Topic: subject-verb agreement (“One of those who does” OR “One of those who do”?)
“Harro, I want wee, prease.”
This was preceded by three respectful bows. I looked at the young gentleman standing at the door. He had distinct Japanese features and carried a medium-sized suitcase. Have they now started recruiting door-to-door salesmen from Japan, I wondered. This one has, clearly, been caught short.
“Of course, of course, please come in.”
After three more deep bows, he stepped in, and I led him to the bathroom.
“Here, you are welcome to use it.” I opened the bathroom door and outstretched my arm in an inviting gesture.
He gave me a look shot through with unease and repeated, “I want wee, prease.”
“Yes, yes, you are welcome to use my bathroom.”
He continued looking at me with incomprehension, rubbed his chin, shuffled from foot to foot and, finally, took me up on my offer – albeit hesitatingly. When he emerged, his physiognomy failed to project the expected expression of relief.
“Prease, I want wee!” This time, his plea sounded quite urgent.
“But you’ve just … couldn’t you … were you not … was there anything … what I mean is … let me just check … ”
“Way … way … Waverreys!” he exclaimed, now visibly exasperated.
“O-o-o-o, you mean Waverley?”
“No, no, there is only one Waverley. She lives next door. I’ll take you there; please follow me.”
Thus began my friendship with Akito. Waverley was one of those enviably entrepreneurial people who possess the capacity for switching from one business venture to another quite effortlessly. A hairdresser in her earlier incarnation, she decided that a home-based enterprise would be better for the kids, so she enrolled herself on a week-long correspondence course in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language, came up with the name for her business – Waverleys Executive English, or WEE for short – and started marketing aggressively online. I must say that the acronym seemed rather unfortunate, but at least it was an improvement on that for her previous establishment, Waverleys Curl’s – albeit only a slight one. Naturally, I had pointed out the infelicitous omission of the apostrophe in ‘Waverleys’ (and, prior to that, the greengrocer’s apostrophe in ‘Curl’s’), but she never fell for that.
“I’m not being funny, like, but them immigrants, they wanna learn proper English before we give them all them benefits and that.” That’s what she always said, Waverley did. Clearly, this wasn’t directed at me: I may be Polish, but I had been a teacher of English before I settled in this wonderful country. And, of course, I have worked in British education for more than a quarter of a century and have written many articles, as well as several books, on English usage. Although Waverley seemed to appreciate this, she wasn’t going to be told how to use her own language by a foreigner, was she? That said, we got on well, and I did benefit from her entrepreneurial spirit: while she didn’t appear to get any repeat business – not as far as I could ascertain, anyway – her marketing was so effective that she sometimes had more takers than she could accommodate herself. On those occasions, she’d let me handle her overspill.
“I got one of them Cypriot execs comin’, hon,” she’d say, “but he wanna come in July, and I’m, like, chocka all mumf.”
“Turkish or Greek?”
“I know, I know, Wave (this being her favoured abbreviation), but they have two nationalities in Cyprus.”
“Do they? How do I know? Anyroad, you up for it?”
Needless to say, I always am. Not possessed of Waverley’s business flair, I am largely dependent on what I can make from my writing, and that’s, frankly, derisory. I won’t tell you what it is: I wouldn’t want you to choke on your Coco Pops, would I? So I always accept her crumbs with gratitude – if a bit grudgingly. But the story with Akito was a tad different. He had started off with Waverley, but a few days in, rather unexpectedly, she stops me and goes, “This Akito, he’s a bit funny, like.”
“Funny? In what way?”
“Tries to pull me up on me English and that. Smart arse. Anyroad, I got them two execs from Kazakhstan comin’, so it’s gonna be a wee crowded, like. You up for it?”
“You mean the two Kazakhstani executives?”
“No, no, Akito.”
“Yes, of course, Wave.”
Having relocated from London, both Waverley and I now live (with our respective families) in the glorious Lake District, but her glottal stop has been following her around like a love-struck puppy. I found Akito to be a delightful young man – nothing like the smart arse Waverley alleged he was. Admittedly, his colloquial English left much to be desired, and he was particularly prone to omitting his definite and indefinite articles, but his eagerness to learn was most endearing. In fact, he reminded me of my younger (much younger, in fact) self, and I quickly developed a soft spot for him, his inability to pronounce his ‘l’s notwithstanding.
On 9th April 2014, we were having breakfast when he exclaimed, “Risten, risten!” We were, indeed, listening to Radio 4, for I wanted to expose my young pupil to the English language in all its glory.
“I am listening, Akito.”
“What language blunder?”
“Who blundered? John Humphrys?”
“No, no, other one.”
“Well, he was defending Maria Miller, wasn’t he?” In fact, we’d had quite a discussion about the debacle earlier, Akito appearing incapable of comprehending the saga of British MPs’ expenses.
“But he said: ‘peopre has’!”
“Did he, Akito?” I must admit that I had been momentarily distracted by the smell of burning toast and dashed into the kitchen in an attempt to rescue what I had, rather optimistically, hoped would be our breakfast. “He can’t have done: he’s the Secretary of State for Education.”
“He did, he did! I ristened. He said rike this.”
I am not one of those peopre who has an instant answer.
“Oh yes, Akito, it’s a common error.”
“Really. You see, this sentence contains an embedded clause. Have you heard of the embedding of clauses?”
“Bedding of crauses,” repeated Akito, noting down the clearly unfamiliar term with extreme concentration.
“EMbedding, Akito: the embedding of clauses within the noun phrase. The noun phrase in this sentence contains an embedded clause. Look.” I quickly scribbled said noun phrase on a piece of paper.
Those people who have an instant answer
“The embedded clause here is ‘who have an instant answer’, but the problem is that some people don’t realise that similar clauses have their own subject and that this subject is different from the subject of the whole sentence.”
“They don’t rearise?”
“Nope. So what’s the subject of this embedded clause, Akito?”
“Spot on! What I always tell my students is that we can easily rephrase sentences like the one you have spotted. Look.”
I am not one of them.
“We can then replace the pronoun them with a noun phrase – like this.”
I am not one of those people who have an instant answer.
“So what is the subject of the whole sentence?”
“Spot on: the personal pronoun ‘I’. And because we have two different subjects, each subject’s verb will have to agree with it both in person and in number. So we say ‘I am’ but ‘people have’. You obviously know about subject-verb agreement, don’t you?”
“But people get awfully confused by the pronoun one – awfully.”
“Yep. They reckon they need singular verbs everywhere – because of this ‘one’. You see, grammar used to be a dirty word in Britain for quite a long time. Little wonder some people can’t identify phrases and clauses making up sentences and can’t tell what verb goes with what subject.”
Akito looked at me with unadulterated incredulity and shook his head.
“But the Secretary of State for Education is in good company, Akito: this blunder has a long and distinguished history.”
“Yep. And it keeps cropping up even in the so-called educated usage. This is from The Sunday Times, for example.”
I’m one of those naturally buzzy people who gets up at 7am and lives life to the full.
“Yep. Over the years, I’ve collected lots and lots of examples of this blunder.”
“’Fraid so, Akito. In fact, I have written a little verse to help people. I write little verses, you see.”
Each of those who does
Causes mess and fuzz;
Each of those who do
Is as smart as you.
“Thank you, Akito.”