is someone who lives with grandma. 🙂

  7. marlish glorie

    Oops sorry,Amanda, grammar lives with grandpa.:)

  8. marlish glorie

    Funee man!

  9. Great post, Amanda – I applaud and share your enthusiasm for the niceties of grammar because it seems to me hardly possible to write supple or subtle prose without understanding sentence structure and related matters,
    I can readily believe that Glen’s engineering course taught him a lot about such things; a few days ago I had a meeting with some UWA engineering students who wanted my advice about project management – and I was impressed by their language skills. On the other hand an engineering company has repeatedly used my services as a consultant because its otherwise well trained employees often struggle with the most basic aspects of report writing and need plenty of help.

  10. lovehandmade

    I love this! I have very little knowledge of grammar ( actually none at all). I was in the unlucky group, taught it the early 80′s, where grammar was never mentioned beyond capital letters and full stops. I have decided at 33 to learn and this blog was my first find. I am certainly ordering the book mentioned above!
    This time next year I hope my page is no longer covered in a confetti of wild commas and that there is a lot less drama in my writing, with the over use of exclamation marks! ( ha!)
    I hope I work out what on earth a semi colon actually is. Will I ever ( in the words of vampire weekend) give a f&@k about an oxford comma?
    Look forward to reading and learning more.
    Ignorance be gone.
    Gillian x

    • Thanks, Gillian, and I love your fix-it attitude! I post quick tutorials from time to time (there are a few on the blog now). Maybe I’ll do one on the semicolon especially for you. 🙂

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