May 10, 2006

Grammar conversation with references to Elvis, Bill Clinton, "After Hours," George Harrison (and Taylor Hicks).

So here's my email to John (referring to a comment in this thread):
Here's a sentence I just wrote: "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is because both men are echoing Elvis."

Should "is" be "are"? I think it would sound ridiculous, but rule-based thinking would say yes.
John -- my son, John Althouse Cohen -- responds:
I think it can only be "is," even if you're using "rule-based thinking." "Are" would just be comical. It would remind me of the scene in "After Hours" where Griffin Dunne says:

So I march right in there to apologize, but she'd already killed herself. I was too late. He was about to give me the money, when all of a sudden, his phone rang. His girlfriend killed herself tonight. Is that a coincidence? No, because the same girl who I came downtown to see was dead, too. That's because they're the same person. They're both dead.

The point is: He was joking by using the plural and saying, "They're both dead." You can't use "both" in reference to one person. And in your sentence, there's only one reason; it just serves two functions.

Here's another analogy: "George Harrison was the guitarist and singer in 'Here Comes the Sun.'" By inverting that, you automatically get, "The guitarist and singer in 'Here Comes the Sun' was George Harrison." It would be absurd to use "were" instead of "was" in either of those sentences. It doesn't matter whether "George Harrison" comes first in the sentence; the grammar is still the same. "...are George Harrison" is just as ungrammatical as "George Harrison are..."

Incidentally, you should change "because" to "that." Look up "the reason is because" in any usage book.
The ice of my "rule-based thinking" is slowly melting.

65 comments:

Dave said...

I recall the linguist John McWhorter writing an essay in which he argued that the emphasis on grammatical rules has resulted in people being unable to write clearly.

His view seems to be that languages evolve over time, and that insisting there are hard and fast rules results in stultifying prose.

Ann Althouse said...

Don't you think it's ironic that he hit me with a rule in the end.

Ann Althouse said...

Do you think a question should end with a question mark.

Dave said...

To fully be sure, remember that there is no better punctuation mark to end a sentence with.

Eli Blake said...

However, the passage was written in a way that caused one to believe that it had been two seperate individuals, until the very end of the passage. To suddenly change from the plural to the singular would overshadow the jarring realization that the writer is trying to instill.

SippicanCottage said...
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John Althouse Cohen said...

Eli: I know that. As my email acknowledged, the character in After Hours is joking. It's a comic effect. In my mom's sentence, using the plural would have created an inadvertent comic effect.

Sanjay said...

Wow, it's amazing when we see Professor Althouse totally smacked down like that. JAC should do some pro bono stuff for poor "quxxo."

Ann Althouse said...

Sanjay: Who can imagine a quxxo comment being that hilarious, including cool pop culture references, and getting it right?

Sippican: The subject of the sentence is compound: "the reason.. and the reason..."

PatCA said...

The key is that the "and" really means "as well as" which leaves a singular subject and singular verb. The reason is singular.

The second "reason" is redundant--creative, but redundant as to meaning.

SippicanCottage said...
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tommy said...

The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is because both men are echoing Elvis.

Well admittedly grammar is something I should never comment on...it seems to me the second reason phrase doesn't belong and the thought is actually more along the lines of...

The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and it was especially noticeable last night, is because both men are echoing Elvis.

Jacques Cuze said...
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Ann Althouse said...

But both PatCa and Sippican leap over the process of combining the two things that were joined by "and." Explain the missing step. Don't just tell me that you ended up there. The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton is one thing and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is another. I mean, I get the answer, but I just want recognition of the fact that it made sense to stop and ask the question.

Jacques Cuze said...
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SteveR said...

Like tommy I am not qualified in any way to crticize another's grammer, etc. My sister, OTOH, does it to the point of annoyance.

I had a grad school advisor (science) who would not let you use the word "it" ever. "What is 'it'?" I understood his basic point on behalf of clarity but *IT* was no fun going through my 80 page thesis looking for *IT*.

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Sippican: I don't see it as a parenthetical. So, again, show your work!

The phrases are two different things: the noticeability of Elvisness last night is not the same thing as the similarity of Hicks and Clinton to Elvis. A true parenthetical would be something like: The similarity of Hicks and Clinton to Elvis, their resemblance to The King, etc....

