90 – Grammar shot: The proximity trap

Yippee, my revised textbook, Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 and 4, has now been published by First and Best in Education! The book is enlivened (I hope) by examples of grammatical and punctuation booby traps, one of which is illustrated in this post. It is called the proximity trap, and it ensnares even professional writers.

As for the book itself, the link can be found on my books page; it is also given below.
http://shop.firstandbest.co.uk/product_info.php?cPath=21&products_id=828

 From my revised textbook: Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 & 4

In standard English, a verb must agree with its subject in number and person: i.e. The improvement of standards is not an easy task – not *are an easy task. Familiarity with clause elements allows us to realise that it is the entire phrase the improvement of standards that is the subject of this sentence. Thus, this rule can be further refined as follows: if the subject is a multi-word phrase, the verb must agree with its head (the most important word). In the example given above, the singular noun improvement is the head of the noun phrase the improvement of standards that constitutes the subject. This is why we have to use a singular verb, despite the fact that immediately before the verb comes the plural noun standards.

Violations of the principle of subject-verb agreement are relatively common even among educated adults, including education professionals, such as OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) and its school inspectors as well as teachers – and even professors of English. A handful of examples, all attributed, from my huge selection is given below.

One of the main culprits is the so-called ‘proximity trap’. Writers who fall into this trap make the verb erroneously agree with the noun nearest to it – whether this noun is indeed its subject (or, to be precise, the head of the noun phrase acting as its subject) or not. This mistake is exemplified below, with both the head of the noun phrase constituting the subject and its verb being emboldened and italicised. The asterisk marks the sentences whose authors have fallen into the proximity trap.

Subject-verb disagreement

*Team inspector covering IT needs to see whether improvement in standards are sufficient since last inspection. (OFSTED’s Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools; Effective from January 2000)

Subject-verb agreement

Team inspector covering IT needs to see whether improvement in standards is sufficient since last inspection. [= improvement is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Check if your preliminary analysis of performance and other output data indicate if there are any significant differences in the attainment. (OFSTED’s Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools; Effective from January 2000)

Subject-verb agreement

Check if your preliminary analysis of performance and other output data indicates if there are any significant differences in the attainment. [= analysis indicates]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Teachers’ implementation of the strategies are good. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Teachers’ implementation of the strategies is good. [= implementation is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The importance of good attendance and punctuality rates are well promoted by the school. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

The importance of good attendance and punctuality is well promoted by the school. [= importance is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Teachers’ skills in developing pupils’ creative awareness varies between the classes. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Teachers’ skills in developing pupils’ creative awareness vary between the classes. [= skills vary]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Sometimes oral learning of tables or facts are set. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Sometimes, the learning by rote of tables or facts is set. [= learning is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The remains of the body was found in the vessel. (The Independent)

Subject-verb agreement

The remains of the body were found in the vessel. [= remains were]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The development of the tests play a pivotal role in teaching and learning. (The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)

Subject-verb agreement

The development of the tests plays a pivotal role in teaching and learning. [= development plays]

Subject-verb disagreement

*No evidence of any ability, experience or qualifications were required. (The Sunday Times)

Subject-verb agreement

No evidence of any ability, experience or qualifications was required.[= evidence was]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Participation in these courses have been coupled with high success rates. (The Times Educational Supplement)  

Subject-verb agreement

Participation in these courses has been coupled with high success rates. [= participation has]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The professor’s concerns about prescription mirrors earlier criticisms by schools. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Subject-verb agreement

The professor’s concerns about prescription mirror earlier criticisms by schools. [= concerns mirror]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The impact of these prices imply that inflation would still be 1% in 2013. (The Economist)

Subject-verb agreement

The impact of these prices implies that inflation would still be 1% in 2013. [= impact implies]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The academic qualifications of those entering training has remained the same. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Subject-verb agreement

The academic qualifications of those entering training have remained the same. [= qualifications have]

So mind how you go – and spread the word about my revised textbook. Millions of thanks!

