'Data' With a Singular Verb?
Posted by June on October 20, 2014
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Here's an e-mail I got a while back:

People are now using words which are considered to be all inclusive, such as data, with the plural form of the verb. When I went to school, the word data was considered to be singular because it is a set of information, all inclusive. Each of the pieces of data (aka information) are considered to be a set within that data.

There are several other words that imply the plural, but like data, are considered to be singular. For the life of me, I can't think of other examples at the moment. This error is rampant. I can't stand it! Both my husband and I want to turn off the TV or the radio when that happens. It is happening more frequently. I thought people who major in journalism and communications studies (what a misnomer!!) were supposed to have writing skills, which should include grammar.

And here's my reply:

Thanks so much for the note! I've gotten a number of e-mails over the years from people about verb agreement with "data" -- but it's always been the opposite of your position. They complain that data is used with a singular verb (the data is compelling) when in fact it should be used with a plural verb (the data are compelling).

Data is actually the plural of datum. So traditionally it would take a plural verb. (That's from the
Latin, but American dictionaries still treat data as a plural first and foremost.

But in fact, both forms are acceptable depending on the writer's/speaker's intent.

Hope that helps!

 

As, Though, Although and While
Posted by June on October 13, 2014
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“As,” “while,” “though” and “although” are contenders to be my least-favorite word in the English language. True, they’re not as offensive a lot of other words you and I can think of. But they cause more than their share of problems for the writers I edit.

Their weakness is also their biggest strength: They let you squeeze more information into a sentence – perhaps more than should be there.

Zander fell screaming to the ground, clutching at his gushing wound, as Kerry’s gun blasted a bullet through Zander’s throat.

I really dislike the organization of that sentence. The “as” clause feels like a cheat. The big event in this sentence was suppose to be that Kerry shot Zander. Yet through the dubious power of “as,” the writer was able to tack it on like an afterthought. Sometimes when I see “as” used this way, it almost comes off like the writer had forgotten to mention the actual events, so in a backpedaling motion he tacks it onto the end of a less-interesting action.

"While," "though," "although" and "as" do the most damage at the head of a sentence.

While not as fuel efficient as a lot of other cars Chevy is rolling out this year, the 2015 Fussy GT offers impressive torque and a zero-to-60 time of about eight seconds.

This is, of course, a legitimate way to structure a sentence. But it leads to abuse. But the way the comma coincides with the reader's need to take a huge gulp of air may not be ideal. In other words, the “while” clause can create a big, long delay before you get to the real point of the sentence.

Plus, “while,” “though” and “although” create contrasts that tend to undermine the main clause:

Though she can’t hit high notes or hit any notes for very long, Baybay is a good singer.

The writer of a sentence like this hasn’t exactly convinced me of Baybay’s talents.

Don’t let this wank stop you from using “though,” “although,” “while” and “as.” Just when you do, stop and consider whether these words are setting you up to write a sentence that is itself wank-worthy.

'Whomever' or 'Whoever' Positioned Between Two Clauses
Posted by June on October 6, 2014
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Here’s an e-mail I got recently:

Normally I have no difficulty with who/whom. I do when it  comes to a sentence like "Give it to who(m)ever wants it." If the rephrasing would be he wants it, it would be "whoever." If the rephrasing would be give it to him, it would be "whomever." Which would you use?

This is exactly why I caution people against using “whom.” It’s simple in a lot of cases. But once you start using “whom” you’ve pretty much committed to using it for the entire document. And if you come across a sentence like this, you could find yourself in over your head.

Here’s what I wrote back:

In your example, the object of the preposition "with" is not the pronoun that follows. It's the whole clause that follows. And that clause needs a subject. 

"Give it to whoever wants it."

That is, the verb "wants" needs a subject. And when combined with its subject ("whoever") the whole clause becomes the object of the first part. That's why "whomever" is wrong in your sentence and "whoever" is correct.

When in doubt, remember this: If a pronoun is in position to be the object of one thing and the subject of another, the subject form wins.

Hire whomever you want.

BUT

Hire whoever wants the job.

The man whom I marry.

BUT

The man who marries me.

They recruited an engineering major who they believed would do the job better.

BUT

They recruited an engineering major whom they trusted.

See what I mean? In "Hire whomever you want," the pronoun is the object of the verb "want." What's the object of the verb "hire"? The whole clause that follows.

In "Hire whoever wants the job," the pronoun is the subject of the verb. "Wants" needs a subject.

 

 

A Dangler to Leave Dangling?
Posted by June on September 29, 2014
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I’ve talked before about danglers. A dangler occurs whenever modifying phrase or clause isn’t immediately next to the noun it modifies.  So in “Skipping through the streets, the thought occurred to me that skipping is dangerous,” you have a dangler because the participial phrase “skipping through the streets” isn’t supposed to describe the “the thought.” It’s supposed to describe “me.” Yet it’s not as close to “me” as it could be.

These types of danglers are often -- very often -- worth fixing. But there’s one particular flavor of dangler that I’m not so sure about.

“Open Tuesday through Sunday, the restaurant’s menu features small plates and gourmet bites.”

Now, technically, this is a dangler because the noun modified by the introductory phrase is not the one that phrase aims to modify, though at first glance it seems to be.

“Open Tuesday through Sunday.” obviously refers to the restaurant. And because mention of that restaurant is the first word to follow that phrase, it’s easy to think that this is not a dangler.

But it is. Why? Because in this sentence, the word “restaurant” is not working as a noun. It’s working as a modifier. The real head of the noun phrase “the restaurant’s menu” is in fact the menu. “Restaurant's,” because it’s a possessive, is functioning adjectivally as what’s called a possessive determiner. Grammatically speaking, it’s an adjective. The true noun is “menu.”

So technically we’re saying that the menu itself is open Tuesday through Sunday.

But is this really a problem? Is this really worth fixing? Or is it so crystal clear that there’s no need to recast the sentence?

I’m not sure. I’m never sure in these cases. Usually, I try to fix them: “Open Tuesday through Sunday, the restaurant offers a menu of small plates and gourmet bites.” But as often as not, there’s a price to pay for the rejiggering -- awkwardness or perhaps a slight straying from what the writer really meant. 

So whether to fix this type of dangler is anybody’s guess.