Again, I'm not arguing for "are," just saying it's more difficult than you're admitting.

Jacques Cuze said...
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Jacques Cuze said...
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Maxine Weiss said...

Well, you're all wrong!!! Hahahaha.

You never say "is because...."

You say "is that...."

"The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is THAT both men are echoing Elvis."

The word "because" is a conjunction, and conjunctions usually signal a wholly different topic matter.

The word "that" is an explanatory signalling explanation ahead.

INCORRECT: The reason was because..
The reason is because.....

CORRECT: The reason was THAT.....
The reason why is THAT.....

Also, I agree with the above that you've got a singular subject, not plural.

Joe R said...

The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is because both men are echoing Elvis.
You are tying two separate reasons together into one. I don't think they are parenthetical; however, one is definitely a subset of the other. The reason ...the reason <=> both men are echoing. Whether you should use is or are seems ambiguous here, you have two items in the subject slot and a single item in the predicate adjective slot. If you don't want to collapse the two subjects together, is probably is what I would use as it anticipates the ending of the sentence.

Ann Althouse said...

I have a new insight into the problem, inspired by Tommy's comment. The problem is that "the reason it was especially noticeable last night" shouldn't be in the sentence at all. "The reason it was especially noticeable last night" is NOT "because both men are echoing Elvis." "The reason it was especially noticeable last night" was that they were doing Elvis songs.

I should have written something like: "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton is because both men are echoing Elvis. It was especially noticeable last night because they were doing Elvis songs."

To do it as one sentence, and to make it into that elusive parenthetical, it could be: "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton -- especially noticeable last night -- is because both men are echoing Elvis."

SippicanCottage said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: John kinda already said that.

Joseph Hovsep said...

Dave: I recall the linguist John McWhorter writing an essay in which he argued that the emphasis on grammatical rules has resulted in people being unable to write clearly. His view seems to be that languages evolve over time, and that insisting there are hard and fast rules results in stultifying prose.

I think this is true when the rule being enforced is the rule because its the rule that has always been the rule. The key to clearer writing is not to deemphasize grammar but to understand why a given rule exists and then decide whether the rule is appropriate or necessary in any given case. Here, I think John is right: using "is" makes the sentence clearer by acknowledging that there is only one "reason" at hand.

But there are other cases where strictly enforcing grammar can stifle innovation and efficiency and ultimately make language less clear. For example, in Black English you might find a phrase like "he be going" which violates standard English grammar rules. The phrase does not mean, as some might assume, "he is going" or "he goes". Rather, "he be going" says something about the aspect of the verb that the standard variants do not; it means "he goes all the time" which is basically the invention of the present imperfect aspect in English.

So, I'd say thoughtful consideration and application of grammar rules is healthy for clarity in writing. Its the thoughtless do-it-this-way-just-because-thats'-the-way-its-done attitude towards grammar that may stultify prose.

Ann Althouse said...

Sippican: I do not have a way to ban commenters. I can only delete comments. Interacting with him encourages him, so...

SippicanCottage said...
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Maxine Weiss said...

I need help with the affect/effect thing.

Also, is/are eggs plural???

"Scrambled eggs is/are a very good breakfast."

Also, Ten or less Items....should be Ten or fewer?

Less money, fewer items....things you can actually count...

Also the subjunctive case..."Would that we WERE young....vs. "Would that we ARE young etc...

Is that called subjunctive.

Wow, I seems I don't know English!

Peace, Maxine

XWL said...

The use of "is" instead of "are" hasn't violated any rules. The "is" in the sentence refers to "The reason", not the modifying phrase, "Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night" (which is where things get tricky since you modify the modifying phrase (sort of like my bad habit of parentheticals within parentheticals (which of course this parenthetical is an example of))).

Which is all a roundabout way to state, good grammar does not automatically equal good sense, and poor grammar doesn't automatically equal poor sense.

But maybe the original sentence you wrote really depends on what your definition of "is", is.

(you really didn't think you were going to get through this comment thread without someone bringing up that chestnut, did you?)

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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CB said...

Ann,
Here, for what it's worth, is my suggestion (close to your 6:37 comment): "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton--and the reason it was especially noticeable last night--is that both men are echoing Elvis."

Jacques Cuze said...