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Miscellaneous: my irreverently satirical book An Alien in a Madhouse

Just to let you know that my irreverent political – and grammatical – satire, An Alien in a Madhouse, is now available in both electronic and paperback format (at £1.96 and £6.99 respectively).This jocular book satirises the bureaucracy rampaging across quango-land, the vagaries of office life, the comicality of jargon beloved of officialdom, political correctness gone mad and the mind-boggling assortment of language blunders perpetrated by fully paid-up members of the educational establishment. The book, which also attempts to defuse some of the usage booby-traps strewn across English, is interspersed with humorous ditties which make light-hearted political and grammatical points and which underline the irreverence of the narrative voice. Below are given both links and the initial section of the first chapter.

E-book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LSZIQ5M?*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Paperback: http://www.lulu.com/shop/anna-nolan/an-alien-in-a-madhouse/paperback/product-21712758.html

An Alien in a Madhouse

“Fart.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Fart here.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like what?”
“Well, I am not sure I can manage to … manage it just like that.”
“Manage what?”
“What you’ve just told me to do … ”
“You what?”
“Well, you’ve just told me to … to … you know.”
“I haven’t told you to do nothing.”
“Well, you did say to … to break wind.”
“No, no – fart; that’s, like, what we are.”
“That’s what you are?”
“It is.”
“Terribly sorry, but I’m not with you.”
“That’s what we are, like: the Fore … Forest … umm … Foremost Authority for the Regulation of Transformation.”
“O-o-o-o, I see: FART.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying, like.”
“Yes, no … I mean, it’s obviously an acronym.”
“No, no, it’s an authority.”
“No, I meant … oh, never mind. And what do you do exactly?”
“We deliver and stuff.”
“You deliver? Like in a maternity ward?”
“How do you mean a maternity ward?”
“Well, that’s what a maternity ward does: delivers babies.”
“We don’t have no babies here.”
“So what do you deliver?”
“Oodles, like.”
“Oodles of what?”
After what sounded like a deep sigh at the end of the telephone line, there followed a slight pause, itself followed by some rustling accompanied by several more sighs. “Just a sec; where’s the blinking list? That’s it, we … we deliver directors … umm, sorry, directives, police … oops, no, policies, reports, guides … no, no, it says guidelines, circles, umm … circulars, surveys, degrees, no, no, decrees, handbooks, app … appen … appendices, annexes, schedules, memo … randa, pre … pre … oh shucks, precepts?”
“Yes, it would be precepts.”
“ … specifications, explanations, ex … exhortations and …. and im-plo-ra-tions, like.”
“You deliver them all?”
“That’s what all them people say and stuff. And we deliver statements. And certificates. And, like, customer focus.”
“And customer focus? Wow. So you are some sort of delivering organisation, is that right?”
“That’s what all them people say and stuff.”
“But what’s that about regulating? In your name?”
“’Cos we also regulate and stuff.”
“Wow, you must be busy. You deliver and regulate.”
“All the time. And on overtime.”
“And on overtime? Wow. So you regulate transformation?”
“That’s what all them people say and stuff.”
“What sort of transformation?”
“I don’t know, do I? They didn’t tell me nothing. I‘m on work experience here. I’m doing an Intermediate Certificate in Handling the General Public, like. Stage Two.”
“Stage Two?”
“Yes. Stage Two comes after Stage One.”
“Does it really?”
“It does, it does! I’ve, like, got Stage One already.”
“Congratulations. You handle the general public very well.”
“That’s what all them people say and stuff.”
“I’m sure you’ll sail through your Stage Two. You’ve made FA … your organisation sound very intriguing: I’d love to find out more about it. Do you think I could speak to your manager?”
“You could – if he wasn’t in a meeting.”
“Is he in a meeting?”
“He’s, like, always in a meeting.”
“Maybe I could phone him when he’s finished?”
“When he’s finished, he’ll go to another meeting.”
“He must be terribly busy.”
“That’s what all them people say and stuff.”
“What about his manager? Is he available?”
“She.”
“Is she available?”
“That would be a first.”
“Would it? Why?”
“Every time Callum is in a meeting, Fenella is in the same meeting, like.”
“I see. So how could I find out more about FA … about your organisation?”
“Go to our website, like.”
“Good idea. The address is … ?”
“Www.fart.com”
“Of course – could have guessed. You’ve been very helpful.”
“No worries. We pride us … ourself on delivering customer focus and stuff.”
“Evidently. Thank you.”
“Wait, wait, there is a survey.”
“A survey?”
“There’s customer satisfaction surveys on our website, like – will you do one about this call and stuff?”
“With pleasure. Good luck with your Stage Two.”

