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A Word, Please: An email check brings out interesting questions

Any reader who’s sent me an email knows I’m terrible about checking my email.

The spam-to-real-correspondence ratio in my inbox is literally about 30-to-1, which makes for a lot of dreaded sifting and searching.

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In my more candid moments, I might admit there are other reasons I hesitate to dive in. Sometimes readers catch mistakes in my work. Sometimes they don’t but think they have. Neither scenario is much fun for me.

So I procrastinate. But when I finally log in, I’m always sorry I didn’t do so sooner. There’s good stuff in there. I learn things.

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For example, I recently wrote a column pointing out that the practice of putting two spaces between sentences is obsolete, rooted in the days when typewriters gave every character the same amount of space.

Reader Cyndy, a professional typesetter (now referred to as a “desktop publisher”) who studied typesetting in college, had a lot of extra insight.

“When typing on a typewriter was the norm, double spaces indeed made the paragraphs easier to read. But when typesetting on computers came along, the issue of justifying a paragraph became the issue. (No staggered right anymore. It was a smooth line on both vertical sides of the paragraph or story.)

If you put a double space in there, justifying the type may have caused it to be ragged on the left side, because if the sentence ended at the end of the line and there was a double space, then there would be a space at the beginning of the next line, thereby killing the smooth vertical line.

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“When people hand in articles that contain double spacing at the end of a sentence, those of us who publish those articles have to search for all double spaces and make them single spaces.”

See? You can learn something new every day if you check your email.

More often, readers send me questions. Some, like this one from a government worker whose name I’m omitting on a hunch she might not want to be identified, get very interesting.

She asked about subject-verb agreement in this sentence:

“We identified $350,000 in costs that were/was ineligible for reimbursement,” she wrote.

This structure comes up often in her work, where there’s a longstanding practice of treating “costs” as the subject, taking the plural verb “were.” But why is “costs” necessarily the subject? Couldn’t $350,000 be the subject of the verb instead and, if so, is it singular or plural?

The second question is easier than it seems. Plural dollar amounts are often treated as singular sums: “$350,000 is a lot of money,” not “are a lot of money.”

So if $350,000 functions as a singular but “costs” is a plural, what form should the verb take? Singular “was” or plural “were”?

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Here’s the rule: When a noun is modified by a prepositional phrase, which contains its own noun, like “in costs” or “of seagulls,” either can get a verb. It depends on your meaning. You can say a flock of seagulls is overhead, emphasizing a singular group. Or you can say a flock of seagulls are fighting over a French fry, emphasizing interactions of multiple individuals.

You can say a team of rivals is gathered in the conference room or a team of rivals are debating a policy. You choose based on which one makes the most sense and sounds best. Because “was” sounds terrible in “We identified $350,000 in costs that was ineligible,” the clear choice is “were.”

There was a bit of bad news in my email inbox, too. Several readers pointed out that, in a recent column, I had miscounted the number of syllables in the words “preventive” and “preventative.” They were right. So nothing to say but “oops” and “sorry.”

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