Find the Subject and Verb – Prepositional Phrase intervening

Several previous posts have discussed grammatical problems occurring in my classes this past semester. In the previous post, I discussed mismatched Subjects and Verbs when a clause intervened. This post addresses a similar error pattern, only this time the intervening language consists of prepositional phrases. Here are some examples from my students’ papers:

The effects [of this argument] sustains through time without any apologies.

Since the reality [of living life] [without any regrets] are extremely slim, some regrets are inevitable.

In Robert Frost’s poem, Away, illuminates this fact by saying “I leave behind/Good friends in town, /Let them get well-wined/And go lie down” (Frost).

With playing soccer and also studying at school sets me up for either path I would like to take in my life.

In the first two examples, there is a prepositional phrase (in brackets) between the Subject and the Verb. If the students had been aware that of and in were prepositions, and if they had known how to identify a Prepositional Phrase, they might have caught the errors.

In the previous post, I speculated that perhaps English verb forms were simplifying, as has happened in the past. These two sentences suggest something else — it seems to me that my students have been betrayed by their instincts. English speakers instinctively form sentences using an S-V-O pattern. The verbs (sustains and are) agree with the misleading nouns (argument and regrets) which immediately precede them – the S-V pattern. The actual Subjects are both singular and plural (reality and effects), and seem irrelevant to the writer, as neither one agrees with its Verb.

The last two sentences seem an anomaly, but since there are two sentences using the same pattern, from two different students, I wonder.  In the first, the Subject (poem) agrees with the Verb (illuminates), but the preposition in has been added at the beginning of the sentence, making poem the Object in a Prepositional Phrase, and thus ineligible as the Subject, as a noun cannot have dual roles in a sentence.  In the last sentence, the compound Subject (playing and studying) does not agree with the Verb (sets up). In this sentence the student makes the Subject the Object of a Preposition, and thus ineligible to be the Subject, and also has the Verb agree with the noun immediately preceding it.

Mistakes like these lead me to believe that students see sentences as masses of undifferentiated words. They do not realize that though in is a “small word,” it has leverage and weight, and influences the words around it.

I am an amateur singer, and my teachers and choir directors often say that we should not sing note by note, but phrase by phrase. Language is the same. Sentences are not constructed word by word, but unit by unit. If students can see the units, sentences are less complex. The first sentence, for example, doesn’t consist of 11 words, but of 5 units; the Subject (the effects), the Verb (sustains), and three Prepositional Phrases (of this argument, through time, without any apologies). If they could see this construction, perhaps they would not be so daunted.

There will be one more post on Subject-Verb agreement.

Exercise: As with the previous post — have students identify and bring to class examples of faulty sentences which they hear in person or on television, or read in magazines or newspapers.



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