Questions on Verbs


Question (From a software company): Okay, we all agree that to boldly go splits the infinitive to go with an adverb, which is bad, and that one is supposed to go boldly. Fine so far.

But I find myself being bothered by phrases of the form could boldly go, preferring could go boldly instead. But could go (or might go or would go) isnít an infinitive per se, is it? (I believe it would be referred to as the conditional form of the verb to go.)

Is it permissible to split a conditional form, or does the conditional form follow the same rule as the infinitive form, or is something completely different in charge here?

Answer: You have described the grammatical problem correctly. Certainly if weíre going to accept a rule proscribing split infinitives, it is consistent for us also to posit a rule proscribing split verb phrases. But Iím not sure that this kind of consistency is going to help your writing very much.

The rule proscribing split infinitives (and corollary rules about split verb phrases) was first proposed in the mid-nineteenth century, when English grammarians began to try to order English based on the grammar of Latin. Latin infinitives are single words, which cannot, by definition, be split. Similarly, most Latin verbs are conjugated with incorporated infixes and suffixes, which means that they also cannot be split.

The problem, however, is that English infinitives and verb phrases do have particles and auxiliaries that can stand alone, and thus can be besieged by wandering adverbs. And furthermore, English speakers and writers availed themselves of this capacity of the language for centuries before anybody thought to censure them. Hereís what Ambrose Bierce said about split infinitives (1909):

Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shameóperhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Split infinitive as a phrase seems to have been sufficiently catchy that it actually managed to wiggle into the writing publicís consciousness as a construction to be avoided. Split verb phrase did not.

Most stylebooks are flexible on the split infinitive rule. They generally note that enough readers know about the rule that a violation of it is likely to be distracting. They hasten to add, however, that infinitives should be split if splitting them promotes clarity. When is this? Oh, in stock phrases like to boldly go (the introduction to Star Trek), or in phrases when the adverb and verb are so closely linked that you can think of a synonym for the linked phrase (to boldly go = to venture). Split verb phrases are different. I have dozens of stylebooks in my office, and not one of them talks about proscriptions on split verb phrases as anything but a historical oddity.

You could take a purist position, refuse to split them, and drive yourself crazy following your rule. This position might be noble, but it would also be unappreciated. If you like thinking about this kind of thingóand I can tell that you doóI recommend Merriam Websterís Dictionary of English Usage.


Question: Does this phrase contain a split infinitive: to accurately predict the future? The alternative (To predict the future accurately) seems to change the meaning of the sentence.

I like the first one since I'm going for an accurate prediction more than an accurate future.

Answer: The first phrase is indeed a split infinitive, and of course there are proscriptions against split infinitives. In this case, however, I think you should follow your instinct to keep the modifier next to the verb and preserve the emphasis of the original sentence. The other alternative is to predict accurately the future, which is bad rhythmically. Use your editorial discretion, and break the infinitive rule.


Question: Which verb is correct? "The majority of the fairgoers was/were Americans." Was seems to work since was relates to one majority--or should it be were since it relates to many Americans?

Answer: It should be were because majority is a collective noun, which can be either singular or plural, and because this sentence contains overt grammatical markers (fairgoers, Americans) that the notion of the speaker is that in this context majority is plural.

Notional agreement is a perennial topic on the Grammar Hotline.


Question: Which one of the following questions is grammatically correct:

  • May I borrow your car?

  • -or-
  • May I borrow your car, please?
  • Is the word please used when "may I" is used? I always thought that please was only used when using "Can I" such as:

  • Can I borrow your car, please?
  • Answer: The usual grammatical quibble is this: Can is a synonym for "be able." May is a synonym for "be permitted." Thus, can is properly used to indicate physical ability to do something; may is properly used to indicate permission to do something.

    When you ask to borrow a car, you are asking for permission. Thus, the proper verb is may. And that's all grammarians have to say about the construction. There are no grammatical grounds to proscribe using a word like please wherever your fancy directs.

    In the examples you give, however, please seems to act like a silver bullet to counter the effects of a grammatical error. I never have considered such a possibility. And the corollary assumption is even more fascinating: Please is proscribed in sentences that are already grammatical. Wow. Who'd of thunk it? Please.

    Thank you.


    Question: What is the correct usage of the conditional verb to be? Is it were or had been?

    For example:
    1. I would have provided a happier ending if I were the author of this book.

    2. I would have provided a happier ending if I had been the author of this book.

    Which is correct? If both were and had been are correct, when should they be used?

    Answer: This is actually a question about sequence of tenses rather than about the conditional. And, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage notes, "Although [sequence of tenses] is not a subject to stir strong feelings, a great deal has been written about it in usage books."

    The usage books would surely say that (2) is the better choice, and it works better in the only likely context for this particular sentence. On the other hand, if the sentence were inverted, were works perfectly well: "If I were the author of this book, I would have provided a happier ending." This is because sequence of tenses works in sequence.

    I suspect you will not be very satisfied with this answer. Try to remember that "this is not a subject to stir strong feelings," and let me go on to quote the conclusion of the Merriam-Webster entry: "This subject has been discussed in usage books since the 18th century. . . . We suggest you will be a lot happier if you simply do not worry about them."


