To Be or Not To Be

What Shakespeare was talking about in the famous soliloquy from “Hamlet” was not all about whether it’s better to end your life or to continue to endure pain and heartbreak. It was not an extended existential whinge. It was, rather, a contemplation on whether or not to use the plural or the singular third person verb form of the infinitive “to be”. It’s a difficult question, with a relatively simple answer.

“To be” is one of the weirdest verbs in the English language. It does all kinds of fancy footwork, like a set of twins conjoined at the hip dancing salsa. It’s the sort of verb that makes high school students weep. Grade two kids just get it without questioning, but grade two kids are usually smarter than teenagers.

Anyway, here’s the rough rule of thumb:

If the subject of your sentence (the person, place, or thing that you are talking about) is *singular* in nature, then use “is”. If the subject of your sentence is plural, then use “are”.

F’rinstance: “There are many solutions to this problem.”

I can parse that sentence for you completely if you’d like, but suffice it to say for now that ‘solutions’ is the subject of the sentence and ‘problem’ is the object of the sentence. “There are” is the form of the verb in question.

F’rinstance: “There is one solution to this problem.”

Again, using the same subject/object (solutions-solution/problem), it is evident that because ‘solution’ is singular, we use “is”.

I mention this because I saw an entire article in the newspaper this morning in which not only the interviewee used the verb wrong, but the *reporter* used the incorrect tense. Regina Leader-Post, where are your editors? This is a very simple solution that any copy editor would catch immediately. Call me.

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Also, as an unrelated note, I dreamed that Carl, Brennan, and Viper Pilot showed up to a nightclub at which I was dancing like nobody was watching (nobody was; the place had just opened). I burst into tears when I saw Viper Pilot. I do hope he comes for a visit soon. I miss him like all kinds of crazy.

  3 comments for “To Be or Not To Be

  1. Robert
    3 April 2013 at 9:52 am

    Oh, but it’s weirder than that, Cenobyte!

    The truly unique thing about the verb “to be” is that it can take two subjects… hence Gertrude Stein’s often-misquoted “Rose is a rose … is a rose.” [Anybody who puts “A” onto the beginning of this Just Doesn’t Get It] The first “Rose” is a woman, the last one is a flower, and in between there’s a wonderful ambiguity.

    “There are two solutions” is _almost_ just an unusual word order, like “There go the two biggest idiots in town.” Except when you try to straighten it out it becomes a V-Mike-Smithesque “Two solutions are.” Which ought to be correct by analogy with “[I think therefore] I am” but really only works as an answer to a question that presupposes the other subject: “Are any solutions negative?” “Two solutions are [negative]”

    Where it gets strange is when the numbers don’t agree. “I am the cook and the captain bold, and the mate of the Nancy brig…” “We are a team.” The second noun (or noun phrase) is a subject of a verb that is under no obligation to agree with it.

    So how weird is THAT?

    • 3 April 2013 at 10:51 am

      Regarding two subjects – when you parse the sentences, you still work on phrases or clauses, so in the Stein example, each instance of the verb only has one subject. In the latter part of the sentence, the entire first noun phrase is the direct object of the second instance of the verb…

      The reason we use “are” in the second example is because you still have subject-object number agreement (“there” is the adjectival phrase, which in this instance is functioning as the subject; it is a preposition which agrees in number with the object (the adverb phrase ‘two solutions’)).

      In your third example, there is *still* number agreement. When we parse that sentence, we see that the subject (“I”) is singular, as is each of the objects – that first sentence can be broken into several sentences: “I am the cook. I am the captain bold. I am the mate of the Nancy brig”. Each individual sentence uses proper number agreement between subject and object.

      Now, in the latter sentence, “team” is both a singular noun AND it’s a collective noun, which can function as a plural. However, “We” is plural, and that’s why you use the plural version of the verb.

      In my initial example, I was really just trying to keep it simple, because apparently “your subjects, verbs, and objects really ought to agree in tense and number” seems to be To Grand a grammatical concept for the reporters at the Leader Post.

      …of course, there is a Very Good Chance indeed that I’ve just completely missed your point…

      • Robert
        3 April 2013 at 11:29 am

        My point is that the verb “to be” really is a special case – it’s the only verb in English that uses “subjective completion,” meaning that (when being picky) we say “it is I” rather than “it is me” (note we can’t explain the first, correct, one by inverted word order or it would be “it am I”.) So, while I really would hope the Leader Post (or a randomly selected Grade 6 kid) would get it right, I’m slightly less surprised than I would be if they started writing “The Prime Minister visit Alberta.” Slightly less anyway.

        I’m going to stick with my examples above. The “several sentences” explanation doesn’t work with examples like “A lichen is actually two organisms” – nor the plural-team explanation with “Together, these organisms are a lichen” or “The two are in fact one.” Main subject and verb must agree; object need not, and while examples often sound weird, subjective completion need not either.

        Grammar really is weird…

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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