Embrace the Tao of grammar

January 14, 2015

By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision 

Do you enjoy reading books about the power of positive thinking or how to attract success and wealth beyond your wildest dreams? They bore me to tears. Maybe that’s why I’m broke. But if reading those is the path to wealth, then wealth is not my destiny.

My favorite self-help books are “The Tao of Pooh” (as in, Winnie the Pooh) by Benjamin Hoff and anything written by the Dalai Lama. Another good one is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. They teach that knowing and appreciating your own inner nature and the inner nature of everything around you brings peace of mind and simplifies your life. Pooh Bear calls that inner nature “cottleston pie.”

You can think of a sentence as having an inner nature, if it helps improve your grammar. That interior nugget of sentencedom consists of the subject (a noun or noun phrase) and the predicate (a verb or verb phrase). Everything else can be sliced away with a stroke of your pen because it is extraneous information. Performing this sentence surgery exposes the skeleton of the sentence, which helps you determine the subject and whether the subject and verb agree.

Consider the sentence, “The inner nature of birds is the ability to fly.” You might think “are” should be used in that sentence instead of “is” because “birds” is plural, hence “birds are. …” But “birds” is not the subject of the sentence. “The inner nature of birds” is the subject.

During surgery, the sentence becomes: “inner nature is the ability to fly.” That is just the subject and predicate, without extra information. It can be further reduced to “nature is ability.” After surgery, it becomes clear that the subject should take a singular verb.

To identify the subject of a sentence, ask what or who is doing the action or experiencing the state of being expressed in the sentence. In my sample sentence, I would ask, “What is the ability to fly?” and the answer is “birds’ inner nature.” I rephrased that answer in the possessive form to help you see that “inner nature” is the simple subject.

Subjects and verbs have to agree, or match, in number (singular or plural) and person (first, second and third). Most present-tense verbs end in “s” when they are singular, which is confusing, but you should be able to hear which verb sounds right when you say it aloud with its simple subject.

Sometimes there is more than one subject. Two or more subjects connected by “and” form a compound subject, which takes a plural verb, whether the individual items are singular or plural: “Stuffed bears, simple monks and motorcycle mechanics give sound advice,” or “A stuffed bear, a simple monk and a motorcycle mechanic give sound advice.”

You might have been taught that, when there is a compound subject and one is singular, the other plural, the verb should match the one closest to it. That’s true only when they are connected by “or” or “nor” rather than “and.” So, “Neither my daughters nor my son wants to help shovel the driveway.”

To further complicate matters, there are plural nouns that often have singular meanings, such as “politics,” “physics” and “acoustics,” and there are collective nouns, which are singular in form but refer to a group, such as “audience,” “herd,” “family” and “jury.” For these, you have to choose the tense of your verb based on the context of the sentence. If a group acts as a unit, the verb is singular; if the members of the group act individually, the verb is plural.

The trick to grammar is to break down a sentence so you can see its inner nature, feel its aura and experience it for what it is, rather than what you would like to impose on it.

If you find that concept inspiring, I can recommend some good self-help books. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2014


Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to editor@columbiatribune.com.

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