    Question: The grammar-checker on Microsoft Word keeps making snide remarks about the "possible use of a passive voice."

    What is a passive voice? Why does its use make me a bad person? As aggressive as Bill Gates is, he wouldnít know a passive voice were the whole of Puget Sound one.

    Answer: The passive voice is not in itself evil, but tragically, it can be used for nefarious ends. You never know until you parse. This is why your grammar checker confines itself to snide remarks instead of shrill accusations.

    The passive transformation in English takes a transitive sentence (a sentence with a direct object) and converts it as follows:

  • The direct object becomes the subject.
  • The verb is converted to an auxiliary and participle.
  • The subject is either deleted or moved to the object of a preposition.
  • Thus:

  • The boy hit his sister.

  • -becomes-
  • The girl was hit by her brother.

  • -or-
  • The girl was hit.
  • The last of these versions illustrates the passive voiceís potential for evil. Guilty culprits can use the passive voice to escape blame. Grammatically, this is because prepositional phrases are always optional in English. Functionally, this is because we have deleted the agent of the action.

    Grammar checkers work by looking for auxiliaries and verbs. Not all such verb constructions are passive, which is why you get so many false hits. If Iím looking for passives electronically, I never use a grammar checker. Instead I search for the preposition by. This trick leads me to every convertible passive (passives with expressed agents). I look at them and decide whether I want to move the agent back to the subject. Sometimes there is good reason not to do so, and usually this good reason has to do with the position of emphasis in an English sentence, which is at the end.

    Consider the sentences above. The second choice (The girl was hit by her brother.) actually emphasizes the brotherís role. In this sequence, the emphatic character of the nouns is also shown by the conversion from general (girl and boy) to specific (brother and sister), depending on position in the sentence.

    Thus, the passive can be used to hide an agent (when itís deleted) or to emphasize one (when itís expressed). No wonder it has kept its niche in English since Primitive Germanic.

    Iím a big fan of the passive, but it must be used sparingly and for emphasis. Think of it as the grammatical equivalent of Tabasco sauce.


    Question: I have a question about verb conjugation in the following sentence:

  • My interests lay at that time in the extracurricular pursuit of journalism and in the new social climate I had just entered.

    Would the proper verb be lay, lie or laid? Are there any general rules for usage of this word?

    Answer: The correct form is lay. This form is the past tense of the verb lie.

    Confusion about the use of this intransitive verb is common because it has the bad taste to take the same form as the present tense of the transitive verb lay. For what itís worth, they were the same root word in Primitive Germanic, but the transitive verb had an extra syllable that caused it to come down through the language as a regular verb. The intransitive verb didnít have the extra syllable, so it stayed irregular.

    Here are the paradigms:

    Transitive verb lay (A transitive verb takes a direct object)

  • Present tense: I lay the book on the table.
  • Past tense: I laid the book on the table.
  • Past participle: I have laid the book on the table.

    Intransitive verb lie (An intransitive verb takes no direct object)

  • Present tense: I lie down.
  • Past tense: I lay down.
  • Past participle: I have lain down.

    James Kilpatrick had an interesting newspaper column on these words in his irregular series on "The Writerís Art" a few months ago.


    Question: Which is correct?

  • Neither was . . .
    -or-
  • Neither were . . .

    Answer: Despite abundance evidence to the contrary, most style manuals state confidently that neither is always singular. This rule generates "neither was . . .", You need to pay attention to such rules because those with a critical bent are bound to quote them to you.

    If, however, we were to write a rule based on practice, the most we could say is this: Neither is usually singular. The best explanation for the necessity of adding the qualifying adverb "usually" is in Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage.

    The reason neither is sometimes plural is easy to see when you think about it. Neither serves as the negative counterpart of either, which is usually singular. But it also serves in the same way for both, which is usually plural. Suppose for instance, you have written "when both are dead." If you wanted to use alive instead of dead, you might come up with Shakespeareís solution:

    Thersitesí body is as good as Ajaxí

    When neither are alive.

    Out of context, I cannot tell you whether was or were is correct, because I cannot tell what neither means. I can tell you, however, that there are grammatical nitpickers afoot who will criticize any plural use of neither. You have the Grammar Hotlineís permission to smirk when they attempt to correct your correct plural usage. Unfortunately, this will be appropriate less often than you may wish. For the most part, "neither was" is the correct choice.


    Question (From a newspaper editor): Iím collecting information to settle an argument among some editors at my newspaper. Does majority take a singular or plural verb? Does it depend on context?

    The sentence in question states:

    A majority of the Durham County Commissioners (say or says?) they donít want state-owned UNC Hospitals to run Durham Regional Hospital.

    Answer: Use the plural verb say.

    Majority, of course, is a collective noun. It can be either singular or plural, according to the intention of the speaker. In this case, the speaker has made the meaning unequivocal by choosing the plural they to refer back to majority.

    I wish all questions posted to the Grammar Hotline were this cut and dried. Many of the other postings archived here are much more nettlesome.


    Question: I am having difficulty choosing between are and is to agree with none of. I have gone to my Substance and Style book for help, and on page 67 Stoughton explains that none of takes is when it means not one, and are when it means not any. That makes sense to me, but I have a hard time telling (without help) when a none of sentence means not any and when it means not one.

