Take a second look

AS a trained language teacher, I habitually tend to be overly sensitive to grammatical errors when I spot them, even unwittingly. Many would agree that bad English stares at you in the face of adversity challenging your stamina to withstand the stark errors people make even when putting just two sentences together.

I was at Aquaria in KLCC recently and I must first commend the management for their diligence in providing detailed and catchy illustrations and explanations to each and every item on display.

The texts and captions were written in simple digestible nuggets making them comprehensible for even primary schoolchildren to learn and grasp all and sundry about the underwater world.

Just as I was about to finish my tour a huge board with conspicuous subject-verb disagreements caught me by surprise and I was a little embarrassed at the brashness with which the display was placed. The opening sentence on the board read thus, "So how does the Shark internal body works?" and my heart sank immediately.

I was tempted to read more from the same board and spotted more grammatical discrepancies and I had a feeling that it was definitely not grammar-proofed before it went up. The writer must be having an issue with subject-verb agreement, I thought, which can be dreadful despite it being so common.

Having said that, we must also agree that subject-verb agreement is probably the most difficult part of the English language to master for new learners, even seasoned ones and I decided to dedicate this week's column to just that.

Simply put, it is a game of matching the number of both the subject and the verb. Singular subjects take singular verb forms and plural subjects take plural verb forms.

The trick is to recognise singular vs plural subjects which is not always easy as an "s" at the end of a word is not the only sign of a plural subject. Second to this is to know the difference between singular and plural verbs.

The subject-verb agreement is a difficult concept to grasp even for native English speakers as the grammar rules are highly irregular and require a keen eye and practice to substantiate.

One reason why we have rampant subject-verb disagreements is because of the odd cases we have in English. We have the deviations in words such as "everyone", "some" and "none" which can be part of the subject. When this happens, be reminded that the names of organisations and words such as "everyone", "anyone", "each" are referring to just one and hence they are singular.

When subjects are connected by the word "or", the subject closer to the verb determines its number, for example note how the agreements work here, "Either the women or the man is at fault" and "Either the man or the women are at fault".

More exceptions indicate that although "and" in the subject usually indicates a plural, there are cases where the context is obviously singular, thus requiring a singular noun.

For example, "Further research and development is needed before we decide on the efficiency of bio-fuels as an alternative" and another example is, "Supply and demand is a basic concept in marketing that needs in-depth understanding."

Data can be treated as a singular or plural noun, depending on whether the word refers to a collection of data as one unit or whether individual results are implied. For example, "It appears to me that the data collected is not being exploited wisely", as opposed to, "The data collected from men and women were compiled and compared before making the decision".

Hereafter, writers, do be reminded that subject-verb agreement is when the subject and the verb agree in number/plurality and all you need to do is to go back and take a second look at the subject before deciding on the verb form.

It is disheartening that we condone and make unforgivable compromises when it comes to grammatical errors in this day and age when the debate tilts indefensibly towards getting the message to be communicated more than anything else, but let's not give ourselves excuses.

Ungrammatically strung words dent the credibility of the writer and the content, somehow.

The writer believes that the Malaysian education system will reach greater heights with a strong antidote to revolutionise just about everything, a complete overhaul, if you like. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com