Grammatical number agreement
June 6, 2020 7:28 AM   Subscribe

A draft of mine has been criticised for faulty agreement. The bit in question is: “He was no Condemned Soul. Those fellows could never have upset S’s life as he was about to do.”

The critique says that I can’t have singular Soul and plural fellows, so it ought to be something like:
“He was not one of the Condemned Souls. Those fellows...”

I can’t quite convince myself that this criticism is correct, but I can’t articulate what’s wrong about it, either. There’s a separate point about how pedantic we need to be anyway, but let’s assume we’re real sticklers here. Was I wrong?
posted by Segundus to Writing & Language (24 answers total)
 
I don’t believe you were wrong, and I’m as pedantic as the day is long.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:43 AM on June 6, 2020 [4 favorites]


Is what "fellows" refers to clear from the preceding sentences? I like the sound of "He was no Condemned Soul." I think it's probably fine but would need more context. As an example, I would find "He was no Condemned Soul. Those devils could never..." completely correct.
posted by wnissen at 7:45 AM on June 6, 2020 [2 favorites]


I'm not a grammarian, but assuming your critic thinks the draft should read:

"He was no Condemned Soul. That fellow could never..." not correct since you are not discussing a single Condemned Soul but rather collective Souls.

"He was not [one of the the] Condemned Souls. Those fellows could never...." makes the point, but loses the punchy directness of the first version.

I personally think the phrasing is a little awkward but I think it derives from the "...as he was about to do" section because it's not entirely clear who "he" refers to---is it a Condemned Soul? Is it S? but it might be clearer in the context of the greater narrative.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:47 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Here’s a slightly longer extract.
M was alive, at any rate. He was no Condemned Soul. Those fellows could never have upset S’s life as he was about to do.
Is the simple fact of a clerk’s being alive so remarkable? Perhaps not, in the ordinary way...

posted by Segundus at 8:04 AM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


Copy editor here. I don't think you're wrong; I'd keep it as is. We have more latitude when editing fiction because voice, tone, and authorial intentions have to be taken into consideration along with grammar. Super sticklers make terrible fiction editors.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:04 AM on June 6, 2020 [7 favorites]


Best answer: The critique says that I can’t have singular Soul and plural fellows

Of course you can. The first sentence is about He; the second sentence makes reference to a group that the first sentence has just finished saying that He is not part of. There is no conflict between the singularity of He and the plurality of the group.

Assuming that context makes clear that the Condemned Souls are indeed an identifiable group, "He was no Condemned Soul" and "He was not one of the Condemned Souls" mean exactly the same thing, and the first form reads better.

Anybody in doubt on this point should mentally substitute "Hell's Angels" for "Condemned Souls" and re-read.
posted by flabdablet at 8:07 AM on June 6, 2020 [25 favorites]


Another professional copy editor. It’s correct as is, for the reason given by flabdablet.
posted by FencingGal at 8:11 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


'Those fellows' lacks enough context to be a clear reference to what you intend, I think, and your copy editor's problem is that he has the same issue and he's trying to make numerical agreement work between the wrong things.

For me, the problem is that I'm not sure I would understand a soul to be referred to as a fellow - possibly because 'fellow' usually refers to a human in its entirety, and partly because there's a gender imbalance between 'fellow' (typically male) and 'soul' (nonspecific). 'He' seems more like a 'fellow' for both reasons.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:29 AM on June 6, 2020 [2 favorites]


You're not wrong, but is there a stronger descriptive noun/adjective-noun combination you could use in place of "fellows"?
posted by notquitemaryann at 8:52 AM on June 6, 2020 [2 favorites]


Are the Fellows the Condemned Souls?
posted by amaire at 8:54 AM on June 6, 2020


Response by poster: Yes, ‘Those fellows’ are the Condemned Souls.
posted by Segundus at 9:13 AM on June 6, 2020


It's not "wrong" but I tripped on it. You're right that adjusting the agreement also weakens the rhythm and power of the passage. Something to consider: using a semicolon in place of a period after "Soul" makes the connection more explicit without reducing strength.
posted by Kwine at 9:52 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


I definitely fall in the “not wrong, but tripped me up” camp. I would probably have to go back and reread those couple sentences if I were reading a book. I wonder if “he was no Condemned Soul, the likes of {whom/which} could never have...” would work for you?
posted by obfuscation at 9:58 AM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's ungrammatical, but I do think making the nouns agree would improve clarity.

How about: "He was no Condemned Soul. One of those fellows could never have upset S’s life as he was about to do."
posted by toastedcheese at 10:13 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


M was alive, at any rate. He was no Condemned Soul. Those fellows could never have upset S’s life as he was about to do.
Is the simple fact of a clerk’s being alive so remarkable? Perhaps not, in the ordinary way...


Keep it as is, or do something like what toastedcheese suggested.

But unless added context would change things, I'd change the "Is" in the second paragraph to "Was", because from the extract it seems like you're telling the story in the past tense. Added bonus, it might distract your editors from the first issue.
posted by trig at 10:59 AM on June 6, 2020 [4 favorites]


On reflection, I'd be tempted to go with "He was no Condemned Soul, none of whom could ever have upset S's life as he was about to do."
posted by flabdablet at 11:23 AM on June 6, 2020


Or even hammer the thing a bit to nail it down even harder: He was no Condemned Soul. No Condemned Soul could ever have upset S's life as he was about to do.
posted by flabdablet at 11:28 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


If you’re going to change it, I’d go for ‘He was no Condemned Soul. A Condemned Soul could never have upset S’s life...’

For what it’s worth, though, it didn’t trip me up at all. I think it’s fine as is, for the reasons flabdablet gave.
posted by Salamander at 12:18 PM on June 6, 2020


I like the suggestion to change the second sentence to “One of those fellows...” Whether it’s wrong or not, it’s confusing.

Are all the condemned souls actually necessarily men?
posted by amaire at 12:19 PM on June 6, 2020


All of the suggested emendations are weaker than your original.

The best way to counter pedantry like your editor's is to find examples from undisputedly great works which parallel your usage, and such examples usually abound.

As I recall, that's the approach taken by Bergen Evans in his excellent Comfortable Words.
posted by jamjam at 12:44 PM on June 6, 2020 [2 favorites]


I agree that the suggested changes are weaker. Although this is in third person, it’s clearly meant to reflect the character’s voice. The voice is strong as is. If you complicate the sentence to make it seem more correct, you lose the strength and uniqueness of the voice. This isn’t a research paper, and the rules for research papers don’t apply.
posted by FencingGal at 2:22 PM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


The same form as "he was no Green Bay Packer; those guys are much bigger".
posted by SemiSalt at 2:29 PM on June 6, 2020 [5 favorites]


Response by poster: Thanks, all.
posted by Segundus at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2020


I call myself a copyeditor and am well paid for it. I also call myself a man's man but expect no pay for that fiction.

My point is a copyeditor's job is usually to pare, so I'd suggest "He was no Condemned Soul, and they could never upset S’s life as he was about to.”
posted by lometogo at 11:59 PM on November 9, 2020


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