    Stoughton uses the following examples:

    None of the apples is big enough.

    None of the apples are Jonathans.

    Why can't I tell on my own? Couldn't it just as easily be "Not one of the apples is Jonathan's" (note the apostrophe) or "Not any of the apples are big enough"? Have I changed the meanings of the sentences? Please use these or any other examples to help me out.

    Answer: This issue falls into the murky area of notional agreement, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage as "agreement of a verb with its subject . . . in accordance with the notion of number rather than with the presence of an overt grammatical marker for that notion." The not one/not any trick can help you leap over the form so that you can concentrate on meaning, but, as you note, it is not perfect.

    Let's start with the second of Stoughton's examples: "None of the apples are Jonathans." Your insertion of an apostrophe to generate "None of the apples is Jonathan's" is very revealing. You have mistaken the meaning of the word Jonathans. Jonathan can be a person, in which case it makes sense to make it possessive, but in this context, it is much more likely to be the plural of a variety of apple, like MacIntosh, Rome, or Delicious. Jonathan apples used to be very common in the Midwest, but now that you mention it, I realize that I haven't seen a Jonathan apple in many years.

    If Jonathans had, in fact, been a singular personal possessive, notional agreement would have sent me scurrying for a singular verb--Jonathan, after all, probably owns only one apple. But since I think it's a plural noun, the not any are construction makes more sense.

    I find Stoughton's first example ("None of the apples is big enough.") much more difficult. Like you, I don't find the not one/not any trick of much use--at least not out of context. But maybe that's the key. Notional agreement works on meaning, and meaning depends on context. The only contextual clue we have is the word enough, and our choice of verb is going to be sensitive to what that enough means. If it means None of the apples is big enough to stop up the shower drain, a singular verb makes sense. But if it means None of the apples are big enough to tempt us to demolish our orchard and plant new varieties of trees, I'd opt for a plural.

    Less enlightened style manuals, including the freshman handbook we use at N.C. State University, cowardly sidestep the idea of notional agreement and try to tidy up the world by claiming the none always means not one. As you tiptoe through this confusing grammatical quagmire, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are fighting the good fight for clarity and grace. Things aren't as bad as they seem. The sentences you see in context will always be easier than isolated sentences out of context in style manuals.


    Question: In the following sentence, is the verb (come/s) singular or plural? Itís one of those frustrating construcions that looks wrong either way.

    Some 40 percent of our operating funds, and a much larger proportion of our loan capital, come/s from ľ

    Answer: It depends on how youíre thinking about the phrase that youíve set off in commas. Do you think itís parenthetical? Letís try some parentheses:

    Some 40 percent of our operating funds (and a much larger proportion of our loan capital) come/s from ľ

    The subject, 40 percent, is singular. Singular subjects take singular verbs. Use comes.

    If, on the other hand, youíve just over-punctuated a compound subject, and the subject is actually "40 percent and a much larger proportion," you need to eliminate the commas and use a plural verb.

    Some 40 percent of our operating funds and a much larger proportion of our loan capital come from . . .

    That answers your question, I suppose, but Iíll bet youíre still not happy. The sentence needs some rewriting to eliminate prepositional phrases that are obscuring the subject and tempting you to choose the verb by notional agreement. The subject of notional agreement is covered elsewhere in the archives.


    Question (From a college administrator): Hereís a sentence that puzzles me:

    CMU as well as the other public universities in our state (continues or continue?) to be held accountable by students . . .

    Answer: As punctuated, continue. But the punctuation means that youíre using as well as as a synonym for and. Are you?

    Letís consider some alternatives:

    CMU and the other public universities in Michigan continue to be held accountable by students . . .

    Both CMU and the other public universities in Michigan continue to be held accountable by students . . .

    CMU (as well as the other public universities in Michigan) continues to be held accountable by students . . .

    CMU, like the other public universities in Michigan, continues to be held accountable by students . . .

    The principle is that the subject is plural unless the second part is parenthetical or a nonessential phrase. But now things get better. Letís try changing this passive-voice sentence into the active voice:

    Students continue to hold both CMU and the other public universities in Michigan accountable . . .

    Notice that you donít have a verb problem when you donít have an agent problem. And you donít have an agent problem when you use the active voice.

    As long as weíre revising, letís try moving the main idea into the main verb:

    Students hold both CMU and the other public universities in Michigan accountable . . .

    Now weíre getting somewhere. This is actually readable.


    Question (From an administrator in a hospital south of the Mason-Dixon line): Could you please help me understand if there is a problem with the following statements;

    The copier needs fixed.

    The form needs completed.

    I am unable to explain the problem with these sentences in grammatical terms.

    Answer: Oh dear. I'm afraid you're a victim of a regionalism. My guess is that you may not be a native Southerner.

    The construction you're worrying about, spun out in all its regal completeness, is a passive infinitive. The examples you give, on a deeper level, are the equivalent of:

    The copier needs to be fixed.

    The form needs to be completed.

    In some English dialects (particularly Southern ones) it is customary to drop the to be from such a construction. If you aren't used to it, it does, indeed, grate on the ear, but most transplants wisely decide to paste on a superior, knowing grin and ignore such regionalisms.

