A Word, Please: Subject-verb questions sprout up again

Around the time comedians lost interest in Chia Pet jokes, I lost interest in talking about subject-verb agreement. The topic seems tired, holds no challenge and is just, as comedians might say of Chia Pet punch lines, "too easy."

Everyone knows it's "Karen thinks" and not "Karen think." Everyone knows that "the dog lies" but "dogs lie." Where's the fun in talking about that? Sure, people sometimes lose track of their subjects: "Karen, who along with her brothers and sisters, own a lot of dogs." That should have been "owns." Yet caution — not insight — is all that's required to avoid these flubs.

But on a recent trip to the drug store, I got a clear reminder that even things we write off as old news may deserve a second look. That reminder came on a display rack containing a Chia Pet in the form of one Barack Obama. That fast, Chia Pets were funny again.

One glimpse at the 44th president's sprout-covered terra cotta noggin and I found myself wishing, for the first time in years, that I worked at an office with a gag gift exchange (or, perhaps, had a relative with a sense of humor). I don't even know whether the item was manufactured as a tribute or a jab. I just know that Chia Pet makers, the witting or unwitting kings of the gag gift industry, had at last outdone themselves.

Taking a lesson from our green-haired commander in chief, I suddenly found myself able to look past the clichéd, too-obvious topic of subject-verb agreement to realize that it can in fact be interesting. Scratch the surface and you'll find some situations that are challenging and even worth talking about.

Look at this sentence: $20 million in five-dollar bills was distributed among attendees. Should that "was" be "were"? After all, we're talking about a plural number of five-dollar bills, right?

How about if we simplified that to just "$20 million was distributed"? We're still talking about dollars, plural, so why wouldn't you say "$20 million were distributed"?

And what about "A bunch of five-dollar bills were distributed"? Surely "bunch" is singular. So why wouldn't we use the singular verb and say, "A bunch of five-dollar bills was distributed."

Some grammar experts like to debate this stuff. They pull out terms like "partitive" and "synesis" and "notional agreement." Partitives are phrases like "many of," "a portion of" and "most of" that indicate the quantity of a noun.

"Many of the visitors" tells you we're talking about a portion of the visitors. Partitive is a nice term, but it doesn't tell you anything you didn't know already.

"Synesis" is the idea that meaning, not grammatical structure, dictates some choices. So in "A bunch of five-dollar bills were," we choose the verb based not on the singular nature of "bunch" but on the conceptual knowledge that we're focusing not on one bunch, but on the individual things that make it.

"Notional subject" is similar. It's why you would say "A flock of birds was flying by" but you might perceive the birds as individuals in the following sentence if that sentence was "They were hunting."

Again, that doesn't tell you anything you didn't know already. Simplicity, not complex analysis, is key here. When you're talking about $20 million in five dollar bills, you may intend it as a singular sum: "$20 million in five-dollar bills was distributed."

Or your intended subject may be the bills themselves, in which case you could make a case for the plural: "$20 million in five-dollar bills were given to the children."

Neither is wrong.

Your best guide is common sense — the same resource that stopped me from purchasing my own presidential Chia Pet.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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