Parsing the Homogenous Blob

From time to time, you meet someone who at first seems normal enough, even easygoing, but who has the innate ability to start trouble; every so often, you run into a sentence that has the same ability. I encountered one of these problem sentences not long ago in a newspaper article. Apparently, the sentence had originally appeared in someone's campaign blog.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

I think it's the kind of sentence that quite a few readers would have to look at more than once before the error becomes clear, and it's even the sort of sentence that causes conflict. In fact, this one did exactly that. The disagreement over the grammatical correctness of it went back and forth a few times, and in the end, it took the authoritative verdict of a well-read librarian to settle it.

Unless you're deliberately inspecting the sentence for error, it's easy to just read through it and go on to the next. No glaring faultsnothing that slaps you in the face. But one astute reader thought the correct word should be aren't, not isn't, which is how the whole thing got started in the first place. This resulted in a couple folks e-mailing back to tell him they disagreed: they thought the use of the word hostility required the use of the equally singular isn't, just the way the sentence was already written.

Because of the way the sentence is laid out, the list of things getting this candidate in trouble is lost among the descriptions of the items in that list. Although the list really consists of only three pointshostility, opposition, and stanceit seems much longer. For some reason, as soon as the reader hits that candidate's hostility to phrase, it's like everything that comes after is part of that hostility; the word to acts almost as a mathematical equal sign, or the grammar-equivalent colon. So when the two people who e-mailed their protests parsed the sentence, it was as if those three distinct points had become one homogenous blob belonging to category hostility . . .

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility {to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance} isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

. . . instead of the three individual items that actually exist in the sentence.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's {hostility to rural schools}, {opposition to private property} and {pro-abortion stance} isn't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

It probably doesn't help that there's no comma after the word property, but the article may have been designed for rapid consumption; it may have been a hostile environment for the nonessential comma. Nevertheless, there's clearly more than one item in the list, so the appropriate word should have been aren't, as the original commentator noted.

Most voters recognize that the candidate's hostility to rural schools, opposition to private property and pro-abortion stance aren't winning him a lot of friends in a rural town like this.

 

2 comments:

  1. "A hostile environment for the nonessential comma." What a great phrase! I can just hear a grammar forecast: "There's a chance of foggy meanings later tonight. Nonessential commas should stay indoors."

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  2. Thank you, sir. Now that you mention it, why are there no grammar forecasts on my local news channel? Must look into this . . .

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