    Your choice of examples, however, makes me think that your problem may be more nettlesome than a dispute about the purity of infinitive forms. You have given two workplace examples and have skipped over the example most transplants notice first, namely, "The grass needs cut."

    I notice you're a hospital administrator. My advice is to ignore your staff's use of the clipped form of the passive infinitive and concentrate instead on encouraging them to obliterate their use of the passive. What you want is for them to substitute these phrases:

    I need to fix the copier.

    I need to complete the form.

    Isn't it lovely how an interest in grammar can boost productivity?


    Question (From a vacationing North Carolinian): I have always wondered about the use of bring/take. I hear so many people use what I would consider the incorrect word. If I am in Raleigh and heading to the beach, do I bring my bathing suit to the beach or take it? Overall, are there any rules for using bring/take?

    Answer: When the point of view of the speaker is relevant (and it isn't always relevant), native speakers of English generally use bring to imply movement toward the speaker and take to imply movement away from the speaker. Problems arise when the speaker is moving around.

    In Raleigh, you remind your kids to take a bathing suit. When you're on I-40, you look in the rearview mirror, try to catch their eyes, and ask sternly, "Did you bring your bathing suits?" Once you're in Wilmington, you look at them incredulously and ask, "Are you telling me you forgot to bring your bathing suits?"

    Sometimes people use bring for no other reason than that they're thinking ahead. Other times, they don't think ahead at all. At such times, they use bring and take indiscriminately--and end up without bathing suits at the beach.

    The best analysis of this usage problem that I have seen is in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Here's the conclusion of a full page of treatment:

    A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem exists in the minds of the usage commentators, who have formulated incomplete rules for the use of bring. The non-native speaker can easily follow the commentators' simple rules. But bring and take are used in a great many idiomatic phrases--bring to bear, take to task, bring to mind--in which the verbs are never interchanged. The non-native speaker will find no guidance to these in our usage writers; he or she must have recourse to a good dictionary.


    Question (From a professor at Montana State University): Which of the following is correct?

    None of the statistical results is significant. -or-

    None of the statistical results are significant.

    Answer: None, like all, any, most, and some, may be either singular or plural, depending on the sense of the sentence. As a singular, none is a synonym for not one. As a plural, none refers to an uncountable mass.

    Statistical results, of course, are countable, but in the example you give, I recommend the plural, are. It's a gray area, but are sounds better because it matches the object of the preposition of, "statistical results," which is plural. This, of course, is actually irrelevant to the agreement problem, but you have the chance of eliminating a distraction and the means of justifying your choice. You'll end up communicating better.


    Question (From a member of the NCSU administrative staff): Which is correct in the following instances:

    1.3 percent of students was/were suspended?

    18 percent of students was/were eligible.

    1 percent of the student body was/were eligible.

    1.2 percent of students says/say that they are satisfied with university services.

    Answer: In all of these examples I recommend the plural verb (were or say). My recommendation is based on something grammarians call notional agreement. Notional agreement is less a rule than a practice. It is, however, the practice of most educated writers and speakers of the language, which ought to count for something.

    Notional agreement is agreement based on meaning (as determined by the speaker) rather than on form. Notional agreement contrasts with formal, or grammatical, agreement, in which overt grammatical markers (an "s" ending on a plural noun, for example) determine singular or plural agreement.

    It may help you to take a wider view of agreement than simple correspondence of subject and verb number. In context, there are often overt grammatical markers in the form of prepositional phrases or pronouns elsewhere in the sentence that help to determine number. It is safe to take the hint from the pronoun in a sentence like "16 percent of students say that they . . ." as a rationale for selecting the plural verb.

    Traditional grammarians would insist on disregarding the information in the prepositional phrase ("of students") in your examples as a red herring. This is foolish. All the words in a sentence work together. The reason that they sounds correct is that it agrees with students.


    Question My husband is from Pennsylvania. Where I use the word let, he and the other members of his family, use the word leave. For example, I say, "Let it go." They say, "Leave it go." Which is correct?

    Answer: In the case of regional colloquialisms, the Grammar Hotline recommends letting them go in North Carolina and leaving them go in Pennsylvania. The appropriate place for you and your husband to negotiate this nettlesome difference is an interstate exit somewhere in the middle of West Virginia.


    Question (From a staff member of the N.C. General Assembly): I have a question about verb tenses. This is the sentence:

    What would be the potential consequences if one of these bills were enacted and, upon challenge, were struck down as unconstitutional?

    Since it was in the subjunctive case, we used were, but it seemed to us like was sounded better, as it would agree with one.

    Is it still common practice to use were when it is in the subjunctive case--or would the modern world use was?

    Answer: This is not a question about tenses or cases; it is a question about something grammarians call mood. Verb mood tells how the writer regards the statement being made. There are four moods in English: indicative (used for statements); imperative (used for commands); conditional (used for conditional statements and marked by an auxiliary like could, might, should, or would); and the subjunctive (used for conditions contrary to fact).

    In earlier stages of the language, the subjunctive was used for many things, but conditions contrary to fact represent the only rhetorical situation where we still use them. Furthermore, as you note, many speakers think the subjunctive sounds strange even in a condition contrary to fact.

