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."


Karen said...

Ooooo! Very nice!

Rose - Watching Waves said...

This is one that I didn't know. Thanks so much!

tom said...

good one, bill.

the inherent oddness of the alleged "correct" version should've been hint enough that yours was the right way.

Unknown said...

Way to go, Bill--a voice of reason in the idiocratic world of prescriptive grammar dweebs.

Your blog is a breath of fresh air--Thanks!

Dr. Timothy Hadley
Missouri State University

Phillip Blanchard said...

Obviously, there's much more wrong with the headline than that.

Stone-Cold Gemini said...

Wow! I just found your blog and I am really excited. I am a grammar nerd. I think this could be the beginning of something beautiful.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

Nice explanation, but you're wrong. If the subject is "one", as it clearly is, than it needs "bugs" rather than "bug" - as it's third person singular.

The noun "one" has been modified - postmodification it's called - with "of those earmarks" and can be considered an adjectival phrase that adds a degree description to the noun "one". But nothing more, as it can not be the subject of the sentence itself.

Try the sentence below:

This is one (of those earmarks) that bugs people.


This is one (of those earmarks) that bug people.

Clearly, when we delete the postmodification phrase, we can see that the first version is correct.

Glad to help out my semi-literate colonial cousins!

Sandy McManus

Bill said...

The previous comment illustrates my point beautifully. Disengage brain, engage sentence-diagramming template.

I heard John McEnroe the other day talk about "one of those guys who never seems to get tired." Think about that one for a moment. Yes, there's your "one." Now, do you really think he meant to refer to that person as "one of those guys," period, and then make the unrelated point that he never seems to get tired? Of course not. He's one of those guys-who-never-seem-to-get-tired. All of those guys figure into the statement, just as all of those earmarks figure into my example.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

So Bill, I guess you're just one of those guys who never give(s) up, eh!

Cheers, anyway. I think I'm beginning to see your point, and it could stand for a triumph of meaning and semantics over grammar, syntax, structure, etc!

Bill said...

I guess I'd characterize it as an advanced structure lesson. Not that I could teach the diagrammed-sentence version, but it's impossible that the system doesn't provide for the correct version.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

Of course, I see it now- how could it have eluded mebefore?! The problem is the relative pronoun 'who' - does it refer to 'one' or 'those people'?

That would be crucial, as it defines which use of third person we are going to need - singular or plural.

In other languages there are singular and plural forms of 'who', so they are more precise and don't fall into the problem you've outlined. But English, for its brevity, leads to ambiguity at times.

At least, I think that's the solution. What say you, Bill?

Unknown said...

"There are those earmarks that bug people."

"This is one of (those earmarks that bug people)."

The subject for the second part is 'those earmarks' which goes with 'that bug people'.

Bill is right then, no?

It would be different had the sentence gone:

"This is the one of those earmarks that bugs people"

which singles out one of the many earmarks, and describes it as the only one of the lot that bugs people. What a difference a single 'the' makes.

Unknown said...

Come TEFL tradesmen, you're parsing the sentence wrong.

One of
those earmarks that bug people.

You're parsing it
One of that bugs people
those earmarks

Bill said...

Is this a first, Stephen?

Unknown said...

Not with you Bill. Do you mean the first post I've made where I agree with you? Quite possibly but if you have stated something clearly I don't normally repeat it; in this case I posted what you had already made clear because I was lazy and didn't read all the comments.

Charles said...

Bill's right. Amazing how hard it is to slay this dragon. Substitute "among" for "one of" and it might help: This is among the earmarks that bug people. It is one among a larger set.

Anonymous said...

Of those earmarks that bug people, this is one.

kherux said...

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a huge section on this issue. I'd rather trust that book than Bill.