A Word, Please: The audacity of noun-verb agreement

For some time now, President Obama’s birth certificate has been posted online. Yet some people refused to believe he was born in this country.

Recently, Obama released the long-form copy of his birth certificate. Some people still wouldn’t believe it. Last week, the president announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Some people refuse to accept that.

There are many conclusions we can draw from this — some fascinating, some disturbing. But one fact we can glean here is more alarming, more bone-chilling than any other. It is this: I’m more powerful than the president.

That’s right, unlike the leader of free world, my authority is above question. That’s because I’m a member of a group so elite, so above doubt that people take every word we say as absolute gospel — a group known as grammar book authors.

For reasons I can’t figure out, grammar evokes less skepticism than any other topic. So a piddling claim to authority on this subject is enough to get people to believe anything you say about it.

Truth be known, the seemingly elite club will admit just about anyone. Me, I gained membership armed with little more than a crayon and the shamelessness to ride on Lynne Truss’ coattails. Still, because of one unimpressive distinction, people take me at my word on the subject of words.

This disturbing reality came to my attention recently when I got an email from a friend named Tracy. She’s a copywriter and editor who’s been honing her craft for decades. She has no trouble choosing between “a majority of patients are” and “a majority of patients is.” The plural verb “are,” Tracy knows, is better in this context than the singular verb “is.”

The trouble was, her client wasn’t buying it. Despite all Tracy’s years in the business and all her expertise, the client wouldn’t accept that Tracy was right.

These situations used to frustrate her. But not anymore. Now she knows exactly what to do: She just emails me her question and passes my answer along to the client. Then and only then will the client accept that Tracy — who probably knows more about grammar and editing than I do — was right all along.

As Tracy knew well before checking with me, there are two issues at play in “a majority of patients.” The first is whether the verb should agree with the first noun, “majority,” or the second noun, “patients.” Often in these structures, the noun that’s functioning as the object of the preposition — in this case “patients” — sort of plays second fiddle to the head noun in the phrase. So it’s natural to let the head noun, “majority,” dictate what form the verb will take.

Look at the sentence “A burger with pickles is delicious.” Notice how “is” matches the burger and not the pickles — the object of the preposition “with” falls within a larger noun phrase. But that doesn’t mean that the verb must always match the head noun.

Look at “a whole bunch of teenagers are at the mall.” If the verb always had to match the head noun, you’d write “a whole bunch of teenagers is at the mall,” which is less natural and less logical.

This brings us to our second issue: is “majority” singular in the first place?

“‘Majority’ is sometimes a collective noun that takes a singular verb, but sometimes…it’s a plural noun demanding a plural verb,” according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

Of course, we didn’t need this grammar book’s author to tell us that. We can see that both “The majority is in charge” and “The majority are car owners” are fine.

But somehow hearing it from “Garner’s” puts all my doubts to rest.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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