Write Right

I was composing an email about our upcoming curriculum mapping project. I try to be grammatically correct most of the time. It really annoys me when people mess up subject-verb agreements or possessives. I’ve read Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I listen to Grammar Girl. I even tuned in to The Word Nerds for a year or so. Most of the time, I can put words together in a more-or-less intelligent fashion. But this one had me stumped.

For each content standard, there are one or more indicators.

For each content standard, there is one or more indicator.

So which is it? Fortunately for me, my office is fifteen feet from the English department. First, I asked a senior English and creative writing teacher. “I would say to use ‘there are,’ because you have ‘more’ in there,” she concluded. But check with the teacher next door. He’s the Grammar Nazi.

WritingThe second teacher looked at the two sentences for a minute. “Start with ‘there’ and it becomes clear,” he said. “‘There is one or more indicator for each content standard.’ When you have a compound subject joined by ‘or’, you use the subject closer to the verb.” I had never heard this rule, and I thought he was making it up.

I went back to the first teacher. She dug through the storage cabinet for a grammar book (this one, if you care). There it was, on page 136: “When the parts of a compound subject are joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part closest to it.” The grammar Nazi was right!

Just to make sure, I asked another teacher for a third opinion. He advised me to rewrite the sentence. “Good writers avoid problems like that,” he reported.

“Average writers work around the problem,” I responded. “Good writers know the rules.” When pressed, he went for the plural. I told him about the rule in the grammar book. “That doesn’t apply when the verb precedes the subject,” he told me. I thought he was making this up, too. I’m not very trusting of rule-quoting grammarians.

Back to the Grammar Nazi. “The book doesn’t say anything about the subject coming before the verb. It shouldn’t matter.”

Not reaching consensus in the English department, I went online. Here’s what I found:

  • “The conjunction or does not conjoin (as and does): when nor or or is used the subject closer to the verb determines the number of the verb. Whether the subject comes before or after the verb doesn’t matter; the proximity determines the number.” (Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing).
  • ” If one or more singular subject is joined to one or more plural subject by or or nor, the verb agrees with the subject closest to the verb.” (English Plus).
  • “When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb.” (Owl at Purdue).

I like the first one especially. It practically says, “the English teacher across the hall will make up some bogus rule to justify his error. Don’t believe him.” In the end, I went with the singular. I wonder if the email recipients will even notice.

What does this have to do with technology? Everything. We’re judged on how we communicate. As tech geeks, we sometimes dismiss people who don’t have really basic tech skills. Yesterday, for example, I endured a presentation by a software vendor. She came in with a flash drive, and didn’t know how to connect it to the computer. She finally launched her Powerpoint presentation, and couldn’t navigate with the touch pad. When she got ahead of herself in the presentation, she had to quit PowerPoint and start over. Did that affect my perception of her competence, and my feelings about the software she was selling? You bet.

In the same way, when I read poorly written or grammatically incorrect text, it lowers my opinion of the author. Tech people are notoriously bad about this. I’ve seen brilliant technology people attacked for their poor writing skills. In a school environment, it’s especially important, because academic institutions should have higher literacy standards than anyone else.

It matters. Learn to write.

5 thoughts on “Write Right

  1. John, you make a very good point about this. I have to admit though, when I am writing everyday emails and blog comments like this one, I do not always concentrate on grammar and subject/verb agreements like I should. Don’t get me wrong, when I am typing a parent letter, a 3rd grade homework or even a college paper I make sure it is proofread and checked over and over. My biggest pet peeve is educators, parents and staff, within the building, who speak using poor grammar. The best example I can come up with [write now – just kidding- ha ha…] right now is the use of object pronouns I and me or the use of good and well. When I ask someone how they are doing or how they feel and they say I am doing good… that drives me nuts and you know my personality- I correct them. In turn, I expect people to correct me too so I can learn from my mistakes.

    Unfortunately, people will not correct their friends or colleagues due to feeling disrespectful. Consequently, we then have people using poor grammar on a consistent basis because people are afraid to hint to them the correct way to speak. I once corrected my mother many years ago, and well, let’s just say NOT A GOOD IDEA. But when it comes to a colleague- I have no problem doing so.

    Furthermore, most people think as long as they use the object pronoun I for everything they can’t go wrong. When you spend all morning teaching 3rd graders the proper use of the examples above and then a parent or staff members comes in and uses them wrong- WOW!!!

    Again, I am not a perfect writer (as you can probably tell within this post) and I do not claim to be. But if it is of importance or I am speaking in front of my students or even my own children, I make sure to try my best and think before I speak. I guess it comes down to the old adage; If you are going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk. Enough said!!!


  2. I listened to the podcast and enjoyed it. Mr. Manners really made a good point. I agree with him about not correcting people if you know they do not want to be. John, you are a wealth of information and you always have an answer for my inquiries. Instead of using the term Google for everything… I am just going to start saying – just SCHINKER IT…


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