(sort of like my bad habit of parentheticals within parentheticals (which of course this parenthetical is an example of))

XML, that's ironic, as that is LISP and not XML! (Suspecting many people will not get the pop cultural reference....)

XWL said...

And as far as the suggestion to replace "because" with "that", eliminating any word between "is" and "both" in the original sentence would probably be best, and wouldn't change the sense of the statement in any manner.

Which suggests a different interpretation in how to read the whole sentence entirely, "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton, and the reason it was especially noticeable last night, they both echo Elvis".

Then the first part is all adjectival phrase modifying the real subject of the sentence which is "they", and the main verb, rather than being passive, is active (which many prefer).

(the editor in me likes that best, without completely reworking everything, as Prof. Althouse already has done with a previous post in this thread)

Pastor_Jeff said...

Which grammar rule are we most comfortable ignoring? I find myself splitting infinitives all the time. Sometimes I self-correct, but it often sounds more stilted now to follow slavishly the rule.

Maxine - I think "scrambled eggs" is a dish, so it's singular. But there are 3 eggs in the dish! You'll get really confused if you read the Brits, who treat companies/teams as plural: "Arsenal are on pace to win it all. The management are considering..."

"10 items or less" really bothers me, too.

Ann Althouse said...

Re: "is is"

Glad that was said!

But no one's addressed the buried issue: Isn't "After Hours" a great movie? That's one of my top choices for a rewatch when I want to be sure to enjoy a movie.

Not to mention: Do you agree that Taylor reminds us of Clinton because both men are channeling Elvis?

Maxine Weiss said...

Back to strict grammar:

What about dangling modifiers??? I'm having big problems with those.

Also, improper use of semi-colons.

Lookie here how a semi-colon put in the wrong place totally changes the meaning:

A woman; without her man is nothing.

A woman without; her man is nothing.

A woman without her man; is nothing.

Sheesh.

Peace, Maxine

CB said...

A related linguistic quirk: it seems like "a lot (of ...)" should be singular, but it's always treated as plural: "A lot of commenters were saying..." Technically not correct, but it sounds a lot better than "A lot of commenters was saying..."

SippicanCottage said...

Ann- The scene where he's escaping from the angry mob, climbs a fire escape, witnesses a murder, and says laconically: "I guess I'll get blamed for that too" is very wry.

Maxine Weiss said...

"A related linguistic quirk: it seems like "a lot (of ...)" should be singular, but it's always treated as plural: "A lot of commenters were saying..." Technically not correct, but it sounds a lot better than "A lot of commenters was saying..."

"A Lot" is troublesome. If you replaced it with "every single one" you'd have singular.

"Many" = plural.

How much is "a lot" ??? If it's the whole thing....then it's every single one.

What about lay, lie, laid, lain ???

Further/Farther ???

Peace, Maxine

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...

xwl- If you want to remove the word, I'd put a dash instead of a comma.

Yours:"The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton, and the reason it was especially noticeable last night, they both echo Elvis".

Mine: "The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton, and the reason it was especially noticeable last night -- they both echo Elvis."

Or how about:
"The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton, and the reason it was especially noticeable last night? They both echo Elvis." (What is? is omitted, but understood)

The period goes inside the quotation marks, BTW.

$CAV3NG3R said...

I love this blog. The comments and the images they conjure up would make an interesting art project. "is is" --> Isis --> became a god because 'it' figured out the resolution of the 'is is' conundrum --> Clinton is Isis --> anachronistic joke --> ?

XWL said...

But what Prof. Althouse meant to say, "Most Southern men, who are concerned with popular appeal, mimic a white Mississippian who had the habit of mimicking black Mississippians."

(and, yes Sip, I stand corrected)

(well, actually, I sit corrected, who types standing up?)

(the last version with the question mark, when voiced, sounds more like speech, so that would be the best way to go, in my opinion)

PatCA said...

Hey, let's ask Bill Clinton--he knows what the definition of "is" is!

"The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton and the reason it was especially noticeable last night is because both men are echoing Elvis."

Maxine is correct, also. The sentence is constructed with faulty grammar, noted by the omission of "that" in strategic places violating parallel construction which would, if used, have clarified that we are talking about one event (is because).

