More Bad Ad Grammar

GAH!

Mr. Chili and I were in the movie theatre last night and saw this PSA from Above the Influence, which is an organization dedicated to helping teens stay clean and sober (click on “The Mirror” to see the ad; I can’t figure out how to zero in on just that video, the link gives you the whole advertisement site).

The spot shows a teenaged boy walking to school, pushing an oval, wheeled, dressing room mirror ahead of himself. He strolls up the street, through the school’s front yard, down a hallway and into the cafeteria, where he stops to let the mirror reflect a boy at a table – ostensibly mirror-boy’s drugged-out friend. The stoner boy looks like shit, and the ad’s voice over says:

Sometimes friends can’t see how drugs and drinking changes them.

I was going to do this as a Grammar Wednesday, but I just can’t wait.

Subjects and verbs must agree in number; if there is a singular subject, the verb must also be singular.  Plural subjects require plural verbs.

What we have in the compound sentence above are two subjects and two verbs.  In the first independent clause, friends can’t see, the subject is friends and the verb is can see (can is a helping, or linking, verb; not is an adverb and isn’t part of the verb phrase).  So far, so good.  In the second independent clause, drugs and drinking changes them, there is a compound subject – which is two subjects joined by and.  Our subjects in this part of the sentence are drugs and drinking; two things, plural, which need a plural verb.  If we replace drugs and drinking with a pronoun, we’d have to use the third person plural subjective – they, because we have both drugs and drinking together – and we would never say they changes them.  The voice over should read “Sometimes, friends can’t see how drugs and drinking change them.”
The copy writers were probably matching the verb to the last subject in the collection – drinking – and one would say that drinking – it – changes people.  The fact remains, though, that the subject/verb agreement is wrong in this sentence as it was written (and spoken) for the ad.

I’m off to write another complaint letter.

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3 Comments

Filed under bad grammar, frustrations, General Griping, Grammar

3 responses to “More Bad Ad Grammar

  1. Ms. Education

    Hi there!! My blog address is
    http://underheardinroom200.wordpress.com

    Yes, I’m in Deaf Ed — been a teacher for 11 years but specialized in Deaf Ed about 6 years ago. I have a self contained class — this year I’ll have 5 kids.

    Looking forward to reading your blog again!
    Ms. Education

  2. It might seem as though every time you point out someone’s grammatical error, that I come on here and try to rationalise it. The reality is, my stance on language is that grammar is a subconscious process that, during normal speach or composition, is hard to alter. Therefore if someone says something naturally and it appears ungrammatical, then there must be some explanation as to why it is grammatical for them. That is, how could they have said it? If it were categorically ungrammatical (in a descriptive sense) then it wouldn’t have been said to begin with.

    That said, I think it’s easy to rationalise this one. Think of drugs and drinking not as two separate activities, but as a single activity that is described using a conjunction. It’s not difficult to imagine this; drinking and drugs, in the sense at least the alcohol is a type of drug, are basically concurrent.

    My point is, it’s not the case that this sentence can be expanded to sometimes friends can’t see how drug taking changes them and how drinking changes them, since the conjunction drugs and drinking refers to a single conceptual event, one that comprises at least two sub-events, drinking and taking drugs.

    How am I going convincing you?

  3. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage has 4 pages on this subject. They point out that compound subjects are used with both singular and plural verbs thruout the history of written English. They conclude that the singular verb is common when both nouns form a unitary notion or refer to a single person. The disagreement arises because not all usage commentators agree on what a unitary notion is.

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