Grammar Wednesday

Last Wednesday, I was riding home from the grocery store, listening to The World on NPR. Since that show is associated with the BBC, the news breaks are reported by that service, and I listened as an anchor told me about the release of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held in Gaza; about how a mosque leader in Islamabad escaped a Pakistani seige by disguising himself in a burqa; and about how Rwandan major was found guilty of murdering ten Belgian peacekeepers in the early days of the Rwandan genocide.

I’m SO sorry that I can’t find a link to the audio of that newscast, because the issue that I’m bringing up here has to do with something that I heard the anchor say. To the best of my ability to recall it, she said something to the effect of:

The murders was a key development in the genocide, as it caused the withdrawal of UN troops and opened the way for factions to continue their aggresions toward each other.

This was a pretty jarring subject/verb agreement error, and I actually looked at my radio in a bit of disbelief. My only explanation is that it’s an example of the British English/American English disconnect; I can’t imagine that a mistake like that would get by the copy writer, the editor, AND the anchor.

It seems to me that this would be a tricky sentence, and that it’s possible to confuse the subject and, therefore, confuse the verb tense. “A key development” is certainly singular, but the “key development” is not the subject of the sentence; “the murders” is. “Murders” is plural, so the verb (and the article after the comma) should be were (and they).

I suppose it is possible to argue that “the murders” functions as a collective noun – much like “the orchestra” or “the family” – still, I’m not sure that the case for that stance can be made convincingly, even if all ten unfortunate Belgians were lined up and killed simultaneously (which, if I’m understanding the story correctly, they essentially were). I suppose, though, that, lacking a collective noun adequate to describe this incident (the mass execution, perhaps?), “the murders” could function as a collective noun, but it still doesn’t quite sit with me.

What do YOU think?

(CaliforniaTeacherGuy sent in a request for Grammar Wednesday, about the placement of adverbs. I’ll tackle that one next week, CTG, so keep tuning in!)

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8 Comments

Filed under Grammar

8 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Mass execution would have sounded a lot better if they really wanted to use that verb form. It is strange that they didn’t correct it. Of course, I am seeing more and more professionally edited news articles with horrible glaring grammar and spelling errors.

  2. I think it’s ungrammatical, but we make these sorts of mistakes in speech all the time. I’m sure there’s a lot of literature on English subject-verb agreement. I know that “there’s” has been used with plural subjects for quite a while.
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002459.html

  3. Seester, I see it more and more, too. I actually told off a phone solicitor the other day; she was trying to sell me a subscription to our local paper, and I told her that I’ll spend money on that paper when they can start writing on at least a 10th grade level. They REALLY need to get an Editing Nazi to work for them – it’s baaaaad!

    John, there is little that pisses me off more than “there’s” being used with plural subjects. GAH! I think I’ve even written about it a few times in Grammar Wednesday addendums. “There’s a million reasons why you should vote for him” is just WRONG! “REASONS” is the subject of that sentence – not “a million.” It seems that very few people – at least, within my earshot – understand this!

  4. I think the NPR/BBC sentence is a clear example of a time when restructuring that sentence so you don’t have to make that choice is the only way to go.

  5. “Honey, and milk, and sugar: there is three” (Love’s Labour’s Lost)

    Of course you don’t have to like “there’s” with plural subjects, but the fact that it has been in use for so long, and is so common, suggests that it’s not wrong, at least in some kinds of English. As always with these sorts of issues, if you don’t go by how the language is actually used, what do you go by?

    http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19960619

  6. …if you don’t go by how the language is actually used, what do you go by?

    Okay, we always boil down to this on Wednesdays (Thursdays for me, given my longitudinal happenstance), so let’s not dwellover the importance of bottum-up usage-based descriptivism and top-down rules-based prescriptivism again.

    This example is ungrammatical for me, and I doubt many would think of it as grammatical (that is, suspending any unnatural application of so-called ‘rules’).

    I’d suggest that the British are now conscious of their distinction from AmE and other Englishes in that some morphologically singular entities such as government are treated as plural, whereas they are treated as singular in AmE. Consequently, the copy-editors at the BBC are probably keen to pluralise these group entities as much as possible, to maintain the distinction.

    What I mean by ‘morphologically singular’ is that the words themselves, the forms, are singular. Government is a singular morphological form, but as a government is understood to comprise many people, it is ‘semantically’ plural. Therefore, whichever verb that it inflects for is able to do so as if it were a plural.

    Parliament were unable to reach a decision

    The jury are still deliberating

    What is going on here is the opposite. A morphologically plural entity ‘murders’, is treated as a singular event or entity. Possibly because, as you point out, MrsChili, it was the event of the murders and not any individual murder that was important in whatever respect.

    Maybe this will catch on, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it became the norm, in fact I find it very interesting in a theorectical syntax sort of way – I’m currently thinking about disjoined syntactic forms, adding past-tense markers with future-tense markers or vice-versa. And I think it’s a more expressive use of the morphology of English, rather than a completely regularised “singular nouns always force the verb to inflect for singular” distribution.

    Having gone on that little rant of mine, it’s still ungrammatical for me and I think the copy-editors simply misapplied the “treat singular entities that denote plural entities as plural” rule.

  7. “Okay, we always boil down to this on Wednesdays…”

    We do and, while I understand that it’s pretty much always a valid and interesting argument to have, the prescriptive/descriptive thing does get a little exhausting after a while. Carrying the prescriptive flag wears one down… : )

    The form does seem ungrammatical to me, though I was willing to concede the possibility that the editors were thinking of the murders as a singular event – and an important one, at that, as it was pretty much the impetus to yank UN peace keepers from Rwanda, which created an environment that allowed the genocide to happen. Still, I’d not have batted an eye had the anchor said “the mass execution was.” “The murders was” was a bit too much of a leap for me.

  8. Clix

    Fix it. FIX IT! Augh!

    “The series of murders was” or “the group of murders was” or, as saintseester mentioned, “the mass murder was” – any of those would be fine.

    I am SO glad I get to write my own material. ;p

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