Grammatical Attraction
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Grammatical Attraction

by Bill Ball

There is physical attraction and there is grammatical attraction. A relationship based on physical attraction alone is often a disaster waiting to happen. Grammatical attraction does not usually lead to a disaster but it can easily lure us into grammatical error.

Grammatical attraction mainly occurs when the verb of a sentence or a clause is 'attracted' into the plural (or
the singular) by a word or words even though the true subject is singular (or plural). Here are a few simple examples that should help to make this clear. They have been made up for the occasion, as real-life examples are often full of clutter that would serve only to distract us. It is the clutter by the way and not the ignorance of the writer that probably causes the error in the first place:

1 New players is the only answer.
2 A catalogue of mistakes were the reason for his dismissal.
3 The manager, with three of his players, have already been charged.
4 I am not one of those who likes swimming.
5 There is tea, coffee and other drinks in the kitchen.
6 Here is the man whom I believe is responsible.

In the first sentence, 'New players' is the chosen subject as it has been placed first and the singular verb 'is' should be plural. Turn the sentence round with 'The only answer' as the chosen subject and the verb would then correctly be singular: 'The only answer is new players'. In the example, the verb has been 'attracted' into the singular by the singularity of the second half of the sentence.

In sentence 2, we have a similar error but for a different reason. The chosen subject is the singular 'A catalogue' but here the 'attracter' (or 'attractor') is not the second half of the sentence, which is singular anyway, but 'mistakes'. The verb should be 'was'.

In sentence 3, the subject looks at first sight to be plural; but 'with' is a preposition not a conjunction so that the true subject is just 'The manager'. The verb therefore should be 'has', but has been attracted into the plural by 'with three of his players' even though the commas around the phrase emphasise its separation from the true subject.

Sentence 4, or something like it, was always a favourite of the examiners in our English exams when I was at school. The grammarians would correctly say that 'who' here is a relative pronoun with 'those' as its 'antecedent', and that since 'those' is plural the following verb must also be plural ('like') to agree with it. I would say that if we simply turn the sentence round ('Of those who like swimming I am not one') we can see that the verb should indeed be plural. The verb has been attracted into the singular by 'one'.

In sentence 5, the true subject is 'tea, coffee and other drinks' , which is plural; but the verb has been attracted into the singular in the mistaken belief that the introductory 'There' is subject, which it is not. The 'tea' has also probably had something to do with it. The verb should be 'are'.

In sentence 6, there is no problem with the verbs but 'whom' should be 'who'. If we take out 'I believe', which is probably the attracter here, we shall see clearly why 'whom' is wrong.

The error in this type of sentence will probably ensure that 'whom' will not be completely banished from the language for some time. Whether that is a good or a bad thing I am not absolutely sure.

The lesson to be learnt from grammatical attraction is that we should read each sentence through before we go on to the next one. But that is probably too much to expect of those writers who are in too much of a hurry to stop and think that they might just have been lured in by grammatical attraction.