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A Word, Please:

Agreement issues are about logic

January 14, 2009|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

Ask any grammar buff about agreement, and chances are she’ll talk your ear off. She’ll tell you that verbs must always agree in number with their subjects. She may even tell you about some of her own agreement-related peeves, like how people sometimes use a singular verb with a word like “data,” which in the strictest sense is supposed to be a plural. In other words, you’ll get an earful on subject-verb agreement.

It’s also possible your grammar aficionado will go off on a tangent about “pronoun-antecedent agreement” — the scary-sounding name for the very simple idea that plural pronouns should stand in only for plural nouns and singular pronouns should stand in for singular nouns. These are tough times for proponents of that rule, as grammarians become ever-more accepting of “they” and “their” referring to singular things. For example, “Every patron should be sure their car is securely locked.” Traditionalists say that because “patron” is singular, you can’t use the plural “their” here. Others say that “their” is a good way to avoid the clunky “his or her.”

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But, while pretty much any grammar buff will talk a blue streak about these agreement issues, there’s one type of agreement about which, I guarantee, you won’t hear a word.

Look at these sentences: “All parents should arrive at the school no later than 4 p.m. to pick up their child.” “The suites feature Jacuzzi tubs and a balcony.” “Homeowners throughout the country should buy an insurance policy tailored to their unique needs.”

Subject-object agreement, or subject-complement agreement, is the secret shame of pretty much everyone who works with words — including grammar experts. In the sentences above, it raises questions such as: How can all the parents have just one child among them? Do the suites all have two or more Jacuzzis but just one balcony? How many homeowners can you put on a single policy?

These agreement problems are really logic problems. And often there’s no good solution.

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