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.