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Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 1)

October 21, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 21, 2015

A recent article (Answering Your Questions about Specifics) focused on resources where writers and editors can find answers for very specific punctuation and grammar questions. The article was actually the introduction to a series on readers’ questions.

You may one day need the same information that’s been discussed in a couple of the comment threads here at the blog, so I’m going to put a few of those questions and answers together in articles. (Both questions and answers may be edited from their original forms for clarity and to provide a more complete picture.)


Question regarding two verbs in the predicate, specifically transitive and intransitive pairs and linking verbs—

When it comes to verbs, does it matter if the verb is transitive or intransitive? I’ve heard that it matters if the verb is a linking or action verb (e.g., you shouldn’t write this: I ate popcorn and am beautiful), but would a sentence like this be wrong: Last night, I ate popcorn and listened to a song?


Your sentence is fine as is—Last night I ate popcorn and listened to a song.

I think the main problem with pairing verbs comes when the first verb can be either transitive (requires an object) or intransitive (doesn’t take an object) and the second verb is transitive. When the first verb could be either transitive or intransitive but is intransitive, readers might treat it as a transitive and try to attach it to the direct object that follows the second verb. So—

I sang and ate the bonbons.

Readers might (at least momentarily) wonder how the speaker sang the bonbons.

There are many fixes—

I sang my sad songs and ate the bonbons.

I sang and I ate the bonbons.

I ate the bonbons and sang.

We don’t have that same problem if the first verb can only be intransitive. Readers wouldn’t be confused by the following sentence because they don’t expect a direct object after succumb

I succumbed and ate the bonbons.

It’s easy to say something you don’t mean to say when you put a verb that can be both transitive and intransitive before a transitive verb and don’t modify it in any way.

I twisted and threw the ball.

Does this mean I both twisted the ball and threw the ball or I twisted myself around and then threw the ball?

These kinds of problems can be difficult to see in our own writing—since we know what we mean—which is another great reason to have someone else proofread your stories. It’s also another reason to let stories cool before you edit them. It’s likely that you’ll catch double meanings or confusing phrases if you’ve been away from the text for a while.

As for linking verbs paired with action verbs, you can link them. Yet, as in the example you used—I ate popcorn and am beautiful—sometimes the results don’t work. But many times they do. These work—

I fainted and was thoroughly embarrassed.

She fell and seemed embarrassed.

She seemed embarrassed and covered her face.

Tom ate the candy and turned blue.

Lola passed the test and was greatly relieved.

Kenneth jumped higher on his third attempt and was finally successful.

Part of the problem with your example is the mix of verb tenses. Another problem is that the two elements aren’t connected. Eating popcorn and being beautiful don’t have a logical connection. These variations do work—

He ate popcorn and was happy as a result.

Shelby washes the gunk off her face and is pleased.


Followup comment

“I walked to and watched the event” would be fine from a grammatical standpoint because the verbs are the same tense, even though, in this case, walked takes a preposition and watched doesn’t. (Nevertheless, it probably sounds better as “I walked to the event and watched it.)

Followup answer

Yes, that sentence is definitely okay. While grammar might seem picky, it actually allows us many ways to word our sentences.

What you want to be careful with concerning prepositions after verbs is in making sure the preposition fits. Make sure that if you’re using two prepositional phrases with the same verb that you include two different prepositions if necessary.

So try the boy sang into the can and at the top of his lungs rather than the boy sang into the can and the top of his lungs.


Question on possessive or attributive for band’s song—

Is it:

the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”


the Beatles song “Hey Jude”

I would say “Beatles’ song” because it’s possibly possessive.

Just as we would say:
REM’s song
Metallica’s song


For your example, you want Beatles as a possessive—so do include the apostrophe after the S. Substitute a different noun/subject to test—

The boy’s song “Wowza” was an instant hit.

But Beatles could operate as an adjective (an attributive noun) under other circumstances—

Beatles paraphernalia always sold first.

Christmas decorations always sold first.


Related question about band titles being singular or plural

And if a band’s title ends in “s,” is the verb always plural?

The Beatles are …
The Rolling Stones are …
Alice in Chains are…


Metallica is…
REM is…
The Dave Matthews Band is…


As for the singular/plural issue . . .

You’ll find lots and lots of argument about this one and little agreement. In their decision making  concerning band names, people wonder if they should consider the issue of collective nouns and the different ways BrE and AmE treat those collective nouns.

To make it easy on yourself if you’re using AmE, look at the names (the words) themselves. Treat plurals as plurals—the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eagles, The Clash, The Who. Typically this means groups that begin with the or have plural words in the title that could refer to the individual members—he’s a Beatle, he’s an Eagle. (As always, there are exceptions. Some would consider The Clash and The Who as singular.)

