Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Wrong-Number Pattern

People sometimes apply the wrong number to verbs. They do so when a verb’s closest preceding noun has a different number from the subject’s. I have found enough instances of this pattern online over time to consider it noteworthy. (However, my notes on English grammar should be taken with a grain of salt as I’m not a native speaker.)

For example, in this article, the interviewee says:

[T]he full current of the scripts are breaking bad […].

As I’ve written previously, the subject of this sentence is “current”, which is singular, so the verb needs to be ‘is’, not “are”. It should say ‘the full current of the scripts is breaking bad’. However, the noun “scripts” is closer to the verb than the subject, so the interviewee assigned its plural number to the verb.

In very simple sentences, such as ‘the desk is brown’, looking at the closest preceding noun to determine the verb’s number does work as a rule of thumb. Maybe that’s how this pattern originated. But one should always look at the subject to determine the verb’s number, which is not necessarily the verb’s closest preceding noun. In writing, this is easy: just determine the subject of the sentence, then determine its number and apply it to the verb. When speaking, that can be a bit more difficult – we often speak while thinking ahead or changing our train of thought in the middle of the sentence, so when we get to the second half we may already have forgotten most of the first. That’s especially true in situations where pressure is greater than usual, such as in an interview. Once you’ve forgotten the half of the sentence that contains the subject, you can’t use it to determine the verb’s number anymore, and all you’re left to do in the moment is look at the verb’s closest preceding noun. At least that’s how I explain what happened in the interview above.

One way to fix that is to make the subject the verb’s closest preceding noun. That changes the above example to: ‘The scripts’ full current is breaking bad.’

Another instance of the wrong-number pattern occurred when somebody commented on a different post of mine:

[T]he contents of the last [urn] is kept private […].

As I wrote here, the subject is “contents”, which is plural, so the verb should be ‘are’. But, again, the author assigned the number of the verb’s closest preceding noun – ‘urn’ – to the verb.

The same fix I have suggested works in this case, too: ‘The last urn’s contents are kept private.’ An upside of this fix is that it shortens sentences slightly, which should make remembering the subject’s number easier. But it should only be considered a temporary workaround as people get used to looking at the subject’s number instead.

In both examples, the fix turns an ‘of’ phrase into a possessive. The University of Arizona’s Global Campus Writing Center warns against using possessives for inanimate objects such as urns and instead recommends using ‘of’ phrases. Another website says:

Theoretically, an inanimate object or abstract idea cannot possess anything, but writers routinely use possessive endings with inanimate objects, as in the rocket’s red glare. These are technically called false possessives.

In this very post, I use both false possessives and ‘of’ phrases, such as when I write “the author assigned the number of the verb’s closest preceding noun […]”. Avoiding the false possessive would be clunky: ‘the author assigned the number of the noun that most closely precedes the verb’ or something like that. So I do think there is a place for false possessives, and their use seems preferable to assigning the wrong number to verbs.

All that said, my fix should be used with caution and only temporarily as one gets better at using the real solution – which is, again, to use the subject’s number as the verb’s number, no matter how far away the subject may be from the verb. People should also consider shortening their sentences to make that determination easier.


This post makes 4 references to:

What people are saying

Liam Neeson (or perhaps the screenwriter) makes a different but nonetheless interesting mistake in the 2008 film Taken when he says, in his famous ‘speech’ to the abductors of his character’s daughter:

[W]hat I do have are a very particular set of skills.

It should be ‘is’ instead of “are” since the subject is “set” not “skills”. ‘Set’ is singular; it doesn’t matter that it’s a “set of skills”, i.e., a set of something plural. The set itself is still singular even if it contains many things.

In this example, the verb is closer to the subject than to the other (non-preceding) noun, so it doesn’t match the wrong-number pattern I have laid out. I suspect it’s unusual for such a mistake to happen, and rather glaring, too. They should have re-shot the scene.

#364 · dennis (verified commenter) ·

An instance of the wrong-number pattern observed here:

The emotions of a horse comes first […].

#365 · dennis (verified commenter) ·

Im Deutschen gibt es dasselbe Muster wohl auch. So sagt David Deutsch in einem Spiegel-Interview:

Am Anfang des Zweiten Weltkriegs sah niemand voraus, dass die Eigenschaften des exotischen Elements Uran irgendeine Rolle für den Ausgang des Krieges haben könnte.

Allerdings ist unklar, ob Deutsch denselben Fehler im Englischen macht und der Spiegel ihn ins Deutsche übertragen hat oder ob er sich erst bei der Übersetzung seitens des Spiegels eingeschlichen hat.

#366 · dennis (verified commenter) ·

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