The Grammar Factor, August 2011

Singular and plural agreements

Last month, I said ‘a lot of things’ takes a plural verb (There are a lot of things … ) and a few months ago, I said that ‘a number of’ takes a plural verb. Some readers objected both times, stating that ‘a lot of’ and ‘number’ always take a singular verb.

In The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Pam Peters says: ‘… when there are agreement options, the singular verb seems to invoke the set, whereas the plural verb makes us aware of the individual items in it. Both plural and singular agreement were found with quantifiers such as a group/set of and a range/series of, in the Longman Grammar (1999) corpus.

A similar word is ‘none’. Grammar Girl addressed this word recently, stating:

‘Although some sources say “none” is always singular, the modern consensus is that “none” can be singular or plural depending on your meaning. Ask whether you mean “not one” or “not any.” If you mean “not one,” “none” is singular. If you mean “not any,” “none” is plural.

None of the answers is correct. (means “not one of the answers is correct”)
None of the answers are correct. (means “not any of the answers are correct”)

When in doubt, treat “none” as singular.’

I and me

Reader’s question: Which of the following is correct?

Sean and I are going …
Sean and me are going …

Answer: Use ‘I’ when you are the subject and ‘me’ when you are the object. Try removing the other person and it makes it clearer. You would not say: ‘Me is going’. We tend to put the other person first for courtesy.

So the correct version is: Sean and I are going …

as a verb

Reader’s question: Is it OK to use google as a verb and should it have a capital G?

Answer: It is OK to use google as a verb. I don’t think it needs a capital G, but notice that some newspapers use a capital. Over to you. 

Punctuation with titles and descriptors

Reader’s question: Which punctuation is correct? 

She was at, my sister, Jan’s 21st birthday.
She was at my sister’s, Jan’s 21st birthday.

Answer: If you are using a person’s title or descriptor before their name you don’t need any commas.

She was at my sister Jan’s 21st birthday.

Parentheses and brackets

Reader’s question: What is the Australian terminology for parentheses and brackets?

Answer: There are four types of brackets and they all come in pairs:

  • Round brackets ( ), commonly known as parentheses
  • Square brackets [ ], which indicate that you have added words or comments that weren’t in the original material
  • Angle brackets < >, which are sometimes used for web and email addresses
  • Brace (or curly) brackets { }, which are used in mathematical material and sometimes in tables

I cover brackets in my punctuation guide (see below).

Reader’s question: What is the difference between parentheses and ‘gapping commas’?

Answer: Parentheses and commas can both be used for extra, incidental information. Your choice depends on how integral the material is to the subject matter. Commas are more integral; parentheses, more of an aside.

Parentheses should be used more sparingly than commas because they can impede the flow of your writing.

Pet peeves

Pet peeves sent by readers:

  • Spelling (in Australia): ‘licenced premises’ and ‘software license’.
  • Less, when the writer should use few or fewer. (I notice this one too and wonder if fewer is fading from the language.)

Phrase of the month 

Ethical fading

This phrase was coined by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel in their book, Blind Spots, and used recently in relation to  News International’s phone hacking.


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