Treat singular names as singular—Alice in Chains, Chicago, Kansas, Creedence Clearwater Revival, KISS, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band.

Those writing for BrE audiences can treat all band names as collective nouns and therefore as plurals. (In BrE, most collective nouns are treated as plurals.)

This answer is not an absolute—this is a style issue, after all. And until some referencing body declares they’re setting a definitive rule, you’ll find band names treated by some as plural and by others as singular.


As for a plural always being treated as a plural? Sometimes we break the rules even for this.

So can a plural be followed by a singular verb? Sure it can. When the plural is actually singular . . .

The Beatles is an odd name for a band.


If you have comments or questions about these topics, please chime in. I’d especially love to hear from those who might have a different slant on an issue or can point us to a great resource that covers the issue.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

8 Responses to “Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 1)”

  1. The grammar of fiction is not English grammar; it’s the grammar of the psyche.

    • Armstrong, what a beautiful expression for such a prosaic topic.

      • Your comment itself is most well said.
        I’m new to your site and am especially pleased with what you’re doing. How you find time for it is beyond me. You put not only a lot of time and energy but thought into it. Your well thought out replies and analyses are each shining examples of true love of the word. I got so curious about trying to figure out where you got your love for the word, that I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to determine where you went to school. That’s usually a good clue.
        FYI I lead a thirty-five year running fiction writing workshop (The Bard Society) that has seen the publication of more than forty novels with legitimate publishers. Some short stories have won prizes. One of my earliest protégés took the Iowa prize for a collection of shorts.
        I read mss. and ARCs for a very small number of well published writers and am always, like you I’m sure, looking for serious work that’s worthy of my time.
        I pray the trench work you’re doing results in better writing but I’m sure you are a great resource for all writers. I have posted and will continue to post on our private FB site your blogs.

        • Thank you for your kind words. It seems that we’re both lovers of words and fiction. We obviously also enjoy sharing our love of fiction with others.

          I don’t post a lot of personal information online simply because of privacy and safety concerns, but I admit I fell in love with fiction long before my college years. I had a library card as far back as I can remember—my father made sure we all got new library cards right away when we moved. I’m guessing my love of fiction came directly from my dad. He always had a stack of books and magazines at hand.

          I’m glad you found your way to the site and especially glad that you took the time to not only let me know you were here, but to tell me about yourself.

          • Beth,
            I just wanted to say I too just discovered your blog and immediately put the link at the top of my writing bookmark list. I am new to writing fiction (just started putting the story in my head into words on the page), and I have found your thoughts and pointers to be facinating and very encouraging. I have been writing nonfiction for many years in a field where clarity of meaning and intent and specific details are vital, so while enjoying your articles on the mechanics of grammar, word choice, and rewrites I have been following your suggestions to others’ sources as well.

            Thank you for a great column and the inspiration. I have some catchup reading to do and I’m looking forward to reading your articles to come.

  2. Roy says:

    I’m fascinated by the singular/plural thing. It’s a mess, and with the Internet haphazardly throwing British speakers and American speakers together, it’s getting worse. To see “Kawasaki have changed the color schemes on their 2015 motorcycles” in print is jarring unless you see the phrase buried in the middle of a review written for a U.K. web site. (I assume there is a place somewhere where the phrase “Radiohead are a great band” won’t induce a spit-take.) I’m really not very mellow, but I would have to go with whatever sounds right, on this one.
    As a matter of fact, Googling “radiohead are great” led me to a forum where someone said, ” ‘Beatles’ takes a plural identity and thus ‘are’ is used. Radiohead takes a singular identity, and thus ‘is’ is used.” This actually kind of makes sense. To me. Today.

    • Roy, I’m with you on the fascination thing. But it’s also a frustration thing. Sometimes you want a straight answer that works for every situation. This issue, unfortunately, doesn’t have that straight answer. Not one that covers every circumstance.

      I checked a lot of references before answering this question—there really is little agreement, at least as far as AmE is concerned. That’s a bit odd to me since with another category of names—ball teams—we consistently use the plural. Except when we refer to the team by the city part of the name—which is singular.

      The Pittsburgh Pirates are a baseball team . . .

      Pittsburgh is in town for a three-game series against . . .

      As for teams with singular names? Of course there’s a lack of agreement on how to treat them—the Miami Heat are or the Miami Heat is? Some have chosen singular and some plural. As with any option, consistency across a story or document is crucial.


      The wacky issues we word people ponder over . . .

      • The classic (usual) example is “The faculty are considering . . . ” or “The faculty are undecided” where “members” is the understood subject, “faculty” functioning as an adjective. The reason is that the group is acting as separate individuals. I never liked the sound of it, but there you go. Just remember, in fiction the grammar is not English or American grammar but the grammar of the psyche, and the fictionist does not want to distract the reader.

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