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August 13, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Grammarfilter! Oh my. Is it "X and Y are two side of the same coin" or "X and Y two sides of the same coin"? This was an SAT sample question, and I, a poor girl's tutor, swore that "sides" must be plural in this context. Then the sample test website told me I was wrong, that it's "two side".

Bonus: The website also told me that my understanding of the perfect aspect was suspect, via:
"If only I had read the instruction manual before taking apart the engine." WRONG (this was apparently simple past?)
"If only I read the manual before taking apart the engine." CORRECT (this is perfect?)

I'd appreciate some resolution here. Now, granted, my use of grammar isn't perfect in this particular question, but that's because, hello, people don't speak in "perfect" College Board grammar, nor is my particular specialty SAT English requirements. I'm a language coach, as dopey as that sounds. I work with fairly advanced ESL students to kind of drag the language out of them, with significant explanation of BASIC grammar in their NATIVE language. Which is to say that I'm an expert in English as it's used, not as prescriptivists think it ought to be.

Disclaimer: I took our apparently unwitting client because my boss told me to. I'm kind of stuck with this girl, and I want to do right by her, so I'm asking.

I'm 99.99% sure I'm right in both these questions, but I need some freakin' professional help here. Do I really suck at perfect tense? Am I one of a majority who's out butchering an idiom that ought to be a torchlight for proper plural development? Any and all criticism and links are welcome.
posted by saysthis to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am certainly not a professional. but:

I would say sides, as would google apparently:

"two sides of the same coin" - 378000 results
"two side of the same coin" - 2660 results
posted by latentflip at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2009


I'm not a professional, but I am pretty pedantic, and I agree with you on both points. "Two side" makes no sense any way I look at it. It sounds like the web site was kind of broken.
posted by shammack at 10:31 AM on August 13, 2009


There ARE two sides. Sounds plural to me.

If only I had read the question before answering.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:33 AM on August 13, 2009


Well, the first question's actual answer is "sides." A website was wrong.

Actually, that website was probably wrong twice: the first is definitely perfect past. I'm going to guess there was a coding error. These are egregious mistakes.

Also, you stated that you're an expert in English as it's used, not as prescriptivists think it ought to be."

What? You're an expert on every single person's subjective judgement of how language ought to be?

I really, really hope you didn't put that on your résumé.
posted by trotter at 10:35 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to answer the tense/aspect question as a linguist, with the warning that the true answer (insofar as it is known) won't necessarily help you or your students with this kind of test.

"If only I had read the instruction manual before taking apart the engine." WRONG (this was apparently simple past?)

Most sources would definitely call this a past perfect (I assume you mean the "if"-clause). However, the complicating factor is that English' "have" perfect isn't obviously a straightforward perfect aspect of the kind you find in many languages, so in a larger context it might not be exactly right to call it perfect aspect. But it is hard to see why this would get called simple past.

"If only I read the manual before taking apart the engine." CORRECT (this is perfect?)

Most sources would call this a simple past. But really this is a name for the form of the inflection, not its meaning. In its meaning, English simple past often acts like perfect aspect does in many other languages, and here it seems to be acting like a past perfect.

I'm really not sure why the website would give the answers that it does, they don't seem to have a basis in any theory or description of tense and aspect that I am familiar with (but I'm not particularly familiar with older prescriptive traditions).

Also, "two side of the same coin" sounds completely ungrammatical to me.
posted by advil at 10:41 AM on August 13, 2009


Forsooth, this SAT Site doth suck in great measure, and doth unkindly ply the Minds of untold Pupils seeking veritable instruction! Methinks the aforementioned Torchlight at hand be not Saysthis by any measure. Get thee gone from the depraved halls of yon Site and find ye another, lest ye call thine very existence into doubt!
posted by Phyltre at 10:53 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Two side of the same coin" is just not Queen's English any way you look at it. That answer would only make sense if this were a SAT for old-time bluesmen.
posted by Kirklander at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Two "side"? That's completely illogical. Two = plural. Therefore "sides" is correct.

(It's like when people say "United Artist" instead of "United Artists." You can't have just one United Artist.)
posted by scratch at 11:13 AM on August 13, 2009


I think "prescriptivism" is a red herring. As you seem to realize, the website is just plain wrong on both questions. That's true regardless of which "-ism" you happen to subscribe to.

Reading between the lines of your question suggests that you're generally wary of prescriptivsts and worried that they have some secret set of rules that would actually justify the website's answers. Not likely. Prescriptivists and descriptivists alike should be able to agree that "If only I read..." is incorrect English.

And of course, as you know, "two sides" is plural, as is "X and Y." The fact that "Y" may be singular is irrelevant to subject-verb agreement under any traditional set of rules. "X and Y" = plural. (If the conjunction were "or" instead of "and," it might be a more interesting question.) You don't need to invoke descriptivism or popular usage to reach this conclusion. As usual, your instinctive knowledge of correct vs. incorrect English is harmonious with the formal rules of grammar; the two aren't at war.

(Also, I think both sentences in question 2 are wrong -- they're both sentence fragments.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:16 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


*prescriptivsts --> prescriptivists (Yes, I am a prescriptivist about spelling.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:17 AM on August 13, 2009


Two sides.
posted by Eicats at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2009


It's BOTH sides of the same coin.
posted by Zambrano at 11:50 AM on August 13, 2009


I'm now interested in reading Kirklander's SAT for old-time bluesmen. I think the analogies section would be especially interesting.
posted by hattifattener at 11:50 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


From a descriptivist point of view, "two side of the same coin" is not typical English usage.
posted by oaf at 12:17 PM on August 13, 2009


woman : guitar :: done wrong : ?
posted by bonehead at 12:27 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Grammarfilter! Oh my. Is it "X and Y are two side of the same coin" or "X and Y two sides of the same coin"? This was an SAT sample question, and I, a poor girl's tutor, swore that "sides" must be plural in this context. Then the sample test website told me I was wrong, that it's "two side".

I may be being pendantic here, but your second choice is MORE wrong than the first, seeing as it is missing the word "are". (IANAEM), but missing a functional aspect of a sentence like that is worse than missing a pluralization.

I know from experience and much test prep that answers to questions on tests like these often make use of the fact that all answers can be wrong (to a degree), but the least wrong answer can be the correct one, and in this instance, assuming you did not make a typo writing up this AskMe post,

"X and Y are two side of the same coin"
is more correct than
"X and Y two sides of the same coin"
posted by tybeet at 12:45 PM on August 13, 2009


Hmm, yeah, tybeet is right. I assume OP accidentally left out "are." Right?
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:55 PM on August 13, 2009


Definitely overthinking. The website was wrong twice.
posted by rokusan at 2:03 PM on August 13, 2009


I am a professional, and I agree with everyone else: you're right (aside from the inadvertent omission of "are"), and whoever told you you were wrong is wrong.
posted by languagehat at 2:32 PM on August 13, 2009


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