A Sentence Problem in the New York Times

In my previous post, I discussed some dubious questions that appeared in an online grammar test. Today I’m going to focus on a particularly messy issue that showed up both the quiz and a recent New York Times article.

The Times sentence is about a new filmed version of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma:

It’s one of those instances that turns everything around, for a story and for a character.

It’s an elegant sentence, but I would argue that the verb is wrong. Here’s my version:

It’s one of those instances that turn everything around, for a story and for a character.

Even the experts argue about this construction. I (of course!) insist that I’m right. If you compare the two sentences below, I think you’ll see my point:

It’s an instance that turns everything around.  (an instance…turns)

It’s one of those instances that turn everything around.  (those instances…turn)

Here’s another example:

She is a Girl Scout who loves camping.  (a Girl Scout…loves)

She is one of those Girl Scouts who love camping.  (those Girl Scouts…love)

 *  *  *  *  *

I want to make one more point today. The verb controversy we’ve been considering is a true grammar question. Many people mistakenly apply the word grammar to any language issue:  diction, punctuation, capital letters, word choice.

I think grammar should be reserved for issues that affect the structure of a sentence: subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, parallelism, and so on. Most writing problems fall into the category of usage – “ain’t,” for example.

Why does the distinction matter? Too many people mistakenly believe that grammar study is the way to solve writing problems. I strongly disagree: you can diagram a million sentences without ever discovering that ain’t is incorrect. Sentence diagramming won’t help you eliminate diction, spelling, and capital letter problems – and it’s no help with many punctuation issues.

Writing instruction needs to cover both grammar and usage.

Poster for the 2020 Emma movie

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