• Subject-verb agreement poser over noun phrase/gerund phrase usage

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    LET’S take a close look at this seemingly no-brainer subject-verb agreement situation presented recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by Jhumur Dasgupta, a member from India:

    “Which sentence is correct: ‘Falling oil prices have hurt the economies of Gulf countries’ or ‘Falling oil prices has hurt the economies of Gulf countries’? I see that both the ‘have’ and ‘has’ usages are common in the Internet.”

    My reply to Jhumur:
    The first construction, “Falling oil prices have hurt the economies of Gulf countries,” is grammatically correct based on the subject-verb agreement rule that the form of the verb must agree with the number (whether singular or plural) of the subject or agent doing the action. The subject here is clearly the noun phrase “falling oil prices,” which is plural both grammatically and notionally. It thus needs the plural present-perfect “have hurt.”

    Analyzed in the same way, the sentence “Falling oil prices has hurt the economies of Gulf countries” is faulty both grammatically and notionally. In this construction, it’s really a stretch—and a wrong one at that—to consider “falling oil prices” a gerund phrase, which would make it conceptually singular.

    If this wrong construction is common in the Internet as you say, it’s most likely because some writers mistake it for the correct construction “The falling of oil prices has hurt the economies of Gulf countries,” where the subject is the “the falling of oil prices.” This time, what we have is a gerund phrase that’s both notionally and grammatically singular, so it needs the singular present-perfect verb form “has hurt.”

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    Another Forum member, Miss Mae, found the use of the apostrophe-“s” in the following sentence unsettling:

    “The hippopotamus is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s red list of threatened species as ‘vulnerable, due to the significant decline in their population in the past three decades.’ ”

    To get rid of the apostrophe-“s,” she decided to reconstruct that sentence as follows:
    “Being ‘vulnerable, due to the significant decline in their population in the past three decades,’ the hippopotamus is listed on the red list of threatened species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).”

    She asked if she did the right thing.
    My reply to Miss Mae:

    I’ll say right off that by resorting to a total rewrite, you administered on that sentence a cure that’s worse than the disease, if indeed the seemingly misshapen use of the apostrophe-“s” after the parenthetical acronym “IUCN” can even be remotely considered an error.

    The fact though is that the use of the apostrophe-“s” in that situation is a perfectly acceptable grammatical and stylistic convention for indicating the possessive for entities with long, multiword names that provide the obligatory acronym to boot. In short, that sentence is perfectly healthy and didn’t need the intrusive surgery that you did on it.

    Let’s examine your post-surgery sentence: “Being ‘vulnerable, due to the significant decline in their population in the past three decades,’ the hippopotamus is listed on the red list of threatened species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).”

    Its first major flaw is that it describes the vulnerability and population decline (and even the timetable) of something way, way ahead of having that something identified by name—“the hippopotamus.” The second major flaw is that the 15-word description of the hippopotamus is now being presented as an unattributed direct quote rather than being specifically attributed to the IUCN. I think this departure from the intended sense is even more serious than burying the true subject of the statement deep in midsentence.

    The lesson to be learned here is that rewriting a sentence is serious business. It must be done for a valid reason and must be faithful in every way to the intent and sense of the original statement.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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