Keeping secrets and love: problems of agreement

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A reader asked the following grammar question. Is it: “even the tiniest of hearts contains secrets” or even the tiniest of hearts contain secrets”?

This is a good question to ask, because I see this error frequently in my editing work. When we see the plural “hearts” next to the verb “contain”, we think “Aha! A plural; therefore, I need to use a plural verb.” And we are wrong.

The phrase “of hearts” is an adjectival phrase. It tells us which type of “tiniest” we are talking about. We could write the sentence “Even the tiniest contain(s) secrets.” It would still be grammatically correct, but our readers would be left scratching their heads about what kind of tiny thing we are talking about. Is it treasure chests, houses, minds, or hearts?

Clearly “tiniest” is the subject of the sentence, not “hearts.” But is “tiniest” a singular or plural noun? This takes a little logic. In a superlative comparison, we are looking for the most extreme example. In the words of the old TV show Highlander, “In the end. There can only be one!” There is only one tiniest. Therefore the noun is singular.

Now that we’ve figured this out, we should see that “Even the tiniest of hearts contains secrets.”

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A reader from England asks me if I agree with the Guardian newspaper’s account of the Queen visiting Ireland. She asks:

The Queen has visited 129 countries in the course of the second longest reign in British history, from Iceland to Indonesia, but never has she ever set foot in the 130th: Britain’s nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland.

But never has she ever !!! This appeared in the Guardian this week. Never ever – I realise the use of never ever is expressing never strongly – is it good English??

Far be it for me, a mere colonial, to criticize the Guardian on its use of English; however, I’d have to agree that this is not well-written English, as one might expect from such a venerable newspaper. I’d have written “…never has she set foot in…”

I checked this in two other sources, my WhiteSmoke grammar checker, and the grammar checker built into MS Word, and neither of them flagged the “never has she ever,” although WhiteSmoke found “in the course of” to be excessively wordy. So I guess we’d have to concede that while not grammatically incorrect, it is certainly unattractive writing by my human standards.

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This brings me to problems of agreement with grammar software. As above I see WhiteSmoke flagged excessive wordiness. This is very helpful. I often use WhiteSmoke to double check my work. But WhiteSmoke doesn’t like repeated expressions. While this is something I agree with, it is not always wrong to repeat something, especially when it is the topic of the essay.

I have a few clients who are nursing students. One wrote an essay on Roseacea which used the word Roseacea in almost every paragraph. WhiteSmoke flagged each use as a “repeated expression.” Now, I know enough to ignore the flags, but WhiteSmoke provides a score for writing out of 10. It’s almost impossible to get 10 out of 10 by WhiteSmoke’s standards, but with the flags, my post-editing sample is rated at 8 out of 10.

What else keeps me from a perfect score? I assure you it is not my writing skill. WhiteSmoke also calculates an average sentence length. According to its ideal, it is something like 23 words per sentence. My clients often write longer complex sentences to express complex thoughts. After all they are writing at a college level and above. I don’t edit their work to dumb them down to WhiteSmoke’s standards.

Nonetheless, I do find WhiteSmoke to be a useful tool. I advertise it on my site because for some writers, it could be a very cost-effective choice. Whether it is or not is up to each individual to decide.

As far as MS Word’s built-in grammar checker goes, it flags the passive voice. I appreciate this because I can often make sentences more dynamic and it has helped me improve my standards of editing; however, the passive voice is so often used in academic writing that I wish there was an option to tell MS Word what type of writing I am editing, so it can flag appropriately.

 

About Peter J. Francis

Peter J. Francis is owner and operator of HyperGraphix Publishing Services (HGPublishing.com). He has over 30 years of professional writing and editing experience. He holds a BA (Honors) degree in English (1987), a B. Ed. degree from SFU (2005) and a certificate in Special Education from SFU (2011). He teaches high school and offers editing services as time is available.