    Your example sentence is a classic example of where the condition contrary to fact has traditionally applied, and where most educated speakers and writers would continue to use it. The subjunctive form of the verb looks like a plural form, but it is not. It is, however, regular throughout the verb paradigm, and that regular form in this case is were.

    The rhetorical environment you describe is sufficiently formal that you will want to choose to use the subjunctive. In less formal environments, the subjunctive is obsolescent--if not obsolete. You may recall a little boy singing a jingle in a 1970s TV commercial. "Oh, I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener" is a condition contrary to fact, but the ad company chose not to use the subjunctive and to opt for the indicative. Civilization managed to survive this decision.


    Question: Which is correct:

    I wish I were . . . - or-

    I wish I was . . .

    Answer: The construction you are asking about is one of the last survivors in English of something called the subjunctive mood. Mood in languages indicates the speakerís certainty about a statement. In spoken English, the subjunctive mood has just about disappeared, but in written English it survives with verbs of wishing or in contrary-to-fact conditional clauses.

    The chief characteristic of the subjunctive in modern English is that for most verbs it doesnít have an inflection. Thus, it is noticeable only in those constructions where you might expect an inflection, namely in irregular verbs. This, of course, includes the most irregular verb of them all, namely to be.

    I wish is a construction that might trigger the subjunctive in modern English. In formal, written English, most educated writers will choose it. Thus: "I wish I were . . ." Notice that "I wish you were . . ." is also in the subjunctive, but it is unnoticeable because it is the same as the indicative form.


    Question: Can you please help me with the following sentence?

    Program attendance is for individuals who have completed the Basic Dairy Masters Program previously.

    Is the who have correct?

    Answer: Who have is correct. Who is a relative pronoun corresponding to individuals and serving as the subject of its relative clause.

    Have is plural because its subject, who, corresponds to the plural noun individuals.

    Are you sure you wouldn't want to consider shifting the emphasis by rewording the sentence this way:

    This program is targeted at individuals who have previously completed the Basic Dairy Masters Program.


     

    Question: What verb should I use: interferes or interfere? "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise which substantially interferes/interfere with other uses of property."

    Answer: Traditionally, when the subject of a sentence or clause is a series of items joined by "or," the verb agrees with the item just before it.

    In this case, "which substantially interferes with other uses of property" is a subordinate clause introduced by a relative pronoun, which, which refers back to "noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise." Noise is singular, so it takes a singular verb, namely interferes.

    That's the answer, as far as it goes. But it's not the reason you're having trouble. You're having trouble because the "which substantially interferes with other uses of property" clause doesn't logically modify "noxious or offensive odors . . ." It logically modifies "any purpose."

    There are a couple of ways to fix this. One is to coordinate the two relative clauses. This produces: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise, and which substantially interferes/interfere with other uses of property."

    Another is to rewrite to make the relationships clear. This might produce: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that substantially interferes with other uses of property. Such uses might include activities that cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise."

    Whatever option you choose, please note that the proper relative pronoun is that rather than which. This is because the clauses in question are restrictive and essential.

    Question 2: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise which substantially interferes/interfere with other uses of property."

    You say that that should be used in the sentence rather than which, but there are two whiches in the sentence. Which one do you mean?

    Answer: Both.

    I'm sorry I was confusing. I'm not exactly sure what you're doing. Are you writing the statute or just interpreting it? My original answer started by assuming the latter, which was why I just supplied the conjunction to clarify the syntactic structure. This produced: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise and which substantially interferes with other uses of property."

    This is unambivalent, but retains the wording. It wasn't until I started rewriting that I decided to clean up the mistaken relative pronouns, but I figured this was just a flight of fancy. I should have provided an intermediate stage of rewriting: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise and that substantially interferes with other uses of property."

    In other words, to be proscribed by the statute, the activity must do two things: (1) it must cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise; (2) it must substantially interfere with other uses of property. This may appear to be broader than the original wording, but it actually is not. The original wording proscribes activities that satisfy (1) only if they also satisfy (2). The edited wording (with the conjunction) proscribes activities only if they both s atisfy (1) and (2). In a negative statement, this is the same subset of activities.

    I still think that the final wording comes a lot closer to the probable meaning, but I admit that it broadens it in a way that might be legally problematic: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that substantially interferes with other uses of property. Such uses might include activities that cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise."


    Question (From a staff member in the NCSU Libraries): My co-workers and I work in a small video library and are in disagreement over the wording of one of our signs. It reads: "If no library staff are present, please write your name and the videotape information below." Should it be:

    If no library staff is present . . . -or-

    If no library staff are present . . .

    Answer: Staff is a collective noun. It takes a singular verb when it refers to the decisions or actions of the individuals it comprises and a plural verb when it refers to the decisions or actions of the collective. Since the number of staff referred to by the sign can be differently construed, both sides can declare a moral victory.

    But you still need to post your sign. And more to the point, you need the sign to be direct and comprehensible. It is counterproductive to set your users musing about possible grammatical errors when there are sign-out sheets to be filled out.

    I recommend finessing the problem. Post a sign headlined: CHECK OUT TAPES HERE. Head the columns with whatever is appropriate: YOUR NAME; VIDEOTAPE NAME; CALL NUMBER . . .

