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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Criminal Sentence 519: Agreement Is a Priority

We had some lively discussion about CS 513, so here's another similar sentence to consider:

"Their capture and successful prosecution was the top priority."

The question, again, is this: Is this one subject or two separate subjects? To me, capture is one thing, and prosecution is another. The police do one, and the lawyers do the other. Thoughts?


Sharon Wildwind said...

That's why the TV show was called "Law and Order." I think you have a compound subject here that needs a plural verb. However, I've only had one cup of tea so far today, so my grammar gerbil may not have checked in yet.

Dawa Tshering said...

Even to me, someone to whom English is no more than a second language, these are two different yet related actions happening one after the other, thereby demanding as well as deserving of a plural verb (were)and a consequent plural noun (priorities).

I hope I'm right.I do not crave laurels if I'm right; If it's otherwise, then I'll keep following this fabulous blog. Although a late entrant, I've read each and every post, from A to Z (till date. So if I still make mistakes, I should be honestly and inexcusably embarrassed. I've learned a great deal and enjoyed every bit of the blog. And I've learned as much from my, I daresay, classmates - I mean the regular followers.

Thanks a lot to the host and to the guests. Lastly, I'll keep following even if I'm wrong. However, I admit I've not been able to follow by clicking 'Follow.'I blame myself.

Dawa Tshering said...

I forgot to close the bracket with the period outside - one sign that I've not learned as much as I claim to have. I forgot to "proofread."

Anonymous said...

I hate to disagree, but I think the author intends a singular verb here; otherwise, he or she would have written "priorities" rather than emphasize singleness with "top priority." I think the author is saying that without both of these conditions (capture and prosecution) being met there will be no justice. The unitary notion here is justice, and the only way that can be achieved is to have the perpetrators behind bars for their crimes. If the perpetrators were captured and not successfully prosecuted the prioritizing would not be complete.

Anonymous said...

Here is another example using the same compound subject in which a singular verb works better than a plural (my opinion).

"Their capture and successful prosecution is what we want."

"Are" in the above example, to my ear, would just not sound right, and the sentence would lose some of its coherence. Capture and successful prosecution in this case should be considered as a set and thereby require a singular verb.

If the perpetrators were not captured but successfully prosecuted in absentia, the goal would not be fulfilled; again, if the perpetrators are caught but not successfully prosecuted, the goal would not be fulfilled.

The "oneness" of meaning in this example is the speaker's wish or want to achieve a single outcome or goal.

Dawa Tshering said...

I also hate to disagree, but I beg to differ when it's necessary. So it's like (i) capture of X and (ii) prosecution of X, two different things concerning one person, that are in question here.

Westley said...

As has been pointed out, on the TV show Law and Order, there are two separate tasks performed by two separate groups, so my question would have to be: for whom is ANYthing a priority? If there are two groups, then there must be two priorities, right?

Just seems to me to be confusing as written.

Anonymous said...

Dawa and Westley, if you pick up a copy of Merrriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, you will find this issue explained in full (agreement, subject-verb:compound subject). You can have two or three or more things as a subject of a sentence and still interpret it as singular if there is a "unitary notion" or "oneness of idea." As MW states, this is subject to interpretation, and any two good writers can disagree on a plural or singular verb. It also says that many writers are not aware that you can interpret a compound subject as singular (other than of course "bread and butter," "peanut butter and jam,"...)

As I stated in my earlier post, I interpret the authors intent in this example as a "unitary notion." If the author had left out the modifier "successful," it would make it more difficult to interpret the two ideas as a set, and so perhaps, "were the top priorities" would work best. The author is saying only one outcome will satisfy him and that is "justice," a single thing, "a oneness of idea."

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is what all Americans want." In this example "are" would not sound as good. The phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is perceived as a single principle; if one of the three tenets is missing, it collapses, so therefore a reader can perceive it as a set.

Warsaw Will said...

If we turn it round and ask what the top priority was, the answer, 'Their capture and successful prosecution.' seems totally logical to me. These are not too different priorities, they go hand in hand. So the original sentence sounds absolutely fine to me as it stands.

Anonymous said...

You can interpret this sentence as either singular or plural. I think singular is a better choice. If you consider the compound subject "capture and successful prosecution" as an outcome, as justice being served, then a singular verb is appropriate. The author of the sentence doesn't write "capture and prosecution" two separate things but rather "capture and successful prosectution " and by adding "successful" to "prosecution," he is indicating that the two named conditions are expressing a single goal or outcome, the perpetrators behind bars, justice served. The author is not interested in an enumeration but in an end result, a "singular" result, justice. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage calls this a "unitary notion," an expression of "oneness."

Anonymous said...

Just in case anyone notices, my last post needs a few commas and maybe a dash or a colon in place of a comma, though the not-so-offending comma works nonetheless. And sometimes I forgo apostrophes for a sip -- or two -- of a beverage.

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Thanks, guys, for all the lively discussion. If you find any more iffy agreement sentences, pass them along!

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Anon at 8:48: Why not just make it a better sentence and say, "We want to capture and successfully prosecute them"?

Anonymous said...

I guess what I am arguing here is for the notion of "oneness of idea." A writer can list two or more things, but have a singular intent. Many good writers do this -- it is seen in the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

You can re-draft the sentence as you did and have a compound object, but still have one intent -- the perpetrators behind bars, or justice served. The capturing and prosecuting here are not individual items but a combined expression of one intent.