March 23, 2020

Subject-Object and Subject-Complement Agreement

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When we think of grammatical agreement, we usually think of how subjects should agree with verbs. But it's also important to make sure subjects agree with objects and complements, too. Here's what you need to know.

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The syntax of great writing
Posted by June on March 23, 2020
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that great writers make fools out of great editors.

Great editors say, “Avoid passive voice.” Then a writer like Ian McEwan starts Atonement with a whopper of a passive in the very first sentence: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

Editors say you should use correct punctuation. Yet Cormac McCarthy dispenses with apostrophes at will.

An editor who noticed a writer switching from the third-person to the second-person would fix it immediately. Yet in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut switches from his third-person narration to directly command the reader in the second-person imperative: “Listen.”

Some editors (present company included) would tell you to avoid cleft sentences, which start with “it is,” then relegate the meatiest information to a subordinate clause. Yet Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, got away with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The remarkable part: in every instance, the defiance pays off. Each of these sentences is far better than any by-the-book rewrite could have produced.

Why do they work? Magic, mostly. But to see how, exactly, the magic manifests itself, you need a basic understanding of syntax. Here's a piece I did examining what these writers did and why it worked.

 

June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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  • 'Whom' vs. 'Who' at the Beginning of a Sentence

    June A.S.: Everything you said is right, but I'm not sure which comment you're directing it at. Are you getting confused by passive voice as it comes into play in these sentences? "I called him" uses the object pronoun "him" because, as you said, is an object. When you invert that sentence to say "He was called," it's not the same sentence structure. In passive voice, the object of the action (so to speak) is made the grammatical subject of the sentence. So "He was called" does, as you said, required the subject pronoun "he." I don't believe anyone said anything to the contrary.

  • 'Whom' vs. 'Who' at the Beginning of a Sentence

    A.S. WRONG! If "Whom was called into the office" is a question then it's the equivalent of asking "Him was called into the office?" which is obviously wrong. If it's a statement it's still wrong. Look, it's not difficult: Me, him, her, them and whom are objects. I, he, she, they and who are subjects. If the person in the sample sentence is the object (as indicated by "whom") then the office must be the subject but there's no verb for the subject, so the person must be the subject and is therefore who. Understand?

  • E-mail vs. Email

    June Punctuation rules for American English are indeed "always" put the period or comma before the closing quote mark. British style is as you described (that is, it follows a certain logic). But American rules are rooted in a printing convention that originated from aesthetics concerns. I'm quite confident that this American convention will go the way of the dinosaur. Wikipedia is proof: Their style is situational in the way you described. But for now, it's the rule: The comma always goes "inside," as does a "period."

  • A Not-So-Thrilling Typo

    June Oops. Fixing now. (Better late than never.)

  • A Not-So-Thrilling Typo

    JR "An" Not-So-Thrilling Typo?