Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Friday, June 26, 2009

Grammatical numbers and verb agreement

Today I came across an email from England-based DPPi Journal. For those not in the know, I am a part of the editorial advisory board with that magazine. The email went out to all of us on the board, with an attached article and a request for editing of the article. I felt reluctant to try my hand at editing the piece, because, for one thing, I'm American, not English. While my being a part of this magazine has acquainted me with British English and diction, I do not feel capable of adequately performing the task of editing something written for a British audience. And, on the other hand, someone with a better grasp of British grammar might already tackle the editing job.

That said, I decided to give the piece a look all the same. I would just READ it, I told myself. Maybe I could offer some comments on it or a little constructive feedback on the topic.

When I read the article, however, I did notice quite a few editorial mistakes. And even though I knew this article is for a British audience, I felt that, perhaps, the editorial correction would still stand. Perhaps this one thing expected of American grammar would also be expected of British grammar.

A common mistake I saw in the article was that the writer kept putting a singular verb where a plural verb was needed. Here is an example of what I mean (this is not from the piece edited):

I think cherry pie, apple turnovers and cheesecake is a great dessert.

The problem with this sentence is that "is" should be "are." Here is the corrected sentence:

I think cherry pie, apple turnovers and cheesecake are a great dessert.

In the past, we have been told that in order to clear the confusion about what word is correct to use -- "is" or "are" -- we should read the sentence without the extra additions. In this case:

I think cherry pie ... is a great dessert.

This rule applies only if we are talking about one item. It is not appropriate for the above example, but it is appropriate for this example:

I think cherry pie, topped with whipped cream and cherry sauce, is a great dessert.

If, however, you are talking about more than one thing -- in the above example, three different kinds of desserts -- then you would use the plural verb and not the singular.

And even if this is a correction not wholly accepted by the magazine staff, I stand by my correction. Saying "I think cherry pie, apple turnovers and cheesecake is a great dessert" just doesn't sound right if you are referring to them individually.

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  • At 1:18 AM , Blogger Lillie Ammann said...


    I agree that your example is plural, and consequently, I think you would have to change "a great dessert" to "great desserts" to be correct. The three items are not "a" dessert; they are three desserts.

    Do you agree?

  • At 8:12 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Good catch, Lillie! Thank you for pointing it out. I was so focused on stressing how to decide which word to use, I overlooked that detail. I will keep that in mind next time. Thank you. :)

  • At 1:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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