Tag Archives: Sentence structure

We’d been sat in a booth and eaten

I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a sentence structure which seems to cause confusion all round, and if our goal as writers is clarity, needs some thinking about. This is a sentence where the beginning part is reused later on, often after a conjunction. A very simple example would be “I like green eggs and ham.” In this example, readers can immediately tell which part of the sentence is impliedly repeated: effectively, the writer is saying “I like green eggs and [I like] ham.”

It gets a bit more complicated when you extend the sentences. In a recent Friday Fiction story, I wrote:

“The males and females almost indistinguishable: gender no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

Now this is arguably a poorly constructed sentence in that the verbs (were / was) are missing; which I excuse as an example of voice, but let’s put those verbs in to save confusion:

“The males and females were almost indistinguishable: gender was no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

The second part is where the problem lay, because the implied repetition is pretty long: “gender was no more guarantee of temperament than [gender was guarantee of] appearance.” It works, though. The implied repetition is exact and there’s nothing else it could mean. Sure, it might be an unusual formulation for some readers and we might therefore avoid it if we prioritise clarity above everything, but we don’t have to and it’s not wrong.

Which brings me to the title of this piece, and occasions where it is wrong or, at least, dangerous. The implied repetition intended by the writer is probably “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d] eaten.” But my brain reads it differently. “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d been] eaten.” Crikey, I’m thinking, I never saw that coming!

The difficulty here is twofold. First, there’s an alternative way of reading the sentence (which is confusing) and second, there’s a switch from the passive voice to the active one.

We should definitely use these implied repetitions in our writing. It’s hard not to – just look at how many times I’ve done it in this post. But be careful of them – try not to mix active / passive voice, tenses or singular to plural. Make sure the implied repetition is exact (I don’t like it when the implied repetition is a different part of the same verb, eg was to were) and when proof-reading, look for alternative readings that you didn’t intend!


Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

United We Is

On hold to United Airlines recently, I had plenty of chance to learn about the exciting benefits of flying with them. One in particular has prompted this post:

We are proud to be a member of the Star Alliance rewards program. As a member of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers benefit from…

We all learn pretty early on that the verbs we use have to “agree” with the subject (I am, for example, or as in the title of this piece, We are). But actually, “agreement” is more complicated than just verbs and subjects – the whole phrase should agree, and it’s the kind of mistake that is easy to miss when proof-reading and impossible to rely on spellcheckers for.

Take a look at that quote from United. I should admit it’s written here from memory, so might be slightly inaccurate, but the crucial parts are definitely verbatim. First sentence:

“We (pl) are (pl) proud to be a member (sing)”.

Purists would prefer “United (sing) is (sing) proud to be a member (sing)”, or at least “We (pl) are (pl) proud that United (sing) is a member (sing)”. But the version chosen is fine, because companies are weird things and get to be both singular and plural at once. There is only one membership (United’s), so it would be wrong to say “we are proud to be members” and if you’re going to put United in the first person, we sounds better than I.

As an aside, a few other words are like companies – Family, Team, Staff, for example. In all these cases, whether you go for the singular “The family welcomes you” or the plural “The staff are delighted” depends on whether you are really talking about the entity (in the example above, “the family”) or its individual components (the members of “the staff”) and it’s a big topic which I’m not going to get into here. Suffice to say “We (the individuals who make up United) are proud [that United is] a member” works.

It’s actually the second sentence which irked me:

As a member (sing) of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers (pl) benefit from…

That’s just wrong. The “as” part must agree with the rest of the sentence, and “our customers” is plural. We are now talking about the customers, and their memberships, not the membership of the company as a whole. Each customer has a membership, so we should have “As members (pl) of the … program, our customers benefit from…”. United isn’t the subject of this sentence, the customers are.

It’s far from simple, this agreement thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting it right. For a rule of thumb, a sentence should be either singular or plural. If it’s mixed it’s either wrong, or (like the first sentence above) could be rewritten without ill effect.

Of course, by the time I got through to someone at United, I wasn’t in the mood to discuss grammar, so let’s hope they read this blog. For a bit of light relief, check out another of United’s fans…


Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing