More plural problems

Hey! Washington Post copy desk! Let’s go get a be… 

Hello? Anybody here?

All right. You there, reading this. What’s wrong with this line from Post columnist Michael Gerson’s recent column?

After a brief, brilliant campaign that toppled the Taliban, there were a series of complications across the terms of three presidents.”

Two problems here, actually. The first is simply a poor aesthetic choice, not an actual error. As I explain here, “there is” and its variants (there are, there were, etc.) is a weak and dull construction best and easily avoided.

The error in Gerson’s sentence is, once again, is one of mixing up singular and plural. A series is a singular thing. It may be made up of many components, but it is singular, so Gerson should have written, “…there was a series of complications…” One wouldn’t write, “the family were at the beach,” even though a family consists of multiple people. 

The British muck this up all the time. Years ago, while waiting in a Singapore cinema for the newly released Jaws 2 to begin, I was flummoxed by these words in giant type on the screen: Shaw Organization Present. Could the producers really have made a typo or a grammatical error in the first image to appear on the screen and in eight-zillion-point type? No, my British-educated colleagues told me. The British consider “Organization” a plural word because it’s made up of many people, so “present” is correct.

The difference between their way and ours may not merit taking up arms at Lexington and Concord, but it bespeaks differing world views. The way the British see it, the components of an organization are more important than the whole. Their way smacks of disunity, whereas ours makes of many, one. Or, e pluribus unum.* 

Then again, perhaps the British way of linguistically honoring the individual components of a whole over the whole itself is to be expected of people who’d bolt the European Union. Maybe “Shaw Organization Present” should have warned us that this was coming.


*Among a certain set it is clever to say that the American Civil War was fought not over slavery or the Mississippi River, but over a verb. Is it the United States is or the United States are?


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