Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Verb agree(s)

Luz wrote in a few days ago with this question (sorry to be so slow — been swamped):

In the following sentence, is the correct verb is or are?

Your positive attitude, great spirit, and enthusiasm towards your internship is greatly appreciated.

Prescriptively, that is plural for sure — the structure is "X, Y, and Z are". But this sounds pretty normal to me, the sort of thing you'd all but expect to read in a letter of this type in business.

But "towards your internship" seems like it applies to all three traits, and I wonder if that might make it feel more like that whole chunk is singular. Our contributor Monica points out that when the last element in a list like that is heavy, you get a kind of 'recency effect': The first two items as very short, but the third one is pretty long ("enthusiasm towards your internship"), so that people might be inclined to make the verb agree just with that part. Anyway, whatever the verb agreement, the recipient of that letter should be one happy intern.

Image from the cover of my favorite Dilbert book. Oh who am I kidding … I love them all equally.


Jon Boy said...

You could always recast it and avoid that other great prescriptivist bugbear, the passive voice. I think I like "We greatly appreciate your positive attitude, great spirit, and enthusiasm towards your internship" better because you don't have to wait so long for the verb.

(Note: I'm not anti-passive in the slightest. I just think this sentence sounds a little better in the active voice.)

Ellen K. said...

Seems to me that when the list of things is really one thing, sometimes "is" applies.

Such as, "The fish and chips is really good". Is because one is thinking of the dish "fish and chips". Or, "The bangers and mash is really good". That one I can't even imagine with "are", I think because if I was talking about the separate items, I wouldn't use the words banger or mash.

With regards to the example in the question, I can imagine someone seeing those as one thing, but that can't be summed up in one wordd, and so use a singular verb.

Mr. Verb said...

You know, JB, this is a case where the active voice would be good -- even more positive to the intern.

And yeah, Ellen, I can easily get fish and chips as singular. (In my own informal speech, I seem to sometimes have glaringly non-standard agreement, but this doesn't seem like one of those cases.)