If I got that in a paper, I would correct it as follows:
"The reason Taylor reminds you of Clinton--and the reason it was especially noticeable last night--is because both men are echoing Elvis." So, intent counts and reasonable inference, too.

PatCA said...

My favorite grammar story--actually my only grammar story:

Victor Hugo dumps his manuscript, Les Miserables, on his publisher's desk. He can't stand the tension of waiting to see if it sells or tanks, so he goes out to the country to wait it out. He sends a letter to the publishing consisting of only the symbol ?

In due course, he receives a response from his publisher: !

SippicanCottage said...
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MadisonMan said...

I've heard the same story, but it was Oscar Wilde, not VH. So I googled ('shortest telegram'), and apparently both are credited with that story.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

But what of George Harrison? Does he come first?

Elizabeth said...

Maxine,

You might enjoy my favorite grammar book, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. It's grammar Edward Gorey style, but substance is not sacrificed for appearance.

XWL said...

Maybe I've heard of Crudup, and maybe not.

(and maybe I'm related, slightly, to Jimmy Witherspoon, and maybe not)

(I've heard it both ways from my father, so I don't know for sure)

(He seems to think he's related to all famous black folks from the South with the last name Witherspoon)

(but, Jimmy did resemble my grandfather)

Also, please, no wagering.

(though the concept of wagering on someone elses grasp of trivia brings to mind this game)

(and, Lord, stop me before I post regarding grammar, again)

Bruce Hayden said...

Interesting thread, like so many here. One thing that was endearing was John calling the esteemed Prof. Althouse "mom". I often forget that she has other personae (ok, the dictionary says "personas", but it is derived from Latin). Then Ann goes on and uses the word "kinda" in a thread on grammar. Great.

With all due respects, you (Althouse/Cohens) must have interesting family discussions, if you can be debating grammar like this, in the midst of even more esoteric topics.

In any case, I have appologized more than once to my daughter for her being born into a family where everyone seems to have a pet peeve as to proper grammar. My mother's was the use of "who" or "whom" instead of "that" when referring to people. Mine would probably be use of the nominative case with "be" verbs and the subjunctive mood. My father is a fewer/lesser person. Her mother is a comma fanatic. If my daughter turns out anything like John did, it will be interesting to see where she will be able to catch the rest of us.

My opinion is that "is" is better than "are" here because "because both men are echoing Elvis" informs us that it is a single reason.

Jennifer said...

Bruce: I know the feeling. My mother was an English teacher before she was a lawyer. Ugh! Corrected constantly! Unfortunately, I paid little attention.

A friend's mother (who hailed from England) used to correct us if we referred to anyone by the pronouns he or she rather than their proper name. You'd say "She said blah blah blah" and her mother would jump in with "She being the cat's mother?" I thought that was so cute.

HaloJonesFan said...

Fun linguistic argument-started: The plural of "octopus". It isn't "octopi"--if you follow the strict rules of Latin grammar, it's "octopodes".

reader_iam said...

Participating in this thread would be too much of a busman's holiday for me, but I am finding the discussion entertaining.

CB said...

There's also the great quote by Winston Churchill on strict adherence to rules of grammar: "This is the sort of writing, up with which we should not put." (from memory, not sure if it's a true story or if that's the exact wording)

SippicanCottage said...
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PatCA said...

Oh, I'm disappointed, MadisonMan! I got that story from the very proper Eats Shoots and Leaves, a lot of fun...if you like grammar.

Pastor_Jeff said...

HaloJonesFan,

You are correct -- but in spite of, not because of, Latin grammar. Most people assume that it's Latin because it ends in -us, but it's Greek. And the plural of the Greek pous (foot) is podes.


vw: kahoqoqp. Mayan god of grammar?

CB said...

PatCA

Wasn't Eats Shoots & Leaves panned by the critics for being full of mistakes, including mistakes in grammar?

reader_iam said...

Eats Shoots & Leaves made me twitch. Watching its author speak via a Book-TV broadcast sent me into convulsions.

PatCA said...

I didn't read any reviews. It's English grammar, not American grammar--and yes, I disagreed with a lot of it. But she has a fun writing style.

However, it looks like SHE LIED and rules were MISAPPLIED!! So to heck with her.

nogrammarian said...

whatever happened to good ole 'reason why'? you need 'is' 'cause the reason is only one, but 2 things happen.