Opinion

Rule of thumb on proper use of active verb

Rule of thumb on proper use of active verb
  • The expression “one of the...” is the perennial culprit. It gives Kenya’s English-language journalists no end of grief.
  • The significance of the Nation’s statement does not rest on the “one” industry (publishing) but on a plurality of industries, of which the one is only an instance.

Previously in the Saturday Nation, an official of a Nairobi book-publishing company made the grammatically puzzling statement that “... book publishing is one of the industries that attracts the least number of new investments...”

Note that the subject “industries” is plural but that the verb (attracts) is in the third person singular form.

The expression “one of the...” is the perennial culprit. It gives Kenya’s English-language journalists no end of grief.

In that expression, what exactly “attracts”? Is it the pronoun “one” or the noun “industries”? In the simple present third person singular form, the verb “attracts” is justifiable only if the speaker is referring to a single industry.

But, manifestly, that’s not so. For he means many industries, of which the one (publishing) is only an example.

In such an expression, then, the plural noun industries — not the singular pronoun one — is what must control the form the verb takes. Thus, in accord with the plurality of the controlling noun, the verb must drop the plural “s”.

For our newspapers, the enduring question is this: In this form, is the expression “one of the...” referring to the singularity of the pronoun “one” or is it referring to the plurality of the noun “industries”?

For, clearly, “one” is singular. But in every such formulation, the singular “one” in the expression “one of the...” is always used to introduce a plurality of things. Charity Ngilu is one (singular) of the Cabinet secretaries (plural) who never cease (plural) to excite controversy.

PLURALITY

The significance of the Nation’s statement does not rest on the “one” industry (publishing) but on a plurality of industries, of which the one is only an instance.

In the above statement, therefore, the plural noun “industries”, not to the singular pronoun “one” — which merely exemplifies it — is your grammatical take-off point.

In other words, in the phrase “... one of the industries...”, the substantive "industries" is what occupies the grammatical driver’s seat. It is what controls the form that the verb must take.

The pronoun “one” merely singles out an industry among many of the same kind.

I reiterate that the phrase “one of the...” always invites a plurality of collective things (or nouns). Publishing is just one of many industries that attract the fewest new investors. It is not the only “one”. No, it is among many.

Thus, when conjugated, the verb following it must agree with the plurality of “industries”, not with the singularity of the “one”.

In other words, the verb form “attract” (without the “s”) is plural because it reflects the plural noun industries, not the singular pronoun “one”.

Grammatically, the plural noun “industries”, not the singular pronoun “one”, is what controls the active verb’s form.

In grammar, then, the form of the active (or conjugated) verb is what changes in accordance with the grammatical number of the subject to reflect the tense, the mood and the gender (though, in English, both the mood and the gender have long ago lost practically all their erstwhile grammatical significance).

Philip Ochieng is a veteran journalist.