    By eliminating the if clause, you will have converted your library to a self-service facility that you occasionally monitor. This will free you for other, more important activities. After all, if it is not too much of a breach of security for your library sometimes to be self-service, it ought not to be too much of a breach of security for it always to be self-service.

    If, on the other hand, you are locked into the wording of the sign because of some higher principle (say, parallel form with all the other signs in the library), you could finesse the problem by changing the word staff to a word that is unambiguously singular or plural. Try, for example, "If no library assistant is present . . ."

    Correctness aside, you may be wondering which of the alternative wordings of the present sign is less likely to call attention to itself. The answer is the singular ("If no library staff is present"). Many people have never heard of a collective noun, let alone one used in the plural. This ought not to govern the behavior of the more enlightened, but it is a factor to consider.


    Question (From the Internet): What are the differences between these sentences?

    1. If he is prosecuted, he will be the first Indian leader to have been taken to trial
    2. If he is prosecuted, he will be the first Indian leader to be taken to trial.
    3. If he is prosecuted, he will be the first Indian leader taken to trial.

    Answer: The differences are in the tense and progressive nature of the infinitive. Example A is a past progressive passive infinitive. Example B is a present passive infinitive. Example C, in its deep structure, is identical to example B, but it elides to be, which makes it look like a simple past participle.

    The interesting thing about this example is that all three choices are grammatical. The choice among them will depend on the rhetorical situation. If your intention is to fix the event in history or note a trend, you will probably opt for Example A, the past progressive. Note that this sentence might continue, "since (insert somebody's name) in 1850." If you are concentrating on the present event, you will probably opt for Example B or C, the present tense.

    Since any of the three is grammatical, there is something to be said for choosing Example C, which is so pared down as to be both versatile and clean.


    Question (From an N.C. State graduate student): What is proper for the following phrase? "How would you react if I (was/were) to say . . .

    Answer: The shortest of short answers is: Use were. The reason to choose this form is that the if clause is a conditional clause called a condition contrary to fact. Such clauses are one of the few cases in modern English that call for a verb form called the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood is conjugated like other verbs, which means that it shows tense, but its forms are different from regular present, past, and future tenses.

    In the present, the subjunctive looks like a stripped-down form of the infinitive (which looks like a verb preceded by the word "to"). Thus, "Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread" is the subjunctive form instead of: "Whether he is alive . . ."

    In the past, the subjunctive looks like a plural. Now, "I" is a singular. In a regular construction (one that is not a conditional), you would say "I was talking to my friend," not "I were talking to my friend." But when you cast that into a conditional clause, you want to use a subjunctive verb. Thus, "If I were talking to my friend," not "if I was talking to my friend."

    If it's any comfort, you've stumbled into one of the least understood byways of English grammar. Some grammarians claim that the subjunctive has gone beyond "moribund" and is now plain dead. The fact that you ask the question proves that there's some life in the old horse yet.

    Question 2: Thank you so much for your thorough explanation of the matter concerning "was vs. were". It seems so many people use the two interchangeably and I began to wonder which form is correct.

    One last thing. Where is the following from? "Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread."

    Answer 2: "Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread," is from a fairy tale called "Jack and the Beanstalk." Jack trades his cow for some magic beans that (after a plot twist or two) grow into a giant beanstalk. Jack climbs this beanstalk into the clouds, and he comes to a land inhabited by a very unfriendly giant who, sensing the presence of an intruder, clomps around making threats about his gristmill practices. Have you never heard this story? It's very old--w hich may explain why even a very unfriendly and not very civilized giant might have his subjunctive verbs in such admirable order.


    Question (From the Internet): The grammar-checker on Microsoft Word keeps making snide remarks about the "possible use of a passive voice."

    What is a passive voice? Why does its use make me a bad person? As aggressive as Bill Gates is, he wouldn't know a passive voice were the whole of Puget Sound one.

    Answer: The passive voice is not in itself evil, but tragically, it can be used for nefarious ends. You never know until you parse. This is why your grammar checker confines itself to snide remarks instead of shrill accusations.

    The passive transformation in English takes a transitive sentence (a sentence with a direct object) and converts it as follows:

    The direct object becomes the subject.

    The verb is converted to an auxiliary and participle.

    The subject is either deleted or moved to the object of a preposition.

    Thus:

    The boy hit his sister. -becomes-

    The girl was hit by her brother. -or-

    The girl was hit.

    The last of these versions illustrates the passive voice's potential for evil. Guilty culprits can use the passive voice to escape blame. Grammatically, this is because prepositional phrases are always optional in English. Functionally, this is because we have deleted the agent of the action.

    Grammar checkers work by looking for auxiliaries and verbs. Not all such verb constructions are passive, which is why you get so many false hits. If I'm looking for passives electronically, I never use a grammar checker. Instead I search for the preposition by. This trick leads me to every convertible passive (passives with expressed agents). I look at them and decide whether I want to move the agent back to the subject. Sometimes there is good reason not to do so, and usually this good re ason has to do with the position of emphasis in an English sentence, which is at the end.

    Consider the sentences above. The second choice (The girl was hit by her brother.) actually emphasizes the brother's role.

