English, Algorithms, or Other Bait


One of the … hmm … interesting aspects of writing is when you’re typing along and your document program claims you rendered those words incorrectly.

Most of the time I fix it, politely thank the program, and move on.  But, for example, the sentence you just read has been flagged as a fragment.  And it is all because of the phrase politely thank the program.  If I take that out, the program is happy….

This is when I stop being polite.

Hubby does plenty of writing in his work, but because I’m the writer in the family, he’ll hit me with grammar and usage questions when the words don’t add up for him.  His latest inquiry made me scratch my brain….

The clause in question was Worms, minnows, and other bait is not provided.  Word liked the singular verb is over the plural are, although my first impulse when he asked me about it was “We have a plural subject, so the verb must match.”  Then I wondered if the conjunction or made a difference.

(I apologize if this sounds like high school English class … but this nerdy stuff is indispensable if you want to write coherently.)

In other words, I started overthinking it.  Grabbing my trusty Elements of Style proved fruitless at first (Oh, Strunk and White, I never thought I’d see the day….), until I began to apply logic to the matter.

Kirk (the computer killer) and Spock would have been proud … I think.

The trusty handbook had nothing to say about the conjunction or causing an exception to subject-verb agreement.  And when I changed the order of the words in question to bait, worms, or other minnows, the program decided it was happy with the plural are after all.  My theory is the algorithm was hung up on the noun closest to the verb, and the conjunction or might have caused an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Great, not only are writers of questionable sanity, but the equipment we use might also be neurotic….

I advised Hubby to rudely plunge ahead with the plural are.  But the more I think about it, the more I compulsively ponder if that’s correct … and it’s starting to become an obsession….

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