Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Don't Be One of Those People

The Post recently ran an article about controversy over the big spending bill's inclusion of a million bucks toward battling an insect called the Mormon cricket, and the headline was "One of Those Earmarks That Bug People."

As surely as the chirping of a male cricket attracts female crickets, that construction attracted some raised eyebrows. It should have said "One of Those Earmarks That Bugs People," I was told. The predicate has to agree with the subject.

Yes, the predicate does have to agree with the subject. But it has to agree with its own subject, and sometimes that's the subject of its clause and not the subject of the entire sentence.

That's the technical explanation, but it's the technicalities that tend to lead people to make this common error. Forget all the times you were slapped with a ruler and think about the intended meaning of what you're reading; don't pull out your parts-of-speech flash cards and chant "Subject, verb, subject, verb" like a zombie.

In that headline, it's "those earmarks" that bug people, and this is just one of them. Why would we have dragged those other earmarks into this if we were talking about only this one? Of those earmarks that bug people, this is one. The story is about one of [those earmarks that bug people], not [one of those earmarks] that bugs people. The verb has to agree with "those earmarks," not with "one."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Either Way, They Got Some Crazy Little Women There

"Kansas City" alone is often ambiguous, and so I would not include it on a list of "dateline cities." For every person who thinks it's obvious that a reference with no state means the much larger one, in Missouri, there's probably, oh, I don't know, a third of a person who thinks it's obvious that it means the one in the eponymous state.

But here's an example of why the dateline-city thing, like all style guidelines, is only a guideline:
RAYTOWN, Mo. — Police say that the bodies of four people have been found in an apartment near Kansas City and that they suspect foul play. Police are trying to confirm the identities of the dead, including two preteen boys.

No need to say "Kansas City, Mo." when (a) we already know the suburb is in Missouri and (b) if it's near the one in Missouri, it's also near the one in Kansas.