    In this sequence, the emphatic character of the nouns is also shown by the conversion from general (girl and boy) to specific (brother and sister) depending on position in the sentence.

    Thus, the passive can be used to hide an agent (when it's deleted) or to emphasize one (when it's expressed). No wonder it has kept its niche in English since Primitive Germanic.

    I'm a big fan of the passive, but it must be used sparingly and for emphasis. Think of it as the grammatical equivalent of Tabasco sauce.


    Question (From the Internet): I have a question about verb conjugation in the following sentence:

    My interests lay at that time in the extracurricular pursuit of journalism and in the new social climate I had just entered.

    Would the proper verb tense be lay, lie or laid? Are there any general rules for usage of this word?

    Answer: The correct form is lay. This form is the past tense of the verb lie.

    Confusion about the use of this intransitive verb is common because it has the bad taste to take the same form as the present tense of the transitive verb lay. For what it's worth, they were the same root word in Primitive Germanic, but the transitive verb had an extra syllable that caused it to come down through the language as a regular verb. The intransitive verb didn't have the extra syllable, so it stayed irregular.

    Here are the paradigms:

    Transitive verb lay (a transitive verb takes a direct object)

    Present tense: I lay the book on the table.

    Past tense: I laid the book on the table,

    Past participle: I have laid the book on the table.

    Intransitive verb lie (an intransitive verb does not take a direct object)

    Present tense: I lie down.

    Past tense: I lay down.

    Past participle: I have lain down.

    James Kilpatrick had an interesting newspaper column on these words in his irregular series on "The Writer's Art." The column appeared in the March 3, 1997, Raleigh News and Observer.


    Question (From a technical writer): I am proofreading a document in which I find the sentence, "[Brand Name] (generic designation) Tablets is currently marketed in two strengths." Does this fall into the category of a noun meaning one thing even though it ends in "s"? I can see saying "[Brand Name] is currently..." or "[Brand Name] Tablets are", but the current option bothers me.

    It is important to make the distinction that these are tablets, and not one of the various other dosage forms. Is this considered a collective noun?

    Answer: I need to know whether "tablets" is part of the registered trademark. If it is not, it ought not to be capitalized. And once it's lowercased, it returns from the harsh and unreasoning environment of proper nouns and back into the warm embrace of conventional sentence parsing.

    Thus, the Grammar Hotline recommends:

    [Brand Name](TM) (generic designation) tablets are currently marketed in two strengths. -but-

    [Brand Name] Tablets (TM) (generic designation) is currently marketed in two strengths.

    Notice that part of establishing a trademark is not allowing it to be interrupted with parenthetical information.


    Question (From the Internet): I am writing for a former employee who is working on her dissertation. Her committee chair has edited her paper, and there are a couple of was versus were questions my friend has concerning her chair's edits. The following are the two sentences, as originally written:

    It is possible that the Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version may be predictive for other forensic populations even if it were not found to be predictive for Community Penalties-type populations. (The committee chair changed the were to was.)

    If Scale 4 (Psychopathic Deviance) were the one scale elevated 80 or above and the subject did not meet the other criterion of at least four MMPI clinical scales with T scores 70 or above, he was not coded as high in psychopathology. (The committee chair changed the were to was.)

    What is your opinion on the use of was versus were in these two sentences? Also, do you have any summaries on the subjunctive mood, with examples?

    Answer: The subjunctive mood is obsolescent in written English, and just about obsolete in spoken English. The one context where it still applies is with verbs of wishing or in contrary-to-fact conditional clauses. As you note, even in these con texts, its use is controversial.

    Now, contrary-to-fact conditional clauses often begin with the word if. The two examples you give, however, are conditionals, but they are not contrary to fact. They are fact--conditional fact. That's why the subjunctive does not apply. < /P>

    I join you in grieving over the perversity of such a rule. The subjunctive is such an elegant construction that it ought, by all rights, to be sprinkled liberally in dissertations and banished forever from jingles like "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener." On the other hand, you have to admire the subjunctive for its ability to keep the most educated writers and speakers of the language on their toes. Just when you think you've mastered the most complicated grammatical hazing exercise of them all, it throws you a curve. It just proves that a Ph.D. is just one step in lifelong learning.

    Most usage handbooks devote pages and pages to bemoaning the sorry state of the subjunctive mood. They generate much heat, but little light. For light, I recommend the analysis in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, under "subjunctive." This source gives this correct example: ". . . Freud felt as if he was being observed; raising his eyes he found some children starting down at him." --E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime, 1975.

    It also give this incorrect example: "He was asked if he were apprehensive." --NY Times, 16 Jan. 1972.

    The analysis of the latter (incorrect) example will interest you: "This use is considered hypercorrect by those who notice it; it would be safe to say, however, that very few notice it." Your friend is fortunate to have as a dissertation chairman one of those very few.


    Question: Which is correct:

    Jack was not effected/affected by Jillís antics.

    Answer: The correct choice is affected.

    Question 2: Which is correct:

    You may only continue those coverages that are in effect/affect at the time of your termination."

    Answer: The correct choice is effect.

    In general, affect is a verb; effect is a noun.

    As you can well imagine, you are not the only one confused by these words. I have archived a standard response to this question, which follows.


    Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): Is there an easy trick to remembering when to use effect and affect?

    Answer: In general, effect is a noun and affect is a verb. This works most of the time.

    Unfortunately, however, as you have noticed, in a not insignificant number of cases, effect is a verb, and affect is a noun. The Grammar Hotline regrets this deeply. It would be lovely if the world were tidier.

    Maybe you can memorize the exceptions. Effect is a verb only when it means to bring about (The chancellor has a mandate to effect sweeping changes.). Affect is a noun only when the topic is psychology.

    My advice is to control half of the exceptions by simply refusing to talk about psychology.


    Question (From a foreign student): I would very much appreciate if you could help me with this doubt. I have an exam soon. In the nonfinite sentence, "The boat was sturdily built and held steady and I thought the man at the oars seemed to know what he was about," is held steady a lexical verb indicating consequence, or is it a subjective complement (past participle)?

    Answer: It is not possible to tell because the sentence is ambiguously written. Most native speakers will try first to process the sentence with parallel syntax. This means that they will interpret built and held as past participles. I donít know enough about sailing to determine if the sentence makes sense that way. On the other hand, I donít know enough about sailing to know whether the sentence makes sense with held as a main verb parallel to was eit her. Held steady is a term of art (specialized usage) within the sailing community.


    Question (From a community college administrator): I have a question regarding the following sentence:

    This data, along with the other data, is suggestive of some of the challenges likely to be encountered in this project.

    Is it more correct to say is suggestive or are suggestive in this sentence?

    Answer: Data is a word that English has borrowed from Latin. In Latin, the singular form of the word is datum, which is a second-declension neuter noun. Data is the plural.

    Most educated speakers and writers in English continue to use the Latin forms of this word. Since data is a plural, it takes a plural verb. Thus, in the example you give, "These data are suggestive" would be the usual choice.

    But data, of course, looks singular. As a result, it is not at all difficult to find examples of data used with a singular verb in speechóand even in writing. It is important to note, however, that those who assume that data is a singular noun almost never try to make it plural (nobody uses the word datas). They are much more likely to regard it as a non-count nounósomething like sugar.

    I would ordinarily waffle a bit in writing this kind of answer. In your case, however, the wording of the question provides the very qualification I need. You didnít ask which form is "correct"; you asked which form is "more correct." My answer to that is unequivocal: Are is more correct.

    One final note: Now that this problem is resolved, the writer of this sentence should take a look at the stem verb. "These data suggest" is clearer and better worded than "These data are suggestive."


    Question (From the owner of a small business): I am writing a two-page advertisement to be run in our dog-breed magazine. There will be two pictures per page with some appropriate copy about the pictures. My question involves the introductory heading. Schoss Pugs (is or are) proud to present . . . (Schoss, my kennel name, means 'lap dog' in German. Of course, pugs means more than one dog, so it would be plural.) I have seen it used both ways by other advertisers. Which is correct?

    Answer: The grammatically correct choice is is. "Schoss Pugs" is a singular corporate entity, and a singular noun; that it ends with an "s" is an accident of fate.

    Try as I may, I cannot think of a very common example of another firm that works this way. Many firms end in "s," of course, but usually that "s" follows an apostrophe to show possession. Dillard Department Stores is the formal corporate name, and it takes a singular verb, but almost no one refers to the firm this way. Note that if you were referring to an individual store, you would lowercase "department store."

    Anyway, that's the grammar. A separate question is the effect of the grammar choice on the advertisement. Most public relations copywriters would say that ad copy that might be misinterpreted as containing a grammatical error ought to be rewritten. The name of the game is not allowing anything to distract the reader from your message--not even a correct grammatical construction that might be misinterpreted as a grammatical error.

    This is the Caesar's wife standard of communication. Your writing must not only be blameless; it must be above blame.

    If you do not buy into this kind of logic, the Grammar Hotline can only counsel consistency and correctness.


    Question: (From a faculty member wondering about local news coverage): Which is correct: Debris is strewed all over the city --or-- Debris is strewn all over the city --or-- Debris is strown all over the city?

    Answer: Grammar Hotline appreciates your taking a break from Hurricane Fran cleanup activities to ensure that your past participles are in order. Unfortunately, the vowel shifts involved in giving a complete answer to your question are even more unpredictable than the shifting winds of a hurricane.

    The short answer is that the Old English root of the modern English word strew was a weak verb. This means that it formed its principal parts by adding a dental suffix (e.g., -ed) rather than by internal vowel change. This means that the historically correct form is strewed.

    But there's a complication. As English changed through the centuries, weak verbs sometimes changed their internal vowels for reasons other than to differentiate their principal parts. In the case of "strewian," the "w" caused the "e" to become a diphthong, "eo." Therein lies the confusion.

    Merriam Webster lists strewed as the first choice for the past participle of strew, and strewn as the second choice. It does not list strown. The Oxford English Dictionary also lists strown. Grammar Hotline recognizes a false analogy with throw, threw, thrown, but reminds seekers of truth that this analogy is, after all, false. She recommends strewed, but will permit strewn as long as the government has declared the affected region a federal disaster area. Those who are without electricity should be permitted full past-participle latitude, extending even to strown. Among their other hardships, they have no access to the Grammar Hotline.


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