***
Actually, I had no intention at all of approaching the Foremost Authority. For a start, I had no idea of its existence. I was merely trying to report a non-collection of my rubbish. You know how it is: those refuse collectors tear round the neighbourhood like demons, tattoos flashing, nose rings dangling, attitude oozing, and, invariably, they miss some bins. This has been happening more often recently, actually. So you call the council, and they put you on hold and play you some soporific music, and, after fifteen minutes, they put you through to a nice lady, who says sorry, you’ve got the wrong department, whereupon she puts you on hold for another fifteen minutes (by which time the soporific tunes have rendered you somewhat torpid), after which you do get through to another nice lady, who is, mercifully, the right lady.
The right lady asks you whether you are sure that your rubbish hasn’t been collected, to which you, having now perked up, reply that yes, you are quite sure. She then asks whether you left your bins in front of your house, to which you reply that you did indeed leave your bins in front of your house. The right lady then enquires whether this was on the correct day, to which you reply that it was. The right lady then questions your general recollection of events, suggesting that you might be new to this address and not familiar with how things are done, to which you offer your assurances that your general recollection of events is entirely correct and that you have lived at the same address for the past 27 years and have always left the bins right in front of your house on a Tuesday evening for a Wednesday morning collection, this occasion being no exception.
There then follows at the other end a moment’s silence, after which the right lady says, “I see.” But just when you think that you are finally getting through, she plays the trump card. At least you think she thinks it’s her trump card because there is no disguising a triumphant note in her voice, “But our contractors haven’t reported any non-collections this morning.” You then say that of course they haven’t reported any non-collections because they can’t have noticed that they have left your rubbish behind. After all, if they had noticed that they were leaving a full bin behind, they would have emptied it, wouldn’t they? But, as you are saying this, the surrealism of the whole scenario suddenly hits you hard, and you actually start doubting your own sanity. Luckily, the right lady cannot see your bewildered expression and finally concedes defeat. “All right then, I will log your non-collection and notify the contractor.”
“So are they going to come back for my rubbish today?”
“Today? No, no, no.”
“Why not? It’s not even 10 o’clock yet, so they must still be in the area.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“How does it work?”
“You have to give it 48 hours.”
“But why?”
“Because you have to give it 48 hours.”
“And what if they don’t come back within 48 hours?”
“You will have to wait till the next collection.”
“But, look, it’s beginning to smell already. By next week, it will have stunk the whole neighbourhood out.”
“Well, if they don’t come back, you could call again, I suppose.”
When the refuse collectors fail to turn up within the next 48 hours, you call the council again, and they put you on hold and play you some soporific music … you get the picture. The script will be slightly different this time – but not much. So, anyway, I had been trying to call the council but obviously misdialled the number, and now I was seriously intrigued by the Foremost Authority with its mysterious regulation and transformation. And delivery, of course.

Post 1: Accordant Waverleys and discordant Secretaries of State (25th April 2014)

Area: grammar
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?”
“Waverreys.”
“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?”
“Cypriot.”
“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.”
“Sor’ed.”
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.”
“Ranguage brunder!”
“What language blunder?”
“In interview.”
“Who blundered? John Humphrys?”
“No, no, other one.”
“Michael Gove?”
“I think.”
“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.”
“Rearry?”
“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?”
“Peopre.”
“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.

Akito nodded.
“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.

“Rike this.”
“So what is the subject of the whole sentence?”
“I.”
“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?”
“I know.”
“But people get awfully confused by the pronoun one – awfully.”
“Awfurry? Rearry?”
“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.”
“Rong?”
“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.

“Rearry?”
“Yep. Over the years, I’ve collected lots and lots of examples of this blunder.”
“Rots?”
“’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.

“Rovery!”
“Thank you, Akito.”