Find the Subject and Verb – Clause intervening
As discussed in a previous post, students have not been prepared in high school to identify the Subject and Verb of a sentence. The argument against teaching grammar is that we need no tutoring to create comprehensible sentences, unless there is some mental dysfunction. Volumes could be written about that contention, and I will not start here. As a teacher of writing, however, it is informative to note that there has been a breakdown in certain basic grammar usage.
Without some instruction in grammar/syntax, it seems to me that my students see sentences as an undifferentiated mass of words. When it comes time to repair unclear or awkward sentences, it is helpful to be able to discern the underlying sentence structure so the sentence can be fixed.
When the Subject-Verb agreement rules break down, there is a profound instability in the language. There are three ways this can happen: 1) the person loses track of the connection between the Subject and Verb, 2) the person has a unique but stable writing or speaking style which might be affected by a second language or a dialect, and 3) the language is changing.
A Virginia Delegate, Charniele Herring, is quoted in The New York Times: “The only conclusions I can come to is that he was not supported because he was gay.” In this case, there is a clause (I can come to) between the Subject and Verb (conclusions and is), and perhaps the speaker has lost the connection. I would normally assume that the Delegate was tired or distracted and has simply made an error of inattention; however, my students have created sentences with the identical problem. The Subjects and Verbs are in bold; the intervening clauses are in brackets.
The sports [that I would be choosing] is going to be mainly soccer.
The initial feelings [that brought you and your partner together] starts to become crowded out by outside factors such as children, finances, and other responsibilities.
The times in life [that seems to be the worst] always turns out for the best.
Whether someone leaves a legacy behind after they pass or not, most can agree that one thing [no one wants to leave behind] are regrets.
When sentences such as these are lifted from the context of the essay and presented to the whole class, all students, including the author, feel that something is wrong. Sometimes they can put their finger on the error, and sometimes they cannot.
The starting point of my interest is that this pattern does not seem to be the result of inattention or typographical error; there are too many of them, and the error pattern is identical. When students in New Jersey and a Delegate in the Virginia government use an error pattern which even a few years ago would have been deemed an egregious error suggests that something else is going on.
Perhaps the verb forms are simplifying. Since English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language, complicated conjugations may not be necessary – the noun occurring in front of the Verb is the Subject. In the examples above, including the Virginia example, a plural noun (conclusions, sports, feelings, times) is matched with a singular verb form (is). So far, I have not found examples where a singular noun is matched with a plural verb form; such as The conclusion…are.
Perhaps if students could identify the clauses, the Subject-Verb connection would be more clear. The error pattern might be the result of a lack of instruction. It might help to make them aware of the missing that in two of the above clauses ([that] I can come to, and [that] nobody wants to leave behind.)
Much more research would have to be done to ascertain the present day workings of the language, but this development seems to represent a change in linguistic habits.
More examples will be discussed in subsequent blog posts.
I am a curious linguist rather than a grammatical purist, but I identify these patterns as errors when reviewing drafts. Keep in mind, though, that these sentences occurred in the third drafts, so the errors have already been pointed out. These are either new sentences, created after the second draft, or the patterns have once again gone unrecognized as students revised their papers. They stand out starkly to me, but the students don’t notice them.
Exercise: Ask students to keep an eye out for spoken or written sentences in which the Subject and Verb are not properly matched. The lack of agreement between Subject and Verb is occurring more and more frequently, even among our linguistic role models.