Working with relative clauses, verb agreements

Working with relative clauses, verb agreements

Many of the grammar mistakes people warn you about are sheer fiction. The old “Don’t split an infinitive” is the quintessential example.

Putting an adverb like “boldly” after the particle “to” but before the base verb “go” is not an error, contrary to what anyone will tell you. That means you’re able to boldly go there anytime you see fit.

But some grammar mistakes are all too real and, in some cases, easy to make — even for people who know their stuff.

Topping the list of easy-to-make grammar mistakes are verb agreement errors. And topping the list of easy-to-make verb agreement errors are what are called relative-pronoun-antecedent-agreement errors.

Take, for example, this sentence that came up in my editing this week. “She’s one of the nurse practitioners who oversees the clinic.”

That’s a mistake. Contrary to every instinct that might tell you that “who” goes with “oversees,” in this sentence it should be “oversee.”

“Who,” in this case, is a relative pronoun. The job of a relative pronoun is to head up a clause that modifies a noun.

In “The man who works Tuesdays,” the relative pronoun “who” heads up a whole clause, “who works Tuesdays.” And all those words together work to modify the noun “man.” For that reason, the whole clause works like an adjective. And, like an adjective, a relative clause usually sits as close as possible to the noun it modifies.

Look at “They hired a waiter, a hostess and a chef who previously worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant.” Is there any doubt about who worked at the Michelin-starred place? No, because the “who” clause is positioned next to “chef.”

In most cases, relative clauses are easy to work with. “The man who works Tuesdays” confuses no one. But when there’s more than one possible subject before the “who” clause, it can be easy to lose track of which noun you’re modifying. That’s what went wrong in “She’s one of the nurse practitioners who oversees the clinic.”

Either consciously or on auto-pilot, the writer of this sentence was thinking “she oversees.” And it’s true that, if your subject is “she,” you need the singular verb “oversees.” But the subject of the verb isn’t singular “she.” It’s plural “nurse practitioners.” We know this in part because the relative clause came immediately after the plural “practitioners.”

You don’t need to know the grammar to get this right. A few moments of careful analysis can get you there, too. The individual “she” is described as just one of the “nurse practitioners who oversee.” Lots of them do. She’s just one among them. Hence a plural verb.

But other times, the word “who” can make verb agreement seem all but impossible. For example, which form of the following sentence would you choose? “It is I who is the best singer.” “It is I who am the best singer.”

Logic won’t help you much here because both options have a solid logical defense. “I” goes with “am”: I am the best singer. But “who” goes with “is”: Who is the best singer. The structure of the sentence doesn’t give you great clues about which interpretation is best.

In a situation like this, you need outside help — a clear rule you can rely on to get these right. Garner’s Modern American Usage has one.

“A relative pronoun is supposed to agree with its antecedent in both number and person. Thus, it’s correct to say, ‘It is I who am here,’ not ‘It is I who is here.’ “

The reason, Garner explains: “Because ‘I’ is first-person singular, ‘who’ must also be first-person singular, and the verb — it naturally follows — must be ‘am.’ “

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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