What Exactly Do You Mean?

I was reading an opinion piece in one of the major newspapers online recently and I came upon a sentence whose grammatical construction is curious, but correct. The subject was medical treatment for the coronavirus, and the author wrote that in medicine transparency, candor and humility is paramount. So why is paramount instead of are paramount?

The subject of a clause may be simple or compound. Simple subjects refer to one thing only, and require accordingly a singular verb in their predicate; so, for example, transparency is paramount. Compound subjects, on the other hand, refer to more than one thing, and demand a plural verb: transparency, candor and humility are paramount. This is the basic rule of subject and verb agreement, and it represents a construction of English grammar so fundamental that we should disregard it only when we have reason to do so.

And such reasons to break the rule do, in fact, exist. When the author of the opinion piece wrote transparency, candor and humility is paramount, she combined a compound subject with a singular verb, obviously disregarding the law. What results, however, is the implication that these three moral qualities share one common nature—and so they can be regarded as one idea requiring only a singular verb. What that common nature might be, how these three qualities are so closely related that they can be considered inseparable, is not (and likely should not) be explained in such a short piece, but the suggestion has been made in the grammar. And unless we are prepared to regard the sentence as an outright mistake and nothing more, we are given something interesting to think about: the physician who is transparent is inevitably candid and humble; see one quality and you see the other two; and in medicine, the author maintains, such balanced reciprocity is important above all.

We tend to regard grammar as unbendingly strict, but it is important to remember that how we write is connected to how we perceive the world. The purist, the grammarian as martinet, would reject out of hand any use of a singular verb with a compound subject: rules are rules to be obeyed. But this narrow and tight-minded belief works havoc on the constant play of our perceptions. And the subject of grammar itself recognizes this under a principle called synesis. When logic, or meaning, takes precedence over syntax, we see synesis at work. Bryan Garner, in his masterful Garner’s Modern American Usage (p. 578), explains that the principle of synesis “allows some constructions to control properties such as number according to their meaning rather than strict syntactical rules.”

We write not only about the objective world, but of our understanding of that world as well. Without the chance to carefully and judiciously step past the lines at times, the ideas we have will congeal and calcify into the shape of the rules, not the shape of reality. The challenge for us is to discern the difference between a mistake and making a refined perception, and understand too whether the distinction is worth the making when we find it.


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