One of the common problems a copyeditor faces is the identification of the right subject for the verb. As easy as it seems, subject identification is not always straightforward, especially when the subject involves phrases or clauses (or both). Even careful copyeditors may fail to recognize the lack of agreement between a subject and its verb. When subject phrases are longer, the copyeditor makes what is called an error of proximity: the copyeditor is distracted by the presence of other nouns between the head noun and the verb, especially when the intervening nouns are different from the head noun in number. Instead of pairing the correct head noun that acts as the subject, the copyeditor pairs some other noun that is closer to the verb.
But there is good news! By systematically approaching the subject phrase, we can identify the head noun of a noun phrase. We will see how.
Table of contents
- Ignore prepositional phrases
- Ignore attributive adjectives and determiners
- Ignore adjective clauses
- Ignore parenthetical clauses
- Ignore absolute phrases
- Ignore the noun that takes the possessive form
Ignore prepositional phrases
Quite often, the subject contains one or more prepositional phrases. Consider the below example:
The findings of the present study warrants further investigation.
The subject phrase is “the findings of the present study” and the noun closer to the verb in the subject phrase is “study” (a singular noun). The subject, however, is “the findings” (a plural noun). A momentary oversight may mean that we leave “warrants” pairing it with “study” (instead of pairing it with “findings”).
Once we are aware that the subject phrase contains a prepositional phrase, the task becomes simple. The prepositional phrase here is “of the present study”. Once we ignore this phrase, the head noun becomes clear: “The findings of the present study”. The edited sentence would be
The findings of the present study warrant
s further investigation.
Ignore attributive adjectives and determiners
A noun subject can often be preceded by attributive adjectives or determiners. However, they are not taken into account while pairing the subject with the verb. For example,
The arms race between the two most developed countries _____ (has/have) raised tension across the globe.
Here, the plural noun “arms” acts as an adjective for the singular noun “race” and does not play any role in deciding the verb number. Alternatively, some might consider the entire phrase “arms race” as one noun phrase. Either way, the verb is decided based on the word “race”, thus resulting in the use of “has” as the verb.
The arms race between the two most developed countries has raised tension across the globe.
In addition, determiners, which describe the quantity of nouns, are also similar to adjectives in that they add further information to the noun (or modify the noun). Some determiners can go with both singular/uncountable and plural nouns. Consider the below set of examples:
All samples were validated using X-ray diffraction before being incorporated into the dosing regimen.
All information on the samples was plotted using our in-house-built software.
In the first example, the noun is plural (“samples”); in the second one, it is uncountable (“information”). In cases like these, the verb is decided based on the noun, irrespective of the determiner. A plural verb is used in the first sentence, and a singular verb in the second.
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Ignore adjective clauses
An adjective clause (aka a relative clause), as the name suggests, qualifies the noun or noun phrase. Consider the below example.
The bacterial culture that showed the lowest growth rate under environmental conditions _____ (were/was) selected for further analysis.
The adjective clause in the sentence is “that showed the lowest growth rate under environmental conditions”. Although there are other nouns such as “growth rate” and “environmental conditions” between the subject and the verb, they are part of the adjective clause and are ignored while deciding the verb.
The bacterial culture that showed the lowest growth rate under environmental conditions was selected for further analysis.
Although a relative pronoun, such as that, which, and who, begins a relative clause, it may be elliptical too. Below is an example:
The results obtained in this experiment were statistically significant.
The verb “were” agrees with the plural subject “results”. But the latter is followed by an adjective clause “obtained in this experiment”. The relative pronoun and the auxiliary verb are implicit in the adjective clause. This sentence can be understood as follows:
The results that were obtained in this experiment were statistically significant.
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Ignore parenthetical clauses
Sometimes, a subordinate clause may be embedded in a main clause, just for a variety. As could be easily guessed, such subordinate clauses will be ignored to pair the subject and the verb. Consider the below sentence:
The limitations of this method, although few, are discussed in the next section.
You would have noticed that the subordinate clause “although few” is in the reduced form. Written without any elliptical constructions, the clause would be “although they are few”.
Ignore absolute phrases
An absolute phrase is a phrase that usually contains a noun, a participial, and participial modifier(s). The absolute phrase in the following example is “its branches covering several small huts nearby”:
The tall tree, its branches covering several small huts nearby, are the major attraction of the park.
An absolute phrase, when it separates the subject and the verb, is usually considered a nondefining parenthetical phrase (note the usage of commas). The presence of the plural noun “small huts” should not mislead the right pairing. Once we ignore the absolute phrase, the pairing becomes more obvious:
The tall tree, its branches covering several small huts nearby, is the major attraction of the park.
Ignore the noun that takes the possessive form
In noun phrases that contain a possessive form, the noun that takes the possessive form should be ignored:
Baxter and Jack’s seminal paper on qualitative case study methodology was cited by many researchers.
By systematically leaving out the sentence constructions we discussed in this post, you will be able to single out the head noun in a noun phrase and pair it with the right form of the verb.
Are there any other structures you think could be included in this post? Drop a comment.
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Crystal clear explanation.
Thank you, Sudha.
Great help in eliminating the confusions.
I am glad that the article is helpful!