Another Agreement Lesson

What’s wrong with this sentence?

The isotopic signature of material from the inner and outer solar system differ significantly.

“Differ” is plural, right? And the phrase “inner and outer” describes two things, right? So what’s wrong?

“Inner and outer” isn’t the subject of “differ”! “Signature” is, and “signature” is singular.

Since we’re talking about two things, though, the subject should be plural! (“Inner and outer” are objects of the preposition “of.”)

The picture isn’t very useful, but it’s in the article…

Isotope analysis indicates that Earth's water may have arrived when the Moon was formed

Remember: the subject and the verb must both be singular or both plural. That’s agreement.

Make Your Parallels Parallel!

I see this mistake a lot.

First panel:

He should say “What would you say if I were playing golf instead of cleaning the garage?”


What would you say if I played golf instead of cleaned the garage?”

The two parts of his sentence are parallel, so they should have the same verb form.

Of course, in this case he’s wrong no matter what he says…

A Malaprop Everyone Knows

A malaprop is when you have the meaning right but the pronunciation wrong. I don’t think a malaprop requires the mispronunciation to be an actual word. (In which case I know a member of my local home government who makes a lot of malaprops. But I digress.)

Anyway, the toaster gives the guy his revenge…

Wouldn’t you know it; I ran into a comic about malaprops!

Quiz: Can you tell what the correct words are? I counted six malaprops…

Another “If” or “Whether” Post

Back in May I wrote about when to use “if” and when to use “whether” instead. Here’s a comic on that subject. They get it wrong.

Eight Pronunciations of “-ough”

Not exactly a lesson, just fun. The last one, by the way is, pronounced “hock.”

The rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode coughing and hiccoughing through the streets of Scarborough leading a horse whose leg had been houghed.

Campbell’s Higher English

Maybe someone can draw me a cartoon of that…

All Numbers are Singular

What??? You ask. Hear me out.

First, numbers in most contexts are adjectives. Adjectives don’t show number in English. We say “five apples” but not “fives apples.” But that’s not my point.

Let’s move on to arithmetic. We (correctly) say “Three and six are nine.” Plural verb, so plural numbers, right? Not quite. That sentence has a plural subject, three and six. You could as easily say “Tom and Pete are sick.” The two persons are one each, and they make a plural subject.

A number is singular when you talk about the number itself!

For example, you say, “six is half of twelve, thirteen is a prime number.” Singular verbs! You’re referring to the number itself (not themselves), not six of something, such as six people.

Finally we get to the comic. Third panel. The guy confuses referring to the number itself with the number of things. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Anyway, there’s a little incongruity for you that I bet you never noticed.

Alot or A Lot?

Well, neither. It’s not “alot” but “allot.” Here’s an example of doing it wrong:

One word, allot, means to distribute something evenly in pieces, such as when a parent allots each child one piece of candy.

When you write about a bunch of something, you say that you have a lot of it. You could say there’s a lot of candy in the bowl.

There ain’t no such word as “alot.” Don’t use it.

Some Nice Punctuation

Back in the days of typewriters, all you had was the hyphen, and if you wanted something stronger, you typed two hyphens. But nowadays, with proportional fonts and all, we have the hyphen, the N-dash, and the M-dash. (Typographers, with their fonts and printing presses, always had these, by the way.)

Trouble is, lots of folks don’t know how to use all these professional tools. But I ran into an article the other day written by someone who did! The organization is Axios, the series is Axios Science, and the writer is Andrew Freedman. Link:

First, a hyphen, used correctly:

They used high-resolution climate models based on various emissions scenarios to project future changes in key cloud forest variables.

“high-resolution” is a compound adjective. Correct.

Next, an N-dash:

The study finds that in about 25–45 years, 70%–86% of páramo are likely to be drier or “be subject to tree invasion.”

You use the N-dash to indicate a range; in this case “25 to 45” and “70 to 86.” Correct.

Finally the M-dash, in the next article:

Considerable time is spent focusing on whether a planet is in its star’s “habitable zone” — an orbit in which liquid water can be sustained on the surface — but that alone can’t predict whether life will exist.

Use M-dashes for some kind of break, or as a strong set of parentheses to set off something important, which he did here. Technically he doesn’t need the spaces around the M-dashes (I don’t use the spaces) but it’s allowed. Maybe he wanted to strengthen the effect.

Here’s the picture that went with the first article:

A Common Disagreement

In English (okay, and many other languages) we have this concept called agreement. Agreement means that singulars go with singulars and plurals go with plurals. I remember this specific example being covered back in sixth grade. He gets it wrong. Can you spot it?

Well, panel 2. “type” is singular, but “those” is plural. It should be “that type of publication.” Or “those types of publications.”

Grammar Pun

Not even a lesson with it. Guess I’m being lazy.

Maybe I’ll do something worthwhile next time…